Mediating the Muslim experience

The co-author of a report that caused a transatlantic stir over Britain’s ‘militant Muslim youth’ puts some of the explosive headlines in perspective.

Munira Mirza

Topics Politics

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The launch on Monday of Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism, a report of which I was co-author, received widespread media coverage, in both Britain and the US. The report explores the impact of multiculturalism on Muslim identity and asks why some Muslims seem to feel apart from mainstream British society. It generated some tense debate, and explosive headlines such as ‘Britain failing in battle against Islamic extremism’ (in an Israeli newspaper) and ‘Disturbingly divided loyalties’ (in an American paper).

Inevitably perhaps, because these are such volatile issues, attention tended to focus on some of the more alarming statistics in the poll that formed part of our report. Most papers correctly reported the fact that support for sharia law, Islamic schools and wearing the veil in public is significantly stronger among young Muslims than among their parents. For instance, 37 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds said they would prefer to live under sharia law rather than British law, compared with 17 per cent of those aged 55 and over. Seventy-four per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds said they preferred women to choose to wear the veil than not, compared with 28 per cent of 55-year-olds and over.

The headlines affirmed what many people already suspected: that some younger Muslims in Britain are more likely to express ‘radical’ views than older Muslims; that is, they’re likely to be attracted to political forms of Islam or have a more politicised approach to their religion. However, the research itself revealed a more complex and contradictory picture of British Muslims than these first impressions suggest, and that headlines such as ‘Young Muslims more militant’ allow. Behind the headlines, there’s a broad diversity of opinions and experiences within what is surely the most intensely scrutinised group in Britain. One of our aims was to get past the sensationalist tendency to portray Muslims as ‘the problem’ – either as potential terrorists or as victims of Islamophobia – in order to get at a bigger picture.

Firstly, the majority of Muslims are well integrated into British society – they want to live under British law and they prefer to send their children to mixed state schools. They do not live in bleak ghettoes cut off from society. Their religion is not a barrier to integration and is very often perfectly reconciled with being – and feeling – British. Most of them are comfortable supporting the national football team and having strong relationships with non-Muslims. And while some younger Muslims are more interested in learning about their religion, many others feel it plays little role in their lives – they indulge in rather secular habits such as drinking and having pre-marital relationships. Although there is a definite increase in support for sharia amongst younger Muslims, we should be wary of seeing this as an automatic qualification for being labelled ‘Islamist’ or ‘extremist’. There will be complex reasons for why individuals responded to this question in the way they did, and there was little evidence in our research to suggest that most want it imposed in the UK, as some newspapers wrongly interpreted.

The central concern of the report was not Islam or Muslims per se, but a particular type of politicised religious identity and the reasons that it appeals to some young Muslims. Unlike their parents, these British-born youngsters are more likely to want to assert their identity in the public sphere, express strong anti-Western feelings, and feel a heightened sense of victimisation. Although most Muslims – event devout ones – will not become active Islamists or ‘fundamentalists’ who seek to reform the state along religious lines, we argue that this type of thinking definitely is becoming more acceptable at the periphery. The irony is that although young Muslims are integrated into British society and have grown up in its culture, they’re more conscious than their parents’ generation of their difference and separateness to others.

The problem is not immigration (which I strongly support) but the politics of multiculturalism. This is demonstrated by the way that previous generations of Muslims managed to integrate and accommodate their religious and cultural practices to the realities of living in Britain. And we cannot solely blame the influence of strident Islamist groups from abroad for the sense of separateness among young British Muslims, although this is an undeniable factor in the spread of Islamist ideas and politicised identities. Rather, we must look closer to home, at changes within British society itself over the past 20 years, to explain the findings in the report that so shocked some headline-writers and readers.

The collapse of older collective political and national identities has meant that younger people in general are searching for meaning in their lives. Some of them are turning to Islam as a kind of politicised identity in the absence of much else. A similar impulse lies behind the resurgence of regional identities, such as Scottishness, or even Englishness. Moreover, the political philosophy of multiculturalism, with its stress on institutionalising difference, has encouraged younger people from ethnic groups to believe that they’re different from each other, and that they need special recognition and protection. Paradoxically, by insisting on engaging with Muslims as a distinct group, the authorities make many of them feel even more excluded from the mainstream, which leads in turn to an intensification of the search for identity.

Certainly, there are high-profile Muslim groups that have sought to nurture grievances to push their own political agendas. But their activities cannot alone explain the shift in thinking amongst Muslims, the vast majority of whom do not even recognise these bodies as being particularly representative. For instance, while the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) may be a lobby group of some influence in official circles, only six per cent of Muslims in our survey named the MCB as a body that represented their views. It does not shape Muslim opinion in the way that some – both friend and foe of the MCB – may imagine. Indeed, it’s important to remember that such ‘community leaders’ got their positions in the first place because the authorities put them there. It was the belief on the part of government that Muslims were so different that they required separate representation that bred the kind of leadership we have today, not the other way round.

Of course, the alienating effects of this ‘group rights’ agenda are not unique to Muslims. They are experienced in different ways by other communities. In fact, playing the victim card and drawing attention to one’s vulnerability has become a well-worn tactic of many lobbyists (see A queer rally, by Nathalie Rothschild).

The sense of political disengagement and search for meaning amongst the young came out strongly in our interviews with both Muslims and non-Muslims. Perhaps most strikingly, many of the anti-Western ideas associated with more radical or politicised Islam were also to be found amongst non-Muslim respondents. Suspicion of the West and its traditions is not confined to Muslims. Such attitudes – disdain for consumerism, perception of a lack of moral values in Western societies, crude anti-Americanism, ambivalence towards free speech – are readily found in the wider population. Fifty-eight per cent of Muslims believed that ‘many of the problems in the world are a result of arrogant Western attitudes’; 30 per cent of the general population agreed. Thirteen per cent of Muslims admired organisations like al-Qaeda, but so too did three per cent of the general population. When asked to respond to the statement ‘One of the benefits of living in modern society is the freedom to criticise other people’s religious or political views, even when it causes offence’, 37 per cent of the Muslim respondents agreed, compared with only 29 per cent of the general population.

Media stories about Muslims inevitably focus on what sets them apart. But in order to work out the underlying issues, we need first to understand that the emergent politicised Muslim identity is, in part, a particularly acute expression of broader trends within our society.

Munira Mirza is co-author of Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism, published by Policy Exchange.

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Topics Politics


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