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Islamophobia in Britain – then and now

Islamic art image of Jesus on donkey and Muhammad on camel

Early Islamic manuscript illustration showing Jesus Christ riding a donkey side by side with the Prophet Muhammad riding a camel, both on their way to visit the Monk Bahira at Bosra, southern Syria

In the current climate of Islamophobia, I wonder how many British people are aware of a series of films made in the early 1960s, which were expressly designed to encourage people from Arab countries to come to Britain to work or study. The four films, all in Arabic, were made on behalf of the Foreign Office, and all begin with a mosque skyline and melodic chants of “Allahu Akbar”, the start of the Muslim call to prayer. They were recruitment films, each about 20 minutes long, in Arabic, expressly designed to encourage Arabs to come to Britain and to work in British industries or to study in British universities.

Muslims in Britain 1


Islamophobia & the “Calling all Muslims” films of the 1960s

You are my friends Andrew Graystone 17 March 2019

In the current climate of Islamophobia, I wonder how many British people are aware of the series of four films “Calling all Muslims!” made in the early 1960s by the Central Office of Information on behalf of the Foreign Office? They were all recruitment films, each about 20 minutes long, in Arabic, expressly designed to encourage Muslims to come to Britain and to work in British industries or to study in British universities.

Each of the four films begins with a mosque skyline and melodic chants of Allahu Akbar, the start of the call to prayer. All are unashamedly religious, eager to show Arabic-speaking Muslims how welcoming Britain is, how Islamic institutions exist in Britain to cater to their cultural and religious traditions, as a friendly home from home.

Two are set in London, one in Manchester, the other in Cardiff. All are in black and white. The cheerful Egyptian presenter drives from place to place in his Ford Anglia, interviewing local Muslims in their mosques, their offices and their homes. Most are men, but a handful are women, including a Christian convert to Islam, now the proud mother of ten children, after 16 years of marriage to a Yemeni in Cardiff. The presenter cuts to the mayoress of Cardiff to ask how the Muslim community has integrated. “Very well,” she replies, “They are an integral part of the city. They are accepted as friends amongst the rest of the community.”

It is a simple message reminiscent of Andrew Graystone’s open and welcoming placard as he stood outside his local mosque following Friday’s horrific massacre of Muslims praying in their mosques in Christchurch New Zealand. Smiling his support and solidarity with his Muslim community, it simply read: “You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.” He is a resident of Greater Manchester, a mixed and multicultural area where tensions could easily exist if the community succumbed to mutual mistrust.

In one of the Foreign Office’s 1960s “Calling all Muslims” recruitment films the presenter does a tour of London’s universities, including SOAS and the LSE, where an Iraqi student marvels that it is like “an international society”.  The British government shows “an interest in widening cultural boundaries” which he has observed over the five years he has lived in London. At the Saudi Embassy a Saudi official describes the British people as “polite and patient, with such a big respect for order as to make it almost sacred.” A scholar at the Islamic Cultural Centre on Park Road explains that King George VI gave this land to the Muslim community in 1944 and that a mosque will be built there, in Regent’s Park, once the community has gathered enough donations.

In the film from Manchester, sometimes dubbed the “Cosmopolitan Cottonopolis”, the presenter enthuses about the city as “one of the biggest trading centres in the world”, where commerce runs in people’s veins. Local footage shows people at prayer inside mosques, and young children being taught the Quran, before moving on to a library where the presenter is allowed to turn the pages of the “biggest written version of the Holy Koran in the world”. Seated on a park bench, an elderly local Englishman tells him: “My father’s doctor, even thirty years ago, came from Iraq. They’ve always been with us.” Next comes a Yemeni halal butcher who learned his skills in Liverpool and a wealthy Syrian businessman in Manchester’s cotton trade. To this day, ninety per cent of Manchester’s 5,000-strong Syrian community is involved in the textile industry, especially in cotton and yarn.

The films were designed solely for showing abroad and were probably never seen in the UK at the time. The reason I know about them is because a Syrian cotton merchant I interviewed in Manchester sent me the link to them. So I watched them all as part of the research for my book “The Merchant of Syria” about a textile merchant from Homs who comes to Bradford in the early 1980s as an economic migrant, buys a local mill called Briggella Mills, and builds up a global trade in broadcloth while all the other mills are closing down.

Yet today, despite such success stories, over a third of the UK population believes Islam represents a threat to the British way of life, says a report launched by the anti-fascist group Hope not Hate. Islamophobia in 2018, according to their findings, replaced immigration as the main factor behind the rise of the far right. In a poll half of Brexit voters in the 2016 referendum and nearly half of Conservative voters in the 2017 election said that Islam was not compatible with Britishness.

What went so wrong? It would be easy to lay the blame solely at the door of ISIS and its terrorist acts. But I believe the “hostile environment” presided over by Theresa May and David Cameron since 2010, years before ISIS declared its caliphate in Raqqa in 2014, also has much to answer for. The 1960s films were produced in the period following the Suez crisis, as part of a positive international relations initiative in a climate of strained relations between Britain and the Arabic-speaking world. If the British government’s policy since 2010 had been to create an inclusive multicultural society rather than a hostile nationalistic one, many of today’s political and societal dilemmas might have been avoided. President Trump’s clumsy messaging on Islam and terrorism obviously doesn’t help.

Meanwhile it is left to individuals like Andrew Graystone to put out the welcoming message that so many governments seem to have forgotten lies at the heart of successful communities – “Friendship not fear.”

You are my friends Andrew Graystone 17 March 2019

Here is a link to the “Calling all Muslims” films:


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