Tag Archives: British Muslims

Abdullah Quilliam and Sufism

Today I received a rarity in the post that was published exactly a hundred years ago: a translated selection of the Ottoman Mevlevi Sufi poet Sheikh Haroun Abdullah’s (c.1556-c.1641) poems by Abdullah Quilliam. Quilliam had it privately published in 1916 under the pseudonym Henri M. Léon that he adopted on his return to England, c. 1909-10. [1] It was dedicated to his daughter, May Habeeba Quilliam, who had died at the age of eleven in May 1908 from diphtheria. [2] The volume was a matter of nostalgia for Quilliam as the translations had been undertaken on those occasions when he had been in Istanbul between 1903 and 1908:

in attendance upon His Imperial Majesty Ghazi Sultan Abdul-Hamid Khan, at the Palace of Yildiz, and form, to me, a souvenir of the many kindnesses I experienced at the hands of my then Imperial Patron, for whom I shall always cherish feelings of affection, gratitude, sympathy and respect. [3]

The introduction which introduces the reader to Sufism in general, the Mevlevi Order, and to Sheikh Haroun’s life and works was composed the following year in 1909, ‘after the [Young Turks] Revolution’, ‘during the time I was living in retirement at Bostandjik’ (which is on the Asian side of modern-day Istanbul). [4] The introduction is crisply written and is, like the book as a whole, evidence of Quilliam’s knowledge of and attachment to Sufism. Here is an example of Quilliam’s felicitous writing on the subject:

The annihilation of self, the entire consecration of the mind and body to the service of Allah, the contemplation of the Divine, and the disregard of the earthly, such is the tariq, the path, by which the Dervish seeks to consummate his union with the One. Everything speaks to him of the Beloved, the Unity. But the mere perception of the Immanence of the Divine, is only the first step in the Way. The End of the Path is only to be attained when the conscious union with the Divine is obtained. The veil which material Nature has placed between the self-knowing part, the Ruh [Soul], and Allah ta’ala must be pierced. The mind must be emptied of all images, of all worldly thoughts, fears, longings, or aspirations, and brought to a realization of the Presence. Then and only then does the nafs [Spirit] find itself alone with Allah. [5]

Was this interest in Sufism more than merely a scholarly one for Quilliam? Was he a member of a Sufi Order? We simply do not know presently. However, two possibilities suggest themselves. Quilliam’s patron, Abdul Hamid, was himself a Shadhili and a devoted follower of Sheikh Muhammad Zafir al-Madani (1828–1903), who taught the Way at the Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque. Abdul Hamid built Ertuğrul Tekke Mosque for his sheikh and the Shadhili Order in Yildiz district, just below his palace, which was completed in 1887. When I visited the tekke in 2008, I was shown the intricately carved lectern and architectural backdrop that Abdul Hamid, trained inter alia as a master carpenter, had carved for his sheikh. Besides the Shadhilis, another possible tariqa that might have been attractive to Quilliam was the Mevlevi Order itself as his dedicated interest in Sheikh Haroun Abdullah indicates. Further research is definitely needed into whether or not Quilliam might have joined a tariqa at any point during his time in Istanbul, the Ottoman territories or Morocco.

Let me end by presenting Quilliam’s felicitous translation of Sheikh Haroun’s ghazal in praise of the Prophet:

So long as the heart doth pulsate and beat,
So long as the sun bestows light and heat,
So long as the blood thro’ our veins doth flow,
So long as the mind in knowledge doth grow,
So long as the tongue retains power of speech,
So long as wise men true wisdom do teach,
The praise of God’s Prophet, Ahmed the Blest,
Shall flow from our lips and spring from our breast,
‘Twas Rasul-Allah from darkness of night
Did lead us to Truth, did give to us light,
Did point out the path, which follow’d with zest,
Leadeth to Islam and gives Peace and Rest,
Praise be to Allah! ‘Twas He who did send,
Ahmed Muhammad, our Prophet, our Friend. [6]

Notes

[1] Henri M. Léon, Sheikh Haroun Abullah: A Turkish Poet and His Poetry (Blackburn: Geo. Toulmin & Sons for La Société Internationale de Philologie, Science et Beaux-Arts, London, 1916), 108pp; Ron Geaves, Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam (Markfield: Kube Publishing, 2010), p.259.

[2] Léon, Sheikh Haroun Abdullah, p.5; Geaves, Islam, pp.112, 259.

[3] Léon, p.11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p.15, with some corrections to the Arabic transliteration. The translations of Arabic terms that are placed in square brackets are taken from Quilliam’s own glossary at the end of the book to preserve his own understanding of these terms.

[6] Ibid., p.81.

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Telling the Story of How British Muslims Are Part of the Nation’s History

Currently British Muslims are marginal to the story of the nation. Yahya Birt argues that this can only change for the better if Muslim communities support initiatives to recover and present their own history.

Idries_Shah

Idries Shah (1924–1996), Sufi teacher and author, not yet in the ODNB.

There are many ways in which we reflect upon and produce new versions of the story of Britain. This is both to make sense of the present and to project our hopes and fears on to the future. It is unsurprising that British Muslims, around half of whom were born in the UK, are interested in exploring their own historical roots in Britain. As part of this exploration, the question naturally arises as to how well this strand of British history is reflected in our national cultural life. A partial answer lies in looking at how British Muslims are represented in one of the key cultural institutions concerned with British history – The Dictionary of National Biography.

With its first edition dating from the late nineteenth century, the Dictionary is the equal of institutions like the BBC and the National Trust in terms of telling our national story. Taken over by the University of Oxford in the late 1990s, a second edition of sixty volumes was published in 2004. Since 2005, it has been made available online through subscription and has nearly 60,000 biographies described in 70 million words, and counting. It is currently updated three times a year.

The broad criteria for inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), as it is now known, are threefold. First of all you have to be dead. Secondly you have to have left a mark on an aspect of national life for good or for ill. And finally, you don’t have to have been resident in the UK as such but rather to have met the second criterion.

But leaving this final criterion aside for a moment, a search reveals that twenty-seven British Muslims are featured in the ODNB. For argument’s sake, I’ve excluded non-resident Muslims who had an impact on British life, as well as those who, like Iqbal and Jinnah, only stayed in Britain for a relatively short period to complete their studies.

So – according to what I hope are defensible criteria for singling out British Muslims – the ODNB list in order of their death dates includes twenty-three men and three women in total: John Ward [called Issouf Reis, Captain Wardiyya] (c.1553–1623?), Mehemet von Königstreu (c.1660–1726), Joseph Pitts (1663–c.1735), Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701–1773), Thomas Pellow (b. 1703/4), Edward Wortley Montagu (1713–1776), Efendi Osman [formerly William Thomson] (b. before 1800, d. 1835), Deen Mahomed (1759–1851), Lord Stanley (1827–1903), “Munshi” Abdul Karim (1862/3–1909), Saiyid Ameer Ali (1849–1928), William Henry Quilliam [known as Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam; Haroon Mustapha Leon] (1856–1932), Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din (1870–1932), Lord Headley (1855–1935), Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944), Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1872–1953), Harry St John Bridger Philby (1885–1960), Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1867–1963), Kalim Siddiqui (1933–1996), Attia Shahid Hosain (1913–1998), Martin Lings (1909–2005), Zaki Badawi (1922–2006), Aleksandr Valterovich Litvinenko (1962–2006), Gai Eaton (1921–2010) and Michael Barry (1941–2011). To my mind the list is a decent start but it is far from exhaustive and it is too unrepresentative – with fifteen out of the twenty-seven being converts, three of whom experienced forced conversions (Pitts, Pellow and Osman).

A Facebook discussion I initiated recently about who else might be included in the ODNB showed me that the story we British Muslims tell about our history in Britain is still in many separate strands. These strands have yet to be woven into a single rope that we could lay claim to as a grand narrative we might comfortably identify with. However, the appetite to work together to shape such a unifying narrative is unmistakable.

Out of this preliminary conversation, a tentative long list of new candidates for the ODNB was formed. It was clear from this online exchange that a significant contribution to community life as opposed to national life could be separate matters. So would it be better for an Encyclopaedia of British Islam project to be initiated to help map what is currently terra incognita before a real impact could be made in reshaping the national story? And does a lasting contribution to Muslim community life constitute an aspect of national life that would meet the ODNB’s selection parameters or not? The experience of other communities in Britain certainly seems to indicate that a concerted effort in recovering their own histories with the assistance of academics is necessary before any serious headway can be made to identify their place within the national story. In other words, if we cannot identify its significance for ourselves then we cannot explain its significance to others.

In the long list, the additional proposed entries range from the sixteenth century up to 2016 and include yet more converts, but also pirates, poets, artists, aristocrats, businessmen, soldiers, actors, terrorists, orators, scholars, activists and Sufis. Sadly, at the time, no one suggested any additional women.

Some of the notables mentioned were John Nelson (fl. 16 cent.), one of the earliest recorded English converts to Islam, John [Yahya-en-Nasr] Parkinson (1874–1918), Scottish poet and essayist, Hedley Churchward (d. 1929), artist and one of the earliest British Muslim converts to have performed the Hajj, Sir Abdullah Archibald Hamilton (1876–1939), 5th Baronet of Trebishun, Breconshire and 3rd Baronet of Marlborough House, Hampshire, Taherally Rehmanji Suterwalla (1914–1970), founder of the TRS food wholesaler and cash-and-carry chain, Khudadad Khan (1881–1971), the first Indian Army winner of the Victoria Cross, during the First World War (representative of several other winners of VCs and the St George’s Cross), William Burchell Bashyr Pickard (1889–1973), novelist and poet, Dino Shafeek (1930–1984), TV actor and star of Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, Mohammad Sidique Khan (1974–2005), ringleader of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammed John Webster (1913–2008), orator and public speaker, the actor Saeed Jaffrey (1929–2015), and the British-Iraqi architect Dame Zaha Hadid (1950–2016).

Some of the scholars and activists included Mohammad Amir Ahmad Khan (1914-1973), Raja of Mahmudabad, founder of the All-India Muslim League and the First Director of the Regent’s Park Mosque, Mahmood Ahmed Mirpuri (1945–1988), imam and pioneering figure in the Jamiat Ahl-e-­Hadith UK, Khurram Murad (1932–1996), the second Director-General of the Islamic Foundation, Sayed Mutawalli ad-Darsh (1930–1997), Azhari sheikh, imam of the Regent’s Park Mosque, President of the Shariah Council, and Q-News columnist, Bashir Ahmad (1940–2009), first Muslim Member of the Scottish Parliament, businessman and community activist in Glasgow, Syed Aziz Pasha (1930–2011), founder of the Union of Muslim Organisations, Said Hassan Ismail (1930-2011), the prominent Welsh-Yemeni imam and scholar, Cardiff, Mohammad Naseem (1924–2014), GP and Chair of the Birmingham Central Mosque, and Hafiz Muhammad Ishaq Patel (1926–2016), the Amir of the Tablighi Jama‘at in the UK and Europe and founder of the Institution of Islamic Education in Dewsbury.

Some of the suggested Sufis, many of whom did much to spread Islam in Britain, were Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927), founder of the Sufi Order of the West, Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi (c.1900–1954), Shadhili sheikh and founder of several mosque-zawiyas in interwar Britain, Shah Shahidullah Faridi [born John Gilbert Lennard] (1915–1978), Sabri Chishti sheikh, author and convert, Muhammad Abdul Wahab Siddiqi (1942–1994), Naqshbandi sheikh, Deputy Leader of the Muslim Parliament and founder of the Hijaz College in Nuneaton, Idries Shah (1922–1996), the Sufi author and teacher, Mehmet Nazim Adil (1922–2014), Grand Sheikh of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Sufi Order, and Muhammad Abdullah Khan (1923-2015), a prominent Naqshbandi sheikh of Birmingham.

Update

Prof. Ron Geaves and Dr Jamie Gilham have discovered that the entry in Islam: Our Choice, identified as belonging to  Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton (1844–1916), is incorrect. Although the name is similar, the birth and death dates are not, and his great-grandson has confirmed that the Baronet, medic and pharmacologist was not a Muslim. So its true provenance has yet to be ascertained. Therefore he has been removed from above list of British Muslim entries to be found in the ONDB.

We can all play a role, so please do comment below as to who else might be included and why, providing links to further resources about their lives.

This is a cross-post from Everyday Muslim.

Yahya Birt is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leeds. If you have any materials or records relating to political activism in the British Muslim community between the 1960s and 1990s and wish to get involved then please contact him via prjjb AT leeds.ac.uk

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This Dance between “Extremists” and “Formers” is Past Its Sell-By Date: A Review of ITV’s “Jihad” Documentary

A lot of British Muslims who watched the Exposure documentary “Jihad: A British Story” on ITV last night probably did so with a powerful sense of déjà vu. But not for the emotional reasons one might think, not with feelings of collective guilt or shame. Rather I would hazard a guess that feelings of jadedness and ennui predominated instead. That sounds shockingly cynical, uncaring, even delusional, given that we have a very frightening and real problem of some British teens and even families going over the Turkish borders to join ISIS.

So why is there such a reaction? Well, we have been here before. Former extremists dramatize their personal stories to overshadow all of our community’s multifarious and untold human stories to feed a dominant meme of the post-9/11 world: namely, that this complex geopolitical crisis is really all about maladjusted Muslim men. The stories about the marginal Hizb ut-Tahrir and the minority Salafi movement have cast such a large shadow that almost nothing else about British Muslims in the eighties and nineties gets through into popular culture or the public debate nowadays, except perhaps the Satanic Verses Affair, which is problematic for different reasons.

Imagine for a moment that the retelling of Britain’s recent past is dominated by tales of splits on the hard left during the Cold War or the Militant Tendency and entryism, these being the only stories that get attention in popular culture and public life. Imagine even that parts of it were ghost-written by the Kremlin and sold as gospel truth to the British. It would be ridiculed and called out immediately. Let us at least pause therefore to consider why it is so much more difficult for a beleaguered minority community to call out a similar level of misrepresentation in any sort of impactful way. Its impotence at challenging this myth effectively explains why many British Muslims are jaded and bored by a documentary like this. Pretty much everyone I speak to in the community feels irritated and exasperated: these stories are not our stories and the resentment at being misrepresented by them is palpable.

The everyday Muslim is hidden in these narratives: she who never ran to answer the call for the caliphate or  jihad, or took up the condemnations of traditional Muslim piety as false innovation, polytheistic and the like, who never had to grow up and later regret a misspent youth. She is an invisible cipher, present yet absent, a cardboard cut-out, an intangible rhetorical device used to gloss over the serious ramifications of putting marginal stories on the centre stage rather than in their proper context. She who has to put up with endless reiterations of the stale dance between the “extremists” and the “formers”. No wonder she is less than impressed.

These stories get marketed heavily through the publishing giants or the media companies. Such high-level exposure of one’s personal story remarketed as everyone else’s story too is the golden ticket for a now well-trodden and lucrative path towards a future career as a wealthy and feted “former”. The pitch to government is the same: we have a unique psychological insight into extremism and we know best how to counteract it. That proposition might even be tolerable if such work were done quietly and sensibly, but these “formers” (with no scholarly credentials) often then take on the mantle of great “reformers”, tasked with dragging Islam kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The message may have changed but the modus operandi often has not: it is often hectoring criticism from the margins of community, oddly distant from the very people it seeks to transform and save from their benighted condition. Such a transition from “extremist” to “former” does not appear to be informed by repentance. For the most part, the “formers” are still angry with themselves and contemptuous and detached from their community. They do not forgive their community its many failings and weaknesses or love it despite its human frailties: they want to break it and transform it in their image, an image that is itself prey to their own nomadic, confused and tortuous journeying in search of belonging and a home.

However, the striking thing about Abu Muntasir in the documentary was that he has not forgiven himself. I know that there will be cynics out there but for me his tears were unquestionably real, and not staged. His sorrow about his role in the jihad is not new: it has been well-known for the last ten years in the community and was reported in the national press. And, publicly at least, this is rare among “formers”. They are for the most part still self-righteous, vocal and angry, and not repentant, humbled and happy to work quietly to make a better world.

My biggest objection to the narrative of the programme is that it provided no context for Abu Muntasir and his erstwhile camp followers. In the story of the British jihad, it is true that he was a pioneering figure and that he was not a minor character. He did have influence but only precariously so in the setting of a complex and disaggregated scene of small jihadi peer groups and networks in ferocious competition with each other. But it is a gross exaggeration to describe him as the “godfather of the British jihad”, as the filmmaker Deeyah Khan did. The British jihad was never centralised. It did not have a pyramidal mafia-style power structure. Yet this is the moniker for Abu Muntasir that the British and the international press has now run with. The mobster overtones were reinforced by filming these middle-aged British Muslim men with lighting and backdrops strongly redolent of how former gangsters lamenting their misspent youth are shot on camera. The ex-criminal visual tropes were all there. One has to ask why Abu Muntasir should acquiesce to this rebranding. This is a critical point, just as it was when the ex-Hizb ut-Tahrir members who formed the Quilliam Foundation sold themselves as central to the story of radicalization when their group was in reality quite distant and distinct from the various strands of Salafi jihadism.

In the documentary, another student of Abu Muntasir’s Alyas Karmani (disclaimer: an old school-friend of mine) did a lot to frame these stories as ones primarily about psychological maladjustment, for instance, sexual frustration (again, a theme that has cropped up over many decades to belittle all kinds of Muslim political agency, violent or non-violent, and discounted by terrorism experts such as Marc Sageman). I would not want to deny there are psychological issues but that these should not be assessed in such a way as to preclude politics, whether that is micro-, organisational, community, national or global. And it seems to me that to preclude (or even disparage) a political sensibility is one of the tacit preconditions for becoming a “former”. Yet such an apolitical stance fails to recognise let alone negotiate a complex multipolar world of clashing interests and conflict, a world after American hegemony. It not only infantilises “extremists” and “formers” but is also a roundabout way of occluding Muslim political agency in general. It absolves “the West” by removing it from the story entirely. Indeed, the psychodrama played out in the documentary between “extremists” and “formers” perpetuates a fiction that this story is only about a clash within the House of Islam.

The documentary went one step further in decontextualizing and depoliticising the story of the British jihad. It used the eighties and the nineties, the years before the al-Qaeda network became politically significant, to talk to our contemporary situation where a younger generation of jihadi millennials is being drawn to ISIS, which itself is in deadly competition with an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. However, Da‘esh, unlike al-Qaeda, is a highly centralised organisation that runs a proto-state the size of Britain. ISIS is offering an alternate society not just endless armed struggle like al-Qaeda did. It is neither smart nor wise to preclude politics and historical context to such an extent that we miss what is new and important about this generation or the appeal of ISIS.

So if we Britons care about our shared future we cannot therefore allow the stale waltz between “formers” and “extremists” to predominate, especially if it precludes any sort of intelligible political analysis or historical context. We need to be less tribal about narrow causes and narrow solutions, but that is easier said than done when big forces have become entrenched and self-interested in perpetuating and propagandizing one narrow solution or another. We all really need to step back and have a more honest and searching debate if we are to have any chance of getting purchase on the perplexing and frightening problem of ISIS’s current success and appeal.

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Safeguarding Little Abdul: Prevent, Muslim Schoolchildren and the Lack of Parental Consent

There are a lot of things that could be said about the new statutory guidance on Channel under Prevent issued in April for local authorities, nurseries, schools, universities, social services, health care services, the criminal justice system and the police. There are many hot-button issues here, but I want to focus on the impact of all this on under-18s. Half of our community is under the age of 25 and, according to Census figures, something in the order of 800,000 Muslims under 18 potentially fall within the remit of these policies. From the official guidance (pp.16-17, Paras 77-79) it seems that informed parental consent for under-18s referred under a counter-radicalisation scheme called Channel comes very late in the process. The mainstay of Prevent after 2010, Channel is a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. And Channel is not a low impact policy. The trend line for referrals presently is upwards from seven in Channel’s pilot year (2006-7) to 748 in 2012-13. Under an FOI request to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there have been 2653 referrals under Prevent up to April 2013. For ages 13-16, there were 645 referrals, and for 12 and under there were 113. In one case, a child as young as three was referred as part of a whole family. Where religious affiliation data was collected, from 2007-10, 67% of those referred were Muslim and in 2012-13, 57% were Muslim (their percentage in the population being 5%).

In Britain today, all these things could happen to the child of Muslim parents without their consent. Let’s take a hypothetical situation, elements of which are based on the official Channel guidance and on incidents a lawyer told me about who deals with such cases. There is of course a particular focus on schools (which accounted for a fifth of referrals up to 2013). Since February, schools are obligated under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act to prevent pupils from becoming radicalised.

Imagine your child is named Abdul, aged 12. He is taken out of class and questioned as to his views and behaviour by a member of the school’s senior management team. He might be asked about his beliefs, his political views, his associations, and so on. His case could be referred to the multiagency Channel Panel run by the local authority for assessment on the basis of the school’s investigation, and it would initially be assessed for risk by a police representative, and accepted or rejected at that point. The Panel could assess Abdul’s case and agree a series of interventions under Channel for Abdul. Only after all this referral, assessment and decision-making is completed is the Panel obliged to contact you for your consent in two matters (and only if Abdul’s case is not deemed high risk): (1) that you agree to interventions for Abdul under Channel that the Panel recommends, and (2) that you agree that information about Abdul’s case can be divulged to relevant agencies. It should be noted that the Panel reserves the power not to seek your consent if it deems Abdul’s case serious enough. There is also a further option left to the Panel if you do not agree to Abdul being put into the Channel programme. It can refer Abdul if he is deemed as “high risk” and “in need” to various forms of intervention from social services from financial and pastoral support all the way up to an “emergency protection order” under sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act 1989. This option adds an element of coercion to the informed consent asked of parents very late in the process of referral and assessment under Channel.

There have been instances where parents first realise that their child has been referred under Prevent because the child tells them he or she has been pulled out of class and questioned about his or her views and behaviour. In such cases, it is clear that some schools are assuming an implied consent on the part of parents to have their children questioned and assessed in this way. They have not heard formally from the school or from the Prevent Panel. Cases like these have not yet come to light because these parents are frightened of speaking out. They are worried that they will be labelled as extremists. Of course we have heard of reported cases where parents were completely unaware of the fact that their children had been radicalized without their knowledge. However, notwithstanding this issue, there are many genuine reasons to worry about how fair or proportionate this policy of referral and assessment under Channel is or will be in future. Let me conclude by sketching out a few of them.

The main concern is that we are heading towards intensified policing of regular conservative Islamic religiosity and dissenting politics among Muslims. Recent comments by Mak Chishty, the Metropolitan Police’s Commander for Engagement, that identify Muslim children not celebrating Christmas or supporting the boycotts, sanctions and divestments movement by not shopping at Marks & Spencer as potential indicators of extremism are very alarming. At the time of writing, the Met has not responded to calls for proper clarification of these remarks. Last week, it was found that a pilot survey (later scrapped when it was exposed) in east London primary schools was asking intrusive questions about political and religious issues from children as young as nine, without anonymizing the data.

The new Extremism Bill (pp.62-63) goes further in the direction of policing non-violent “extremism”, which includes measures like banning groups, gagging individuals, closing premises, employment blacklists and censoring broadcasts. Our Home Secretary Theresa May could not define “extremism” when pressed to do so by John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme. Her response hardly seemed a step above an arbitrary rule of thumb that one would know an extremist if one saw one. This loose notion of extremism is predicated on active opposition to a simple checklist of British values, namely as set out in the guidance: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” While I don’t want to get into an extended discussion of this point here, these values are not parochially British nor are they unsubstantiated in the Islamic interpretive traditions or unpractised throughout the long and rich history of a world religion with 1.6 billion adherents. More importantly such values do not resolve conflicts in themselves. Rather, they define the very ground upon which we agree and disagree as to their meaning, application and commensurability.

To touch upon the point about commensurability further, David Cameron recently opined in promoting the new extremism bill that the British value of tolerance had been too “passive”. To quote him, the notion that “as long as you obey the law, we [the state] will leave you alone” was now to be abandoned. For many British people, including myself, this is in fact a cherished notion that needs to be protected at all costs rather than abandoned. So while tolerance is a value, what it really entails at any particular moment in the life of our nation will be up for debate. Values frame our national discussion but they do not define a monoculture. This contentious and unproductive debate about British values is going on against a background of anti-immigration politics, Tory triumph and UKIP gains in the election, the fragmentation of the left, and indeed the growing appeal of ISIS to some Muslim young people. Around 700 or so are believed to gone over to Syria and Iraq.

In this atmosphere of suspicion and fear, what are Muslim parents going to do to protect their children? They are after all the first “safeguards” of their own offspring, to use the current professional jargon. There are lively discussions on social media among Muslim parents about this. A widespread view seems to be striking a balance between bringing up your children with a positive view of themselves, their faith, their community, their society and country and the world at large while engaging them in an informed way about the very complex issues around terrorism, extremism, ISIS, the war on terror, racism, Islamophobia, grooming, sexism, etc. It is a daunting task. Hardly any Muslim parent I know thinks it is either easy or avoidable. Continually talking things through, listening, and offering support and guidance to our children is clearly essential. Dealing with teenage hormonal changes and challenges like depression and so on are more than enough for parents to deal with, without a kneejerk presumption that Muslim teens are converts on the jihadi “road to Damascus”.

Equally, a lot of Muslim parents I’ve talked to are concerned that the government is really overdoing things. The lack of parental consent is a massive issue. The government has set up an ill-advised process that implicitly excludes and alienates Muslim parents under an ethos of presumed mistrust. As I’ve outlined above, the school and the Prevent Panel can make major judgements and decisions about your child without even talking to you. We all have reasons to doubt how competently these Panels will make decisions about Muslim children. If they exhibit anything like the cultural ignorance of Commander Mak Chishty then we have every reason to fear that a lot of bad calls will be made.

Therefore, I would propose that it is in our collective interest to safeguard our children by pushing for consent and consultation to be at the heart of this policy. Those most affected by this policy – Muslim children and by extension their families – have been pushed to the margins. There is no requirement for Prevent panels to have any form of community representation and as a matter of course parents have no say in the referral or assessment process. I am aware of one case where a representative from a mosque council in a London borough has been offered a place on a separate advisory body, whose remit seems very limited and whose continuance is subject to the review of the Prevent Panel. This is obviously far from satisfactory: it seems tokenistic and is in danger of merely providing some kind of community rubber stamp for a referral and assessment process under Channel largely unaccountable to the community that it most affects. And then there is the fact that four-fifths of referrals are not taken further by Prevent Panels, according to ACPO’s own statistics. The negative conclusion from this low adoption rate is that children are being pushed towards Channel without sufficient cause. As parents we have to ask at what price? What impact will all this scrutiny at school have on Abdul’s sense of well-being and belonging, his confidence, his aspiration, or his happiness?

My personal judgement is that Prevent has gotten to a stage where it is institutionalising a “them and us” mentality that will reap a harvest of suspicion, distrust and doubt on all sides, and will drive the tiny pro-ISIS youth subculture further underground while conflating it with both conservative Islamic piety and Muslim radical politics. In my view it is better that we abandon Prevent in its new statutory guise and go back to the drawing board. In the interim, however, so long as Prevent is on the statute books, it may be wise to seek greater safeguards for our children against a system that has great potential to be stigmatising and discriminatory. There is obviously a lively debate to be had about which mix of tactics will work best to avoid innocent Muslim kids being mislabelled as extremists in schools.

Abdul deserves a better future. One in which he is treated a citizen rather than as a suspect. Where he can disagree, sometimes even be bold and radical in disagreeing if he chooses to do so, without being labelled an extremist. Where he can be proud rather than be ashamed of being a Muslim. He deserves to be inspired at school, opened up to new possibilities, for his autonomy to be nurtured and respected. This is the kind of schooling and the kind of country that we need to fight for.

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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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Global Britons, Muslim Futures

It is now a commonplace to observe that “Britishness” and “Muslimness” have become polarised: by seeking definitions against “the Muslim threat”, “true” Britishness, it is felt, can be retrieved.

Yet the evidence shows the opposite: most of Britain’s ethnic groups emphasize both religious and national identities together, a trend most noticeable among Muslim Britons. Polling usually confirms that Muslims are comfortable in being Muslim and British, antagonism only arising when slanted questioning asks respondents to choose one over the other.

What is remarkable about the strength of religious-national identities among Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus and Afro-Caribbean Christians is that it comes at a moment when formal Christian allegiance is in decline, i.e., believing in God without belonging to a Church, alongside a receding sense of Britishness. Church attendances are in decline, and alternatives for the major rites of passage at birth, marriage and death can be found outside the Church. Likewise the National Centre for Social Research showed that only 44 per cent of all Britons described themselves as “British” in in 2007 compared with 52 per cent in 1997. [1] Compare that with post-9/11 polling of British Muslims and the figures range between 75 and 85 per cent. [2] So the question arises: why is patriotism in general in such decline?

A bit of history might give us more purchase on an answer. Britishness was always a political, civic identity that contrasted with one’s ethnic or cultural background, and it was a marriage of four nations – Welsh, Scots, English and Irish – that came into its own from the early eighteenth century. It was Protestantism, the Industrial Revolution and the building of the British Empire that forged the modern British nation, tied together by a titanic struggle with Napoleonic France and later on by two world wars against Germany in the last century. [3] But today, formal Christianity is in decline, we work in a post-industrial information economy, formal decolonisation is over and the French and Germans are Britain’s partners in the EU, a tightening confederation of formerly warring nation-states.

So in the age of globalisation – one of mass communication, travel, migration and trade – sharp identification with the nation-state is less meaningful than before, even if it would be premature to speak of its demise. Global elites now champion open borders, are less interested in nationalism, and argue for new sorts of regional and global reordering. The expansion of the EU alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales is rewriting our unwritten constitution. More important perhaps is the fact that popular culture now owes more to the market than to the state: so how much more significant are identities of consumption, for instance, than civic or nationalist ones? Even if ideas, trade and money flow more freely, we find that elsewhere, burgeoning security controls, the poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the whole immigration and integration debate betray strong anxieties about porous cultural boundaries.

In the late nineties, a “Cool Britannia” that embraced multiculturalism, creativity, openness and globalisation was advocated. But after 9/11, multiculturalism (if not neoliberalism) came under attack along with a public debate on Britishness. Some point to shared institutions like the NHS and the BBC as repositories of British values and culture, but are institutions alone really enough to hang a national identity upon? And to list certain democratic values that could just as easily be Japanese or Canadian, like the rule of law, or freedom of speech, seems inadequate too, as these relate to the formal rights of citizenship, but not to a sense of duty, or emotional attachment, to fellow citizens.

A better approach, perhaps, is to commit to an open-ended conversation about how to define what we Britons have in common, as well as seeing in cultural diversity a source of wisdom, and an opportunity to expand the wellsprings of our collective imaginations. The distinctive contribution of Muslims to national self-understanding will be but one strand among many. With all the suspicion levelled at Muslims today, it takes intellectual and moral courage to remain creative and self-aware enough to ponder our shared future while retaining a sense of faithful integrity.

Yet, in our interconnected world, this will not merely be a parochial endeavour, but will be intimately concerned with making sense of our public identities on a fragile, wired-up planet. To be cosmopolitan is to name our current challenge, to recognise that while we might aspire to universal values, they are variously negotiated across real and legitimate cultural diversity. [4] A new Britishness in our global age would therefore arise, and be informed by “rooted cosmopolitanism”, a principled looking out at the challenges and opportunities of the world from our home, while never losing a sense of who or where we are.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com. This, the last of twelve comment pieces for Emel Magazine, will appear in Issue 48, September 2008.

Notes

[1] Chris Rojek, Brit-Myth: Who do the British think they are? (London: Reaktion, 2007).

[2] Ian Bradley, Believing in Britain: the spiritual identity of Britishness (London: Monarch, 2008).

[3] Linda Coley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).

[4] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).

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