Though the majority of Britain’s Muslims are not “extremists”, they are “separatists”, was the damning verdict of Channel 4’s Dispatches survey. They and their offspring refuse to subscribe to the “values” of “liberal Britain” and are thus liable to being dismissed as separatists and potential extremists.
Though issuing from a true premise, this argument eventuates into a flawed conclusion. Yes, Muslims do subscribe to a distinct way of life and do endorse a peculiar set of social values. But does this difference in lifestyle represent a threat to British identity? Is s/he who does not drink alcohol or abstains from sex before marriage deserving of the sinister name of a separatist?
These questions lead us to the twin issues of belonging and identity. Is there a single or are there many levels of belonging? Is identity a fixed, predetermined and closed state, or is it open, changing and multi-dimensional? Are belonging to a religious/cultural community and active membership of a wider society fundamentally irreconcilable? Are Muslim identity and British identity necessarily mutually exclusive?
The survey relies on a set of rigid criteria, which reflect an equally rigid and closed understanding of identity and belonging. The formula it prescribes is the following: you either sign up to a ready-made conception of Britishness and fully subscribe to a monolithically defined British lifestyle, or you are a separatist dwelling in the shadows outside the pale of belonging, if not a threat to the security and stability of society as a whole.
One thing is certain. Muslims are not getting any less religious. You only have to look at second- and third-generation Muslims in Britain and across Europe to see it. This casts strong doubts over the thesis that modernisation and secularisation necessarily go hand in hand. Young British Muslim men and women are more urbanised and more educated than their parents, yet they are no more secular.
The prophecy that religious identities would evaporate with the advance of modernisation has proven to be a myth. The world is experiencing a reawakening of religious identities – in North and South America, as in Africa and Asia. Europe’s Muslims are no exception. But the more pressure is exerted on the Muslim minority, the greater this religious resurgence, and the more politicised its expression. Muslim identity, as a repository of symbols, norms and values, is profoundly rooted in a Muslim’s personality. Its shape and colour are, however, determined by the context within which it finds itself.
Apart from a handful of lunatics who dreaming of seeing the Queen turn into a Caliph and the Archbishop of Canterbury into the Grand Mufti, the majority of British Muslims want to preserve their religious lifestyles within the existing framework of British society. Channel 4’s Dispatches survey has contributed nothing to the ongoing tense, contorted debate over identity and belonging. It is part of a currently fashionable trend to scrutinise Muslims and place every aspect of their lives under the spotlight, lest they may realize their inherent potential for extremism and violence. While they use every twist of the English language to assert their tolerance of difference, those who have succumbed to this trend can only be called arrogant, authoritarian, prejudiced and islamophobic. Why else would they regard the frequenting of a mosque, or wearing of a headscarf, as the marks of a separatist and would-be extremist?
Before joining in the never-abating discussion over what to do about Muslims, we would do well to keep the following fact in mind: Muslims, their children and their grandchildren are here and they are here to stay, along with their cultures and ways of life. The clock cannot be turned backwards. We do not have many options at our disposal. We could adopt a closed notion of national identity and join the French in their endless battles for absolute homogeneity in the name of integration by the force of the law, the police and the security apparatus. But if we choose to go down this road, we should brace ourselves for an endless chain of social unrest and political tensions. For an example, think back to last year’s riots in Paris’s banlieus, which have left a trail of scorched cars, ruined buildings and indelible scars on France’s memory.
The other alternative is to go for a composite, diverse conception of identity, which allows for the presence of a plurality of ethnic, religious and cultural communities within the same open sphere. There isn’t and can never be a single, perfect social model. But the British, American and Canadian models remain infinitely more efficient and adaptable than that practiced in the French republic. For a proof, look at the rings of wretchedness, destitution and misery that encircle Paris, where first-, second- and third-generation immigrants continue to be incarcerated.
The differences of our lifestyles do not mean that we cannot meet over a common sense of belonging, or that we are forever fated to live on distant islands, interrupting our estrangement to cast a quick, suspicious glimpse every now and then. Some of us may go to church, others to the mosque and the rest to the pub. Our differences are part of us, and can neither be denied nor erased. But we share a common public sphere within which we must interact, communicate and overlap, in spite of our differences. There lies the challenge. We must either confront it and move forward, or embark on a futile mission to turn the clock backwards.
Creating this common sphere, which moves beyond forced integration and ghettoisation, is a responsibility equally shared by the majority and the minorities. Muslims must open themselves to and coexist with the diverse society around them. There is no contradiction between being a Muslim who leads a religious life, and belonging to a majority society whose ways of thinking, lifestyles, social norms and conceptions of happiness may differ from your own.
But the majority has a crucial part to play too. A recent You GovPoll for the Commission of Racial Equality in Britain revealed that 83% of white Britons have no friends who are practising Muslims, and that 94% say that they do not have any friends from outside their white communities. We hear much of the insulation of the minorities, but hardly anything of the majority’s separatism. Without the majority breaking out of its comfortable ghetto, without it making an effort to overcome the barriers of ignorance, fear and prejudice, without it reaching out to its surrounding minorities, the common sphere of interaction, communication and exchange we desire will never come to be.
First Published in The Guardian, Thursday 10 August 2006