Monthly Archives: June 2007

Ex-Muslims Excluding Muslims?

Today saw the Parliamentary launch of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) which is being backed by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS), headed by the British-Iranian feminist and human rights campaigner, Maryam Namazie. It is the sixth such chapter to have been set up in Europe, the previous five having been established in Germany, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

It may well be premature to raise a glass of (non-alcoholic) champagne to the fledging body — with twenty five founding members — or for “outraged” believers to make too much of a fuss. But it might not be too soon to say that this may prove to be a one-hit wonder. According to one eyewitness, the launch was a small affair, with some forty-odd participants: including twelve panelists, three camera crews, members of the national press and A. C. Grayling, alongside some other stalwarts. The initiative seems strongly connected to the Iranian expatriate left in the United Kingdom and in mainland Europe. Namazie entertained journalists with the normal Islam-bashing, and allegedly Inayat Bunglawala came in for a deal of lampooning. But above and beyond its particulars, the launch raises some interesting questions.

It confirms, yet again, that the public identity “Muslim” has arrived in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. Being an ordinary common-garden atheist won’t do: one has to declare one’s former Islam in order to get some attention, in a context where some American and European intellectuals, tiring or unsure of the Muslim Luthers (e.g. Tariq Ramadan), are now more keen to have a punt on the Muslim Voltaires (e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali) to raise the Islam-West Kulturkampf to the desired level. The “democratic constellation” (Tariq Modood’s phrase) is protean and indiscriminate in that it may throw up any configuration of public “Muslim” identities, and, yet, discriminate in the manner by which certain identities are promoted and lauded or excluded and demeaned. The sheer fact of such a constellation is not in dispute here, for it is more desirable than the attempt to commandeer and thereby mask or reduce them all into one tight frame, a charge one could level at both the ex-Muslims and the radical Islamists, and indeed many European governments and cultural elites. After all, it’s the demand for totalising public identities that cause all the political friction in the first place.

The question being asked is: if ex-Muslims are now calling for a more laic Europe (i.e. taking up the French model of secularism), then who are the Muslim believers to object? Yet the conflation of atheism with secularism implicit here forgets the entangled relationship the European Enlightenment had with religion. It was less about the triumph of secular ideology over religion, than that of true religion over superstition, whose reformers, in the words of Bruce Lincoln, dreamt of “a spiritual republic based on moral foundations” (which sounds very similar to democratic currents within Islamism!). Many of these reformers were Christians or deists. Some like Spinoza and Vico advocated a positive role for “public religion” in the new republic that upheld a non-sectarian vision of the common good (res publica) and worked to build “bridging capital”, to use the current horrid policy jargon for social glue. (Oddly Rousseau’s vision of “public religion” was rather more authoritarian.) These were and still are arguments against a rigid secularism, ones that today’s beleaguered believers might wish to recall.

After all the only pertinent question in Britain is what form of secularism would one wish to champion? And thus what future prospect is there for Britain’s tradition of moderate secularism which endorses a form of weak established religion, headed by an Anglican church with a track record of ecumenical and interfaith inclusivity that sits alongside a largely tolerant and secular political culture?

Similarly one would have thought it possible to champion universal human rights and reason without abjuring one’s faith, but the CEMB seems resolutely deaf to such a possibility. On the important issue of apostasy, the CEMB could find a growing body of religious authorities within Islam who take the position that it is not a matter for the state but of private conscience. A growing list of these scholars, many from the United States and some from Britain, like Abdal Hakim Murad, who uphold freedom of religion can be found here.

Another intriguing question is: what kind of ex-Muslim? After all, historically and today, one could define a cultural Muslim identity outside of religious faith, creatively engaged, at least, with history and culture. As with forms of secular Zionism, it could even work for Muslim political empowerment. The ex-Muslim with a sense of attachment to his or her history and culture, attentive to the political dreams and aspirations of Muslim peoples, who works to better their lot could or can express and encapsulate a desirable political project. Part of its desirability would include a commitment to treat all citizens equally — regardless of ethnicity, creed, gender, disability and sexual orientation — and not to endorse a chauvinist project.

Yet the other form of ex-Muslim public identity more likely to gain patronage and endorsement from Europe’s political and cultural elite is one that would only see such “secular Islamism” as communalism, and so the possibility of political progress and emancipation is thus delimited to the horizon of universalising European liberalism as a result. This more strident form of public Muslim atheism has anti-multiculturalist instincts, and is often, but not always, silent about the “war on terror” and the curtailment of civil liberties. To that extent, it is certainly experienced (whether so explicitly intended or not) as part of the cultural wing of a more general crusade that is anti-Muslim and more generally anti-religion.

The final question returns to the thorny issue of Muslim collective representation, much debated of late in Britain and elsewhere. CEMB’s press statement claims certainty in representing “a majority in Europe and a vast secular and humanist protest movement in [Muslim] countries like Iran”. What kind of representational legitimacy is being invoked here? I speak in your name in order to repudiate who you are? Is this the final endpoint of “integration” , a cultural and religious striptease, underlined by the proposition that “the only good Muslim is an ex-Muslim”? If nothing else it proves that “representational politics” can sometimes have few limits of coherence or credibility.


Filed under Multiculturalism, Religion, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

Beyond Sidique

Shiv Malik reads too much into one case study.

Mohammad Sidique KhanShiv Malik’s essay, “My brother the bomber” (Prospect, June 2007), sets out a detailed account of the life and motivations of Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the 7/7 bombings. But Malik reads too much into this one case study.

Much of the detail in Malik’s piece has either been previously reported or is disputed. Some locals argue that the name “Mullah boys”—the group Malik describes of young Muslim boys in Beeston that formed initially in response to local drugs problems—is media hype, that this loose network didn’t really go in for enforced “cold turkey” sessions, and that Khan had fewer associations with them in later years than did Shehzad Tanweer, his fellow cell member. Most importantly, some sources argue that Khan only become prayerful and pious in 2003, even if his political radicalisation came earlier. By contrast, Malik describes a long gestation over ten years, from Wahhabi literalist piety to jihadism to terrorism, which leads him to base his analysis on theological and cultural rather than political issues.

Malik’s explanation rests on a tendentious thesis—terrorism as the result of Islamic liberation theology and intergenerational dislocation. He argues that violent extremism is a fringe element in a broader religious revival among young Muslim people, driven by a generational shift towards more autonomy and choice in the name of Islam. This is set in the context of Beeston, where young Pakistani men are given free rein so long as they affirm (but not necessarily practice) traditional Islam, remain teetotal and marry within the clan (baraderi). Younger Muslims often criticise this combination of religio-cultural strictures with their elders’ myopic response to their wider concerns. Khan’s father cut him off when he married outside the clan, yet the elders in Beeston did nothing to tackle the rise of drugs in the area, leaving it to initiative-takers like Khan.

Youthful religious revival and extremism should not be conflated too closely. Arranged marriage is a common issue for many young Muslims, but those who contest the institution usually assert scriptural rights, or just individual rights, outside of any religious framework. In other words, while extremist recruiters seek to exploit a common concern, arranged marriage is only a circumstantial and not a necessary driver of extremism. The same holds true for identity—much of this religious revival is about formulating British Muslim identities, about piety in a new context; it is only the extremists who argue for absolute choices between Islam and the west. Islamic revivalism in Britain is maturing, which helps young Muslims in their search for a balance between culture and religion, text and context, modernity and tradition, nationalism and global Muslim fraternity, despite being guilt-tripped in various ways by parents, imams, old-style community leaders, jihadists and the august guardians of Britishness.

Traditional Muslim communities do seek to challenge extremism, but sometimes do so in an incompetent way that can actually exacerbate the problem. Malik’s account shows us that Khan’s father took steps to counter his rebelliousness, eventually cutting off all contact once he married outside the clan. For some British Muslims, being cast off in this way can set up a vulnerable isolation in which the jihadi network may seek to become a surrogate family. In a similar way, too many traditional mosques often chase away radical groups rather than taking them on.

Malik’s analysis of the radicalisation of the 7/7 cell is predicated on a conveyor-belt model. But it is important to understand that British Islam is also experiencing an ongoing process of deradicalisation, as disillusionment with utopian, millenarian discourses takes hold. For example, while nearly all extremists might subscribe in some form or other to Salafi theology—alongside a doctrine of global jihad and a radical Islamist reading of world politics—turning Wahhabi is not, most of the time, the prelude to becoming a jihadist.

Indeed, in the 1990s, many apolitical Salafis spent much time arguing against—and warning an officialdom then less attentive about—extremist preachers like Abu Qatadah and Abdullah al-Faisal. Many of these Salafis have been rewarded for this courageous stand by vilification by association, and death threats from jihadists, even if, after 9/11, the police have begun to discreetly support their work. Counter-terrorism is an unsentimental business that does not take account of liberal sensitivities in working with non-violent religious fundamentalists or Islamists, and, as such, it ought not to be confused with a broader integration agenda or debates around multiculturalism and Britishness.

Finally, it is hard to accept Hassan Butt’s contention that the extremists are winning by mainly recruiting from Islamists and fundamentalists, to use Malik’s terms, for this is to judge the mainstream by the fringe. Any serious reading of recent religious revivalism in British Muslim communities would do the reverse. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a convergence between an increasingly relevant traditionalism and a “post-Islamism” that articulates modern British Muslim identities more at ease with minority status in a secular liberal democracy. This process is far from over, and has not fully excised extremist ideas on the fringe. Yet if carefully handled, official encouragement to the mainstream may help to further reduce the influence of the extremists—if allied with greater honesty about the aggravating role Iraq has played in bolstering al Qaeda’s cause.

Yahya Birt is national director of City Circle ( and his personal blog is

Reproduced courtesy of Prospect Magazine (c) 2007. The original can be accessed here.


Filed under Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, war-on-terror