Reports of discrimination against Muslims have risen noticeably since the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in London in May 2013. Mosques and Islamic centres have been attacked, and Muslims assaulted and abused. I stumbled across an English Defence League march in central London the week after Rigby’s murder – a small but noisy group were chanting anti-Islamic slogans between renditions of the British national anthem.
Misunderstanding and mistrust of Islam is, of course, nothing new. With Islam in the ascendant during the early modern period, British and other Western images of Islam were usually oppositional. Today’s negative images and stereotypes of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and Muslims are rooted in the sixteenth century. Muslims who visited or settled in Britain thereafter experienced a persistent mixture of racism and what today we know as Islamophobia – explicit anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim sentiment. Did Britain’s first indigenous Muslim community – white converts from Christianity – fare any better?
As I show in Loyal Enemies, a history of British Muslim converts, those first Muslims settled in and around Liverpool in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The community, which totalled some 300 converts over a twenty-year period, was associated with the pioneering Liverpool Muslim Institute, founded by the convert and preacher William Henry Abdullah Quilliam in 1887 for the public propagation and defence of Islam.
A major global seaport, Victorian Liverpool was the gateway to the Empire and new world; it was a complex multicultural melting pot with permanent and shifting communities of foreigners, not least scores of Muslim sailors, traders, students and travellers from across the world. By 1889, Quilliam’s Institute was based in a conventional town house in Brougham Terrace in the east of the city, where it remained until its demise in 1908. Liverpool might have seemed a fitting home for the first community of British Muslims, but their presence aroused suspicion and much controversy. As one convert recognised in 1893, this was because most Christians blindly regarded Muslims as ‘uncultivated barbarian and heathen’, and as ‘filthy, ignorant and most vicious’. Whilst ‘native’ white British converts could not be condemned, like foreign-born Muslims, as unwelcome ‘outsiders’, they were nevertheless marginalised as a result of their religious beliefs. They also experienced sustained individual and collective religious discrimination.
Initially, many converts in Liverpool experienced hostility to their religious conversion within their own families. The Institute’s first Treasurer, Francess/Fatima Cates, recalled that her Christian family intercepted letters from Quilliam to prevent her from attending his meetings, and threatened to burn her copy of the Qur’an. But discrimination extended beyond the home: on several occasions, horse manure was rubbed into Cates’ face as she left the Institute. Quilliam’s first convert, James/Djem Ali Hamilton, recollected that, given public opposition, it ‘required some considerable courage’ for the Muslims to assemble for weekly ‘services’: the room was often ‘full of Christian roughs’ who attempted ‘to interrupt our meeting; they used to shout and stamp on the floor, and try to drown the speaker’s voice.’ As they left the Institute, the Muslims were pelted with missiles of bricks, cabbages and offal.
Many people believed that the Muslims aggravated the situation by ‘flaunting’ their religion. When fireworks and other objects were thrown into the Institute in 1891, the Liverpool Review argued that the call to prayer from the Brougham Terrace balcony ‘was doubtless the red rag that aroused the mob’s active antagonising, for such a glaring advertisement in England, by the outside showman of the performance inside, cannot escape ridicule, and naturally tempts thoughtless and excitable opponents to resort to practical joking and violence.’ Some converts fought back – on this occasion confidently asking whether the reporter objected to the tolling of a church bell.
However, as time went on and discrimination increased, many more converts were silenced through intimidation and discrimination. Despite arranging for special policing to protect the Muslims inside the Institute, stones continued to be thrown through its windows; ‘irate Christian bigots’ heckled the speakers during religious services; a trip wire was put across the building’s entrance; and broken glass was scattered across the floor. The frequency of attacks only slowly subsided and, in the words of one optimistic newspaper, in its final years the community was ‘regarded with kindly tolerance, or perhaps one had better say indifference.’ A century on from the demise of the Liverpool Muslim Institute, we have come full circle, with localised discrimination against Muslims on the rise and in the news. Muslim extremism clearly has no place in civil society. But tolerance and dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims remains vitally important.