Monthly Archives: April 2010

Dilemmas of Authenticity and Belonging

Yahya Birt

It is obvious enough that the debate about the place of Islam in Europe has probably never been so important or sharply contested. The numbers of those who think there can be no genuine or settled place for Europe’s second largest religion seem to be growing; and this sentiment now mobilises politics in many European states, the Swiss vote in 2009 against the building of minarets being a recent example of this politics of fear. The outcome of this vote seems to suggest that if Muslims are to retain a presence in Europe, it should be rendered unnoticeable or even invisible, and that the normal religious freedoms others enjoy are to be especially curtailed for Muslims. Populist politicians like Gert Wilders in the Netherlands can now gain sizeable constituencies by promising to end mosque construction or banning the Qur’an. France, having banned the headscarf from French public schools in 2004, is now debating in 2010 whether to ban face veils from the country altogether, as they are, it is argued, deemed to be incompatible with republican values. Similarly the debate over whether Turkey can be part of the European Union touches upon the very political definition of what Europe is. As the former president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, argued in 2002, Turkey was not fit to be the member of a “Christian club” and, if accepted into Europe, Turkish membership would in any case “destroy the EU” if it went ahead.

Similarly Europe now lives with an ongoing terrorist threat from those whom al-Qaeda inspires to strike in the name of Muslims everywhere. Al-Qaeda operates with a cosmic idea of incessant violent struggle; catalytic acts of political violence, it is believed, will somehow galvanise and unite the Muslim world against the West to restore lost honour and power through indiscrimate carnage as seen in New York and Washington (2001), Madrid (2004), London (2005) and Glasgow (2007). And there have been a number of other foiled plots in the last decade, some dating to even before 9/11. Of course some have been radicalised recent migrants from the Muslim world, but others were European born and bred, and it is around trying to understand how these European Muslims became radicalised that some of the most intense debate about the place of Islam in Europe has raged.

However, I would suspect that even more divisive than the violent fringe have been the political and cultural clashes between liberal Europe and its often conservatively-minded Muslim minorities. Muslim identity politics in Europe can only become widely mobilised across different ethnic, sectarian and class divisions and be able to connect Muslim diasporas with political actors, state or non-state, in the Muslim world for two main reasons. The first cause is a military attack on a Muslim people by a non-Muslim power, where the Muslims are clearly not the aggressors, e.g. the conflict in Bosnia, 1992-95. The second cause is a cultural or political attack on a universal Islamic symbol; this attack is deemed to be a collective insult to Muslim dignity that besmirches the honour of their religion, e.g. the Danish Cartoons Crisis, 2005-8. Both causes relate to the victimization of Muslims, whose pain and suffering because of cultural contempt or political marginalisation plays not only into post-colonial angst and racialized politics in Europe today, but into deeply-felt frustration at the contemporary democratic deficit in the Muslim world and its inability to shape its own future and destiny. Yet what is also noticeable is the very fragility, or thinness, of this universal Muslim identity politics. As soon as any complexity is introduced, such as Muslim-on-Muslim conflict or the public ridicule of any non-universal Muslim taboo, then its appeal and scope is quickly curtailed.

 A similar observation might be made of anything that might be held to somehow undermine the idea of Europe: any universal appeal to a European identity politics must be equally thin to garner together such a diverse constituency of Europeans. At the heart of this European identity politics is cultural uncertainty: an aging continent feels threatened by younger non-European migrants, many of whom are Muslim by faith, and whom it is felt do not sufficiently share Europe’s values; and, as Asia rises and develops multiple modernities, the notion central to European identity that it gave birth a universal and singular modernity appears to be increasingly anachronistic.

So it might be surmised that identity politics is partly based on the anxiety created by the inability to engage with the loss of credible universal narratives. In the case of Islam, European colonialism decisively ended its narrative of imperial and religious manifest destiny in the nineteenth century, and, for the post-colonial Muslim diaspora in Europe, this tension is intensified by the fact of being a European minority of low, or at least ambiguous, social status. This status anxiety is more acute and prolonged that in the case of Europe’s, which has only really slowly developed in the latter half of the twentieth century with the challenges of decolonisation, the rise of America, the divisions of the Cold War, and now the slow shifting of the centre of the world economy to East Asia.

Within a context where many are seeking to diffuse mutually-antagonistic identity politics between Islam and Europe, I want to reflect on one small initiative with which I was recently involved. In 2009, the University of Cambridge won a competitive tender to host a series of seminars to reflect upon “Contextualising Islam in Britain” that was funded by the Department of Communities of Local Government. Inevitably a number of ironic ambiguities were involved in such an unusual endeavour. Why, for instance, would a secular government be interested in Muslim theological reflection as such except for more narrow policy imperatives? How much were the sorts of conclusions sought by government ones of a liberal or progressive bent that were desired and anticipated in advance? How much was the official motivation one that was driven to demonstrate an Islam that was compatible with liberalism, or at the very least could be convincingly shown to be fundamentally harmless and innocuous? How could a small panel of 26 Muslim academics, activists and religious scholars hope to avoid the charge from their own community of promoting their own version of an official British Islam without a proper mandate? And, added to that, what authority or relevance would its deliberations have?  Muslim conservatives might think it too liberal, “Islamists” might think it too politically quiescent, it would be ignored or dismissed by the radicals and wouldn’t most Muslims, holding to an informal and iterative notion of religious authority, baulk at the idea of an official national Islam? Wouldn’t theological reflection in and of itself be overly abstract and divorced from concrete policy issues, e.g. high unemployment, racial discrimination or relatively low educational attainment, that affect Muslim communities in Britain? And wasn’t there a stereotypical element in defining Muslims primarily or even solely in religious terms by assuming that the problems of Muslim communities were best addressed in theological terms?

All those involved were acutely aware of these sorts of dilemmas, which might be summarised as dilemmas of authenticity and belonging. Could such an exercise be theologically serious while not been overly presumptive in the claims to authority that it made? How could such an exercise be more creative and interesting than being a political exercise in reassurance or a plea for acceptance? It is for others to decide how far the “Contextualising Islam in Britain” project succeeded in avoiding these pitfalls; however, a few further reflections are in order.

One obvious irony was that there are few if any comparable platforms, due to internal politics or lack of resources or vision, for sustained reflection on pressing theological issues by such a wide theological diversity of British Muslims, except for official ones. The fact that British Muslim institutions, being perceived as biased in one way or another, would have struggled to collect together Sunnis and Shiites, Sufis and Salafis, liberals and conservatives, and Deobandis and Barelwis (the latter being British Islam’s most important sectarian Muslim division) under one roof. Although an atmosphere of distrust, incompatibility and intransigence was a distinct possibility, and many of 26 participants had not met or worked together before, in practice, a robust but healthy dynamic was established.

In my personal view, the overriding reasons as to why co-operation was easier to sustain than originally feared were threefold. Firstly, the politically parlous public reputation of Muslims sets up an overall context in which intra-faith co-operation becomes more desirable. Secondly, the seminar participants focused upon the theological challenges that faced them all, regardless of their denominational background, which were largely matters of public religion, or the role of Islam in public life, which, as a common circumstance, challenge and opportunity, cuts across other sorts of division. And, finally, there was also sufficient maturity and experience within the group to see such moments of sustained reflection in lives that are otherwise busy and overstretched as rare opportunities that were not to be wasted.

On the question of religious authority, the participants were seasoned enough to realise that as there are many points of religious authority within the Islamic tradition, and that restating Islamic norms is fundamentally an iterative exercise that is ongoing because of changing times and circumstances, the whole exercise was properly framed as opening out the debate and about asking some of the right questions. It was certainly not a series of definitive fatwas that were sought, and no-one claimed either the legal expertise or authority to do so.

On the politics around such an exercise, the participants were clear that a mere reiteration of the idea that Islam is harmless, i.e. that the vast majority of Muslims abjure the violent extremists who misuse the name of Islam, could not be a serious starting point of any sustained theological reflection. Instead, even within a secular Europe, significant parts of which are post-Christian, the idea of religion as a public good, and, within that, the role of Islam as Europe’s second religion, should be further explored and strengthened. There was wide support for Britain’s particular form of secularism, as accommodative of religious pluralism, religious freedoms and of religious institutions, and as providing the overall framework to articulate religion as a public good; however, it was recognised that there were more challenges in framing a positive role for the religious voice within Britain’s traditions of secular public reason and political culture.

The report, in my reading, did recognise that sustained Islamic reflection upon the role of religion in public life within the European context was still in its early stages. The reasons for this were recognised as many and complex but the primary need was to shift the emphasis of Muslim theological languages of public engagement from jurisprudence (fiqh) and legal theory (usul al-fiqh) to become more inclusive of mysticism (tasawwuf), theology (kalam) and philosophy (falsifa). In short, an ethical turn in Islamic public discourses is urgently needed not least because of the widespread misunderstanding of Islamic legalese as a tacit call for parallel legal systems within Europe, but also to reflect more easily an aspiration to serve the common or public good, and not just of the “Muslim good” as it were.

It was recognised that too much emphasis had been put by the Islamic legal tradition on the citizenship contract (ahd, i.e. the duties held by the citizen towards the state), rather than upon the fundamental convenant (mithaq) between humanity and God, that underwrites our inate moral responsibility to each other. It is under this sense of higher ethical purpose that the believer seeks to serve the common good of all through a spirit of service (khidma) and moral excellence (ihsan), rather than a thin legal relationship of citizenship rights. There has been an assumption in Islamic legal tradition that Muslim minority status is a passing and temporary circumstance, which is to be endured through various forms of moral protectionism and community survival. This is wholly at odds with the reality that millions of Muslims have voluntarily and happily chosen Europe as their permanent home to which they belong and wish to make a positive contribution to.  Without this as the basic starting point of any serious deliberation then there is little hope that any amount of reflection will move any of us beyond the politics of fear.

Originally published as “Dilemas de authenticidad y pertenencia“, Akfar/Ideas (No.25, April 2010).

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New Biography of Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam

The first full biography of Abdullah Quilliam, appointed Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1893, has just come out. It’s a fascinating read and exhaustively researched and written in an accessible way by Ron Geaves, Professor of Comparative Religion at Liverpool Hope University. It can be ordered online from Kube Publishing, and should be appearing in all good bookstores shortly.

As Professor Geaves asutely, and to my mind correctly, points out, Sheikh Abdullah was a man defined by his twin loyalties to Caliph and Crown. He regarded Abdul Hamid II as the true Caliph, and was appointed by the latter to deliver the weekly khutba before the jumu‘a prayers in his name, which were conducted according to the Hanafi School of Law. An example of one of the Sheikh’s khutbas from 1901 is set out below.

Quilliam was a royalist and a patriot too, as the second text, a special du‘a offered on the occasion of Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, shows. In both cases, he prays that God guides the sovereigns of the world to take care of their peoples, and gives them the wisdom to live in peace with each other, for as they are appointed by God (for He grants dominion to whom He wills), they must rule in a fitting manner. Yet, of course, events were to prove otherwise. If the British Empire had once seen the Ottomans as a counterweight against expanding Russian influence, it increasingly focused on building a grand alliance against the Germans which included the Russians as well as the French and left the Ottomans out in the cold. For a man who saw the world in terms of imperial order, and whose loyalty was for both Crown and Caliph, for the two to have come to blows must have proved to have been highly traumatic (Ron Geaves observes that in some ways it left Quilliam a bitterly disappointed man), and so the prayer that these monarchs pursue the cause of peaceful co-existence must have been heartfelt indeed on his part. Indeed as the biography demonstrates Quilliam’s complicated position of loyalty to the Crown under which he reserved the right to be rigorously critical of imperial government policy of the day on the grounds of religious principle was often misunderstood.

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A Jumma [Jumu‘a] Prayer
(as Offered in the Mosque at Liverpool by the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles)

‘O! One Only and true God, the Creator of the boundless infinity of space who planted in the heavens the respondent orb of the Sun to give us light by day and the fair luminaries of Moon and Stars by night, who in the magnitude of Thy unerring wisdom formed this world from nought and having made man planted him therein, and has sustained and protected the human race from the time of creation until now. We Thy weak and frail servants humbly approach Thy throne to offer adoration, to render thanks for Thy great and tender mercies vouchsafed to us in the past, and to offer our petition for a countenance of Thy Divine protection and blessing. We praise Thee for Thou hast exalted us and our ancestors who have been before us. Thou hast spread the earth as a bed for us, and the heavens as a covering, and hath caused water to descend from heaven, and thereby produced the fruits of the earth for our sustenance. We thank Thee for the revelation which Thou hast sent down to us by Thy holy prophet Muhammad, as a direction to the pious who believe in the mysteries of faith, in order that they may have knowledge of and observe the appointed times of prayer, and distribute alms out of what Thou hast bestowed upon them, and have a firm assurance in the life to come. We also pray Thee to protect and bless His Imperial Majesty Abdul-Hamid II, the Sultan of Turkey, Caliph of the Faithful, Emir-ul-Moomeneen, and Defender of Thy true faith, and all Mussulman Sovereigns everywhere. Guide them with wisdom from on high, so that their official acts may be for the lasting benefit of the people committed to their care. We further pray Thee, O Most Merciful God, to teach us words of prayer, even as Thou taught them to Adam. Illumine our minds so that we perceive at all times what Thou wouldst have us to do, so that whilst on earth we can follow Thy direction, and when our time in this world is past, finally bring us to dwell with Thee in the glorious gardens of perpetual and eternal bliss. And Thine shall be the glory and dominion for ever. Amin.

Source: The Crescent, No.427, 20th March 1901, p.186.

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Liverpool Celebrations [on the occasion of the coronation of Edward VII]

The Mussulmans have the honour to be the first members of the inhabitants of the City of Liverpool who celebrated the coronation of the Sovereign of the realms in which they dwelt by a religious service. The True-Believers assembled at the Mosque at nine o’clock in the morning, when, after prayers of four racats [rak‘at] had been performed, His Honour Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam Effendi, Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles, delivered the following special doa [du‘a]:

Bismillah, Arrahman, Arraheem!

O One Only and Eternal God! There is no God but Thee: Thou art the Living, the Self-Subsisting. Neither slumber nor sleep seizeth Thee, and to Thee belongeth whatsoever is in the heavens or upon the earth. None there is who can intercede with Thee but through Thy permission. Thou knowest all that which is past, and art acquainted with all that shall come. None can comprehend ought of Thy knowledge but so far as Thou permittest. Thy sway is extended over the whole firmament, and the earth is but as Thy Footstool. Thou art the High, the Mighty! Thou art the Creator and the Possessor of all things; and when Thou decreeth a thing Thou only saith unto it, Be, and it is.

We, Thy humble servants, believe in Thee, and that which Thou in Thy unerring wisdom hath sent down unto us through Thy holy and inspired prophets Adam, Nuh, [102] Ibrahim, Ismail, Isaak, Yakoub, Moosa, Issa and Muhammed (Thy well-beloved), and to Thee and Thy will are we resigned.

We believe that Thou hast appointed Edward, the son of Victoria, to be King of these realms, even as Thou didst direct and appoint Thy servant Abdul-Hamid to be the Sovereign of the Ottoman Empire and Caliph of the True-Believers. We beseech Thee, O God, to bless he whom Thou has appointed to be the ruler of these realms. Endue him with wisdom and understanding, so that all his official acts may be for the benefit of the peoples committed to his charge. Give to him, O Lord, that wise understanding that he may ever maintain his realm in peace with all Muslim peoples and their sovereign rulers. May he who is to be this day crowned have health, strength and happiness and length of days to declare the goodness of God.

And Thine shall be the glory for ever and for ever; for Thou art the Strong and the Mighty, and there is no other God but Thee!

A prominent feature in the morning’s proceedings was the presence of twenty-five Indian Muslim sailors, who joined their English brethren in their prayers for the King-Emperor. [103]

Source: The Crescent, No. 500, 13th August 1902, pp.102-3.

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