By: Alia Raffia
The number of Muslims in Britain continues to grow steadily, and much research has been carried out in relation to this. According to the Pew Research Centre, the Muslim population in the UK will almost double to 5.5 million people over the next twenty years. Immigration and high birth rates within the Muslim community in Britain are factors that have led to this projection. This forecast reflects a predicted higher forecast than the number of Muslims in Kuwait.
Inevitably, Islamic services have developed in Britain over the past decade facilitating the needs of the growing Muslim population. From specialist Islamic law firms, to the Islamic banks, Muslims in the UK are able to make informed decisions about the ways in which they practice their religion through their life choices. It has also been widely recognized by mainstream private companies in Britain that the needs of the Muslim community need to be addressed and accommodated in order for businesses not to lose out on the ‘green pound.’
This article examines the different strands of practical services that have recently developed in response to Muslims’ needs across the UK. Islamic financial services, Islamic education, Islamic legal services, and halal food stores are a few of these services on offer. Under discussion is whether or not these organizations benefit Britain’s Muslims or if they in fact fuel the debate on the self-segregation of Muslims in Britain.
Islamic Banking Facilities in Britain
The Islamic Bank of Britain was envisioned by a group of investors in 2002, who recognized a need for Sharia compliant financial services in the UK. They decided to take advantage of this growing market, and the Islamic Bank of Britain was officially formed and approved by the Financial Services Authority in 2004.
The Islamic Bank of Britain is headquartered in Birmingham, which is home to a large Muslim community. Since its opening, the corporation continues to expand with several banks dotted around the country in largely Muslim populated areas. The Islamic Bank of Britain is the first stand alone retail bank, facilitating the needs of Muslims in the modern Western world.
Recognizing this developing market, other British banks have begun to offer products that are tailored specifically for Muslims, thus tapping into a sizable niche market. For example, HSBC now offers an Islamic law compliant pension, home loan scheme, and stock-broking service.
There are approximately 140 Islamic schools in England alone, several of these are funded by the state. Islamic schools are just one strand of many religious schools, a majority of which are Christian. Although the government appears to be in favor of religious schools, they are not universally popular with secularists, who argue that they increase ethnic and religious segregation.
In the recent past, Muslim schools have attracted more criticism compared to other areas of Islamic services, where Trevor Phillips, previous chairman of the “Commission for Racial Equality”, said that such education establishments were “schooling people to be strangers to each other”. One of the most common criticisms leveled at Muslim schools is that they offer poor education which is more focused on Islam, rather than mainstream national British education.
Islamic education is also censured for rigid teachers who “discourage” debates on music and sex education, which are sometimes banned on the basis that they are “un-Islamic”. However despite this criticism, results from Ofsted reports praise behavior and academic results stemming from Islamic schools.
Regardless of the debates surrounding the issue of segregation on the basis of religious identity, it remains clear that a sound education is also a means of improving integration by developing a sense of self and a respect for others.
Islamic Law Firms
The development of Islamic law firms is a recent phenomenon in the UK. Specializing in Sharia and British law, this unique service accommodates the needs of British Muslim citizens, offering legal counseling on issues from both sides of the spectrum. In every major city with large Muslim populations, there are a number of Islamic law firms which mainly offer advice on family and immigration laws. In areas not heavily populated by Muslim communities, individuals are still able to access this service online, as many lawyers operate on a freelance basis in the virtual world.
Not only has the UK witnessed the establishment of specialist Islamic law firms, it has also been reported that at least 85 Islamic Sharia courts are operating in Britain. These tribunals operate mainly from mosques, and settle financial and family disputes according to Islamic religious principles.
Although the rulings of these courts are sometimes recognized by the British courts, they have been highly criticized and opened much debate. The treatment of women and their rights under Islamic law is one subject that garners fierce debate in relation to the application of Islamic law.
Halal Food Stores
It is not uncommon to find several large food stores, restaurants, and supermarkets catering to the Muslim customer in the UK, especially in areas with a large Muslim presence. Across Europe and in the UK in particular, halal products are fast becoming mainstream, while awareness is increasing. WHF Germany’s Intertek Food Services president, Dr. Jochen P. Zoller, said in 2009: “The trend of producing Halal products has been picked up by large corporations like Nestlé GSK and Carrefour. There’s a huge potential in consumer food products and now it has expanded to personal care, healthcare, and pharmaceutical products. Halal is an economy by itself.”
Major retailers in the UK are responding to this growing market by competing with Halal products. In 2005, Tesco the largest supermarket in the UK introduced a halal section in some of its outlets (117 hypermarkets or 6 per cent of the total number of outlets). By the end of 2009, the percentage was expected to increase to more than 20 per cent. Tesco’s major competitor, Asda stores UK, began to sell halal produce in its stores in 2007. Other supermarket chains are recognizing the benefits of introducing halal food ranges in their stores and are following the success.
Major fast food companies and restaurants are also offering halal menus to the Muslim community. KFC for example now has halal restaurants in areas heavily populated by Muslims. These fast food stores, while complying with halal regulations, have also omitted pork from the menu. The first halal McDonalds opened in Southall, London in 2007. This was a huge success and may expand to other cities with large Muslim communities.
Although the sales of halal produce both in supermarkets and in restaurants has been well received by Muslim communities in Britain, the decisions by companies to do this has been heavily criticized by some sections of the media and public. The criticism is based on the biased premise that companies are being coerced and pressurized by Islamic groups to offer halal products—an argument that is made in the absence of any reliable evidence.
Services which accommodate an Islamic lifestyle have developed immensely over recent years, parallel to a growing Muslim population. The growth of these specialist services have at times been highly criticized due to the debate about the self segregation of ethnic and religious groups in the UK. Despite this criticism, mainstream non-Muslim private companies have also begun to provide specialist products that are relevant to Muslims.
Although it may sometimes be suggested that Muslim communities are segregating themselves, it is evident that mainstream organizations are recognizing a unique economy, and are willing to integrate specialist Muslim products and services into their businesses and organizations, so as to not miss out this important and increasing Muslim consumer base.