tariq modood
Tariq Modood
Professor and founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.

Identity, Muslims and multiculturalism

Issues of identity and belonging have stimulated strong debates, so much that even Gordon Brown has written and spoken about Britishness. In post 9/11 Britain, successive opinion polls have tied these anxieties and their politicised questions to negative attitudes towards British Muslims. These have become important contemporary issues for civic Britain.

British Muslim identity politics had been stimulated by the Satanic VersesAffair. It was a crisis that led many to think of themselves for the first time as Muslims in a public way. With any identity, for some it will be a background, while others will often foreground it, although much will depend on context. So it is with Muslims. Even with those for whom a Muslim identity is in many contexts not just a background, it does not follow that it is the religious dimension that is most prominent1: it can be a sense of family and community; or for collective political advancement, or righting the wrongs done to Muslims. Indeed, we cannot assume that being ‘Muslim’ means the same thing to all. For some, being Muslim is a matter of community membership and heritage; for others it is a few simple precepts about self, compassion, justice and the afterlife; for others it is a worldwide movement armed with a counter-ideology to modernity; and so on. Some Muslims are devout but apolitical; some are political but do not see their politics as being ‘Islamic’ (indeed, may even be anti-‘Islamic’).

So allowing Muslims to politically organise ‘as Muslims’ without any sense of illegitimacy and for them to raise distinctive concerns, to have group representation in political parties, trades unions, various public bodies and so on, means allowing Muslims to organise in ways they think appropriate at different times, in different contexts and for different ends. The result will be a spectrum of activity – a visible and democratic constellation, that bears a ‘family resemblance’.

It is ironic that Muslims are experiencing the pressures to step up and be British Muslims in the same context in which members of other minorities might be coming to feel an easing of identity pressures and greater freedom to mix and match identities on an individual basis. Some of the most interesting developments are the emergence of organisations – the scale of which is currently still relatively small – which want to belong to the family of public Muslims but are thoroughly critical of a religious politics and what is particularly distinctive about them is the relative thinness of their appeal to Islam to justify their social democratic politics. They could just as easily seek to privatise their Muslimness but feel a socio-political obligation to do the opposite. There is a felt need to join the public constellation of Muslim identities rather than walk away from them. Some contemporary Muslim identity politics, then, responds pragmatically treating being ‘British Muslim’ as a hyphenated identity in which both parts are to be valued as important to oneself and one’s principles and belief commitments. Of course to bring together two or several identity shaping, even identity defining, commitments together will have an effect on each of the commitments. They will begin to interact, leading to some reinterpretation on the different sides, a process that often leads to scholarly engagement with the Islamic intellectual heritage.

One of the key areas of renewal and reinterpretation has been equality and related concepts. This can be seen in debates about gender equality in which Muslim cultural practices and taken for granted assumptions have been subjected to severe critique through fresh readings of the Quran, the sayings and practice of the Prophet Muhammad and Muslim history, tracing the emergence of conservative and restricted interpretations at moments when other interpretations could and should have been favoured (Mernissi 19912, Ahmed 19923, Wadud 19994).

Plurality is emerging as an important Muslim idea. Despite certain ideas that one might associate with Saudi Arabia or the Taliban, most Muslims have no theological or conscientious problems with multi-faith citizenship – after all the Prophet Muhammad founded just such a polity. The first organised, settled Muslim community was in the city of Madina which was shared with Jews and others and was based on an inter-communally agreed constitution. The late Zaki Badawi, one of the most learned Muslim theologians to have lived in modern Britain, once described it as the first example of a multicultural constitution in history in that it guaranteed autonomy to the various communities of the city (Badawi 20035).

Islam has a highly developed sense of social or ethical citizenship, in which, in line with contemporary western communitarian thinking, duties as well as rights are emphasised. This is illustrated in one of the ‘five pillars of Islam’, namely, zakat, the obligation to give a proportion of one’s income or wealth to the poor and needy. It has an inherent civic character for it is not simply a responsibility to one’s kith and kin or to those known in face to face relationships such as those in one’s neighbourhood or at one’s workplace, it extends to strangers, to an ‘imagined community’. The idea that it needs a state to enforce social citizenship or religious law more generally is very much a post-Colonialist theology that seeks to place the political over the legal (the Sharia). More recently, and chiefly from within Europe and North America, a strand of Islamic modernity counters this authoritarian tendency by positioning the Sharia not as a body of unchanging law, but as a set of ethical principles with legal conclusions that apply to specific places and times only and so have to be continually reinterpreted, and so placing the ethical over the legal and the political (Sardar 19876 and Ramadan 20047). It is an example of how scholarship can draw on extra-European heritages and reinterpreting them in a context of a democratic citizenship.

As Muslims discuss these matters and as Muslim discourses become part of British debates, these matters will become more openly debated and political maturity could mean that when we seek Muslim voices or civic participants we will not seek exclusively one or even a few kinds of Muslims. This is easier to achieve at the level of discourses, more difficult in terms of institutional accommodation but not impossible. Moreover, it is a positive virtue that there is internal variety within any group and that (organised) members of any one group will want to locate themselves in different parts of the representational landscape – secular, religious, close to government, distant from mainstream political parties – for that is true integration; new groups should have similar opportunities to old groups and will not need to conform to a special minority perspective.

The result will be a democratic constellation of organisations, networks, alliances and discourses in which there will be agreement and disagreement, in which group identity will be manifested more by way of family resemblances than the idea that one group means one voice. But these differences should be related to things we have in common in order to work more constructively. That commonality is citizenship, a citizenship that is seen in a plural and dispersed way. It does not make sense to encourage strong multicultural or minority identities and weak common or national identities; strong multicultural identities are a good thing – they are not intrinsically divisive, reactionary or fifth columns – but they need a framework of vibrant, dynamic, national narratives and the ceremonies and rituals which give expression to a national identity. It is clear that minority identities are capable of having an emotional pull for the individuals for whom they are important. Multicultural citizenship requires, therefore, if it is to be equally attractive to the same individuals, a comparable counter-balancing emotional pull.

Many Britons say they are worried about disaffection amongst some Muslim young men and more generally a lack of identification with Britain amongst many Muslims in Britain. As a matter of fact, surveys over many years have shown Muslims have been reaching out for identification with Britain. For example, in a Channel 4 NOP survey conducted in Spring 2006, 82% of a well constructed national sample of Muslims said they very strongly (45%) or fairly strongly (37%) felt they belonged to Britain8. Yet the survey also found that many Muslims did not feel comfortable in Britain. For example, 58% thought that extreme religious persecution of Muslims was very likely (23%) or fairly likely (35%).

A sense of belonging to one’s country is necessary to make a success of a multicultural society. An inclusive national identity is respectful of and builds upon the identities that people value and does not trample upon them. So integration is not simply or even primarily a minority problem. For central to it is a citizenship and the right to make a claim on the national identity in which negative difference is challenged and supplanted by positive difference.

We cannot afford to leave out these aspects of multicultural citizenship from an intellectual or political vision of social reform and justice in the twenty-first century. Rather, the turning of negative difference into positive difference should be one of the tests of social justice in this century.

1 Perhaps to even talk about a ‘religious’ dimension is already to be thinking of Islam in terms of a western, Protestant originating category (Asad 2003), though it is by now a category that many Muslims, western and others, have by now made their own. (Asad, T (2003) Formations of the Secular, California: Stanford University

2 Mernissi, F (1991) Women and Islam: an historical and theological enquiry translated by Lakeland, M J, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, xi: 228.

3 Ahmed, L, (1992) Women and gender in Islam :historical roots of a modern debate, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press: 296.

4 Wadud, A, (1999) Qur’an and Woman:  Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, New York:  Oxford University Press.

5 Badawi, M A Z (2003) Citizenship in Islam, Association of Muslim Social Scientists (UK) Newslwetter, 6: 17-20.

6 Sardar, Z (1987) The Future of Muslim Civilisation, 2nd edn., London: Mansell.

7 Ramadan, T (2004) Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

8 Full survey at  http://www.channel4.com/news/microsites/D/dispatches2006/muslim_survey/index.html