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Uk British Muslim Identity Sociology Essay

The purpose of this essay is to focus on the historical and contemporary construction of ‘British-Muslim’ identity in U.K. and analyse its perceived relationship with radicalism. The first part of the essay will shed light on the problem of this ‘umbrella’ term ‘British-Muslim’ by highlighting the extent to which the religious identity of Muslims in Britain is beyond ethnic and national identities. In addition to this, this section will discuss whether putting a label of ‘British-Muslim’ identity is legitimate, in terms of structure, meaning and a body of people who subscribe to the label. The next part of the essay examines why and how the ‘British-Muslim’ identity has come to be associated with radical extremism. This section will include debates of integration and assimilation and discuss why some Muslims in the UK fail to achieve a sense of belonging in Britain and thus consequently turn to radical extremist organisations. In the end pertinent conclusions will be drawn based on the preceding arguments.

Contemporary estimates suggest that the total population of British Muslims in the UK is approximately 2 million, or around 3.3% of the national population. This population is comprised of people from approximately 56 national backgrounds speaking around 70 languages including groups originating from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, North-Africa, the Middle East, South-East Asia, Iran and more recently Somalia, Iraq, Nigeria and Afghanistan as well as an increasing number of European Muslims including English converts. [1] Within these national backgrounds are a host of further ethnic divisions. For example, within the British Pakistani Muslim population there are Kashmiris, Punjabis, Sindhi’s and Pathans (Dahya, 2004: 77). Even further, many differentiate themselves based on Biraderi or clan, so that within the British Paksitani-Kashmiri Muslim population, there are Chaudaries, Rajputs, Kumars, Mistries and others. Such divisions based on Biraderi can heavily inform day to day relationships, marital and business partnerships as well as political allegiances (Shaw, 2000: 137). Within the wider framework of the British Muslim population there are strong denominational differences. There are the more widely known differences between Sunni and Shia Islam and the classical differences between the Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali Sunni schools of law. Then there are relatively recent denominational sects such as the Wahabi, the Deobandi, the Barelwi, the Ahl-e-Hadith as well as various Sufi brands of Islam (Raza 1993). Amongst British Muslims there are newly arrived immigrants, second and third generation immigrants whose parents and grandparents were born in the UK as well as indigenous converts to Islam whose ancestors came to the UK hundreds of years ago. On top of all these wide ranging attributes we must include the full spectrum of ‘practicing’ and ‘non-practicing’ Muslims, beginning with the very practicing for whom Islam is a complete way of life that informs every decision he/she makes, and ending with those for whom Islam is a mere relic of an ancient heritage, no longer important in contemporary life. In addition, socio-economic status can play a decisive role in the formation of identity within Muslim communities. Ansari notes that ‘middle and upper-middle class Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians appear to possess more multiplex relations with each other than with their own working-class compatriots’ (Ansari, 2004: 3). With all of these multifaceted differences it is clear that the term ‘British-Muslim’ is one that is extremely complex and any accurate picture of the typical ‘British-Muslim’ must be absent of colour, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, political or denominational affiliation. However, one may then wonder, that despite such disparate and potentially conflicting sub-identities, how this term ‘British-Muslim’ he come to be used so commonly among social scientists, academics, policy makers and the mass media. The next part of the essay discusses how, to a significant degree, many Muslims in the UK have overcome these internal differences and increasingly represent themselves as a united group of ‘British-Muslims’.

Over the past few decades there has been heightened awareness and a greater level of self-representation of a ‘British-Muslim’ identity among all sectors of Muslims in Britain. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, despite the vast array of varying cultures from which Muslims in the UK descend, Islam as a religion has inculcated a high degree of cultural uniformity across all regions in which it has spread. In the Development of Islamic Ritual, nineteen authors explore different aspects of Islamic ritual that are observed and performed through the Islamic world including the ritual performance of prayer 5 times a day, pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. [2] Many Muslims learn Arabic as a common language, share common names, use the same form of greeting and have the same dietary prohibitions. In recent years, the wearing of the Islamic headscarf has been adopted by females from a diverse range of ethnic and national backgrounds as a powerful and expressive form of Muslim identity. In Why the French Don’t like Headscarves, Bowen argues that for many Muslim women, the wearing of the Islamic headscarf is a conscious and deliberate display of Muslim identity that promotes social solidarity and community consciousness amongst the Muslim population. Thus, despite wide variances in the way Muslims from different backgrounds dress, there are numerous outward markers of Islamic identity that bind together disparate groups, whether they be in the performance of Islamic rituals or the wearing of Islamic clothing.

Secondly, there has been a consistent drive from leaders amongst Muslims in the UK to form organisations representing Muslims at a national and international level. Mandaville (2003) argues that the media plays a key role in the development of ‘British-Muslim’ identity, catering to second and third generation Muslims in the UK creating a public space in which issues relating to citizenship and belonging can be discussed. In Imagined Communities, Anderson argues that the invention of the printing press and the subsequent production of literature in vernacular languages across different regions of Europe helped to solidify nationalist sentiments by creating a sense of ‘imagined community’ amongst those of the same linguistic background. Similarly, the growing ‘British-Muslim’ media industry promotes a greater consciousness of Muslims from different backgrounds within the UK. The satellite TV channels named above cut across cultural, national and ethnic boundaries and serve as a unifying platform of dialogue, news coverage and religious transmission heightening a sense of imagined community amongst Muslims in the UK.  ADD STUFF FROM MANDAVILLE and CESSARI

Thirdly, despite the differences between the range of backgrounds from which Muslims in the UK originate, there are certain common interests which have brought together disparate groups of Muslims to lobby the government at a local and national level. For example, in 1994, Muslims in the UK launched the Halal Food Authority, an organisation to monitor and authenticate the halal meat and poultry trade in the UK, a service pushed for by Muslims from all backgrounds. Several arbitration tribunals, such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, have been set up around to provide Muslims in the UK with legally binding dispute resolution mechanisms based on Islamic Sharia principles on family matters, inheritance and various commercial and debt disputes. During the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003, much of the frustration felt by Muslims in the UK towards the government was channelled through peaceful protest facilitated by organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain and Muslims of all backgrounds galvanised to speak with a louder and more unified Muslim voice. Such initiatives have required cross-cultural co-operation to achieve common aspirations amongst Muslims in the UK.

Furthermore, Muslims in the UK have rallied together to show solidarity against perceived threats towards their community both nationally and worldwide. Samad (1996) and Saeed (1999) view the mobilisation of a ‘British-Muslim’ identity as a response to the public devaluation and disparagement of Muslims that has lead to increased in-group solidarity. According to Ansari, the publication of the Satanic Verses (1988) and the first Gulf-War (1991) meant ‘Muslims, more than ever, came to be imagined as “outsiders”, excluded from the essential notions of “Britishness” which, steeped in nostalgia, continued to be perceived as homogenous, Christian, white and rooted in past centuries’ (Ansari, 2004: 1). Such feelings of exclusion strengthened during the conflict in Boznia-Herzegovina (1993-1996), the War on Afghanistan (2001 to present), the War on Iraq (2003 to present), the publication of the cartoons depicted the prophet Mohammed (2005), EU immigration, asylum, race and security polices, including the Terrorism Act 2006, which target Europe’s Muslim communities (Fekete 2009), the continuous demonization of Muslims in the media (Poole 2002, Gottschalk 2007) as well as Islamaphobia on a street level, which have all contributed towards a defensiveness among Muslims in the UK and a sense of common hardship. Ballard (1996) argues that that the increasing self-identification of second and third generation Pakistanis as Muslim is a reaction to their external rejection by the White majority and it is religion rather than ethnicity that takes prominence because it is the Muslim aspect of their identity which they feel is under attack. Thus, the increased ascendency of the Muslim aspect of a highly complex individual identity among some Muslims in the UK can be partly explained as a defensive reaction to perceived external threats.

Moreover, Archer (2001) and Hopkins (2006) have argued that the transcendence of a ‘British-Muslim’ identity above an ethnic or national based identity among young Muslims in the UK can be partly explained through an analysis of gender stereotypes and the performance of masculinity and femininity. Archer (2001) argues that young men construct a ‘strong’ Muslim identity to counteract stereotypes of a weaker passive Pakistani or Bangladeshi identity and that talk of violence, action and hardness through religious idealism and martyrdom, drawing inspiration from ancient tales of Islamic conquest and bravery, can be seen as evoking a particular form of Muslim masculinity. Further, Archer argues that Islam provides a channel, whether scripturally legitimate or not, for men to discuss and define female behaviours as un-Islamic and thus an Islamic identity is expedient for the control and domination of women. Conversely, Akram-Nadwi demonstrates in Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, that Islam has for many generations, provided an avenue for female empowerment as an escape from the culture-bound patriarchy. [3] In Women and Islam: Images and Realities, Moghissi (ed.) expound upon the highly complex multifaceted realities of Islam, gender and female empowerment, revealing how both women and men selectively appropriate elements of Islamic doctrine in order to maximise their own empowerment within the scope of their circumstances. The politics of gender has made at least some contribution to the ascendency of a Muslim identity above ethnic or national identity for the UK’s Muslim population.

Finally, Muslim identity is used as an act of empowerment and to promote sense of belonging to an international body of people. Glynn’s study of Bengali Muslims in London (2002) shows that Islam provides young Muslims a positive alternative to the drug-culture to which they are exposed to within inner-cities. He writes ‘the growing polarity between the drug culture and Islam is often remarked on. Islamic brotherhood is a potent antidote to alienation… Islam is something to be proud of, with a great history and international presence as well as religious promises of future glory, which can all transport its followers from the grey confines of the inner city’ (Glynn, 2002: 975). Through Islam, many Muslims obtain a sense of purpose, direction, history and belonging to a community broader than the narrowly restricted confines of their own neighbourhoods. Islam has also been used as a tool for empowerment within the family context. Macey (1999) suggests that Islamic prohibition on forced marriage is used by young Pakistanis in the UK to challenge parental pressures. Further, Islam is used to justify inter-racial marital relationships and to challenge the emphasis placed on colour, caste and ethnicity found in many cultural practices. Through Islam, many young Muslims in the UK find internal empowerment and tools to challenge parents and communities. For all of these reasons, a ‘British-Muslim’ identity has emerged to unite disparate groups of people from a wide range of ethnic and national backgrounds. That there are Muslims in the UK is a fact, but the idea of a strong ‘British-Muslim’ identity has only relatively recently come in to fruition and begun to assert itself. However, while many Muslims in the UK increasingly subscribe to this identity, it is not yet clear what it means to be a ‘British-Muslim’. We are now entering into the period in which the definitional boundaries of the ‘British-Muslim’ identity are being constructed. In this period, competing forces, both internal and external to the British Muslim population, are actively contesting the details of the identity, pushing forward varying images of what a ‘British-Muslim’ is ‘supposed’ to be. A key arena in which this contest is taking place is in relation to ‘radical extremism’.  

In light of these discussions, the next part of the essay will focus on radical extremism and the ‘British-Muslim’ identity. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and the 7/7 bombing in London, much work has gone in to identifying the root causes of how a Muslim, born and raised in the UK, could be brought to take his own life and the lives of others with the sole aim of creating maximum devastation within his home country. Rather than limiting research to the exploration of the potential psychopathic tendencies of those individuals responsible for the terror atrocities, much research has suggested that the terror attacks were symptoms of deep rooted nation-wide problems with ‘British-Muslim’ identity as a whole. It is alleged that such problems are responsible for the creation of radical extremist mentalities, broadly regarded as mentalities that foster violent hostility towards aspects of the British state. It is within this context that efforts by the UK Government to prevent violent extremism operate. In order to better understand this context, it is necessary to explore how the perceived problems with ‘British-Muslim’ identity have come to be associated with radical extremism.

In Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West, Wiktorowicz provides a detailed study of Al-Muhajiroun, a UK based organisation aspiring towards the re-establishment of an Islamic Caliphate through both non-violent and violent means. [4] Al-Muhajiroun are a banned organisations in the UK under the Terrorism Act 2006 for ‘glorification’ of terrorism. Wiktorowicz argues that Muslims in the UK who join this group are initially inspired by a ‘cognitive opening’ which provides individuals with a willingness to expose them to the ethos of the organisation. This ‘cognitive opening’ takes the form of an internal identity crisis that causes the individual to question what it means to be a Muslim in a non-Muslim society. Wiktorowicz suggests that one of the key triggers to this type of identity crisis is an individual’s perception that Muslims are not accepted by British society. It would follow therefore that perceptions of discrimination would precipitate feelings of not belonging to British society and leave an individual vulnerable to the message and ideology of organisations such as Al-Muhajiroun. Maxwell’s study of the 2003 Home Office Citizenship Survey revealed that according to the survey, there was no significant relationship between an individual’s socio-economic well being and their perceptions of being discriminated against on the whole. However, the analysis showed that young university students were more likely than others to perceive that they were being discriminated against, despite being socially and economically better off than those who either could not afford or were otherwise unable to attend university. Wiktorowicz writes ‘the experience of both racial and religious discrimination has prompted some young Muslims to think about their identity and how they fit into British society. This is particularly true of young university students who suffer from a sense of blocked social mobility’ (Wiktorowicz, 2005 :56).  According to this theory, it is frustration at being unable to accomplish what the individual perceives as being rightfully theirs that results in a heightened sense of alienation. This alienation provides some individuals with the ‘cognitive opening’ necessary for joining organisations such as Al-Muhajiroun. An alternative theory suggests that young university students are more likely to perceive greater levels of discrimination due to knowledge acquired within the university environment. Taji-Fouraki’s work on Hizb-at-Tahrir (1996), another organisation aiming towards the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, suggests that the main appeal of Hizb-at-Tahrir for young university students is the organisation’s intellectual sophistication. University environments provide young Muslims the tools to research and debate issues relating to injustices of European colonisation and the partitions of the current ‘Islamic world’, giving some individuals the impetus to question their own place within the wider framework of international political identities. Fouraki suggests that Hizb-at-Tahrir are able to capitalise on such thought processes and provide an avenue for such individuals to channel their grievances in a way that provides them with an opportunity to be a part of the supposed re-assertion of superiority of the Islamic world. According to these analyses, issues of identity play in to some individual’s feelings of inferiority and rejection by the dominant host society. Such feelings provoke hostility, particularly among young highly educated Muslims, and lead to individuals wanting to become part of a greater force capable of retaliation towards the UK Government and institutions.  

Herriot’s (2007) work on social identity theory suggests that people join groups and internalise the group’s identity for two main reasons. The first reason is to fulfil the human need for self-esteem. Herriot suggests that many of those attracted to organisations such as Al-Muhajiroun and Hizb-at-Tahrir are those potentially lacking in a sense of dignity, acceptance or approval from the wider society. As such, some individuals substitute a divine power in place of society as the source of their self-esteem, finding dignity and validation in the performance of that which is understood to be ‘god’s will’. The second reason is to fulfil the human need for certainty. Again, such organisations provide members with defined beliefs, values and norms, with the weight and authority of ancient and sacred texts that provide clear guidelines on what should and should not be done. Further, Herriot argues that the process of internalising a group’s identity leads to the loss of an individual sense of self in favour of acting in accordance with the definition of identity provided by the category to which they belong. He writes ‘individuals then behave as group members. Their actions are those of, for example, a radical Muslim or a born-again Christian. They are no longer those of Mohammed Atta or Howard Ahmanson as unique individuals with personal identities, but rather those same persons as members of categories to which they perceive themselves to belong’ (Herriot, 2007: 30). The individual is then less concerned about the elevation of the ego and more concerned about the advancement of the organisation as a whole. From this perspective, it is perhaps easier to understand why the actions of some members belonging to such organisations may seem self-deprecating or counterproductive to the individual’s status or security, or even, as was the case with the 7/7 bombers, suicidal.

Such explanations of the processes by which individuals join radical extremist organisations attribute blame to problems associated with ‘British-Muslim’ identity. It is suggested that many Muslims in the UK struggle to find a social identity among the mainstream population in which they feel a sense of dignity, self-esteem and belonging and therefore resort to a competing identity which defines itself in opposition to the mainstream. It is within this context that the UK Government’s policy directive towards preventing violent extremism finds justification for direct intervention in to the construction of ‘British-Muslim’ identity. The rationale of such intervention supposes that violent extremism is caused by deep-rooted issues with the way in which Muslims in the UK conceptualise their belonging to British society. As such, the prevention of violent extremism requires intervention to neutralise such complications and promote a greater sense of belonging to British values, beliefs and practices among British Muslims. The manifestation of the UK Government’s decision to intervene in the construction of ‘British-Muslim’ identity is the PVE Fund.

Chapter One analysed the construction of a ‘British-Muslim’ identity, identifying the process by which a hugely diverse range of people from different backgrounds increasingly subscribe to this identity. The perceived problems associated with this identity provided a pretext for government intervention in to the ‘British-Muslim’ identity through the PVE Fund and related measures to prevent violent extremism


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