The Influence of Biradari (Caste) System in the UK

Just over 60 years ago, the first Asian Muslim migrants started coming to the United Kingdom from the Indian sub-continent in search of economic prosperity.

Simultaneously, these economic migrants inadvertently brought with them the baggage of patronage, kinship, tribal and cultural ties associated with the village from the homeland. Before we tackle the subject of ‘biradari’ in this article, it is important that we first analyse the definition of ‘biradari’ and what significance it has in Muslim communities in the UK today.

The term ‘biradari’ (male kin) is generally defined as patrilineage and is known to play a pivotal role in shaping the values, traditions and norms of a particular society. It can be said that from time immemorial, that the concept of biradari has existed in all societies and continues to play a fundamental role, especially at times of strife, hardship and conflict where everyone rallies around together in order to bring peace, stability and harmony.

The community elders in Muslim communities have to a large degree proven to be sturdy captains at the helm navigating the choppy waters of British cultural life and tradition. However, in the last seventy years, the UK has witnessed momentous societal change and tremendous transformation in attitudes and perceptions amongst Muslims. In addition to this, we need to point out that UK Muslims are not by in large a homogenous group in respect of ethnic and cultural lines. There is also the opportunity to ask a pertinent question in that is there a place for ‘biradari’ in the 21st century Muslim societies?

Today, Biradari is largely influential in patriarchal Asian Muslim societies around the UK especially amongst the elder generation. Backroom deals in private corridors determine all aspects of life in the community ranging from politics to marriage. The race to win the Bradford West seat in 2012 was regarded as a dead cert as far as the local Labour branch was concerned only to discover that Respect under the stewardship of George Galloway pulled off one of the most sensational election victories in recent electoral history. The ensuing post-mortem conducted by the local and national Labour party highlighted the fact that young Muslims and especially Muslim women had been largely alienated and marginalised by the patriarchs of the community leading to a situation where support for Labour evaporated bolstering the ranks of an outsider party who had previously little or no influence in Bradford.

It should be said that the younger generation of Muslims who form a substantial part of the emerging professional class are vibrant, ambitious and possess a tremendous desire to create a positive vibrant cohesive society. It is unfortunate that they now find themselves pitted against the older members of the community content to maintain the status quo reluctant to embrace the winds of positive change. One is off the view that the younger Muslim generation and the elder statesmen of the community need to work together as equals and not expected to be subservient on the basis that they superior in respect of age and experience.

A new phenomenon that has recently hit the Muslim community is the emergence of the concept of the individual at the expense of the community. Some of you may ask what one is inferring from this term, but in simple terms we find that each person is forming their own ideals and policies to suit their agenda partly down to dissatisfaction and malaise with the wider community at large. We can ask ourselves why there is so much widespread discontentment in the Muslim community and this is due to a multitude of reasons some of which we have already touched upon. 

The whole community needs to understand that the values of freedom, equality, fairness and justice need to be upheld at all times and more importantly that people need to be treated as equals. If Muslim communities continue to neglect these values at the expense of power, fame and authority as has been the case for many years then the events of Bradford West in 2012 will become the norm rather than the exception right throughout the UK.

On a final note, Biradari will never be eradicated completely within the Muslim community, but those at the heart of it should take note that its influence is diminishing as the days, months and years go by. The basic principles of fairness and equality need to be applied at all times ensuring that patronage, class and wealth are not promoted at the expense of ability and aspiration.

Every single person has a role to play in creating a positive future for the community and one can make a start by making a solemn vow that we will treat each other with kindness, love, compassion and view each other as equals.

By Dr Abdul Basit Shaikh