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The 'Muslim community': a European invention

About the authors
Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat
Saleh Bechir is a Tunisian writer based in Rome. His website is here

European countries are all worrying about their Muslim populations, but there is one reality they have failed to grasp: that they have played a part in creating the problem, in the form of “Muslim communities”, in the first place. The immigrants and their descendants who fall under this designation may have arrived as Pakistanis, Turks, Moroccans, Algerians, or Iraqis; it was only after they settled in the west that they were transformed into “Muslim communities”. Such communities are, to a certain extent, a “virtual reality” that exists above all in the minds of western politicians, “experts” and journalists – and, of course, in the minds of their supposed and self-appointed “spokesmen”.

After all, no one free from ideological preconceptions can fail to notice that immigrants from majority-Muslim countries are not a homogenous group, which can be dealt with simply on the basis of its religious character. Islam is a core but not an exclusive component of their identities: it has a central but diverse role in the construction of who they are. It is something all groups can rally round, without negating their myriad cultural differences or their parallel and sometimes conflicting histories and sub-histories.

Put another way, Islam both brings people together and has a pivotal role in creating or justifying cultural distinctions. This will seem paradoxical only to those who oversimplify anthropological phenomena for reasons of ideology. Moreover, this apparent contradiction is not peculiar to Islam. For many Catholics, religion is an essential and fundamental part of their social existence, but this does not prevent them having richly varied identities. No one would consider immigrants to western Europe from two strict Catholic countries such as Poland and the Philippines as belonging to a single “Christian community”.

Such descriptions may fly in the face of the evidence, yet they are precisely how Muslims are often defined by intellectual-political models of “community identity” and “multiculturalism” advocated by scholars like Tariq Modood (even in reformed and nuanced versions such as his openDemocracy essay, “Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7”).

Is Britain’s model of community relations becoming similar to the “Ottoman empire”? Should it be more rigorously multicultural, or move in a secularist direction? openDemocracy democracy writers discuss:

David Hayes, “What kind of country?” (July 2005)

Gilles Kepel, “Europe’s answer to Londonistan” (August 2005)

Tariq Modood, “Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7” (September 2005)

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In reality, supposed Muslim “communities” consist of numerous groups with little in common. A Pakistani Muslim and a non-Muslim immigrant from the Indian sub-continent share infinitely more – in terms of customs, diet, tastes, leisure pursuits and other aspects of daily life – than do two Muslims from (say) Turkey and Morocco. The same can be said of other Muslims in their relations with their “brothers in religion”.

Moreover, where countries are split along ethnic or sectarian lines, these distinctions persist among emigrants from those nations. An Iraqi Kurd living in London will rarely mix with Iraqi Arabs, just as Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a seldom associate with one another abroad. This is also true of relations between expatriate Lebanese Sunni and Shi’a, or to Sunni from southern Yemen and Shi’a from the north of the country.

An essentialist vision

Europeans make huge assumptions when they lump all Muslim immigrants together, persistently and without self-reflection. European countries have overcome many aspects of their old colonial mentality, but vestiges of it remain in the way they regard immigrants. In Britain, for example, a sort of throwback to the time of the British Raj allows Pakistanis, Moroccans, Egyptians and Iraqis to be seen simply as “Muslims”.

Partly as a result, institutions with the label “Muslim” have sprung up, as if expecting all these diverse peoples somehow to rally around them. Moreover, practical considerations help endorse the myth: from Bradford to Berlin, from Rotterdam to Rome, the faithful gather in multinational mosques, listening to sermons delivered by preachers speaking European languages.

Multicultural Britain in particular resembles a latter-day Ottoman empire, embracing countless peoples who are categorised according to their religion, but allowed to live as they please. The Ottoman state always remained an outsider to society, never interfering in the lives of its communities as long as they paid their taxes and provided soldiers for the army.

This postmodern “anything goes”, live-and-let-live sensibility threatens the idea of the citizen just as the last-ditch defenders of the Ottoman empire came to threaten it in the late 19th century. However, the effect today is even more pernicious than it was then, for the link between residence and belonging is being undermined. The impact of globalisation is not just that travel becomes easier, local television stations proliferate and foodstuffs are shipped around the world; it is also that the migrant’s refuge is turned into just another location with which he has no intrinsic connection and does not interact.

Neo-liberal capitalism reinforces these effects and must also take its share of the blame. In divesting itself of numerous functions, especially in the field of education, the state has given a boost to minority “identities” and allowed them to establish their own platforms, institutions and sectional interests in the social field.

Thus we arrive at the paradox that secular countries may have “invented”, or at least helped to foment, religious sects in their midst. They have done so through a form of blindness resulting from an essentialist view of the other. Even where they avoid this view at an earlier stage, it can affect their understanding later – for in battling against perceived dangers from ideological enemies in the Muslim world, these countries may also inadvertently adopt some aspects of their foes’ worldview, and then apply these selfsame assumptions to their own Muslim citizens.

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat; Saleh Bechir is a Tunisian writer based in Rome.

Among Hazem Saghieh’s articles on openDemocracy:

“Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes” (June 2004)

“Rafiq Hariri’s murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?” (February 2005)

“How to make Israel secure” (August 2005)

A phantom politics

Islam’s lack of internal religious reform has undeniably caused an enormous problem, and Muslims’ tendency to self-stereotype themselves strengthened the tendency to stereotype them. Nevertheless, the bombs of July 2005 in London – set off by Britons of Pakistani origin and immigrants from the Horn of Africa – were senseless acts of protest by marginalised young people. They must be understood in their contingency and particularity, not mis-identified as belonging to an ill-defined, large-scale social grouping of doubtful reality.

Their equivalents who took such action three decades ago, after all, were clearly identified as sympathisers with defined political causes – the sub-Maoism of the Weather Underground in the United States, the neo-fascism of the Bologna railway-station bombers, or the anti-capitalism of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang – rather than as representatives of amorphous “communities”. The July attacks, like the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, certainly do not represent any wide-ranging “Muslim community” – for in reality such a community does not exist, except by virtue of misguided policies and thinking that evade the primary necessity in Europe today: a common, equal citizenship for all.


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