Enoch Powell and the British Muslim

This is part two of a two-part series. You can read part one here.

For the Love of Country

“The evil that men do lives after them / the good is oft interred with their bones.” Few today will remember Enoch Powell for his heartfelt attack on the colonial brutality inflicted in the Mau Mau Rebellion, many more will recall his fierce opposition towards Commonwealth immigration into Britain. The two sides of Powell, on the one hand the devoted anti-imperial libertarian, and on the other the traditionalist anti-immigration High Tory, coexisted not in tension but in harmony, stemming from his core belief in the absolute supremacy of the British nation-state as an institution; the Commons as its body, the Monarch as its head.

Powell did not think in terms of color, but rather, culture. His primary fear was that immigration into Britain would inevitably result in communalism, with the newfound Britons of Commonwealth descent retaining their ancestral cultures and coalescing into a ‘nation within a nation’, fracturing a once unitary national ethos. While Powell never mentioned Islam or Muslims in particular in his now infamous speech, he approvingly quoted the since-disgraced Labour MP John Stonehouse’s criticism of the “Sikh communities’ campaign to maintain customs inappropriate in Britain,” namely, the wearing of the turban. While it may be the first impulse of a Muslim to argue against this, Islam has only ever been able to sustain the practice of rival faiths through regulated communalism, in the form of the Ottomanite millets. In the era of the nation-state, this is now obviously impossible. Many of the ethno-religious tensions present in the Balkans today can be traced down to the so-called progressive, nationalizing reforms of the latter-day Ottoman Empire, in what Powell later condemned in the case of Britain a half-century afterwards.

More importantly, however, is the motivation for Powell’s opposition to religious communalism as compared to Islam’s. For Muslims, Islam is the one true faith, and the only one accepted by the one true God. As stated in the Quran: “Whoever desires other than Islam as religion— never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers” (3:85). While the practice of other religions may be tolerated, as the millet system proved, it can never be accepted as equally legitimate with Islam by a true believer. The Powellist idealization of the nation-state, on the other hand, has little to do with ideology. For Powell, Britain was worth saving simply because it was Britain and that he was a Briton. Whereas moral values, in his mind, were transcendent across time and space and could hardly be fought for any more than they could be destroyed, it was “independence, the freedom of a self-governing nation [that was the] highest political good.”[1] In a discussion with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the eve of the Falklands War, the Iron Lady insisted that the impending war must be framed in terms of a defense of British liberty, to which Powell flatly responded that he would fight for his nation even if it were a communist nation.

The closest example of a synthesis between Islam and modern nation-statism perhaps lies in the country of Pakistan, which ever since its inception in 1948 has proved a model for the ambitions of several generations of Muslim statesmen and political philosophers. But it was the fusion of nationalist sentiment with Islamic feeling that, while giving birth to one of the few crowning moments in the modern history of the Muslim people, also led to the enduring horrors of 1971, in which the distinction between mu’min and kafir was shifted to Muslims of differing ethnic and linguistic origin. The Islamic view of patriotism is much better articulated by another great European statesman of the 20th century, the Bosniak Muslim philosopher-politician Alija Izetbegovic, who wrote that “the true patriot is not the one who puts his homeland above others, but the one who acts so it would be worthy of that praise. More than glory, he cares about the dignity of his homeland.”[2] It seems as though on the issue of nationalism, Islam and Powellism, like two good friends, may shake hands and respectfully depart from one another, each to their own separate path.

The Man and His Legacy

An academic discussion of Powellism and its virtues is all well and good, but it is fruitless to deny that it is difficult to discuss the subject of Enoch Powell, the man and his legacy, with a British Muslim audience, simply because the overwhelming majority of British Muslims are immigrants, or of immigrant descent; the very same as those whom Powell once called to be voluntarily repatriated. While Powell himself always professed to be a fervent anti-fascist who “set [his] face like flint against discrimination,” his name has been used over the decades to justify a variety of despicably racist deeds, from the National Front rallies of the ‘70s to the hooliganism of the English Defense League today. “Enoch Powell was right” has become a race-baiting catchphrase uttered with the same sense of ironic distance generally reserved for the flying of the Confederate flag in the United States.

The truth is that Powell was neither a bigot nor a racialist, but one of the last of a very rare breed: the philosopher-politician, who enacted policy not in accord with the vicissitudes of the whims of the populace, nor the carefully focus-tested empty slogans of a party manifesto, but in light of a deep and nuanced philosophy on the nature of human civilization. His views on immigration policy were simply the logical outcome of his nationalist and Unionist outlook. A heterogeneous nation whether ethnically, religiously, or socially so is inevitably divided against itself and cannot stand. For his own part, Enoch Powell was a professed admirer of the Islamic heritage of the Subcontinent, who prided himself on his mastery of Urdu, voraciously consumed Urdu poetry, and once even sought to produce an English translation of the Musaddas of Atlaf Hussain Hali.

But while Powell understandably sought to prevent the usurping of British culture by foreign influence, no matter his personal respect for it, what he did not realize is that the original history of Islam in the Isles emerged not from the post-Windrush wave of migration, but out of the temperance halls and Unitarian churches of Victorian England, culminating in a quite ordinary Liverpudlian-Manx solicitor named William Henry Quilliam, who in 1887 took a trip to Morocco and returned as Abdullah Quilliam, a committed Muslim. Inaugurating his small office into Britain’s first mosque, he founded the Liverpool Muslim Institute in 1891. At its height, it boasted around 600 converts, including former mayors, aristocrats, authors, and peers in the House of Lords, was prominent enough to receive a visit from the Mayor of London during Eid celebrations, mailed dawah packets to the Royal Family, and resulted in Quilliam himself being granted the incredible title of Shaykh ul-Islam of the British Isles by Caliph Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Britain may have been an Anglican country, but it was an Anglican country with a fierce Nonconformist streak, which, even at the height of imperialist conquest in the 19th century, with Islam posited as the eternal enemy of Christendom, seemed to lurch uncontrollably towards monotheism. William Blake and Isaac Newton were among the likes of those who increasingly forsook their ancestral Trinitarianism in favor of a ‘rawer’, ‘purer’ form of Unitarian Christianity, the latter consequently articulating a theological vision surprisingly near to Islam. The Unitarian author Henry Stubbe took the next step, penning possibly the first-ever European Christian work sympathetic to Islam, An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, and a Vindication of him and his Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians. Censured within his lifetime, it details Islamic doctrine with such admiration, many scholars today conclude that he must have privately adopted the faith as his own.

With the steady erosion of Christian self-confidence throughout the 19th century, but prior to the rise of banal, vapid postwar secularism, strands of English thought began to edge ever closer to Islam itself in their hesitant reappraisal of God’s Final Prophet. “Benthamee Utility, virtue by Profit and Loss; reducing this God’s world to a dead brute Steam-engine… if you ask me which gives, Mahomet or they, the beggarlier and falser view of Man and his Destinies in this Universe,” the Scottish deist playwright Thomas Carlyle once bellowed to a presumably astonished audience, “I will answer, it is not Mahomet.” Who was the Prophet ﷺ after all, if not the greatest of all of Carlyle’s Great Men? Even Enoch Powell himself, in the final years of his life, grew to doubt the official Christian narrative surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus ﷺ.

Powell feared the rise of a foreign population unable to be integrated into the British mainstream, but if he were alive in Britain today, he may very well find precious little to inspire efforts to integrate. Like the rest of the West, Britain has become a hollow shell of its former self, ashamed of its own culture and traditions, its churches emptied and razed, its streets filled with the smell of cannabis and knife crime, its schools starved of the liberal arts, in foreign policy a deluded Atlanticist puppet, and its national sovereignty willingly relinquished to Brussels. “We will become a Muslim nation— or we will perish,” as the contemporary Anglo-Muslim blogger Jacob Williams mused.[3] If one needed proof of the spiritual compatibility of the traditional culture of England and Islam, they need only look at the works of its most celebrated author. Faith and chastity, freedom and self-restraint, loyalty and courage— if not for the references to Christianity, one could be forgiven for mistaking Shakespeare for a Muslim author.

The same qualities of the English that Powell and his predecessors cherished are ones that we too as Muslims hold dear. Perhaps this is why, for the pioneers of the Anglo-Muslim movement, Islam functioned not as an erasure of their identity, but as a complement to it. Hedley Churchward (Mahmoud Mobarek) was an aristocratic set-designer, who in his youth “shared lollipops with the sons of South American presidents, of Indian generals, of big-game hunters, polar explorers and professional empire builders.”[4] Converting to Islam after being awed by the sights of Moorish architecture in Spain, he continued on to South Africa where he flitted easily between the impoverished Muslim Cape Malays and the white colonial elite, his intercession with the latter being responsible for the construction of the first mosque upon the Witwatersrand. Not yet content, he concluded his incredible life-story by becoming the first recorded British Haji. Martin Lings (Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din) was a member of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein’s famed literary society the “Inklings,” an accomplished Shakespearean scholar, and a devoted Sufi, responsible for penning the most celebrated work of English-language seerah to date, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Dr. Timothy Winter (Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad) carries on the Anglo-Muslim legacy today in his lectures and articles which explore the twin traditions of Islam and Britishness, and their interactions in the past, present, and future.

If the 2016 Brexit referendum proved anything, it was that Britain stands for something, not just to be an aggregation of cheap migrant labor and soulless banking corporations dedicated to money-laundering and tax evasion wrapped up in a GDP. Muslims ought to find something worth admiring in a nation of such historical moral fortitude and linkage to Islam, no matter how degraded it has become in the modern age. Sadly, the British Muslim community of today has divided itself into two camps; those who attempt complete isolation from the cultural influence of wider society, viewing British culture as an inherently alien, colonial imposition on Islam, and those who desperately seek total assimilation into the barren and totalitarian “muscular liberalism” of modern Britain by forsaking all illiberal traces of their ‘shameful’ faith. As the people of the “middle way” (Quran 2:143), there must be a path for Muslims to contribute to wider society and constructively engage with the cultural institutions of their adopted land without compromising on the faith.

Enoch Powell may have been right, but he doesn’t have to be. Strange though it may be for the children of the Commonwealth, whose ancestors were once conquered by the Empire, to prove the savior to modern Britain’s cultural and spiritual woes, stranger things have happened. Enoch Powell once said he would fight for Britain even if it were a Marxist country. Perhaps he would still fight for it if it were a Muslim country instead.

Works Cited

  1. Powell, Enoch. The Common Market: Renegotiate or Come Out. London, Elliot Right Way Books, 1973, pp. 110-111.
  2. Izetbegović, Alija. Izetbegović of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Notes from Prison, 1983-1988. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, p. 79.
  3. JacobW [Jacob Williams]. “On Englishness (2).” Modern Dross, 14 Jan. 2019, https://moderndross.blog/2019/01/14/on-englishness-2/. Accessed January 13, 2019.
  4. “Famous Muslims of London.” British Muslim Heritage, http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/bmh/BMH-IRO-famous_muslims.htm. Accessed January 13, 2019.

Photo Credit: Alan Warren

About the Author: Luqman Quilliam is a guest contributor. He aspires to one day become a student of shariah. His interests include indigenous British Islamic heritage, statecraft, Islamic economics, and film.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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