Dispelling myths about British Muslims

June 21, 2014

Many people have come to regard Muslims as a backward group of religious extremists estranged from wider society and incapable of coming to terms with what it means to be British. This impression has been heightened by misleading press reporting and inflammatory statements from senior politicians. The so-called “Trojan horse” controversy concerning an alleged Muslim takeover of Birmingham schools – based on what looks like a fabricated document – has brought fresh ugliness to an already putrid public debate.

There are elements of truth in the popular narrative about British Islam, but much of it is based on ignorance. A 2011 Demos survey showed that Muslims are more patriotic than other Britons (83 per cent said they were proud to be British as opposed to 79 per cent of the general population), and are more integrated than is often thought to be the case. So the publication of these two books could not be timelier. Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen and The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani.

Innes Bowen, a BBC radio journalist, has written an admirable and clear- headed study which has much to teach anyone with an interest in British Islam. She explains the beliefs, historical background and political engagement of the main Muslim sects and organisations: Deobandis, Barelwis, Tablighi Jamaat, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Shia and Ismailis.

Bowman dispels a long list of myths about the role of Saudi teaching in mosques, the influence of Iran among British Shia (very little), the connection between the doctrines of Tablighi Jamaat and terrorism (none), and the alleged shortage of British-born imams (there are plenty). Bowen’s book is gentle and optimistic. She suggests that over time there is no fundamental contradiction between Islam and the modern Western state.

Arun Kundnani has written a very different kind of work. It is angrier and more polemical. Yet it too is grounded in research from both sides of the Atlantic. The case studies from the United States are shocking. He shows how Muslims there can be ensnared by the FBI into so-called plots which have been devised by the US government, arguing convincingly that Islam has taken over the role of public enemy from communism. It dispels myths, pointing out that “there is no Islamic doctrine of ‘kill the unbelievers’ as anti-Islam propagandists often maintain. Islam, like other religions, provides a broad moral framework for thinking about questions of violence.” Again and again this book challenges your assumptions. It is worth reading for its examination of the word “extremism” alone. Martin Luther King, Kundnani points out, was denounced in this way. Kundnani is fiercer and more pessimistic.

New Book: Inventing the Muslim Cool: Islamic Youth Culture in Western Europe by Maruta Herding

June 4, 2014

Inventing the Muslim Cool: Islamic Youth Culture in Western Europe

Maruta Herding

May, 2014 
Paper270 pages, 17 b&w 1 color
ISBN: 978-3-8376-2511-0
Transcript-Verlag 

Inventing the Muslim Cool: Islamic Youth Culture in Western Europe by Maruta Herding
Inventing the Muslim Cool: Islamic Youth Culture in Western Europe by Maruta Herding

In the current environment of a growing Muslim presence in Europe, young Muslims have started to develop a subculture of their own. The manifestations reach from religious rap and street wear with Islamic slogans to morally impeccable comedy. This form of religiously permissible fun and of youth-compatible worship is actively engaged in shaping the future of Islam in Europe and of Muslim/non-Muslims relations.
Based on a vast collection of youth cultural artefacts, participant observations and in-depth interviews in France, Britain and Germany, this book provides a vivid description of Islamic youth culture and explores the reasons why young people develop such a culture.

Dr Maruta Herding is a sociologist at the German Youth Institute (Deutsches Jugendinstitut e.V.) in Halle, Germany. The book «Inventing the Muslim Cool» is the publication of her doctoral research, which she conducted at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include the study of young people, subcultures and Muslims in Europe.

Foreign Affair – ‘My Accidental Jihad,’ by Krista Bremer

May 23, 2014

There’s a scene in “My Accidental Jihad” in which Krista Bremer visits her husband’s relatives in Libya and sees a wheezing, skeletal old woman lying on a hospital bed in their living room.

In America, someone so fragile would be in intensive care. Here, relatives greet the woman warmly and lean against her bed as they eat dinner. “Dying was apparently as much a part of a busy Libyan household as all the other chaos of family,” Bremer writes.

“My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story” tells how Bremer — an exercise-obsessed, well-off Californian — adapts to being the wife of a Libyan émigré, and flirts with Islam. The memoir, Bremer’s first book, grew out of a prizewinning essay she wrote for The Sun, a North Carolina-based magazine where she is associate publisher.

Bremer herself eventually experiments with Islam and grapples with her daughter’s decision to wear a head scarf. She’s eager to dispel the stereotype of Islam as intrinsically violent. But in backing away from that caricature, she falls into another: that of the noble savage. Ismail, in her telling, is the exasperating but enlightened foreigner with the power to see luxury cars as mere “metal boxes on wheels.”

The book also suffers from an unusual problem for a contemporary memoir: not enough personal information. How did Ismail get from his village to an American doctoral program? (There’s a passing reference to a scholarship late in the book.) What’s this middle-aged man’s job and romantic history? How does Bremer’s nominally Christian family react to her marriage? The book lacks crucial connective tissue, and makes confusing chronological jumps.

Its highlight is Bremer’s trip to Libya, where there’s no need to overstate the contrasts. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s policy on breast-feeding looks surprisingly appealing next to Bremer’s experience pumping breast milk in the toilet stall of an American office. Among Ismail’s fleshy female relatives, she finally understands why he keeps pressing her to gain weight. And it’s in Libya that Bremer has a key insight about bicultural marriages: Not all differences are cultural; Ismail may be “maddening on both sides of the world.”

“My Accidental Jihad” is maddening at times too, though it’s punctuated with moving moments. Krista Bremer has a very good story, but she doesn’t always tell it.

Two more book reviews on Andrew Hussey’s The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs

French Intifada

March 21, 2014

 

1) By Mathew Price on March 11, 2014 titled: ‘The trouble with France: the largest Muslim community in Europe seethes on the periphery’

http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/books/the-trouble-with-france-the-largest-muslim-community-in-europe-seethes-on-the-periphery#full

 

2) By Nick Fraser on March 16, 2014 titled: ‘The French Intifada review – ‘A courageous view of modern France’

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/16/french-intifada-review-courageous-modern-france-andrew-hussey

BOOK REVIEW: The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West?

myth of muslim tide

The Myth of the Muslim Tide is a timely, sober and exhaustively researched book. British-Canadian Globe and Mail journalist Doug Saunders clearly and effectively debunks a number of irrational yet widely circulated demographic and historical claims by drawing on popular political literature, quantitative data and opinion polls. The short book is a useful tool with which to counteract the heightened post-9/11 notion of an imminent avalanche of Muslim immigrants bent on taking over Western countries from within, a goal parallel with that of the Euro-Islam network.

These ideas matter because they are not solely the fodder of extremists. Saunders frames the book around his experience of reading Anders Breivik’s manifesto, but we know these beliefs are foundational for political leaders like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, parties that have anti-Muslim-immigration agendas in Scandinavia, the National Front in France and so on.

My own anthropologically-based work with Muslims outside of Paris,in the Greater Toronto Area and in St. John’s, Newfoundland has led me to findings similar to Saunders’: that public debate and, at times, governmental and legal policies are marked by misinformation about the population, birth rates and lack of extremism among the majority of Western Muslims.

While my work is qualitative, Saunders’ data are dryly and dispassionately accurate and say a great deal about disparities between influential conservatives’ claims and the realities of European and North American Muslims (who I find he sweeps together a bit too easily). Saunders’ claims that, “The truth about Muslim communities is not found in scripture but in action” (7) is on the mark and one with which many social scientists would agree.

To my mind the book’s strengths lie in the latter half of the book where he shows how Catholics in the US in the 18th and 19th Centuries and Jews in Europe in the early 20th Century were perceived with some of the same tone and racist scaremongering as Muslims today. There is, in sum, precedence for this discourse and history is a useful tool to show these trends.

 

Lastly, while Saunders’ overview of the privatization of religion is a bit too facile, his observation of how “Muslimness” is increasingly used as a trumping marker and identifier of peoples who have a number of other identifiers (as parents, immigrants, workers, siblings, of specific ethnic groups) is accurate . “The Muslim People” or ummah are catchalls that are also increasingly used by Muslims who find them politically unifying and theologically expedient. Saunders makes clear that the sheer variety of Islamic ways of life escape easy categorization.

There are two elements of the book I felt could have been further developed. Firstly, I wished Saunders had further developed the emotional quotient of these “tides.” He alludes to this feature in the opening of the book when he describes his visceral response to the changing so-called ethnic shops in his London neighborhood, his babysitter’s religious conversion and in a short section on “Self-Hating Westerners” that suggests that some Europeans see themselves at fault for this “tide” in becoming spiritually and morally bankrupt (20).

It seems to me that the emotional element in encountering difference is far more complex than charting fertility trends and speaks to why, for instance, autobiographies of Muslim women experiencing intimate partner violence are bestsellers in Western Europe and North America when we know that women of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds experience abuse. As a side note, when Saunders says in his introduction that he aligns himself with popular “Enlightenment fundamentalist” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I became worried. Social scientists like Saba Mahmood and Sherene Razack have effectively shown how Infidel (2007) does more damage in presenting an Orientalist homogenized patriarchal package than some of the authors Saunders critiques like Orianna Falacci or Mark Steyn. Fortunately this early appreciation does not lead Saunders to adopt Hirsi Ali’s neo-Orientalist positions.

Getting back to the emotional equation, I wished Saunders had more clearly articulated and considered the language of encounter. In my own work I have critiqued the French policy and legal arms of the Sarkozy government’s treatment of hijabs (2011), but I appreciate that a significant portion of the 2010 644-page government report that prefaced the so-called “burqa ban” treats the emotional experience of engaging with someone whose face is covered and who has different eating habits, beliefs and sexual politics.

Saunders recognizes the anxiety of the “politics of the neighbor” but his purely logical analytical response does not capture how one might feel if one’s child’s kindergarten teacher wears a niqab in the classroom. Granted, there are few niqabis in Canada – there are an estimated 25 in the province of Quebec where a bill has been recommended to ban them from public services  –  but while I might know that she is not intent on promoting Sharia in the criminal code, I might still wonder how I should address this teacher. This book does not deal with this pervasive affective issue, which is essential.

Secondly, I think it’s worth thinking about the intended audience for the book.  Saunders reflexively shares his own anxieties and fears, questioning his own responses, imagining his readers to be in the same boat. This tone allows for an openness and lack of judgment. Readers, like Saunders, might have major concerns when their babysitter converts (or reverts) to Islam but don’t want to be bigoted or racist in their responses.

However, his appeasement-filled language on the one hand and extensive use of “us” (the readers) and “them” (the Muslim immigrants) on the other is confusing. It effectively maintains “them” as outsiders, which appears to counter his primary goal. We must also consider the possible effects of focusing on a lack of threat  from Muslims in particular. Can reading this book actually shift a discursive stratagem away from the notion of Islamic threat or does this book participate in the construction of a global and decontextualized Muslim other by insisting that Muslims are largely benign?

In sum, as Saunders himself noted at a Big Thinkers’ Event at the University of Victoria in June 2013, “I wrote this book for that uncle”. The book is intended for a wide general audience. Academics may find it a useful reference for undergraduate students; policy makers and journalists will find the data in this well-researched book useful and compelling.