Flickr/menj, CC BY-ND 2.0
Trevor Philips’ comments on the 3rd of February, that Muslims “see the world differently” have prompted a wider, renewed discussion about the relationship between Muslims and British values. The Muslim Council of Britain has responded that Muslims and Islam are compatible with UK life and a recent article in the Independent even argued that Muhammad was a repository of the British values of ‘rule of law, liberty, and religious tolerance’.
And if there is to be compromise, whose compromise must it be?The question at the core of this debate over British values is whether difference means incompatibility and whether difference can be compromised. And if there is to be compromise, whose compromise must it be?
The critic and commentator Ziauddin Sardar has been addressing such issues since the 1980s. He has been an outspoken proponent of the view that it is the English who must compromise to make room for others. For him, Muslims can live compatibly in Britain because what is good and civilised in British values is indebted to Islam. I concentrate on his comments in the introduction to his recent book, Muslims in Britain, which he co-authored with Waqar Ahmad.
Sardar sees in multiculturalism the downgrading of English power. Englishness is now “only one segment of a multi-ethnic society”, though the English refuse to recognise their reduced status. They take their revenge by demonising Muslims, and accusing Muslims of hostility to democratic values. In fact, claims to British democracy and fairness are often a sham: values such as fairness, decency and democracy could as much be seen as Islamic values as British ones. In so far as Britain has a special history, it is one based on the exclusion of others.
The solution to the problems of integration, he argues, is to make Muslims part of the way that national history is conceived. Sardar wants the celebration of Islam’s influence before 1453: “It is during this period that Islam transformed Europe and turned it into a world civilization”. It is the transfusion of science from the Islamic world that facilitated Europe’s subsequent advances and allowed Europeans to transcend the violence of the Dark Ages and the Crusades.
Thus British values and achievements are ultimately the products of ‘Islam’. Criticism of Muslim failure to integrate is just a further sign of this ignorance, since “it is not the Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim communities who are refusing to integrate, it is the white community”.
I do not wish for a moment to deny the dangers of the kind of monolithic Britishness that Sardar criticises. But we should highlight the fact that Sardar too engages in essentialism: ‘Islam’ is a civilization, presented in terms of culture and religion, but without a political context. This allows Sardar to focus on Islam’s ‘achievements’ while ignoring the fact that they are embedded in imperial states that, like many empires, employed conquest, slavery and exploitation. Likewise, he complains about the Crusades, but not about the Futuh, the conquest of Arabia and the Middle East mandated by Muhammad and his immediate successors.
“It is during this period that Islam transformed Europe and turned it into a world civilization”He also finds ‘Islam’ to be a suitable point of comparison for Britain or the West (rather than ‘Christianity’). Implicitly, the West has no religious anchor, so its citizens lack the kind of right to identity that Muslims enjoy. Similarly, the West has no real history. The history of Britain is invented, and the “post-modern” West is reduced to commodifying the “real” history of non-westerners. By contrast, “for non-western cultures, historical identity provides tradition with its motivational power: without history, tradition loses its impulse and the difference of other cultures is subsumed into an amorphous global postmodernism”. Thus Western society relegates “commitment, duty, obligations, family” to the margins.
Sardar does concede that the claims of multiculturalists may be disorientating for the British. But this is necessary because “an all-powerful identity is like an all-powerful tree in the garden: it sucks the life out of the other plants”. In other words, identity is a zero sum game: the British must lose some of their claim in order to make way for others. And the claims of these others are superior, both because their achievements actually underpin those of the British and because British values and traditions have failed to maintain ‘commitment, duty, obligations, family’, which he sees as their function. Here Sardar is less of a multiculturalist than a supersessionist and supremacist: Western culture is only a pale imitation of the ideal culture of Islam.
Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilisations prophesised an inevitable conflict between different regions unified by religion and culture after the Cold War. It was a neo-conservative claim that profoundly underplayed the diversity of cultural and religious traditions, and their capacity to engage in dialogue and compromise. Paradoxically, many spokesmen for Islam, Sardar included, fall into the same trap when they imagine a permanent, ontological gap between ‘east’ and ‘west’, and conceive of these units in religious terms.
Aziz al-Azmeh has described such spokesmen “promoting special pleading, communal separation and inherited grievance”. The idea that “Islam is a complete way of life” is troublesome because it imagines a true core of behavior for all Muslims that is religious. This religious core is prioritised over any other aspect of culture, so Mughals are celebrated as Muslims (rather than as Indians) and the Thousand and One Nights as Islamic literature (rather than as Arabic literature). Furthermore, it is presumed that this core identity has always been shielded from outside influence and deserves to be protected in the future. Thus claims on society that are religious are superior to claims that derive from other forms of culture.
I am no defender of the notion of fundamental British values. It seems to me that an aspiration to liberty, the rule of law and freedom of religious conscience are found in many countries. But I would be even more reluctant to situate the ‘discovery’ of these values in the seventh century. Instead of shrill proclamations of the peacefulness of ‘true Islam’ and its compatibility with British society, I would forge shared values on the basis of our common duty to our fellow citizens.