Muslims: made in Europe?

Shehla Khan Cemalettin Hasimi
2 November 2005

Tariq Modood’s openDemocracy article “Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7” has generated a lively discussion on the relationship between multiculturalism, politics and identity. In response to critics of multiculturalism who proclaimed the demise or the irrelevance of the multiculturalist model in the wake of the London bombings, Modood calls for its salvaging and renewal through a concerted attempt at recognising the role of Muslims as legitimate social partners.

The replies to Modood’s article embrace a variety of concerns but centre primarily upon the presumed difficulties attending the conceptualisation of Muslims as a distinct category. This difficulty is seen to proceed from the cultural and political heterogeneity that characterises Muslims, and which, in its complexity, exceeds the limits of the multiculturalist model.

However, some writers in the debate go much further, and seek in effect to attack the very notion or possibility of a Muslim community existing either in Europe or elsewhere. This position – exemplified above all in the article by Saleh Bechir & Hazem Saghieh, “The ‘Muslim community’: a European invention” – is one we focus on here at some length. At the outset, however, we comment on variants of this argument in the articles by Paul Kelly, and by Neville Adams, Stephan Feuchtwang & Kazim Khan.

Also in our debate on British Muslims, multiculturalism, and democracy:

David Hayes, “What kind of country?”

Gilles Kepel, “Europe’s answer to Londonistan”

Ehsan Masood, “British Muslims must stop the war”

Tariq Modood, “Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7”

Saleh Bechir & Hazem Saghieh, “The ‘Muslim community’: a European invention”

Neville Adams, Stephan Feuchtwang & Kazim Khan, “Tariq Modood’s multicultural project”

Paul Kelly, “Multiculturalism and 7/7: neither problem nor solution”

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The power of definition

Paul Kelly’s article, “Multiculturalism and 7/7: neither problem nor solution”, presents a critique of multiculturalism as well as of its “solidaristic” opponents, finding both approaches to be “locked in the dead-end of identity politics”. This observation leads Kelly to devise alternative ways of framing the Muslim presence in British politics. Locating the issue chiefly in terms of a crisis of representation, he raises the issues of “who can legitimately speak for British Muslims”. In his opinion, the diversity amongst British Muslims renders representation in a rights-based political framework problematic; he therefore counsels a shift away from a focus on Muslim identity and towards a “genuinely inclusive and liberal politics”.

Neville Adams, Stephan Feuchtwang & Kazim Khan’s argument in “Tariq Modood’s multicultural project”. Is more detailed; but here too they contend that “British Muslims are no more a unitary entity than are south Asian Muslims”. This point is exemplified via a comparison of two “leading Indian Muslim figures”, Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Mujeeb. While Iqbal, the philosopher-poet is accused of inspiring the birth of a “theocratic state” (Pakistan), Mujeeb is lauded for subordinating the notion of a unitary Muslim subject to the “common ideals of citizenship and culture” enshrining an inclusive “secular, democratic republic” (India).

In many ways, both these articles set the tone for Saleh Bechir & Hazem Saghieh’s article. Notably, both imply a curious understanding of the nature of collective identities and logics of representation, yet neither clarifies why they assume that “Muslim” as a category is more complex and diverse than other identifications like “Indian” or “Pakistani” or “European”. Moreover, both display a marked conceptual inconsistency evidenced in their shift from one context to another.

For example, Adams et al disallow the possibility that Muslims constitute “unitary subjects”, arguing instead for their assimilation within “the common ideals of citizenship and culture” enshrined in the nation-state. However, the authors appear oblivious to the fact that states, even “secular” ones, construct unitary political subjects, or that the delineation of citizenship and of a common culture does not exist a priori, but is often achieved through sustained violence and displacement.

The distaste for unitary structures and categories appears all the more pronounced towards the article’s conclusion, where the authors suggest that the British government should address racism and Islamophobia by abandoning the notion of a Muslim community, and by disengaging from a definition of what is British, leaving this endeavour to the “British” people. Thus “British” exists as a composite category, albeit one that is vacuous, and while it awaits content, it is yet worthy of defining the government of the state. In comparison, “Muslim” is deligitimated as a potential site of identification.

Bechir & Saghieh continue with the attempt to disarticulate Muslim identity. However, their article also departs from the methodology of its predecessors; it adopts a specific territorial-political focus for critique by focusing exclusively on Muslims in Europe, and as a consequence undertakes a subtle shift of emphasis, in which the responsibility for constructing a chimerical Muslim community is not only ascribed to Modood, but more significantly, to “neo-colonial tendencies” within Europe itself. The article, therefore, merits discussion in some detail.

The critique of essentialism

Bechir & Saghieh maintain that Muslims comprise “numerous groups with little in common”. Consequently, they suggest, it is only through the workings of “an essentialist vision” deriving from Europe’s imperial past, that the internal differences of the “community” are collapsed, allowing for its monolithic identification as “Muslim”. In their resort to anti-essentialism, the authors, however, echo the logic of anti-orientalism. Whereas orientalist accounts endow Islam with a timeless and fixed essence, anti-orientalism signals the disintegration of Islam as a viable analytical category; in so doing, however, it is unable to transcend the orientalist straitjacket, since all that it invokes is a reversal rather than a rupture. A fragmented and contradictory vision of Islam replaces a monolithic one.

Bechir & Saghieh are only able to see an essentialist aspect to Europe’s construction of what is in their view, an ersatz Muslim community; they are however, unable to envisage, and therefore to extend, their critique to the essentialism that is constitutive of the identity of Europe itself. Moreover, the authors are unable to grasp that it is this very essentialist construction of European identity, which was deeply implicated in its colonial past, allowing for its iteration as universal. Had they done so, they may have surmised that the legacy of European colonialism does not inhere in the “fabrication” of a Muslim collectivity, but rather that it permeates the socio-political structures that perpetuate Europe. Liberal citizenship, likewise, is not exempt, from this process.

As such, Bechir & Saghieh fail to realise that the critique of essentialism cannot be undertaken without due recognition of the essentialist underpinnings of Europe. Otherwise, as demonstrated by this article, the deployment of anti-essentialism remains one-sided, and becomes symptomatic of a genre of writing in which essentialism is identified with non-Europeans. It becomes, in other words, a means of immunising Europe from contestations of its universality.

Talal Asad also points to Europe’s unchanging, essentialised nature, noting that the narrative of European identity is constructed through exclusion, which reinforces the impression of “homogeneous space and linear time”. This tendency is seen in certain authoritative currents of European historiography, in which, as Asad notes, the narration of Europe paradigmatically excludes reference to Muslim Spain, Byzantium or eastern Europe. For Asad, the “de-essentialisation of Islam” becomes a key ingredient facilitating the assimilation of Muslims within a Europe that retains its claim to universalism.

There is little in Bechir & Saghieh’s account which could provide an avenue for the provincialisation of Europe as one political-cultural project amongst others. Rather their refusal to allow for the existence of a Muslim community as existing outside the fevered imagination of neo-colonial Europe, only succeeds in empowering the European project. This becomes all the more significant via the realisation that a Muslim community in itself constitutes a site of contestation for this project.

Community, politics and citizenship

Bechir & Saghieh’s accounts of identity and community reflect various assumptions that also feature in the articles by Kelly, and by Adams et al. In their haste to demonstrate the problematic nature of Muslim identity these articles overlook the ways in which identity is constructed precisely by bringing together elements that have no a priori unity. For example, the construction of British identity through the Anglo-Scottish rapprochement brought together distinct subordinate traditions and culture (often through sustained acts of violence).

Some key references for Cemalettin Hasimi & Shehla Khan’s article:

Talal Asad, “Muslims and European identity: Can Europe represent Islam?” in Elizabeth Hallam & Brian Street, eds., Cultural Encounters: Representing “otherness” (Routledge, 2000)

S Sayyid, “Bad Faith: Anti-Essentialism, Universalism and Islamism” in Avtar Brah & Annie Coombes, eds., Hybridity and Its Discontents: Politics, Science, Culture, (Routledge, 2000)

S Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism (Zed Books, 2nd edition, 2003)

All collective identities will erase internal differences – this is not something exclusive to Muslims. In the process, however, the collective cannot be conceived of as heaving acquired an essence; rather it can be understood as having coalesced around a common political project. This coalescence entails a process of exclusion and inclusion leading to the redrawing of boundaries and the reimagining of difference. The authors’ neglect of the transformative aspect of identity formation leads them to endorse a model that is static and a-historical. The references in the article to the communal identities of “Pakistanis, Turks, Moroccans, Algerians, or Iraqis…” as something empirically given are a demonstration of this oversight.

It is certainly the case, however, that until recently the various settler communities in the European Union were known primarily by other designations: Kurds, Turks, Pakistanis, Maghrebi. Nevertheless, the formation of communities and their self-identification is a process shaped by history and politics; for example, there were no Pakistanis before 1947, and that the notion of “Turk” possessed a different connotation in Ottoman times. These examples of communal identity cannot be conceptualised without historicising the state, specifically the nation-state. Here, we agree with the authors that Islam does not only bring people together but also creates or justifies certain cultural distinctions. Nevertheless, this is not something peculiar to religion. A quick glance at the history of citizenship in the nation-state, including liberal plutocratic European states reveals a parallel dynamic.

Once Bechir & Saghieh assume that Muslims are terminally incapable of forming a community, what remains then is to present normative claims as analytical insights. This is achieved primarily by privileging Europe as a collectivity. As a result, the heterogeneity within Europe is concealed, as are the protracted conflicts that preceded the formation of a united Europe. There is no attempt to historicise and problematise Europe as a particularistic political-institutional complex, although there is a parallel, albeit fleeting attempt to represent Islam as an “anthropological phenomenon”.

This normative preference for Europe also informs the article’s undifferentiated and essentialised account of liberal citizenship. Thus, there is no attempt to access the divergent constructions of citizenship across Europe, or indeed to highlight the ubiquitous influence therein of racism. For example, we are not asked to differentiate the hijab-banning, ghetto-sustaining model of French citizenship from Islamophobic currents in the Dutch model. All we are offered, rather, are the very “ideological reasons” that the authors deride in their reference to an “anthropological phenomenon”.

The difference, of course, is that the authors’ ideological stance remains unacknowledged, arising perhaps from their belief in the pious neutrality of European citizenship. They are thus able to claim that equal citizenship for all in Europe unites people but does not have any distinguishing influence. In other words, while the Muslim collectivity is consistently seen as proliferating into numerous parts, the cohesion of Europe is articulated through various political gestures that repetitively conceal its various fault lines and fissures.

The Muslim question in Europe and beyond

It is in this context, that the authors’ neglect of an emergent Muslim political subjectivity becomes significant. That subjectivity, through its several different models, aims to move beyond “anthropological”, cultural differences towards the creation of a distinctive Muslim community. This is nothing essential to Islam but emerges from the performative relationship between Islam and Muslims, a relationship which hinges upon a specifically Muslim understanding of their place in world politics.

The heterogeneous ethno-national backgrounds of Muslims in Europe do not constitute a final marker of identity. They do not function as barriers to the articulation of this relationship in which Islam becomes a rallying point, and in which Muslim-ness trumps other forms of identification. The precise form of the relationship is of course a matter of political contestation; however, this does not, by any means, negate the presence of a Muslim community, although it certainly negates the myth that this community is a European invention.

At this point, one response to the Muslim question consists in the argument that their interests lie not in the assertion of a specifically Muslim political subjectivity, but elsewhere. We therefore ask whether there is a relationship between the failure of Europeans to persuade Muslims on this score, and the refusal to allow conceptual space for a Muslim community. Once you acknowledge the difficulties inherent in persuading Muslims that their interests are best articulated within the framework of “Europe”, the only alternative is to assert that that they do not exist. This is nothing, but an attempt at placing distinct limits on the field of political contestation. The discussions on Turkish entry to the European Union, are symptoms of the anxiety surrounding the challenges posed to Europe by the Muslim presence.

The power of myth

For Bechir & Saghieh the Muslim community is a myth made in and by Europe. Subscribing to this view amounts to a profound exercise in denial, and a vindication of the colonial legacy that the authors aim to dispel. This is because the problems associated with envisaging a Muslim community in Europe emerge not from the diversity of Muslims per se but from deeply embedded normative practices governing the encounter between the European political-institutional complex and Muslims. These practices become all the more deficient in the face of an emergent political subjectivity, which not only tests the limits of the European project, but dares to imagine a future that is not mirrored in the colonial history of this encounter.

Europe in this sense functions as a metaphor for a specific bundle of constraints on Muslim political subjectivity. It becomes constitutive of the condition described by Talal Asad when he notes: “Muslims are present in Europe, and yet absent from it”. The crucial question, then, is not who represents Muslims. It is whether Europe is ready to assume the burden of addressing the Muslim question outside the legacy of the colonial encounter, as opposed to following various strategies, which reproduce this legacy in more or less virulent forms. The articles examined here seem poised to pursue the latter aim.

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