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Migration

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

The movement of history is unthinkable without migration. Migrations of ideas and of people are as old as civilisation itself. The meeting of concepts across cultures and continents have produced some of humanity's best inventions and ideas. Transport of commodities across borders and boundaries has given humanity everyday items of consumption that are now taken for granted. People who imagine themselves indigenous and native have much earlier origins elsewhere that they cannot, or do not want to, now to remember.

Islamic history is nothing if not the perpetual coming and going of ideas and people - From its very beginning the small body of Muslims in Arabia was familiar with migration. Even before the community was securely established in Madina a group of Muslims had already migrated to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Afterwards, of course, the major migration to Madina happened. From this migration our Islamic dating begins, called hijri - from hijra (migration). The Quran, hadith, fiqh and fatawa literature - all address the question of emigration. Thus migration and Islam are closely intertwined.

European migration since the late 15th century took the form and was premised upon conquest and colonisation. The 'discovery' of the Americas by Europeans witnessed some of the most brutal 'clashes of cultures' in which the local inhabitants mostly lost out (indeed in a few cases suffered what amounts to genocide) in the meeting of ideas and peoples. Furthermore, Africans were then forcibly transported by Europeans the Americas.

Colonialism enabled the massive migration of Europeans to the newly acquired territories. The 19th century is the century of the great European migrations. Among the peoples of Great Britain the Irish stand out as immigrating in the largest numbers. By the middle of the century they constituted about 30% of the British population but just over 40% of the overseas territories of Britain, of the Empire. The Irish of course were themselves colonised by the English and had suffered under English domination. Yet they used and benefited from English-led imperial expansion through their settlement in the colonies and reliance on cheap local labour there and vast expanses of land after they were taken form the locals. But the Irish were not the only emigrants. The poor from nearly every European state either left willingly or where sent overseas. This was a quick way of settling 'empty' spaces and solving the problems of European unemployment and poverty.

Migration was never a one way street. The empire struck back after the middle 20th century. In the 19th century the powerful European states thought that migration was one way, always out of Europe (and forcibly out of Africa at the hands of Europeans) never into Europe. But as a slogan on an East End wall in the 1980s put it: 'We are here because you were there.' The post-World War Two economic boom led to the search for cheap labour in Europe. First the poorer southern Europeans were recruited to the colder North. Very soon afterwards, the old colonial sources were tapped: South Asians and Caribbeans were brought to Britain, and East African Asians forced out, and reluctantly (even though they carried British passports) accepted into Britain as well.

The Germans, having no ex-colonial possessions to talk of, found in Turkey a source of cheap labour. The Turks only amount to 2% of the German population today despite persistent fears of over-running the country. (Chancellor Schroeder now wants to bring in bright Indians to help re-start the flagging German computer industry. These engineers would be welcome but not their families Herr Schroeder says!) The French relied on their West and North African ex-colonies. Recently Spain, a late comer to the great European post-War boom have found many North African, especially Moroccans as helpful labour. The North Africans make up a very small percentage of all immigrants in the EU but they have been the objects of repeated abuse and debate as 'a problem'.

The immigrants were all supposed to stay temporarily but to the dismay of the host countries the migrants had minds and demands of their own. Why move on or elsewhere? By the turn of the 20th century, immigrants constitute only 5% of the EU population. So for all the reckless noise, racist abuse and use in political campaigns by conservative groups, immigrants in Britain and Europe make up a surprisingly small percentage of the population. But on all sides of the political spectrum there is agreement on the policy of keeping secure 'Fortress Europe' from 'bogus asylum seekers' (an expression Tony Blair and Jack Straw repeatedly employ) and other wreckers of the dream of a harmonious and prosperous continent free of foreign 'interlopers'.

The forces against immigration are acting against history itself. If migration and mobility are the essence of history then so too is the termination of individual migrations a part of the historical process. The southern Europeans went back home after a short period in the North, and now they are free to move all over the EU. The Irish no longer move elsewhere for Ireland is an economic bright spot. (Interestingly, Ireland is now receiving Asian and Black immigrants, and it would be worth watching how they welcome they are made there.)

Muslims entered history by migrating. But once migrant communities were established they stabilised and integrated with locals, or they returned to where they came from renewed, and reintegrated with their original communities. Similarly, just as emigration is mentioned very often in the classical Islamic literature there are limits to its circulation; it never became a fixed chapter in the books of jurisprudence.