With the run up to the anniversary of the July bombings, there has been a predictable flurry of articles and polls on Muslim Britain, including a piece this week by Ziauddin Sardar in The New Statesman, and a major poll conducted this past week for The Times and ITV News by Populus Limited. The death of a British Muslim soldier in Afghanistan has added to the column inches devoted to "Muslim Britain". Most of these polls show a mixed reaction to questions relating to terrorism; 13% of British Muslims think the July bombers are 'martyrs' and 7% think attacks on civilians can be justified. At the same time 56% think the government hasn't done enough to combat extremism, which is a higher percentage than the population at large. In a similar vein, Tony Blair came out yesterday and said that Muslims were in the best position to fight the extremist ideologies behind terrorist activities, and 'there was the little the government could do', in response to criticism that the government had been too slow to help.
Unlike some Muslim bloggers, I am less derisory about his suggestion that Muslims are in a better place to fight the extremists in the battle of ideas. In fact, in this particular instance I think he is talking some sense (which makes a change). We do not want government inteference in every avenue of our lives or in our religious discourses, do we? So what do Blair's critics propose in this case? A government vetted Islam? No thanks. It is only Muslims who can rescue the hijacking of Islamic terminology, beliefs, practices and tenants from extremists amongst us, or from those bigoted elements in the media, whether to the left or right of the political spectrum. What I reject is Blair's insistence on avoiding any connection between foreign policy objectives and the either attitudes suggested in the various polls or, in extreme cases, terrorist activities. This is unhelpful and displays willful ignorance; how many more tortuous pseudo-sermons taped on video does Blair have to see to note that nothing galvanizes these people more than interference by certain powers in "Muslim affairs".
'Experts' all around keep asking 'what radicalises young Muslims'? I don't think there is one single answer, but a series of issues which feed off each other and which should be addressed. For a start, it should be admitted that there are extremist elements amongst Muslims, some of who might support violent actions where such actions have no place, or worse engage in the glorification of death. Of this there can be no doubt. The way to combat this is for Muslims to challenge other Muslims should they hear or see them showing support for terrorist actions and their moral depravity (at the same time it can be asserted that there a controlled use of violence is permitted, e.g. in legitimate defence of one's home, family or livelihood). Challenge them on moral grounds, challenge them through the use of utilitarian arguments, or challenge them using faith-based exhortation, but challenge them they must. For example, we must challenge the recreation of the Palestine issue into the sixth pillar of Islam or allowing ourselves to become beholden to Palestinian nationalism, as this would make us no better than people who commit injustices. Instead the arguments should be for goodness and justice. The arguments should be for a better vision of humankind. Yet on the other side, there has to be a concerted effort to 'drain the swamp', for the 'facts on the ground' quite clearly show uneven, hypocritical and broken foreign policy objectives have disastrous consequences not only for Britain's standing in the world (for example, I know for a fact Britain has lost a lot of good will in the Gulf through work) but for the populations on which these objectives and goals are performed. Not all such "grievances" are false, despite Blair's rant, nor are they even restricted to Muslims (consider the opposition to the Iraq War was not particularly a 'Muslim' issue). In this case, there is nothing Muslims can do (not even standing on top of cardboard boxes will help!). And, as many Muslims will tell you, certain extremist figures were given virtual carte blanche in preaching their demagoguery for many years. Yet there were perfectly good laws to punish those preachers who called for the murder of people, without the need for more draconian measures.
But what can be drawn from the recent set of polls and surveys? The results are mixed: some results suggest a significant minority of Muslims are al-Qa'ida sympathisers and have a dim view of Westerners, while other results show that Muslims are even more demanding that the general population in dealing with extremism. Perhaps no redeeming theory can be drawn about Muslims in Britain, since they do not conform to any particular model. For example, those with extremely negative views about Western societies can easily be born and raised by quite well 'integrated' and 'assimilated' families (consider a similar, quite recent, example involving Canadian Muslims, whose situation might be comparable to British Muslims). On the other hand, British Muslims born in foreign, Muslim, countries have enlisted themselves in the armed forces, prepared to die for Britain (for example, the brother of Jabron Hashmi was also a soldier). This might be unsurprising, given that Muslims are extremely heterogeneous, split along any number of sectarian, linguistic, cultural and ethnic lines (add class to this, which will definitely be an emerging factor in the coming years) and given that the neologism "Islamic" is open to a wide variety of uses ("Islamic" being used to denote something considered normative to Muslim faith and practice).
Yet I do find it depressing when British Muslims, and those who have taken the benefits of living in Britain, express disdain, or faux moral outrage, towards Western society and history, or dismiss Western philosophy, politics or science as futile or worthless (at the same time happily consuming Western technologies). Unfortunately, I do think that there is an undercurrent of lowbrow anti-Westernism amongst some British Muslims. Why some of these attitudes are held, I cannot say. Is it merely a reaction to exclusion, derision or racism? I suspect they form part of the answer, and there can be no denying that Muslim participation and contribution is a two-way process. But I think Atif Imtiaz has offered the most useful insight in "The Muslim Condition" (a series I recently plugged on this blog), when he said that Muslims in Britain are 'cultural delinquents', who filter their entire engagement with wider British society through a language of rights and politics:
"Much of the British Muslim engagement relies upon fairly superficial readings of modernity and the present Western condition. This is because many young Muslim activists have mostly pursued careers in the technical, scientific, medical, financial or legal professions [thabet: guilty as charged!] that is, they help work the wheels of British society. There are relatively few Muslim graduates in the cultural sciences. Rumi asks his students in one of his discourses: '... you put forward your excuse, saying, 'I expend myself in lofty tasks...' Well, for whose sake but your own are you doing all these things?' (p. 28). One consequence is that our expertise on issues of culture and engagement, one of the foremost issues that we face, remains underdeveloped. In the aftermath of September 11, we could not muster one expert in American foreign policy from across the whole British Muslim community. The choice of career by our brightest means that we remain culturally delinquent, unable to notice the subtleties requisite for persuasion. Even in terms of our immediate urban needs, there are few Muslims who have mastered the downward spiralling in trends related to education or crime, a sociological know-how of how certain sections of the community are becoming de-educated and more importantly how to respond to it [...] As we constantly claim our rights in pursuit of further inclusion, we are in fact becoming further excluded since our claim to legal inclusion is leading to cultural exclusion. It is my main contention that we need to change our manner of engagement from a language of identity rights towards one that seeks to further human conversation – to mirror Rorty’s appeal to fellow liberals – to extend human sympathy, and this can only be done through a non-ideological Islam that ignores the daily media frenzy – that is, through deep religion, an 'inside Islam'."
(I would add here that many, many Muslims interact and engage perfectly well in Britain, even passing the 'integration' tests demanded of them by some critics; but they probably do not do so primarily as Muslims.)
In instances where unfair anti-Western attitudes are expressed, whether by my friends or people I meet who wish to express their opinions to me, I feel it is important for me to challenge attitudes which reduce all Western political, philosophical and humanist traditions to a few crude, negative, adjectives and dismiss all the output from Europe and its historical outposts as 'frivolous'. I think any Western Muslim should do this. They should also challenge certain myths which still circulate amongst Muslims here. One, in particular, is of a more moral and spiritual Islamic East, compared to an immoral or decedent secular West. I know literally dozens of Muslims (one a very good friend of mine) who left to live in Muslim countries in the hope of living their 'Islamic dream'. Yet, my friend, along with some acquaintances, have all returned to Britain, disappointed with what they experienced (bigotry, racial and even religious discrimination, incompetence). This veil has surely been lifted from our eyes by now. None of my comments, of course, suggest that anything deemed 'Western' is sacrosanct or off limits to valid, powerful and stinging criticism. Instead what I'm saying is that just as Muslims complain that Islamic traditions is reduced to a set of negative stereotypes, then similarly Western traditions suffer the same fate, even amongst Western Muslims. This is disappointing and borne out to some degree by the results from the recent Pew Global Attitude Project. We should be Western Muslims in the fullest sense: intellectually, morally, politically, physically and so on. Either that, or we hide and remain fearful that the horrors of the Holocaust are visited upon us.
Only then can Muslims in Britain, and other Western nations, offer a social conscience to their societies and a better vision for humankind and expect other people, their neighbours, colleagues and friends, to pay attention and reciprocate.