The Failure of Identity Politics

The conflict in Bosnia played a pivotal role in my personal sense of Islamic consciousness, and for many others in my generation. The scenes on our television screens were harrowing, especially the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. More than a decade later, I was humbled to be able to visit Srebrenica and the memorial there; to see the mothers and wives that are still campaigning and raising funds to identify the bodies of lost ones so that they can have some sense of closure.

When the mass graves were dug and filled by over 8,000 bodies, the perpetrators moved the bodies around using tractors to hide their crimes, causing the dismemberment and ‘mixing’ of the body parts. DNA tests were required to identify bodies and perform funerals—a process that still remains incomplete. Muslims the world over largely forgot their Bosnian brethren once the news stories subsided. It was left to countries like the USA, and NGOs therein, to fund the vital DNA tests needed. Along with the military intervention by the US, this was an important reason why many of the people in Bosnia that I spoke to admired America—who they felt “stood by them, when Muslim countries were only interested in building mosques”, after the war.

My brief trip was eye opening in many other regards as well. In the 90s, we often heard that Bosnians were ‘Muslims’ by name only. They had long lost their Islamic heritage and practices, which had suffered under decades of communism and centuries of assimilation in Europe. Actually, the truth was far more complex. One could see institutions—charities, endowments, universities and Islamic centres that are centuries old and which represented a deep and rich Islamic legacy.

Naturally, there are those who are secular or who have developed a syncretic approach to local traditions and customs, but one could question whether this is any more significant than, say, Turkey is secular, or the way Muslims from the Indian sub-continent have blended in with local customs. Bosnians merely adapted their Islamic practices to their environment. If you listen to Shaykh Mustafa Ceric´, the Mufti of Bosnia, and you will hear a European voice of Islam speaking (albeit an Eastern European one). Meeting people like Dr. Ceric´, or politicians such as Haris Silajdžic´, or the late Alija Izetbegovic´, it is difficult not to be impressed by the breadth and depth of their knowledge.

We were told by some people that the experience of the conflict in that region as well as the Holocaust in Western Europe was evidence that integration would never work. The narrative was that even after decades and centuries of assimilation, let alone integration, European Jews and Bosnian Muslims were singled out for their faith and persecuted: we would never truly be accepted in Europe.

This was a powerful argument that I mulled over for a long time. In part, it shaped my own thoughts in the field of Muslim identity. But I eventually had to disagree with that narrative. For me, the failure was not of integration, it was actually the failure of something the narrative has a knack of feeding—identity politics. Both persecutions came out of a sense of ‘otherness’ that was reified by long-term dehumanisation and demonisation; myths and negative stories about the other; viewing the other through the lens of an opposing identity, simply because of that identity; by actively pitting one’s own interests (and eventually, survival) against the interests and survival of the other, in a zero-sum game. And this all starts with emphasising the ‘us’ and ‘them’, simplistic and artificial boxes that we place ourselves into, which can all too often end up in ‘my community right or wrong’.

The reaction of some British Muslims to the events in Bosnia was to panic. If ethnic cleansing of Muslims could happen in the 1990s, on the doorsteps of Europe, in a place closer to us than the south of Italy, it could happen to us here! How are ‘we’ going to protect ‘ourselves’; look after ‘our interests’? Thus, whilst we observed the evil created by a long-standing set of identity politics ‘over there’, the irony is that some Muslims began to drift further into the politics of identity and sense of victimhood ‘over here’. It is easier said than done, but these are precisely the moments for strong leadership that can hold communalism at bay, and appeal to our shared interests as a society and how, inevitably, we are all in it together.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 91, April 2012)

The Hidden Heart of Islam

This month sees the 19th annual Islam Awareness Week (12-18 March) and the theme this year is ‘love’. When most people think of Islam today, it is associated with ‘tough’ qualities — ‘Shari’ah law’, statehood, justice in the face of injustice. And one doesn’t need to look around too widely to find more negative associations — with violence, repression of women and the curtailing of people’s freedoms.

Yet at its core the reality of Islam is so different; at least to most Muslims I know. Their faith, their everyday interaction with it, their focus and connection, is with the love they feel for God, and for Muhammad, the messenger of God. Emanating from this spiritual love is a tremendous worldly love that radiates and fills their life. A love for the whole of creation — the world around them, nature and humanity.

It is indeed sad that this central aspect of Islam seems to have been so underplayed, and perhaps undermined, in recent years; and this is not just from people outside of Islam. Ask some Muslims and you will only ever hear talk of injustices, this political cause, or that grievance. And too often such an attitude — whilst perhaps justified as part of a broader spiritual outlook — when on its own, distracts from the actual purpose of Islam. The Qur’an teaches us:

“…those who have attained to faith love God more than all else…” (2:165)

On this subject, perhaps one of the deepest wells in the Islamic tradition is Rabia of Basra, the 8th Century mystic. One day, people saw her running through the streets carrying a flame in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she said, “I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.”

Her love was so consuming that it left no place for hate. When she was asked if she hated Satan, Rabia replied, “my love for God has so possessed my heart that there is no room for hate.”
There are so many other reminders of this spirit in the Islamic tradition. Rumi wrote: “Love is from the infinite, and will remain until eternity / The seeker of love escapes the chains of birth and death / Tomorrow, when resurrection comes / The heart that is not in love will fail the test.”

This was not just something that pre-occupied the mystics and poets; Miskawayh, the great philosopher and ethicist, said that love is the basis of all society. He argued that human society is formed through, and to actualise, the bonds of love, friendship and companionship.

The Prophet Muhammad taught that God says, “…My servant comes even nearer to Me until I love him. When I have bestowed My love on him, I become his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his tongue with which he speaks, his hand with which he grasps, and his feet with which he walks.” (Bukhari)
So why do these teaching of Islam seem so absent from our public discourse? Why has the heart of Islam been so hidden? This is not just an esoteric concern. It has real consequences. We Muslims seem more concerned today with building mosques than building the people that will pray in those mosques; more concerned with arguing for Islam, than actually living Islam; more concerned with converting people to Islam, than showing love for people.

This is precisely why this year’s Islam Awareness Week will focus on the subject of love. Perhaps after more than two centuries of colonisation and political conflict, sectors of the Muslim world, at least at a communal level, find it difficult to emphasise love over anger. The irony is that even the road to resolving injustice must begin and end with love. If one is to tread the path of Islam one must tread it as it is, not to mould it in the image of our pain and hurt, but in the image of God.

God is love, and Islam is the serenity that comes from that love. That is not just a message for those that are not Muslims to understand, it’s a message that many Muslims themselves need to recognise.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 90, March 2012)

Secularism

The Arab Spring is creating new political discourses in Muslim circles. However, the debate is now whether Islamic thought can genuinely recognise the difference between the ‘political’ and ‘religious’?

To many people today Islam, of all the world faiths, is probably the least likely to be compatible with such a secular distinction. Yet a recent publication (British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State, 2011), that I helped to edit, argues that Islam can be read in precisely that way. In fact, secularity is very important for Muslims in the modern world, as it is the basis for equality, democracy, freedom, human rights and the autonomy of religion itself. These values have a strong resonance with my reading of Islam even though some conservative voices may disregard these as ‘western values’.

Historically, the Muslim world had a very positive relationship between scientific and rational inquiry on the one hand and religion on the other, creating significant innovations in science. While the Enlightenment and the exciting search for emancipation of the human spirit engendered important developments in Europe, intellectual stagnation settled in around the Muslim world causing it to lose that creative relationship with rationalism. From the late 19th Century one could hear calls for renewed thinking (ijtihad) and reform (islah) in the Muslim world, a movement that only seems to be gathering momentum in modern times.

Despite the fact that some Muslims advocate a return to the ‘Caliphate’, the current tide of public opinion in the Arab world shows that Muslim masses aspire to freedom and democracy in ways that were not recognised previously. As such, this presents an argument against dismissing such values as ‘western’, for surely, these are universal aspirations.

In the early 20th Century preoccupation with the Caliphate, the ‘Islamic state’ was seen as a symbol of Muslim unity and its restoration as vital in defending Muslim interests and procuring justice in a post-colonial context. However, in reality, there has been a well-established normative distinction (albeit in pre-modern settings) between the temporal, sovereign authority and institutions of religion in the Muslim world. The latter mainly advocating autonomy and resenting their co-option by the state whenever that did happen.

Muhammad Abduh asserted more than a century ago that Islam is not a theocracy and that there is a distinction between the ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’. And while Qutb viewed democracy as incompatible with Islam, the more contemporary Ghannouchi views such ideas as the misunderstanding of both democracy and Islam.

If one adds to the mix, the immense disappointment of Muslims with the various national projects often couched (even if at times with little more than lip-service) in the name of Islam—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, etc., there is a growing recognition that a liberal, secular democracy is a good model for ensuring accountable, open, societies that can protect the rights of all citizens of the state.

However, the story is more complex than that; an absence of religious rule (and ‘on paper’ separation of religion and state) doesn’t automatically imply genuine freedom and liberty, given the role of the military and authoritarian tendencies in many Muslim countries. Furthermore, ‘secularism’ in the Muslim world has, in the past, been associated with forced ‘westernisation’ (Turkey for example) and / or double standards (e.g. support for dictatorships). This means that Muslim publics are often very sceptical of the term ‘secularism’ (though as mentioned previously, not necessarily the notion of separation).

While advocating secularism, I am not for the disappearance of religion, nor for an anti-clerical and closed-minded laïcité. Rather, I see secularism as a good way of managing the public debate, especially where multiple religious, ideological and belief arguments may collide. So there is a conversation to be had about the extent, nature and mode of religious presence in the public sphere. Given the plural nature of that presence perhaps the Rawlsian notion of ‘public reason’ can help—especially in a culture of very low religious literacy? But it seems that we also need to reach a point where religious voices can be given consideration and not automatically disregarded as ‘superstitious’. See this piece on religion in public life for a bit more info.

The nuanced conversation and reform we need to nurture, on all sides, will need time; and yet it often seems like time is running out. But the process of reform cannot be forced, or enforced. For it to be an authentic voice, it needs to be organic. We can, however, catalyse that process by fostering education and critical thinking, by encouraging open and pluralistic spaces of debate and by encouraging people to dialogue in safe spaces so they can build meaningful relationships that cut through the polarised impasse of today.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 89, February 2012)

Beyond Islamism

I have often argued that the word ‘Islamism’ is not a helpful one, as it is confusing and not specific enough. Here, I would argue that we need to move away, not just from the term itself, but also from the substance of what it has come to represent in the popular debate.

At the time of writing this article the elections in Egypt had just began after some months of instability following the changes ushered in by the ‘Arab Spring’. The results will not be known until after publication, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is expected to win around 40% of the vote and the Noor party of the Salafis around 20 per cent.

While some are hailing this as a success of ‘Islamism’, I would like to suggest—perhaps counter-intuitively—that it is actually an indication of the demise of Islamism; at least old style, traditional Islamism of the type that sought to create an ‘Islamic state’, an Islamic version of a Hobbesian Leviathan to govern society. Such a scenario can be seen in Afghanistan in recent years, or Iran, where the clerics sit above politicians elected by the people. But the Arab Spring mandates an altogether different vision: a transition towards a free, open, democratic and secular politics—a more Rawlsian direction.

There are no certainties here. It is difficult to say precisely where the parties mentioned will head, and indeed what impact the tension between the Noor Party and the Freedom and Justice Party will create. But in recent years the success of the AKP in Turkey, and the model evolving there, has had an important influence on democratic, Islamist politics across the world. There must be few things in the world as sobering as the reality of having a country to run—mouths to feed, jobs to create, borders to defend and the media to hold you to account (now including social media). That is when election slogans evaporate, and reality hits home.

Whatever happens in Egypt, the public debate will create (entirely natural, and largely healthy) tensions for another generation as a new public culture evolves under a more open form of governance. At the same time, it is likely that (if relative freedom prevails) more secular and liberal political parties will establish a stronger presence within the political spectrum and enhance their campaigning abilities (which were no match for the organised infrastructure of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the finances at the disposal of the Salafis at this election). If this is true, then what we are seeing now is the starting point of a journey towards greater liberalisation and freedom, not the opposite.

But looking at events ‘over there’ in the Middle East automatically begs the question: what does that mean, if anything, for Muslim activists here in the UK, Europe and other parts of the West? For decades now, some activists have looked to the Islamist movements for inspiration. But with the recent developments post-Arab Spring, the evolution of the AKP in Turkey, and the natural process of settlement, some are arguing that the stratification developing within the Islamist movements is just as important as the split between Islamists and non-Islamist Muslim activists. If the old slogans of ‘Islam is the solution’ are being replaced with notions of ‘freedom and justice’, an insistence on a politics of ‘national unity’ and compromise, and talk of a ‘civil state’ (dawla madaniya) as opposed to an ‘Islamic state’ in the Muslim world, what does that mean for Islamist-influenced movements and their agendas in the West?

We stand at a crucial moment, at which the cracks that have been appearing for decades may lead to new glaciers being formed. Some people, increasingly disenfranchised with the ‘old politics’ of Islamism and its irrelevance, are looking for a new vision that is more rooted in the West; one that is more local, and is concerned with thinking about, and engaging seriously with, the question of what it means to be a Muslim living in modern Britain; and being honest in the process of that quest without presuming that we have ready-made solutions to take off the shelf to deal with our challenges. This calls for integrity and soul-searching, and crucially, for people to work together—be they Muslim or not—to think, analyse, evaluate and to find lasting solutions to the real issues we all face collectively.

This, a more open and embracing vision of who we are, and what Islam means to us will be realised when there is a shift towards a post-Islamist paradigm among activists in the West. But can this happen? I would argue that it must.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 88, January 2012)

The Place of Religion in Public Life

(Summary of a presentation at the Humanist Philosophers’ Day Conference, Saturday 16th July, London)

To begin, I would like to describe my approach to this discussion. I am here in the spirit of building relationships and bridges and to foster more nuanced conversations on the subject. I do feel that we need to move beyond stereotypes and beyond polarised conversations in this area.

I would like Muslims to think more seriously about the secular, and move away from knee-jerk reactions to the word ‘secular’. That’s why I helped to organise a seminar, co-edited a publication on this and have also blogged on it previously, summarising my thoughts on the issue of secularism and Islam.

But there are four further points I would like to make:

1. What are we actually talking about?

We need to be clear about what we are doing here. This is not really a conversation about belief in God, or in a religion. It is not an exploration of the questions surrounding the existence of God, nor is about the rights of people to believe in certain ideas, religious or otherwise. At its core, this is really a question of ‘how do we live together’?

Given the reality of difference, and given the presence of different values, faiths, beliefs and cultures in most parts of the world – at least in our part of the world – how do we manage those differences and live together?

I have said before, that I have a great deal of sympathy for Rawls’ notion of public reason. We do need some sort of common language to discuss matters that are deeply held and passionate to us, when we want to bring those ideas into the common, public space. This is important for a meaningful conversation, not least for the one making the interjection, as it is never a good idea to start a conversation knowing that you are likely to be misunderstood!

2. Beyond mutual stereotypes

All too often the public debate on faith and secularism brings up simplistic views that don’t help the conversation. For example when some religious people presume that those who are agnostic or atheist do not have a strong sense of morality or ethics. Or that they cannot deeply connect with the world around them in a way religious people would describe as ‘spiritual’. On the other hand, some cannot recognise any social or emotional value at all in religion, or religious people are sometimes caricatured to be wholly irrational or to hold beliefs that are so dogmatic that they inspire intolerance, violence and mayhem. A simple look at the loss of life in the name of communism, fascism, or various nationalisms shows that religious people do not have a monopoly over intolerance and violence.

In the name of moving beyond simplistic caricatures, I’m also interested in looking at society as it is (as well as, as it should be). I’m struck by the different forms of secularism operative in, for example, USA, UK and France. And can also see from the lived practice of those countries, the gulf between the ideals and realities. As a non-Christian, I would rather live in the UK, despite its (soft) establishment and relationship with the Church of England, whereas France should, in theory, be a more egalitarian, open and free space for Muslims and other minorities. But it’s not.

Furthermore perceptions, however inaccurate, are important. I find it quite amusing that some religious people think that society is going to ‘hell in handcart’ because the ‘secular establishment’ is intolerant of religion, while some humanists believe that society is going to the dogs, because the ‘religious zealots’ are too powerful.

3. Human Rights

I think we are missing a trick by not making a much bigger deal of Human Rights. The UDHR represents a profoundly important starting point bringing people together around a common set of values, aspirations and principles. They are a truly human set of ideas, articulated by a world that came together to prevent the horrors of two world wars from being repeated and to create a positive vision for human beings to live together and manage their differences.

As such, I think rather than have ‘Islamic declarations of Human Rights’ (which detracts from the universality of the project), the UDHR deserves serious attention by Muslim scholars and should be taken into consideration when articulating visions of what the Islam (and Sharia) mean today, post 20th Century. I believe this would help us to deal with, and engage better with, some of problematic discussions Muslims keep hitting against, on issues such as: polygamy, freedom of thought and religion, gender equality, etc.

4. Where are the real divides?

Finally, I would like us to think of where the real divides actually are. Are they between religions, cultures, civilisations, and nations? Are they between the religious and non-religious? Or are they actually within these ‘groups’.

I think I have more in common with, and a much stronger relationship with, my agnostic friends who are open, kind and generous than with Muslims that I know who are closed, intolerant and belligerent towards others they disagree with.

The real difference seems, to me, to be between people that are ‘open’ and ‘closed’, and societies that are open and closed.

If this is true, then we really need to shift the terms of the current debate, which often frames people against each other based on which ‘community’ they belong to or come from – be that ethnic, religious, or ideological. With such a framing, good intentions and good will can get frustrated and dissipated as the outcome is almost predictably a consolidation of pre-existent identities.

This means that we need to shift the parameters of, and the nature of, the debate and have a new type of conversation altogether.

St George, a Very Modern Saint

(This is a transcript of my Thought for the Day on the subject, for BBC Radio Leicester)

A friend of mine recently asked me,  “Do you feel British or English?” I said, “both”.

He then said, “OK, as an Asian Muslim, I can understand that you feel British but can you really be English? Doesn’t that imply being white, and maybe a little bit Christian, as well? I mean, your parents are not from this country, even if you were born here…”

This made me think that St George, the patron saint of England, the very symbol of Englishness, was actually not from this country!

St George was born of Turkish and Palestinian parents, and is also the patron saint of other countries, including Palestine. The legend of this great saint was brought to the British Isles by crusaders returning from the Holy Land. And hundreds of years later, English people of all faiths, and no faith, have embraced the characteristic red cross on white background.

To me, St George is a good symbol of an inclusive English identity for our modern, global village. And not only St George, but also other icons of Englishness such as the Royal Family, tea, and fish & chips – all with significant influences from abroad.

How apt for this very tolerant nation and, especially, for this very tolerant city – Leicester. Where diversity is seen as a strength and not a weakness.

Happy St George’s Day!

Peace on earth and good will to all…

Can Muslims embrace Christmas as part of the cultural landscape of Britain, even if they don’t connect fully with its religious significance?

It’s that time of year again. The cold weather, snow and even the recession don’t appear to hold back shoppers. To many, and not without some cause, Christmas has now come to signal the worst of consumerism, rushing to buy presents, spending money that you don’t have (especially this year), and so on. One fears for Eid in this regard. But while being English means that cynicism is bred into us, I am still the eternal optimist. Perhaps naively, I prefer to see the positive; so this is definitely not the musings of a grumpy old man on this time of year.

In fact, I’m something of a closet Christmas lover, and have been so for many years. I know other Muslims are too…so come out of the closet! I grew up in a family that occasionally had Christmas trees and presents, even though our family didn’t ‘believe’ in Christmas in the same way as Christian friends. Many Christmas carols and hymns, though again not having the same religious significance, produce warm and cosy feelings. To make matters more complicated, and to add to the joys of the day it’s also my birthday – flanked by Jinnah and Jesus (and Newton if you use the Julian Calendar) I stand in good company.

OK, I know that 25th December isn’t actually the date of birth of Jesus, and that it heavily draws on pagan, pre-Christian festivals, nor are the tree, holly, snow, mince-pies, presents, even Santa (honest!), rooted in Christianity. But take all these things away and something powerful still remains – the simple and touching story of the triumph of humility over oppression, of love and sacrifice over greed and selfishness. Christmas is not the most religious time of year for devout Christians, for whom Easter arguably has greater significance, but the coming together of people, travelling to be with their loved ones, taking time out, thinking about others, exchanging gifts, is profoundly spiritual. It’s the one time in the year when we truly institutionalise thinking about others.

In recent years some have argued for Christmas to be replaced by ‘Winterval’ – this has certainly not come from other religious minorities, rather perhaps misplaced political correctness. In fact, Christmas was banned for some time in the 17th Century by Puritans in England and in America, but for altogether different reasons. I think most non-Christians admire and respect the display of care and religious sentiment during this time, and of course…love the sales. (And on a serious note, I hope that’s not an appropriation of Christmas, rather a heartfelt gesture of how much we owe to Christianity, even as people of another faith, or no faith).

Some of my Christian friends worry about the way Christmas is celebrated and – and I can understand that anxiety. For a non-Christian, I think the message of Christmas, beyond its specifically Christian relevance, is also a cultural feature of the British landscape, like Remembrance Sunday, Bonfire Night, the Proms, and of course, X Factor. And on that cultural level we can, and should, embrace the spirit of Christmas. Unwrapping another pair of socks, watching the Snowman, eating too much and sleeping through the Queen’s speech – but there’s more to it than that. It is that eternal message – of humility, love and sacrifice – that from a lowly beginning you can rise to great heights, that we desperately need to join hands and work together to realise that tiding of ‘peace on earth, and good will to all…’