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In search of British Muslim identity: responses to 'Young, Angry and Muslim'

Sami Zubaida S Sayyid Max Farrar Abdul-Rehman Malik David T Mohammed Sajid
27 October 2005


Cliched Angry Muslims

S Sayyid, University of Leeds

Television programmes dealing with the ethnically marked in Britain often face a dilemma: are they making a contribution to the conversation of the nation or satisfying the voyeurism of Middle England? One can identify a genre, which does the latter, often in the form of a sensationalist confessional in which Muslims or ex-Muslims reveal how they escaped from “Islam the semi-secret Death Cult”, (think of titles such as: I was a Teenage Jihadi, or Bikinis or Burqas: The Dilemena of Being A Woman And A Muslim). The “native informant” is key to this genre: for she or he provides “authentic confirmation” of “our” prejudices.

Navid Akhtar is a documentary filmmaker and broadcaster whose subjects have included the Hajj and (on BBC Radio 4) the workings of the biraderi system of extended family/clan loyalty on social, personal and institutional life in Britain.

His film Young, Angry and Muslim was shown on Channel 4 on 24 October 2005

Alas, Navid Akhtar’s Channel 4 film Young, Angry and Muslim falls within this category. The reasons for this, however, are not entirely to do with the programme-makers, but rather reflect the way in which even after fifty years, public debate about the ethnically marked continues to be dominated by an “immigrant imaginary”. This “immigrant imaginary” continues to represent the ethnically marked through a handful of clichés culled from the colonial past, and simply redeployed in the interior of Britain (see my essay “Slippery People: The Immigrant Imaginary and the grammar of colour” in Ian Law et al [eds.], Institutional Racism in Higher Education, Trentham Books, 2004).

Many people of colour in Britain have grown weary on a diet of “cultural schizophrenia”, “between two cultures”, traditional values, inter-generational conflict…where cultural answers are sought for political issues. Ethnically marked people in Britain continue to be represented as people without history or political agency.

The basic premise of the programme was that alienation leads to extremism. This alienation is being caused by a malfunction in Pakistani-Kashmiri culture. To present this argument, the programme-makers had to carry out a nifty piece of editing which in other contexts might be considered evidence-tampering. First, they had to focus on the events of 7 July 2005 in London, but they had to excise Germaine Lindsay since his Jamaican heritage is not normally represented in terms of cultural schizophrenia. Second, they had to discount the plot of 21 July because most of the people arrested for involvement in it are Muslims from east Africa.

S Sayyid writes: I would like to thank members of the BB Reading Club whose lively discussions helped to focus some of my thinking on this topic. I would specifically like to mention: Fauzia Ahmad, Hisham Hellyer, Shehla Khan, Tariq Modood, Shai Nabi, Mohammad Siddique Seddon, Abdoolkarim Vakil, and Nuh Yilmaz.

The programme-makers would no doubt point to scenes they showed of marches against the Iraq war, or the interview with representatives of the (soon-to-be-banned) Hizb-ut-Tahrir as showing how – through the grammar of television documentary – their film covered political issues. But what is at stake is the nature of these political issues. By locating the cause of extremism at the cultural level, political issues simply become mere window-dressing. The assertion of a global Muslim identity cannot be explained by reference to culture, pathology, or theology. It is a political phenomenon and cannot be treated as a leftover from a medieval or colonial past.

Young, Angry and Muslim was disappointing not because it was a badly made documentary, but simply because it was a documentary made within the confines of a framework that is inadequate to represent the complexities of the post-colonial world.

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A British Muslim identity

Max Farrar, Leeds Metropolitan University

Am I succumbing to the hectic demands of the media age in producing a response to a film whose opening I missed and which I’ve only had time to see once? Is it fair to Navid Akhtar to comment when I didn’t see the first fifteen minutes of (when advertising breaks are included) a fifty-two-minute film? Probably not, but that is the reality of the media age – it produces partial knowledge and imperfect appraisals.

This is what I liked about the film: it had an argument, a point of view, and it was not replicating the half-baked journalism that most of the print and TV media dredged up in the aftermath of 7/7. The argument, as I understood it, is that significant numbers of young British Muslims are finding themselves in an intolerable position – socially, politically and economically – and they are getting angrier and angrier. The story offered to them by militant Islamists seems, to some of them, to offer a resolution to their deep disquiet. The fact that Navid had independently developed an argument that had resonances with the one I made in openDemocracy two weeks after the London bombs in July made me feel that we were on to something.

My spirits rose and fell during the interview with the Muslim taxi-driver in Leeds. They rose because it’s always good to hear a Leeds accent on TV, and the man embodied all that I respect about the majority of young Muslims in the city: reflective, hard-working, resilient and realistic. They fell when I thought Navid might be endorsing the worn-out, simplistic line the driver presented: that British Muslims are split “between two cultures” and suffering an identity crisis as a result. They rose again at the end with Navid’s ringing conclusion: there is no split – a distinct, viable and socially valuable identity as a modern British Muslim is available.

Navid’s film took detours which distracted us from this important discussion. But it had the great merit of showing that British Muslims could acquire a “mode of being” that rejects Islamism while explaining the latter’s real attractions to some young people. Navid made clear that the myopia of the older generation of Muslims and their politically irrelevant leadership provides no way forward. These emphatic criticisms are, paradoxically, heartening, because the ground does have to be cleared for a new understanding to be fertilised.

I’d suggest that this emerging British Muslim identity has its roots in the political struggles of the British citizens who formed the Asian youth movements in the late 1970s. At the time, the Muslims among them called themselves Asians and put aside the sectarian claims of religion. The decline of those movements, alongside that of the left in general, meant that when the conflict over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1989 exploded, it was dominated by people who wanted to remotivate Islamic sentiment among the Pakistani and Bangladeshi diaspora in Britain.

Also by Max Farrar in openDemocracy:

Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs” (July 2005)

Now, sixteen years further on, many progressive people in the Muslim communities find themselves reinvigorating their faith while consistently refusing Islamism and all its trappings: a sexist, homophobic and anti-democratic ideology and a Saudi-inspired symbolic apparatus. These people, like the Leeds taxi-driver in Navid’s film, cannot escape the racism that bigoted whites inflict upon them. But somehow they live with that discomfort and are forging their identities as engaged British citizens who are also Muslims.

Navid’s film gave us hope that this position will prevail, and all of us who are working for a tolerant, equal, just and culturally diverse society should use the film to bolster the argument that the Islamist holy warriors must be opposed wherever they are encountered.

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The succour of kinship

Mohammed Sajid, PhD student, University of Bradford

There are many factors which have the potential to cause alienation and isolation in the Muslim community in Britain, two of which I wrote about for openDemocracy.

In his film, Navid Akhtar singles out the clan (biraderi/brotherhood) system as the main reason young Muslims are experiencing alienation. This, frankly, verges on the absurd.

The clan system is an inherent feature of south Asian culture. It is very closely linked to the Hindu caste system, but unlike the Hindu hierarchy of castes the biraderi is a kinship network based on blood and marriage ties. The clan system is also an inherent feature of Arabian society; the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of god be upon him) was famously from the Bani Hashim (literally translated as children of Hashim).

The Bani Hashim is well documented as being the largest and most powerful tribe or clan in the Arabian peninsula at the time of the prophet. In the Qur’an, mankind as a whole is occasionally referred to as Bani Adam (children of Adam).

It is important to note that the Prophet never sought to abolish the clan system, but rather to bring the clans to a closer understanding through propagation and education. Other than boundary disputes, the prophet did not attribute any notable social ills to the clan system. Indeed, it is Islamically classed as one of God's blessings:

"And it is I, God almighty, who hath made you into nations and tribes, so that ye may recognise each other. Not that ye may despise each other. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you." (Qur’an, 49:13)

Clearly, the Islamic function of clans is to give a sense of identity, but hierarchy is established through strength of belief and righteousness.

How does this relate to the situation in Britain today? The clan system appears predominantly in the institution of the mosque. This is where it could be said that younger people or those from smaller clans are at a disadvantage. In fact, though clan elders are usually represented on the mosque organising committees, rarely if ever does one clan dominate. In fact I would assert that mosques in Britain identify more closely with regional or ethnic identities (Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Gujarati, Kashmiri) or with divergent subsects (Sunni, Shi’a, Ismaili). These two factors, rather than any clan belonging, chiefly influence the language and the message of the sermon in most mosques.

Also by Mohammed Sajid in openDemocracy:

The gap between us: British Muslims and 7/7” (July 2005)

Navid Akhtar based part of his documentary in Keighley, a small town near Bradford in northern England which is where I happen to live. There are six mosques in Keighley catering for the Pakistani ethnic identity (and where Urdu is the language of teaching and the Friday sermon). No single clan dominates any of the committees of any of these mosques; the main difference is the particular interpretation of Islam. The ideology upon which the message is based is more important than the clan of the mosque organisers or participants.

The UK Islamic Mission mosque and supplementary school in Keighley is an example of a mosque whose committee is composed of second-generation migrant workers who banded together to put something back into the community, regardless of clan. The mosque has never invoked any notion of clan.

In sum, traditional values may be strict and difficult to adhere to for young Muslims in Britain, but it is not the biraderi system that causes alienation. After all, there are many projects and groups that young Muslims can get involved in. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) is an excellent example of a national organisation working for Muslims regardless of creed or clan. And it is not alone: there is also Islamic Relief, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, Young Muslims, the UK Islamic Mission, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. They are progressive organisations working at national level to solve problems specific to Muslim communities and students.

These organisations offer the sense of belonging which many alienated youngsters appear to crave. If a young British Muslim chooses to join an extremist group, it is not for the lack of "belonging-providing" alternatives!

At a local level, the Abu-Zahra Foundation is only one organisation seeking to bridge the gap between community elders and youngsters. This gap is in my view attributable to changes in expectations and vast differences in social circumstances such as education. These disparities must be addressed. But to blame problems on a family kinship network like the biraderi is to suggest that an essential support structure of the Pakistani community should be removed. This is to strike at one’s own feet with an axe.

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A shared experience

David T, Harry’s Place

There's nothing exotic or alien about the subjects of Navid Akhtar's portrait of the lives of British people of Pakistani origin. I grew up on the east London-Essex border, with the children of parents who – like mine – came to this country in the last few decades. In many respects, our lives mirror those of the subjects of this film. Some are Muslim, some are Hindu, some are Sikh. All of us have experienced, to some degree, the sense of mild disorientation which is part and parcel of growing up with one foot in the shifting sands of British life and the other in the welcoming, bullying, culture of seemingly timeless communal values.

A generation on, the way of life maintained by parental fears and aspirations has begun to slip away. For most of us, this didn't matter, because we had other things to fill our time. Most of us fell in love – sometimes with people from a different cultural background from that of our parents – had children, and focused on home and work. A few of my friends have retreated from the struggle and embraced a pastiche of a traditional lifestyle. And one – like Fatima Khan in Navid Akhtar's film – became an activist with al-Muhajiroun.

What none of my contemporaries experienced was the degree of social isolation, mental-health crises, and poverty that blighted the lives of some of Akhtar's interviewees. But it didn't take poverty to turn Omar Saeed Sheikh into a jihadi. This is an ideology in search of a constituency.

Also by David T in openDemocracy:

Hizb-ut-Tahrir: the snarl behind the smile” (August 2005)

Navid Akhtar believes is that there is little point in turning to the Mawdudists of the Muslim Council of Britain for answers. He is right. These are men who have little worth saying to their grandchildren about a modern British Muslim identity. But members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir who dream of the restoration of a vanished caliphate, and other young activists of the far right, do not hold the key to unlock the potential of a disappointed generation. Listen to what they have to say, certainly, but remember that all religious-political movements hand power and authority to those who have the time, inclination, and temperament to construct a firm theological basis for their identity. That is no foundation for a democratic and pluralist culture.

Between those two poles is a commonwealth of people trying to create a secure life for themselves and their families. Some of them, like Javaid, a recovering drug addict, will have leveraged religious and cultural identity to find practical solutions to personal crises. Others like Fatima move into revolutionary jihadi politics for a few years, and then out again. But the voices we need to hear more of are those who live unremarkable lives, combining modernity with tradition, who rarely if ever make the headlines. I'm thinking of people like Ateeque Sharifi, an Afghan refugee whose passions were the gym, the mosque and computers, and who died in Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005.

Here is the problem. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on London, the lighthouse beam of government policy has focused on British Muslims, and everybody is blinking in the glare.

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Young, Angry and Kashmiri

Abdul-Rehman Malik, Q-News

What sets apart Navid Akhtar's Channel 4 documentary Young, Angry and Muslim from the usual primetime coverage of Islam and Muslims is that it is an intensely personal story. Sitting on the dusty ground of the plot of land that belonged to his late parents in Pakistan, meditatively pulling back the beads on his rosary, Akhtar is certainly not a dispassionate observer or a detached pundit.

His decision whether or not to sell the land becomes a metaphor for the globalised identity that is at the heart of the Muslim narrative in Britain. It is not as easy a decision as he initially thought it would be, because – as Navid Akhtar and many other British Muslims of his generation know – identities are not fixed. In fact they shift and adapt constantly to changing social, political and religious landscapes. In the end, he cannot deny that he is at once Pakistani, British and Muslim. He, like so many of his co-religionists, belong to several communities at the same time. They have a heightened awareness of the world beyond this island's shores and that awareness impacts on who they are. For Akhtar, there are many “back homes”: Walthamstow, Britain, Kashmir, Pakistan. His decision, at the conclusion of the film, to embrace this complexity is brave and timely.

In fact this complexity is a source of strength. When the young British Muslim taxi-driver in Leeds expresses dismay at the yobbish, drunken behaviour of his Friday night passengers, he is at once an insider and an outsider. With his broad Yorkshire accent, his understanding of the other is shaped by his faith and culture, but it is not a sign of self-segregation or self-exclusion.

Neither does it represent the beginning of a journey towards becoming a self-righteous “fifth columnist”, looking with contempt at the society in which he lives. It is, rather, a critical voice from within questioning our collective cultural and social excesses. As Akhtar rightly points out, it is these voices as well as the more strident and dangerous voices of the so-called religious extremists that need to be listened to and engaged with.

If after the London bombings in July there is to be a truly national conversation on what it means to belong and be British, then these are the voices that we most need to hear. The platitudes of politicians and so-called community leaders have already been tarnished by political intrigue and a clear lack of fair-dealing. The result of wider consultations is still pending, but there is a high degree of caution about whether they are successful. Most grassroots, street and community-level activists are just getting on with doing the difficult work they always have done – with few resources and even fewer supporters among the “Muslim establishment”.

The architect Ralph Stern, in his analysis of Jewish writing on the city and urban development after the second world war, speaks of how Jewish intellectuals not only became the conscience of Europe but also became the most powerful voice of introspection. After the Holocaust, they felt like outsiders, yet no one could deny they were integral to the intellectual fabric of European societies. Despite the very serious social, economic and cultural challenges facing them, Muslim communities today have the potential to be the conscience of our societies.

The difficult questions about who we are and more importantly who we should be will not be solved by politicians or policy-makers, but by citizens engaged with one another in the difficult work of building just and cohesive communities that are multiethnic, multi-faith and encompass the entire spectrum of political views and social classes.

There is no doubt that Muslim communities face serious challenges and that so-called community leaders offer a distinct lack of vision. As the American Muslim scholar Hamza Yusuf Hanson has said: “the problem is not too much Islam, but too little.” Islam is our greatest ally against terrorism and zealotry. Its moral and ethical edifice, chipped away by utilitarian ideology masquerading as theology, is still largely intact.

Navid Akhtar is right in questioning the elders and their tribal networks. We must go beyond them, to harness the best scholarship from both the Muslim world and Britain to create an Islam of Britain that can accomplish two things: form a powerful weapon against extremism, and contribute a vision of morality and values to the ongoing debate over “British values”.

In this respect, the title of Navid Akhtar’s programme is regrettable. It sounds like a catchall, smash-and-grab tabloid headline that really doesn't reflect the complexity of the ideas or experiences that Akhtar discusses. What's most intriguing is that there aren't very many angry Muslims in Akhtar's piece. They may be frustrated, dissatisfied with the status quo, ready to take on the terrorists, the politicians and the so-called community leaders, but they do so passionately and articulately. There is no one foaming at the mouth here. Even much the demonised Hizb-ut-Tahrir appear perfectly reasonable (which, in fact, many of their leading members are).

In the aftermath of the July attacks there has been a lot of generalising about “Asian” or Pakistani Muslims. The truth is that only three of the eight attackers from the 7 July and 21 July incidents were of Pakistani heritage: the rest were black (one of African-Caribbean descent, four from east Africa). It is unfortunate that the film does not do more to challenge this aspect of the wider media ignorance about the exceptional diversity of British Muslims. Muslims of African Caribbean and African heritage are a critical part of Britain's Muslim experience, but other Muslims and non-Muslims in British society tend to ignore them.

If we are seeking to understand the anger, frustration, exclusion and extremism within Britain's Muslim communities, then we must seek to explore, engage with and understand these underrepresented and often invisible Muslims.

True, Navid Akhtar set out to explore the Kashmiri-Pakistani British Muslim experience in particular (the programme could have been easily called “Young, Angry and Kashmiri”) – certainly more needs to be done to explore the breadth and diversity of young Muslims across the ethno-cultural spectrum. I certainly hope that it will come, like it did from Akhtar, from passionate, critical insiders, rather than pundits who speak much but understand little.

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The “orientalist” assumption

Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck College, London

Two points struck me about Navid Akhtar’s film, on integration and Muslim identity.

On integration, what I found impressive is that all the younger interviewees, like Navid Akhtar himself, were fully British: their speech, accents and idioms, their familiarity with the cultural landscape, lifestyles, consumption patterns. Even the Pakistani food they were shown to be consuming is now also British. At the same time, they were all emphasising their difference and raising the question of “integration.”

Also by Sami Zubaida on openDemocracy

“The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq” (February 2003)

“The next Iraqi state: secular or religious?” (February 2004)

“Understanding the insurgencies in Iraq” (April 2004)

“Iraq’s constitution on the edge” (August 2005)

“The London bombs: Iraq or the rage of Islam” (August 2005)

 

It seems to me that this emphasis on difference is, in itself, part of their integration into the current idioms of public discourse, with its focus on identity politics and on multiculturalism. Their frustrations and alienation result from class and race factors that are part of the British landscape, and their reactions (drugs, crime, dissent, religion, reform) are familiar. Only, unlike other British groups, they have the option of a religious identity, one that is prominent and problematic on the world stage, in terms of which they can speak. This identity also adds to the dimensions of racism against them.

The jihadis are one (extreme) reaction to these dilemmas. As many observers have remarked (notably Olivier Roy) the jihadis are not culturally alien. They have rejected the traditional ethno-religious cultures of their parents, but they propagate their ideologies and activities on the familiar grounds of religious war and violent nihilism.

On Muslim identity, Akhtar, while British, is careful to stress his Islamic beliefs: he is shown praying. All the interviewees affirmed a similar adherence. Yet various surveys show that a large number, probably a majority – roughly 70% in most European polls – of nominal Muslims are non-observant; many are as “Muslim” as their compatriots are “Christian”.

Why do we never hear about these? Why are all Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Arabs, Iranians, Indonesians, always “Muslim”, while Europeans are English, French, Italian, Dutch, but not “Christians”? Behind the pious declaration of universal Muslim identity we know that there are many prejudices: of Pakistanis towards Bangladeshis, Arabs towards south Asians, Iranians towards Arabs. There are also intense doctrinal differences: many Sunni Arabs consider Shi'a, including Iranians, as heretics.

It would seem that the old “orientalist” assumption that the Islamic religion is the essence, of which all other social and cultural traits of Muslims are mere manifestations, is now unquestioned in public discourse. It is time for liberals and democrats to question this totalising concept of Muslims. This is essential if Muslims are to be seen as “normal” fellow citizens, with diverse social and cultural characteristics which are unrelated to religious identity or adherence.

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