Is there a connection between Muslim 'superdiversity' and sectarian violence?

What lies behind two intra-Muslim killings in Britain? The question is timely at the unifying moment of a new Muslim year. 

Parveen Akhtar
5 October 2016

East London Mosque, Whitechapel, London. Steve Parsons PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The start of the new Islamic calendar year falls this time round on 2–3 October, depending of course on global location. The Islamic year 1437 has just ended and 1438 begun. Unlike the Christian new year, which is closely associated with the birth of Christ, the Muslim new year commemorates the migration journey of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE. In Islam, the day begins with the sighting of the new moon.

The Islamic new year, also known as Hijiri (after the hijira or migration) also marks the first day of the month of Muharram, the second holiest month of the Islamic calendar after Ramadan. It marks the anniversary of Karbala, the battle in which much of the Prophet’s family was killed, including his grandson Imam Hussein Ibn Ali. The battle of Karbala was about the Caliphate, defining the identity of the rightful successor to Muhammad, and it is here where the sectarian divisions between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims have their origin.

Shi’ites believes that Imam Hussein was denied the Caliphate, which would not have happened if Imam Hussein’s father, Ali (the Prophet’s son-in-law) had succeeded Muhammad after his death. Instead, the mantle passed to Abu Bakr Sadiq.

This background indicates that the new year in Islam carries symbolic importance in relation to both migration and sectarianism. In Britain in the passing year, whether the Islamic or Gregorian calendar is referred to, these themes have been prominent in two separate murders where a Muslim was killed for being the 'wrong' kind of Muslim.

As Muslim communities in the UK and western Europe become more diverse, such sectarian killings could become more commonplace.

The first victim, Asad Shah, was an Ahmadiyya. He was murdered by a Sunni Barelwi for 'disrespecting' the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. The second target was himself a Sunni Barelwi, killed by a Salafi who believed his practice of ta’widh (amulets) took him outside the fold of Islam. The worry is that as Muslim communities in the UK and western Europe become more diverse, such sectarian killings could become more commonplace.

In recent years, key policy and scholarly debates about Islam in the west have centred on questions about the compatibility of the respective values and lifestyles of Muslim and non-Muslim populations in western liberal states. The two murders point to the need to examine the reality of and potential for sectarianism within Muslim communities in the west.

The routes of belief

In August this year, Tanveer Ahmed, a Muslim taxi-driver from Bradford, was sentenced to 27 years in prison for the murder of Asad Shah, a Glasgow shopkeeper. Ahmed had driven to Scotland to confront Shah about his beliefs. The Ahmadiyya do not believe that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was the last and final prophet, a view that is considered heretical by many Muslims and blasphemous by Sunni Muslims. In a statement released by Ahmed after his conviction, he asserted that the murder was in defence of the Prophet: "Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him".

Migration to western Europe is forcing Muslims to confront different ways of practising Islam.

Ahmed’s actions were inspired by another, in Pakistan in 2011: the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab. The man convicted of the crime, Mumtaz Qadri, a police officer and Taseer’s former bodyguard, was sentenced to death and hanged in February 2016. Taseer had supported reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and backed Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for insulting the Prophet. In murdering the Punjab governor, Qadri believed he was defending the honour of the Prophet. His own funeral was attended by thousands of mourners and today, Qadri is revered by some Sunni Muslims as a martyr and a saint.

Transnational connections add further dimensions to these incidents. The Bradford murderer Tanveer Ahmed was one of those who considered Mumtaz Qadri a martyr, writing to him in prison whilst Qadri was awaiting execution. Both men were Sunni Barelwi, who are ordinarily associated with the spiritual aspects of faith. Indeed, they are often the ones persecuted for not being 'proper' Muslims because their populist branch of Islam includes practices such as devotional Qawwali music and the following of saints, rituals both considered shirk (or out of the bounds of Islam) by literalists such as Wahhabis and Salafis.

The second sectarian killing in Britain this year was of a Barelwi, the 71-year-old Jalal Uddin, originally from Bangladesh. He was targeted by two men in their early 20s and murdered as he made his way through the streets of Rochdale. One of the assailants was sentenced to prison for a minimum of 24 years, whilst the other man fled to Turkey and is believed to have crossed the border into Syria to fight for Islamic State.

This sectarianism within Islam... can be traced to two key factors: greater diversity of Muslims settling in Europe, and the mobilisation of sectarian divisions via the internet.

That the faith of the perpetrator in the Asad Shah murder was the faith of the victim in the Jalal Uddin case highlights the complexities of sectarian divisions within Islam. Barelwis revere the Prophet and have killed to defend his honour. Salafis detest such reverence as false idolisation and link Barelwi customs to 'black magic'.

The effects of change

This sectarianism within Islam in the west is a recent development. It can be traced to two key factors: greater diversity of Muslims settling in Europe, and the mobilisation of sectarian divisions via the internet.

Migration to western Europe is forcing Muslims to confront different ways of practising Islam. Muslim communities in the UK, for example, have changed rapidly in the past twenty years. Changes in migration patterns have contributed to the development of a highly diverse Muslim population. 

Between the 1950s and the late 1980s, migration of Muslims to Britain consisted of many – primarily economic – migrants from a few former colonial countries, who settled in specific industrial urban locations. Uncertain in their status, these Muslims were content with a less visible faith. In the last two decades, fewer migrants from a larger number of countries – as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Nigeria – have made these urban centres their home. These new Muslim migrants share mosques, halal butchers, Islamic bookshops and community centres. This process of the diversification of diversity, or "superdiversity", as Steven Vertovec calls it, is not limited to Muslim migrants, but reflects a wider development of super-diverse migration patterns.

 There is a real internal debate within communities, often with a streak of intolerance.

There has, of course, always been diversity amongst Muslims in the UK along sectarian and theological lines. However, post-war migration resulted in the establishment of significant Muslim communities drawn largely from the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) whose key dividing lines were ethnic, reflected in 'Pakistani' and 'Bangladeshi' mosques. What is novel about the present situation is the combination of the pace and scale of difference, with the availability of religious information and sectarian mobilisation on the internet. 

Unlike many of the pioneer generation of post-war Muslim migrants, the descendants are fully literate and able to access theological material, especially on the internet. They are also much more aware then their parents’ generation of the differences within Islam. There is a real internal debate within communities, often with a streak of intolerance.

Research on established Muslim communities finds that "the diasporic encounter with other Muslims" is crucial in the development of the religion, since the "experience of meeting other modes of Islamic cultural expression with equally strong claims to validity as one’s own raises questions as to the exclusive legitimacy of any one particular mode". Mixing with other Muslims can inspire theological debate and has the potential to bear significantly on religious identity and a process of transformation, as Vertovec states. But it can also, as demonstrated by the cases above, lead to sectarianism and violence.

The month of Muharram and the beginning of the new Islamic year is traditionally a time of prayer and contemplation. One prayer that Muslims may want to consider is that Muslim 'superdiversity' in Europe does not lead to greater sectarian violence.

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