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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3 Comments

Filed under Blog, Bookish Pursuits, Religion, UK Politics, Umma

3 responses to “Dilemmas of Authenticity and Belonging

  1. Mudassir Hasan

    Very enlightening and to the point analysis sir, i. I will spread the word about your blog .Keep up your good work . allah hafiz.

  2. “In this way Islamophobia is constituted into a form of discrimination that in the political sense, has no name. That is, socio-rhetorical aggression against Islam cannot be “recognized” by either our formal or our common laws…”

    The Success of Islamophobia

  3. NICE post your point is real and keep post continue thank for shearing

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