Happy functional families are the basis of successful communities. In my work on domestic violence at the grassroots and at policy-level I have seen that family life in the UK’s Muslim communities is in crisis. Muslims have the lowest rate of educational and economic achievement and the highest rates of health problems. Muslim women have three times the suicide rate of any other group. Some families are overwhelmed by misguided cultural concepts of “Izzat” or honour, forced and ill matched transcontinental cousin marriage and domestic violence.
We now identify 5,000 forced marriages a year in this country. Many are instances of transcontinental cousin-marriage, a practice which can itself bring a range of problems. Such marriages can lead to massive amounts of ill-health, as in Bradford, where a huge study of babies has been started because of the extraordinary rate of baby death and genetic defects. Transcontinental marriages can also bring serious social problems. If one partner comes from an area still with 90% illiteracy, how compatible will they be with the western-born and educated partner? How can such a person assist or wish their children to be educated and integrated?
A particularly disturbing problem growing in the UK is what is widely but deceptively referred to as “honour”-based violence. It has spread in western countries through immigration. It is abuse of power and control, primarily through the abuse of patriarchy. Individual choice in human rights such as the right to choose a spouse or to escape an abusive relationship, both fully in keeping with Islam, are subsumed and seen as a threat to the far more important group honour. This is, I suggest, overwhelmingly an issue of culture, not religion. It causes an internal psychological crisis of identity in second and third generation immigrants which in conjunction with other factors such as foreign policy, lack of Islamic education, racism, etc can lead to an apparent relief and a finding of identity in radical Islamism.
My dear friend, Nazir Afzal, the Crown Prosecution Services Director for West London has asserted that Islamic extremists are igniting the spread of honour-based violence amongst women in Britain. Some of his work is dealing with terrorism and some involves other crimes and forced marriage. He is seeing the connections. He estimates that there will be nearly a dozen killings in Britain each year.
These grave problems are a matter of shame for me. My friend, Jasvinder Sanghera wrote two books: Shame and Daughters of Shame. If you are a girl who chooses to escape a forced marriage, you are the one seen as bringing shame on your family. The true shame is that all this abuse goes on in a community that should be one of the best of communities. There is no correlation whatsoever between the life of the early Muslim community and the lives of UK families based on forced marriage. The problems are cultural; there is no religious justification. Islam is the cure, not the cause.
I suggest it is up to Muslims, particularly well-educated Muslims, to put a stop to this shame. Some things that I would suggest are: working towards the empowerment of and true engagement with women; the fearless enforcement of laws and protocols relating to child abuse, domestic abuse, honour-based violence, and forced marriage; media campaigns; training on a multiagency basis; research and programs on healthy relationships within schools and also in outreach services. My particular favourite, a nationwide professional Muslim family counselling service.
But above all, true Muslim education. Muslim education in this country is failing; teenagers I have questioned know nothing about their religion. We need true Muslim education so that true Muslim values are yet again known to our communities and to our families and we are once again what we ought to be, one of the best of communities, the best of families.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society