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The British Muslim Identity

“A style of politics that seeks to counter group marginalization by embracing a positive and assertive sense of collective identity” – this is what I found in my Politics textbook when I was introduced to the concept of Identity politics some months ago.[1] Identity politics has acted as a sort of mechanism for minority groups to unite under and embrace an identity that defines them through labels. There are various identities or labels under which different individuals find themselves – the LGBT community, the Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) community, or, more relevant to us, the Muslim community.

Certain people are inclined to identify themselves with such groups, as it provides them with a sense of belonging. Besides ethnic or sexual identity, there are political identities, labels, and groups. Conservative, liberal, socialist – people may attach these different political labels to themselves as a means of categorising their beliefs somewhere on the political spectrum. Then there are shared, or dual, identities. Examples of this include self-professed ‘socialist Muslims’ or ‘liberal Muslims’. As one delves deeper into the concept of identity politics, one must familiarise oneself with the thought process behind the rise of this idea. It has been theorised that identity politics is a product of colonialism, a reaction to the enforcement of certain values and ideals by Western nations. Due to globalisation and the rise of immigration from former colonies to former empires, we are seeing a reaction. These immigrants, who form the backbone of marginalised communities, are now propagating a sense of pride in their ‘different’ values and traditions. They aim to advocate a sense of pride in their different lifestyles and practices, as opposed to that which is seemingly synonymous with Western lifestyle, traditions, and values. This article aims to explore the idea of identity from the perspective of a British Muslim, and how our communities are affected. No singular viewpoint or perspective is being advocated here. The aim is only to explore some of the plethora of perspectives on the issue at hand.

Multiple identities

Muslims are a diverse bunch. A quick Google search will tell you that much. Yet the concept of identity in the 21st century adds another layer to the British Muslim identity. To even add the word ‘British’ to the identity of a Muslim is contentious to some, but that is something that will be explored a bit further on. To identify as something, one must meet certain conditions – a member of the LGBT community, for example, must identify as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. A Muslim is expected to accept the core tenets of Islam (as agreed upon by a consensus of scholars) before qualifying as such. However, there are also people that claim to be ‘culturally’ Muslim and not necessarily Muslim by faith, action, or even intent within the heart. Would their self-identifying be deemed as sufficient enough to allow them to attain the status of a Muslim? Within the liberal society we live in, this self-identification comes under the principle of autonomy and choice and is therefore probably accepted. However, is this identity determined by God? That is a question for the theologians. Let us say the conditions for this identity are met as agreed upon by the scholars (we will approach this from the narrowest of lenses to accommodate for the more orthodox and widely accepted viewpoint by a majority of Muslims). An individual accepts the core tenets of the faith (the 5 pillars, concept of Heaven and Hell, God and his attributes, etc.) and implements the basic acts of obligatory worship within their daily life. Is this the ‘be-all and end-all’ of a person’s identity? Alternatively, would it provide the framework or lay the foundations for one’s identity before they proceed further?

One example that comes to mind is that of the political commentator Ash Sarkar. Sarkar gained much critical acclaim for her brutal put-down of Piers Morgan in which she proudly proclaimed, “I’m literally a communist.”[2] In order to contextualise this example, we must look at Sarkar’s Twitter page, in which she informs people that she is also a Muslim. In essence, she identifies as a communist Muslim, and someone who has opened the door for other Muslims to tread this path and adopt this label. However, we must first look at the idea of communism and the concept of labelling oneself as a communist. Communism consists of a wide variety of ideas propagated and advocated by the visionary philosopher Karl Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels. Marx was undoubtedly a genius, and we will struggle to find anyone (Muslim or non-Muslim) in the 21st century who could class themselves as equal to Marx in knowledge of his field. Yet this does not mean that Muslims cannot have their disagreements with him and certain tenets of his ideology. Marx was a proponent of the idea that religion is the “opium of the masses,”[3] a claim that is understandable for sure. With an ideology rooted in the rejection of religion as way of governing one’s daily life and religious tradition, can we really perceive it to be compatible with Islam? Sure, other core aspects of the ideology will be more appealing to some, focusing on the innately unjust nature of the capitalist system that dominates our daily lives, for example. Nevertheless, does Islam itself not offer an alternative vision, and if it doesn’t, why is that and who is to blame? Furthermore, can one truly be a communist if one accepts certain aspects of the ideology but negates other fundamentals? In a nutshell, does identifying with political ideologies limit or constrain us in the same way religion would? These questions are fundamental to the lives of Muslims residing in the West, particularly those who involve themselves in the political realm by associating with certain ideologies (socialism/liberalism/communism), which may differ from Islam in certain aspects. Essentially, it is a question of what takes priority – are these individuals Muslim first or communist first? If one were to have to take a stance on an issue in which both of these ideals contradict, which would take precedence? Would the hegemony of society dictate the choice?

Stand with other minorities?

In assuming the guise of identity within the realm of identity politics, many within the minority bracket feel almost obliged to stand alongside other minorities on equal ground. They propagate ideals, values, and modes of discourse that may be contradictory or alien to what they themselves believe in. An example would be Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and a prominent Muslim activist, who is a self-proclaimed feminist and liberal. Khan actively advocates for what he calls “LGBT rights.”[4] Although he is free to do so, is it sensible to do so when the religion he follows, and the identity he emphasises within the political sphere, supposedly does not accept such modes of discourse on the constructed notion of sexuality? The concept of sexuality, which is propagated as supposedly being universal, is actually a modern, Western construct from the 1800s; this is something clearly stated by well-known thinkers such as Michel Foucault.[5] Within the political sphere, especially in the West, the adoption of such discourse by Muslims (mainly out of ignorance) has allowed for the conflation of somewhat contradictory ideals, or even ideals that possess no weight within the Islamic tradition. It can also be argued that many Muslims take issue with being forced to accept such constructs of sexuality and would rather draw the line at tolerance. In a sense, the same way many tolerate the ‘strange’ beliefs of Islam, the Muslim community should be expected to tolerate the constructed notions that they may themselves be uncomfortable with. With the ‘minority’ label, however, some expect both groups to come together on equal ground and ignore differences within the orthodoxy of their belief systems. Owen Jones, a very well-respected journalist whom I admire, believes that the LGBT community and Muslims must “stand together.” [6] It could be argued that Muslims should set the terms on when and what they can unite on with other minority groups, for what cause, and why, because only Muslims understand where they stand on such issues. However, due to conflicting ways of thinking within the Muslim community, is there one singular representative voice that speaks for everyone? Probably not!

Does Britain have an identity?

Moving on from the conundrum of political identity, another issue that haunts many British Muslims in the 21st century is national identity. With the rising climate of nationalism and an emphasis on national pride from Brexit, Muslims face the brunt of attacks over whether they are British enough. No one can seem to provide a definitive explanation of what being ‘British’ entails; it can no longer be constrained to one specific perception. Anyone who has a specific image of what being British is has a utopian vision of how they think society should be. It cannot go beyond that, as society is too diverse to be constrained to one image. Besides different ethnicities, another example of the diversity that the UK sees is the North-South divide. In our current liberal society, we once adhered (and still do, to an extent) more to the idea of liberal nationalism. This ideal focuses on a civic identity, a form of nationalism with a history or tradition of sorts. This identity is one with a common language, custom, and way of thinking and living. John Stuart Mill, one of the founding fathers of liberalism, once said: “When the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all members of the nationality under one government, and a government to themselves apart.”[7] This is the concept of citizens uniting under that national or civic identity. However, the current climate is increasingly polarised, and certain Muslims are left feeling alienated and ignored. Whether due to the neglect of their communities, rising instances of hate crime, or foreign policy that has caused much turmoil in lands inhabited predominantly by Muslims, these communities struggle to unite under a national identity that does not really cater for their views and way of life. This has led to some individuals propagating a different form of nationalism: multicultural nationalism.

Professor Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol, has researched this topic in quite some depth. He coined the idea of ‘multicultural nationalism’. Prof. Modood writes: “The accommodation of minorities should not be seen as a drag on national identity but as a positive re-source; minorities do not dilute the national culture but vivify and enrich it.”[8] This advocates for the accommodation of a wide variety of cultures under the banner of multiculturalism, whilst not really expecting assimilation from minority community. Of course, these communities must abide by the laws presented to them and become positive and valuable contributors to society around them, but this can be done without losing sense of their identity (Muslim, Pakistani, or otherwise) whilst also maintaining a sense of ‘Britishness’.

British Muslims

However, does the British Muslim population actually perceive itself to be British?  A survey by Ipsos found that religion was the second-most important factor in a Muslim’s identity, with 74% of the Muslim respondents selecting it.[9] The most important factor was family (90%), with national identity and ethnic background lagging behind at a commendable 55%. These statistics affirm the notion that religion forms an intrinsic part of most Muslims’ lives. This is where the hesitancy on the part of Muslims comes into play. Muslims tend to form ghetto communities within certain areas of the UK, with areas within Birmingham, Bradford, and Leeds hosting solely Muslim families; places where a White individual is seen to be an anomaly. These communities form for a wide variety of reasons, including the familiarity factor. This occurs when immigrants flock to areas that are more familiar and reminiscent of their previous homes, where they find themselves safe from the widespread racist violence that characterised the experiences of many. Moreover, tribal or familial loyalties also play a significant part in certain families inhabiting certain areas of the country to ensure they are near each other. This has led to a distancing of these communities from the ‘surrounding community’, and as a result has contributed to a more polarised atmosphere. However, Muslims choosing not to integrate is not a simple conundrum that solely requires the solution of them reaching out and aiming to participate within wider society. Unfortunately, indirect pressures from wider society for Muslims to assimilate could result in many abandoning their previous identity or distancing themselves from those that are different to them without seeking an alternative. An example would be the university lifestyle, which is centred around clubbing and consuming alcohol. These activities go against Islamic doctrine and values, leaving some Muslims feeling left out or uncomfortable and posing significant challenges to them. Their assimilation into British culture is seen as being halted by their clinging onto their Islamic identity. The question is, therefore, whether society is really pushing them to assimilate to this extent, or whether this is an idea that they have formulated that prevents them from addressing these issues head on and speaking to those they believe to have stark differences with them. Living in a society that prides itself on pluralism is something that could prove greatly beneficial to the Muslim community if they learn to proudly exhibit their faith, values, and doctrines without the need to assimilate, whilst also making an effort to integrate to an extent.

Value pluralism

The 20th century philosopher Isaiah Berlin popularised the idea of value pluralism, which is something that forms the foundations of the pluralism we see around us in 21st century Britain. It is the notion that there is no single overriding concept of how to live a good life, or how one must live. Instead, there are a number of competing yet equally legitimate conceptions.[10] Muslims cannot fully adhere to this ideal of ‘equal legitimacy’ of different ideologies and concepts where none is seen to be preferable over the other, as Da’wah is a fundamental concept of the Islamic faith. Why would you invite people to Islam if you believed other views posed an equal claim to being the correct way of living? However, in the secular society we live in, equal consideration is given to all faiths and, as a result, Islam should be seen as something legitimate and Muslims should be able to exhibit their views however they wish to. What this requires is that Muslims are actually proud to exhibit their faith (as they always have been), establishing institutions and becoming meaningful and valuable contributors to all of society. This allows exposition of true Islam whilst also educating others on the faith. However, if this does not occur, Muslims could possibly flock to associate themselves with any other identity that provides them with a sense of value. This could result in their faith playing second fiddle and eventually losing legitimacy in the eyes of those that were never exposed to it, regardless of whether they are Muslim or not.

My final point is regarding compromise. If one chooses to compromise when exhibiting one’s faith and integrating into society, what could also happen is an assimilation and adoption of notions and views that are contradictory to one’s faith. If institutions exist that force compromise on issues such as those of morality in the field of politics, for example, Muslims are faced with two choices: participate and risk compromising, or form their own platforms that propagate their ideals on their own terms. In this article, I have asked many unanswered questions, but the discussion does not end here. There is much more to be explored on the concept of the Muslim identity in the West.

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] Heywood, A. (2013). Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, p. 160

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jul/22/thats-when-i-lost-my-temper-ash-sarkar-on-her-clash-with-piers-morgan

[3] Marx, K. (1844). A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbüche.

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/sadiq-khan-gay-pride-london-lgbt-mayor-peter-tatchell-parade-antidote-sadness-a7824006.html

[5] Halperin, D. (1989). Is there a History of Sexuality. History and Theory, 28(3), pp. 257-274.

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/11/muslims-lgbtq-birmingham-sex-education-school-protests

[7] Stuart Mill, J. (1861). Representative Government. Batoche Books Kitchener (2001), p.182.

[8] Modood, T. (2019) ‘A Multicultural Nationalism?’ Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring-Summer Issue, p. 233-246

[9] Ipsos MORI (February 2018). A Review of Survey Research on Muslims in Britain. Ipsos MORI, p. 37

[10] Heywood, A. (2013). Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, p. 169

About Mansoor Ayub

Mansoor is studying Politics and English Language at university, and is a student of Shaikh Abu Rumaysah Refi Shafi.

2 comments

  1. Asalam Alykum,
    I thoroughly enjoyes reading the above post on Identity Politics and British Muslims . It was very enlightening . As a revert Muslim from New Zealand , I have sometimes , actually on a regular basis, where politics for me , fits into Islam. I knew as a Christian that it didnt fit in, and as a Pentecostal Pastor previously, we were not to combine religion with politics. I summise that there is more freedom of thinking as a Muslim in regards to politics .British Identity, as referring to the second subject , has not affected me, however, I must be honest in that I identify more with western people regardless of religion they are , than other nationality muslims , and in particular Arab muslins. I feel and experience a disregard towards me as a Muslim and have not understood why . My colour of skin or nationality should not be an obstacle to living a fulfilling life as a muslim in an Arab country, and in this case, the UAE , which has been my home and work for 11 years .
    Thank you, I appreciate your writing .

    Regards ,

    Maria Tito

  2. Julie Amal Rashid

    It’s not so much what the individual claims as their identity, rather it is a case of is it contrary to Islam? For example, I saw a documentary about a British Muslim who identified herself as a “lesbian Muslim”. Her family didn’t accept her due to being a lesbian and she said that the lesbian community considered her to be “too Muslim” and didn’t accept her. This is a woman who visited lesbian bars in a hijab and abaya, so outwardly she is identifying as a Muslim woman. So now the question is, what is the Islamic position? Being lesbian may not be kufr but it is sinful. The strongest opinion is that it is a major sin which doesn’t carry the hadd punishment but is a form of zina and carries a ta’zeer punishment. But if this sister thought she had the right to be a lesbian and a Muslim, so is she now making haraam, halal? Which may be kufr in itself for example Kufr ul-Istibdal is Disbelief because of trying to substitute Allah’s Laws, this could be replacing them with man made laws for example.
    Everything has it’s criteria and for sincere Muslims that is referring back to the Qur’an and Sunnah.

    Regarding identifying with family ethnicity, there is no harm. My husband is born here but if someone asks where he is from he will answer with the region his father came from. And yet, he is very comfortable being British in those values which are not contrary to Islam. There is no contradiction. I’m English, and yet he is more “British” than me in some ways! He has that dry British wit going on for example. Being “British” is fine as long as it is within the confines of Islamic permissibility. The problem arises when something is not in cohesion with Islam and Islamic values. Like the example of the lady who identified herself as a lesbian Muslim.

    As Muslims we are instructed to refer back to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Problems arise when we don’t and kufr is not confined to idol worship.
    “If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is best and most commendable in the end.”
    Al-Qur’an 4:59

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