Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on 8th September 2022, King Charles III (formerly The Prince of Wales and Queen Elizabeth’s eldest son) ascended to the throne1. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II – the longest reigning monarch in the history of the UK – is a rare and historic moment, and while many have mourned her passing, grievances have resurfaced among people in former British colonies as well as within the UK2, with some polls suggesting that less than 40% of people from minority communities favour keeping the monarchy3. The underlying sentiment of this view is that the British Monarchy is a symbol of privilege and inequality that upholds the class system and public-school elite that runs the UK.
Nonetheless, some Muslim organisations and individuals have offered their condolences and tributes to the late Queen. The Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK) stated they were “deeply saddened to learn of the death of her Majesty Elizabeth the Second”4, with CEO Shaista Gohir adding “her Majesty’s role as the longest serving female monarch during a time when patriarchy has been endemic is nothing less than iconic”5. Similarly, Zara Mohammed, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said: “We at the Muslim Council of Britain remember how the Queen devoted her life to the public and sought unity among British communities […] All of us, all faiths and none, will remember Her Majesty’s legacy of public service and celebrate her achievements”6. In their statement, the MCB also paid attention to the late Queen’s work with Muslim communities:
“Her Majesty was the first monarch to engage with newly established Muslim communities here in the UK. Though the first British mosque was seen in the Victorian era, the Queen was the first monarch to visit a UK mosque during her Jubilee celebrations in 2002. Audiences at events and ceremonies hosted by the Royal family reflect the diversity of Britain”7.
Others like Afroze Fatima Zaidi, contributor for The New Arab has questioned Muslim organisations motivations for their tributes to the Queen. Specifically Afroze referred to the lack of critique or even mention of the colonial legacy of the monarchy in the MCB’s statement 8.
Additionally, King Charles inherits the late Queen’s vast wealth that British citizens are “subsidising (..) to the tune of $33 million in the next two years”9. This inheritance comes at a time when the UK is seeing record rates of inflation as well as increasing energy prices due to the war in Ukraine. Muslim communities are particularly vulnerable to these new circumstances, with half of Muslim UK households living below the poverty line, compared to 18% of the general UK population according to research published in April 2022 from the Muslim Council of Britain10. Charles is however often credited for his long track record of supporting charitable causes11 “Mosaic“, a mentoring programme founded by Charles in 2007, that creates opportunities for young people growingg up in the most deprived communities, or his patronage of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.
It is in this Center that Charles gave in 1993 his speech on “Islam and the West”:
“I believe wholeheartedly that the links between these two worlds matter more today than ever before, because the degree of misunderstanding between the Islamic and Western worlds remains dangerously high, and because of the need for the two to live and work together in our increasingly interdependent world has never been greater” 12.
According Robert Jobson, the author of the book “Charles At Seventy: Thoughts, Hopes and Dreams” (2018) Charles opposed the war on Iraq, disagreed with the bans on niqabs and burqas in Europe, expressed sympathy for Palestinians to his ministers, and has studied the Qur’an13. In September 2022 during a speech to faith leaders hosted in Buckingham Palace, king Charles spoke of his personal duty to:
“protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself and its practice through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals”14.
Such declarations have led some, such as journalist Ben Judah to argue that “King Charles II will surprise us” as the new head of the British state is a “loud admirer of Islam, a critic of Western interventionism and a champion of multiculturalism who will win his country new friends – and some populist enemies – across the world”16. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar has also called Charles a “fair Western voice” on Islam17. In the same line, Hisham Hellyer, Fellow of the Cambridge University’s Centre for Islamic Studies, sees King Charles’ unique relationship with Islam as a way of bridging divides between Muslims and the wider British society. Hellyer describes Charles as a “a particular type of Anglican” who is not only tied to tradition, but shows a great deal of affinity for both Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Islam15. He argues that at a time when Islam and Muslims are often vilified in the West, the new British monarch “not only respects and empowers Muslim communities, he not only speaks politely and courteously about their religion, he also argues that the West needs Islam in the here and now”16. According to Hellyer, there does not seem to be a parallel to any other Western political figure. Raheel Ahmad of the History Department of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK, wrote that he could not help but “admire King Charles III’s deep insight and understanding of Islamic teachings, traditions and history” and that even if a small percentage of the insight Charles has about Islam is conveyed to the British public this could “serve as a means of removing misunderstanding about Islam”17 and help heal divisions in society.
Conversely, Yahya Birt, (Research Director at the Ayaan Institute)) acknowledges that Charles is a committed Islamophile as evidenced by his studies of the Qur’an, Arabic, being well read in Sufi doctrine and his keen interest in Islamic architecture, gardens and art18. Whilst Birt writes that it is “uncontroversial to say Charles III is the most knowledgeable of all English monarchs about Islam and the most sympathetic towards it in the monarchy’s millennium-long history”19, he takes issue with the tendency spread “crypto-Muslim theory about Charles’ hidden personal Islam on the basis” or the dubious “genealogical claim of Muhammadan lineage in the royal family”20. Birt instead urges that we need to recognise the soft power of the British monarch and violent history of its empire.
During the 50’s and 60’s the British undertook violent suppression of uprisings, such as the Mau Mau in Kenya, described by some scholars as “the face of international terrorism in the 1950s”2223. In her book, “Britain’s Gulag” , Harvard historian Elkins brought to light the amplitude of the mass detention, that held more than double of the originally estimated 80,000 detainees24.
Yahya Birt makes further reference to the monarchy’s involvement in the military, with the monarch being commander-in-chief of the British Armed forces. Despite this role being delegated to their government, military personnel pledge their loyalty to the monarch. As Birt argues, “the nation’s might is embodied in the royal person”, where behind the soft power of the monarchy lies military power27, meaning the monarchy should be held accountable for the violent end of the British empire. Charles himself has also played a central role in pushing £14.5 billion worth of British arms exports to Arab regimes after the Arab Spring28. Birt makes a plea to British Muslims to not be charmed by the crowning of a “new Islamophile monarch” and should instead consider the what the “implications really are of a monarchy in terms of natural justice and fairness in twenty-first century Britain”29.