More religion?

It is an error for politicians and institutions to invite British Muslims to think about extremism as Muslims, rather than as citizens.

Philip Wood
6 January 2016
Muslim and Christian texts.

Muslim and Christian texts. Demotix/ Lynda Bowyer. All rights reserved.The threat of violent extremism by young, radicalized Muslims has left European leaders fumbling for a solution. But it would be a grave mistake to maintain the policy of the last decade and a half that addresses radicalization by communicating with British Muslims as Muslims rather than as fellow-citizens.

David Cameron announced in October that ‘Muslim groups’ will be given 5 million pounds to help to prevent radicalization. Cameron’s approach is to recognize the attraction of ISIS to disenfranchised young Muslims and to appeal to ‘Muslim communities to plug the gap’. Bad religion is to be replaced by more religion.

Cameron’s approach is an example of a wider phenomenon that treats religion as a treatment for social ills among British Muslims. By keeping them in touch with their ‘roots’, so the theory goes, all manner of social problems can be solved. Social conservatives of all hues can find something appealing in religious tradition because of its endorsement of ‘family values’. The promotion of religious charities as part of ‘the big society’ fits into the same framework, where the welfare state’s obligations to certain ethnic minorities are farmed out to clerics. Cameron, like other European leaders, seeks a ‘moderate Islam’ as an antidote to the kind of extremism witnessed in Paris.

This approach seems to be endorsed by Labour commentators too. In July, Keith Vaz observed that ‘we need to understand how a few have become separated from their communities’. And Khalid Mahmood, himself a Muslim, argued that we need to provide the right guidance ‘in terms of our religious obligations… if we can’t do that, how can we blame everyone else?’

Much of the support for a state-sponsored intensification of Muslim education is driven by communities that are split between Britain and South Asia. Religiosity is an important way for these communities to signal that they are not Anglicised, and that their children remain good marriage partners. These concerns, for the maintenance of family values in the face of a godless individualism or the fear of miscegenation with white neighbours, have driven the campaigns for sex-segregated education since the 1990s. Here religious institutions are an antidote for the migrant environment. The same kinds of concerns are active in the debate on extremism. If we claim that all that is good stems from religion, social issues among Muslims can be dealt with by making them more Muslim.

Yet the kind of education that goes on in most mosques does not offer an opportunity for social criticism. Imran Mogra describes the Deobandi curricula widely used in the UK as aiming to encourage ‘children to conform to divinely ordained patterns of behaviour’. A great deal of time is devoted to the correct pronunciation of Arabic for Qur’anic recitation, rather than to critical reflection on the texts. There is no opportunity to question, and no discussion of the contemporary world in textbooks that were composed in nineteenth century India.

‘Islam’ is often described in these curricula as a ‘complete way of life’. This is also a common statement in Muslim social media, especially in the sermons of popular preachers such as Zakir Naik. This assertion proclaims Islam’s superiority over other religions. It presents Islam as a total system, where political, social and religious questions are all interwoven, and all are answered in the Qur’an and sunna if one knows where to look. It also justifies the large amounts of time spent on the supplementary religious education of Muslim children.

Some believe that greater knowledge of Arabic and Islam would help young Muslim women fight unfair cultural practices that are unIslamic. But this approach equates ‘Islam’ with goodness: it doesn’t provide any voice against practices that are unfair but Islamic, and offers no space for ideas of the good that come from outside an Islamic tradition. And the religious instruction that is being advocated also prevents them from stepping outside the boundaries of a circumscribed tradition. Indeed, a belief in ‘Islam’ as a total system serves to differentiate Muslims from other citizens by denigrating non-Islamic sources of knowledge as sub-standard and not relevant to Muslims.

This assumption that Muslim problems can only be dealt with by Muslims is witnessed in a recent initiative founded at SOAS in London. Here a project on Muslim integration, under the auspices of the Kuwait-based Nohoudh foundation, advertises for post-doctoral researchers who are Muslims and who are born in Britain. The presumption seems to be that only Muslims are qualified to understand the social situation of their co-religionists. This pattern of recruitment likely constitutes religious discrimination under the law. But, quite apart from that, it is a troubling case of secular universities being willing to accept religious affiliation as a form of qualification.

It is an error for politicians and institutions to invite British Muslims to think about extremism as Muslims, rather than as citizens. If we encourage a religious analysis of issues that are social, economic or political, we encourage sectional responses, where one community’s suffering is not equal to another’s.

The US and UK governments certainly deserve criticism: that is a sign of a healthy civil society. But our civil society needs to hold all ‘orthodoxies’ up for scrutiny, whether these are economic, political or religious. Instead of a moderate ‘true Islam’ that western governments hope to wish into existence, it would be much better for them to define the political good for all citizens on terms that do not seek to divide them into different groups, as Muslim or Jewish, Hindu or Christian. 

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