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Muslims in Britain: Making Social and Political Space

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 Muslims In Britain
  • Book Author:
Waqar Ahmad
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‘When you come back to England from any foreign country,’ George Orwell wrote in a perceptive essay, ‘you have immediately the sensation of breathing different air.

Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling’ (Orwell 1941). Much of what Orwell identified as typically British, or rather English, is still in evidence: ‘the beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant’.

But he will find identity less easy to define in an ‘England’ that is not the sole preserve of ‘the English’ any more: the population now is much more heterogeneous, with ‘Englishness’ (however it is defined) as only one segment in a multi-ethnic society.

Orwell would find the air somewhat strange in a Britain awash with products of multiculturalism, from hip hop to bangra, chicken tikka masala to doner kebab, Asian Network to The Kumars at No. 42, and a plethora of black and Asian faces on television. Moreover, the history and tradition associated with Orwell’s ‘Englishness’ – the Empire, the House of Lords, fox-hunting, the national anthem – are either questionable or meaningless to the vast majority of new-English who now live in England (although Orwell found them just as nauseating in the 1940s).

‘As I write,’ Orwell says in the opening lines of ‘England Your England’, ‘highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’

Nowadays, ‘highly civilized human beings’, while continuing with the traditional pastime, have dis- covered a new preoccupation: demonising minorities. And one minority in par- ticular has become both the subject and the object of their wrath: British Muslims.

 Apparently, Muslims in Britain are undermining the core values of Britishness. They are responsible for perpetuating, according to the former prime minister Gordon Brown, ‘a crude multiculturalism where all values became relative’ (2004). According to his successor, David Cameron, they are the disseminators of a world- view based on ‘real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values’ (2011). The natives, complains David Goodhart, former editor of Prospect magazine, are now ‘forced to share with strangers’ – those alien, immigrant and unsavoury Muslims among us (2004).

Questions of identity in Britain have always been focused on otherness. In the 1950s and 1960s, Muslims and other ‘immigrants’ were described as ‘aliens’. What is ‘alien’ represents otherness, the site of difference and the repository of fears and anxieties. It was the noticeable colour, accent and general demeanour of ‘immigrants’ that was the source of fear expressed so vividly in the notorious 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech by Enoch Powell.

The clarion call was for assimilation, which gave way to integration in the 1970s, which in turn was replaced by multicultural pluralism in the 1980s, leading to the celebration of difference and diversity under New Labour in the 1990s.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, otherness became fashionable and cultural difference became a hot commodity that made Britannia ‘cool’ and sold multiculturalism at home and Britain abroad. Difference ceased to be threatening; and otherness was now sought for its exchange value, its exoticism and the pleasures, thrills and adventure it could offer. But in both cases, indeed in all cases, the racial dichotomies of Self and Other are retained, along with power relationships of domination and inequality.

In the plethora of labels used to describe the minorities – ‘blacks’, ‘Indians’, ‘Asians’ – there was a general assumption that they had a single, or at least principal and dominant, identity. Submerged underneath these labels, Muslims were generally seen during the 1950s and 1960s as law-abiding, docile folks. It was their colour and ethnicity that were a problem. The first time Britain became aware of Muslims, and Muslims became a cause for concern to wider British society, was during the OPEC oil boycott in the early 1970s. Suddenly all ‘Muslims’ became ‘Arabs’, and all ‘Arabs’ were shifty, dangerous people determined to undermine civilisation as we know it.

We can thank European history for such perceptions. Throughout history, Europe, and hence Britain, has seen Muslims as a function of its fears and desires. During the Crusades, Muslims presented Europe with religious, intellectual and military challenges, so they were portrayed as infidels, ignorant and bloodthirsty, the barbarians at the gate of civilisation (which didn’t actually exist in Europe!).

During the eight- eenth and nineteenth centuries, Muslims became treacherous, rebellious subjects of the Empire. In the early part of the last century, Arabs were regarded as oversexed sheikhs ready to whisk white women off to luxurious desert tents, as portrayed by Rudolph Valentino.

How Muslims were portrayed depended on the desires and fears that the West projected onto them (Sardar 1999). So, it was hardly surprising that in the aftermath of OPEC and the Iranian revolution, Muslims were regarded as despotic ogres, dangerous revolutionaries and violent, treacherous thugs bent on undermining decency and democracy. However, while British Muslims were seen as inalienably different, they were not seen as dangerous.

All this changed after the Rushdie affair. The expression of the outrage at the publication of The Satanic Verses suddenly transformed the Muslims from a law-abiding, compliant community into a volatile group with little appreciation of good old British values such as freedom of expression (Sardar and Davies 1990). Just over a decade later, the atrocities of 11 September 2001 introduced a new dimension: Muslims now came to be widely seen as the danger within.

So, British Muslim identity not only carries a historical baggage but is also framed by global events. What happens in the rest of the world – like the ‘war on terrorism’ and the invasion of Iraq – defines and frames the relationship between Muslims and others in Britain and has a direct bearing on how British Muslims are perceived in Britain.

But British Muslims are also problematic in other ways. In a secular society like Britain, where religion is largely marginalised and relegated to private spheres, people find it seriously difficult to see religion as a badge of identity. As Sardar notes in his contribution to this volume (Chapter 1), in secular Britain religion is seen as largely a private affair focused on rituals as a ‘reductive relic’ and kept to the narrow confines of ‘Thought for the Day’ and Songs of Praise because ‘God can be allowed to have a few good tunes’.

But religion has no place in public space. And an iden- tity that is specifically based on religion is, by definition, problematic. At the very least, it raises questions of loyalty: if Muslims owe their allegiance to a universal community  – the  Ummah  –  what are  they  first:  British or  Muslim  (Hussain 2004)?

Identity based on religion is particularly problematic when all British notions of identity, as Orwell points out, are expressed in hierarchies of race and class. It is a little too glib to argue that British identity had the luxury of seeing race as external, the definition of difference beyond its shores.

But the exercise of power that created an empire on which the sun never set, and a notion of class that defined and shaped modernity and was not a stranger anywhere in the world, are essential attributes of the conventional notion of Britishness.

Without it, the British could not be simultaneously xenophobic, internationalist and parochial – the sort of people who go on Spanish holidays to eat fish and chips and drink warm bitter ale. British identity is based on an assumption of authority that makes the world a familiar place, a proper theatre in which to continue being British. It also produced its own inter- nationalist perspective: Britain has had its share of ‘old India hands’, ‘Africa men and women’ – urbane cosmopolitans who know Johnny Foreigners better than they know themselves.

The problem with this notion of being British is that Johnny Foreigner is now within. All those other categories through which Britain defined and measured itself – the ‘evil Orientals’, the ‘fanatic Muslims’, the ‘inferior races of the colonies’, the Irish, the immigrants, the refugees, the Gypsies – are now an integral part of Britain. It is not just that they are ‘here’ but that their ideas, concepts, lifestyles, food, clothes now play a central part in shaping ‘us’ and ‘our society’.

How can good ol’ Middle England be comfortable with accepting the identity of villains? What happens to conventional notions of Britishness when there is no yardstick to measure difference and define the (white) British as over and above everyone else?

It is not just that ‘Britishness’ is exclusive and contested to be a source of unity, as Rosemary Sales (2012) suggests in Chapter 2 of this book. The promotion of Britisheness itself has been ‘ambivalent and contradictory’. While some attempts have been made to push a progressive and inclusive agenda, Sales argues that the failure to ‘address the inequalities and undemocratic aspects of British life’ has tied ‘Britishness to a version of national identity that privileges certain sections of the population and excludes others’. Orwell would have concurred.

Indeed, even the claim that democratic values are uniquely ‘British’ is ‘reminiscent of colonial atti- tudes in which the “civilized” were distinguished from the uncivilized “other” ’, writes Sales. Moreover, Britain’s foreign adventures in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan – which Orwell would have condemned without hesitation – are seen as ‘a highly selective approach to democracy and human rights’. In other words, definitions of democracy and human rights are more a product of political expedi- ency than universal norms Britain embraces and cherishes.

Unique British values are indeed frequently invoked in excluding Muslims from the national equation, and describing them as exclusivists. Which raises a couple of natural questions: besides the much-vaunted democracy, what values does one identify with Britishness?

And: what is the British element in the identity equation of British Muslims that would be acceptable to all? The litany about fairness, demo- cracy, justice and decency just would not do – for all cultures accept these as their inherent values. Such values cannot be claimed by any one nationality.

 They are general human values; they belong to all humanity and occur in all traditions. They can be claimed by Muslims as Islamic values rather than British values. Identified at such a level of abstraction, British values do not bring people together with a sense of something unique, particular and special they share; they do not provide the kind of strong affective bonds of emotional attachment.

Orwell provides us with another set of ‘common’ values: the British ‘are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world’. That too, although correct, is hardly a set of unique national characteristics!

There is in fact nothing about alleged British values – except perhaps those suggested by Orwell – that Muslims do not already subscribe to. This is why the whole notion of isolationist Muslims is such a red herring.

As research presented by Lucinda Platt confirms in Chapter 3, Muslims mix with other communities and groups in Britain as easily as everyone else; they share ‘with other minorities in increased chances of cross-group friendships and social “mixing”’. Muslims are distinctive, Platt concludes, ‘in that they are more likely to have intergroup contacts than the majority population, and they are not distinctive, in that they share this propensity with non-Muslim minorities’.

These findings, Platt rightly asserts, ‘fly in the face of common claims that Muslims are different, exclusive or isolationist’. It may be surprising for some, but for all their problems, Muslims are human after all. Muslim patterns of social contact are not located in some parallel universe but are based on sociability – the fundamental basis of shared understandings.

Platt’s research confirms Sales’ analysis. Sales argues that evidence suggests that British Muslims have a strong attachment to ‘their local area and to the democratic

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