May 10, 2015 Abdul Haqq

Part 1: Defining Muslim Identity in Conservative Britain

 The need to examine aspects of British identity from political and cultural perspectives has never been more poignant, especially in the face of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks in France  and killings in Denmark in February 2015. [1]  Incidents like these alongside the continuing raging debate surrounding freedom of speech and the right to offend etc. mean the negative focus on Muslim communities is set to continue. The brutality of extremist movements like ISIS and Boko Haram provide the western world with an altogether distorted perception of Islam, making many question its compatibility with democracy and its associated social values.

In view of what some would still argue is a disproportionate amount of adverse attention on Muslims, [2]  a redefining of who and what represents us in 21st century Britain is necessary. Undoubtedly, the efforts of a few Muslims who now profess to embody everything quintessentially British while claiming to have abandoned previous cultural and/or religious delineations – some of it bordering on extremism – continue to influence government and media, professing a form of liberalism that is palatable and conducive to particular western societal values.

A question of legitimacy: Who can and should speak on behalf of British Muslims?

The frequent characteristic or tendency of those claiming to have abandoned previous religious extremes is their ability to ‘stir up anti-Muslim sentiment in an attempt to confer self-legitimacy. [3]   One need not look very far to find groups like the Quilliam Foundation who evidently identify with the trait described above. Unsurprisingly, they continue to be among the least popular entities among Muslim communities in Britain due to their rhetoric, sentiment and somewhat crass opportunism. However, interestingly enough, the previous and existing governments continue to hold counsel with them.

Quilliam and other similar entities have sought to place emphasis on anti-Muslim sentiment in order to garner support from various non-Muslim communities, religious and irreligious, on the premise of creating resentment and fear of the ‘alien other’ – this being particular Muslim communities whose ideological delineations are different to their own. Consider, for example, MP Khalid Mahmood’s previous accusation that one particular ideology (Salafism) is responsible for Oftsed and government concerns and that other ideologically lead communities (Barelwis and Deobandis) have suffered for many years as a result.[4] The types of sectarian tactics used by him have been successfully deployed for a number of years now to the detriment of more socially conservative Muslims.

Conferring self-legitimacy on the premise of inaccurate or exaggerated information is not something new. James Frey, in his  (in)famous biography, ‘A Million Little Pieces’ which was first publicised and made famous on Oprah Winfrey’s renowned chat show ‘Oprah’ was forced to return to explain why he had lied and embellished his story. [5]

Indeed, the failure to examine and challenge the legitimacy of self-publicists can be damaging to some of the communities from where these individuals or groups first emerge.  In fact, such negligence in ascertaining the legitimacy of claims for the moral high ground have led to a proliferation of personalities either claiming a return from extremism, a return within the fold of democratic society as ‘prodigal sons’ or as experts in the field of counter-radicalisation, extremism and now, education.

Prior to the emergence of an extensive budget for the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Fund many of these voices were largely non-existent. Much criticism has been leveled against the PVEF; indeed, much of it is valid, especially insofar as it relates to the ineffectiveness of some of the organisations that received funding. I have been criticised for an altogether different reason by those sympathetic to and closely aligned with Quilliam’s way of thinking; namely, that so-called ‘non-violent extremists’ are part of the problem and not the solution, irrespective of their effectiveness or success in countering violent extremism. There is a need to address these baseless accusations from two angles:

First, the allegation against me and other socially conservative Muslims (a significant minority of whom adhere to Salafism) that we are non-violent extremists. This terminology, although relatively new within today’s context of radicalisation/counter-radicalisation, has been used before. Luminary personalities like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were all once considered threats to society as a result of their refusal to comply with perceived injustices. It is prudent to recall aspects of the following speech:

‘If this philosophy (of non-violence) had not emerged, by now many streets would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. If these repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history…

So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action…

…And now this is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorised as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label…The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?[6]

King’s letter is illustrative of a similar reality today. However, like him and others who refused to simply comply to what was considered the prevailing ‘norms’ during that era, many today also reject pejorative terminology by the government and its affiliated bodies/think-tanks aimed at marginalising their beliefs which do not accord to aspects of the status quo.

Referring to the accusation from a second angle, a simple response to the criticism of allegedly ‘non-violent extremists’ being a contributory factor towards violent extremism should be in relation to their legitimacy, credibility and effectiveness in addressing this challenge. Were they successful or not? Who or what has since replaced them that is more successful? With the number of British ‘jihadists’ travelling to Syria, can the government consider their strategy (or the apparent absence of a coherent one) a success?

Such individuals and organisations have been consistent for more than 20 years in addressing and fighting violent radicalisation without any significant change to their religious, political or cultural delineations – unlike a few of its critics who have surprisingly metamorphosed into altogether different personalities as so-called experts.

 

 


[1] BBC News: ‘Copenhagen Shootings: Police kill ‘gunman’ after two attacks’, 15th February 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31475803

[2] Very little reaction and indeed support was echoed internationally at the recent shocking news of three young Muslims being murdered by a white American: BBC: ‘Chapel Hill Shootings: Erdogan criticises US response,’ 13th February 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-31449632

[3] Ibid, citing Zubeck, P. ‘Cadets’ guest speaker will focus on Christianity’, Colorada Springs Gazette.

[4]  Al Jazeera, 11th June 2014: ‘Trojan Horse’ a UK Muslim witch-hunt?  http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/06/horse-uk-muslim-school-witch-hunt-2014610115441676100.html

[5] Oprah to author: ‘You conned us all’ CNN.com International, Friday 27th January 2006,  http://edition.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/books/01/27/oprah.frey/index.html

[6] Marting Luther King: ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail, [King Jr.]’ 16th April 1963, African Studies Centre – University of Pennsylvania: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

 

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