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The myth of ‘the Muslim world’

The Israel-Hamas War has exposed the danger of Islamic identity politics.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK World

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This week, the idea of ‘the Muslim world’ took one hell of a beating. The notion of an ummah has been left in tatters. The fantasy of a global people with shared interests and experiences – almost an Islamic class – is now surely kaput. For while woke activists in the West might still speak of Muslims as a bloc, if not a blob, elsewhere in the world Muslims are at war. Two of the most powerful Muslim-majority nations, Iran and Pakistan, got dangerously close to all-out conflict this week. Tell me: who should the ‘Muslim community’ in Britain or the US or Canada support in this violent border skirmish?

For years, there’s been a gaping disconnect between the way Western observers speak about Muslims and the actual Muslim experience. Between our elites’ reduction of Muslims here in the West to a single entity, a throng that believes the same things and feels the same pain, and the growing Balkanisation of the Muslim-majority world. The West’s guardians of opinion often slam celebs for treating Africa as a single country, and yet they’re equally guilty of flattening out the religious, cultural and territorial complexities of the Muslim experience. Their rush to fashion a new oppressed class, a people they might marshal as part of their indictment of the wickedness of the West, has ironically denuded Muslims of their diversity, and even their humanity.

This disconnect has really come to life in recent weeks. All the talk in right-thinking circles in the West has been of Muslim unity. Both ‘the Muslim community’ over here and ‘the Muslim world’ more broadly are as one in their rage with Israel and love for Palestine, we’re told. Reuters used the sweeping term ‘Muslim animosity’ to describe the vibe in both the West and the East. Media outlets in the US and Europe frantically report that ‘Muslim voters’ might ditch Joe Biden over his support for Israel and turn against Labour in the UK, on the basis that Keir Starmer has been insufficiently pro-Palestine. That term, ‘Muslim voter’, conjures up an image of a samey, single-issue citizen, faithfully traipsing to the polling booth to register the uniform ‘animosity’ his kind feel.

Things are more complicated. They always are. Guardianistas might get a kick from reporting on the anti-Israel, anti-West fury of ‘the Muslim world’, but they’re rather more coy on the brazen failure of that world to offer assistance to civilians in Gaza. Egypt, for instance, which borders Gaza, is flat-out refusing to take refugees from the Israel-Hamas War. They’d pose a security threat, apparently. Countless lives could have been saved had Egypt permitted the construction of refugee camps in the Sinai. We hear little of Egypt’s complicity in Gazans’ suffering, however, because our activist class prefers the moral thrill of cheering on ‘Muslim animosity’ towards Israel and the West to the hard task of analysing Arab states’ fatal betrayal of the Palestinian people.

There are 22 Arab states, spreading from the Middle East across North Africa, and all have closed their borders to Gazans. King Abdullah II of Jordan put it bluntly shortly after the start of the Israel-Hamas War: ‘No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt.’ Though perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by Jordan’s willingness to leave Gazans in what leftists and Islamists rather madly refer to as an ‘open-air concentration camp’. This, after all, is the state which, in Black September in 1970, fought a war with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in which thousands of Palestinians died. One wonders how many of the woke youths hitting the streets of London and NYC to weep for Palestine have heard of Black September. Perhaps they block out any fact that shakes their fairytale about evil Israel vs a justly angry ‘Muslim world’.

And now we have Iran vs Pakistan. This week, in the space of two days, Iran carried out airstrikes in three Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. It says it bombed Israeli ‘spy headquarters’ in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, though Kurdish officials say four civilians were killed: a Kurdish businessman, his wife and their two kids. It says it bombed ISIS-style terrorists in Syria, in retaliation for the suicide bombing in the Iranian city of Kerman on 3 January that killed 84 people. And it says it targeted Jaish ul-Adl, an anti-Iranian terror group, in Pakistan. Pakistan has now hit back, reportedly killing nine people across the Iranian border. Border strife between Iran and Pakistan had been brewing for years.

How should that most reductive of entities – ‘the Muslim community’ – respond to this latest round of violent fragmentation in ‘the Muslim world’? Should they side with the largely Persian nation in which the vast majority are Shia Muslims, or with that patchwork of ethnic groups that makes up modern Pakistan, where most are Sunni Muslims? I would wager that the West’s Pakistani-heritage and Iranian-heritage populations will take opposite sides in this concerning clash. Almost as if they are more than members of a ‘Muslim community’, more than ‘Muslim voters’, more than fleshy embodiments of ‘Muslim animosity’, and instead have deeply divergent religious, cultural and political loyalties.

When our identitarian establishments speak of a ‘Muslim community’, we should ask them who they’re referring to. Britain’s terribly poor Bangladeshi communities or wealthy cosmopolitan Arabs who spend millions of pounds a day in London? London’s secular migrants from Kurdistan or its pious new arrivals from Somalia? Normal political concerns move ‘the Muslim community’ more than the paternalist left would have us believe. Towards the end of last year, a survey found that a majority of British Muslims still intend to vote Labour, despite the pleas of both imams and Corbynistas to punish Starmer for backing Israel. The Gaza conflict came fourth in their electoral priorities, behind the cost of living, the NHS and the economy. Time-rich liberal whites might enjoy the luxury of obsessing over Palestine to the exclusion of everything else, but many working-class Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Somalis do not.

The hollowness of the Western elites’ talk of a homogenous ‘Muslim community’ has been clear for years. Indeed, at the same time as performative concern for ‘the Muslim community’ became all the rage among moral influencers in the West, much of the actual ‘Muslim world’ became engulfed in deadly sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis. The Saudi Arabia-Iran proxy wars have caused vast destruction, not least in Yemen. And most of the victims of the rise of deranged Islamist groups like ISIS were Muslims. We heard little about those ‘Muslim victims’ from our activist class, though. It seems the death of a Muslim is only cause for grief if Israel is responsible for it, or America, or Britain. You know – ‘white people’.

It is true, of course, that the leaders of Muslim-majority nations use and abuse the Israel-Palestine issue to try to boost their moral standing at home. Israelophobia wins prizes, from Riyadh to Islamabad. That, I guess, is a kind of ‘Muslim unity’: the unity of moral exploitation, the shared experience of riding the Palestine Question for clout. Yet even here it’s complicated. Saudi Arabia has made rapprochement with Israel, while Iran is essentially at war with Israel via its extremist proxies, like Hamas. The woke elites who push a simplistic vision of Israel and ‘the Muslim world’ are more concerned with flattering their own narcissistic need to feel part of a cosmic battle between good and evil than they are with truly understanding the political intricacies of the Middle East and beyond.

The hollowness of the Muslim identity has rarely been so starkly exposed. It’s a point Olivier Roy, the French political scientist, has made for some time. In his stirring analyses of Islam in the West, Roy has consistently pointed to the ‘de-territorialisation’ of the new Islamic identity. Among second- and third-generation Muslims in the West, the attraction of an abstract ‘Muslim identity’ is precisely that it allows them to separate themselves both from Western society and the cultural traditions of their own communities. Or ‘folk customs’, as Roy calls them. Uninterested in integration into the West, and disdainful of the ethnic and national heritage of their own parents and grandparents, the self-styled ‘Muslim’ instead signs up to a ‘global and abstract’ ummah, says Roy, ‘an imaginary ummah, beyond ethnicity, race, language and culture, one that is no longer embedded in a specific territory’.

Roy’s keenest insight is that this new Muslim identity is more an offspring of Western globalisation than Eastern fanaticism. The abstracted Muslim builds an identity for himself, like a consumer, in keeping with ‘modern models of individualisation and the free market’. In this sense, the West’s Muslim identitarians are not that different from other Western tribes. Many young Westerners now feel alienated from both nation and community, both flag and family, and prefer to piece together an identity from ideas and beliefs found online and in the other global networks of late-stage capitalism. Only where they wave the Pride flag and ditch their pronouns to signal their rejection of nation and tradition, the Muslim identitarian waves a Koran and denounces the Great Satan of imperialism.

This is not to deny the specific problems posed by the abstracted Islamic identity. As we’ve seen, this identity lends itself to extremism, even violence. Indeed, it is the very ‘de-territorialisation’ of the Islamic identity in the West that makes it susceptible to fanaticism. Unanchored from both the conservative culture of his parents’ and grandparents’ generation and from any sense of connection to the nation or to the West, the abstracted Muslim can come to be unmoored from moral and social norms. And thus prey for extremism. The great tragedy is that our elites, far from seeking to alleviate the alienation of young Muslims from culture and society, celebrate it. They institutionalise it. Courtesy of Britain and America’s identitarian rulers, the abstracted Muslim is now the Muslim. That very phrase – ‘the Muslim community’ – speaks to their reactionary belief that Muslims exist on a plane beyond the issues of nationhood, class and material aspiration that animate other, ‘normal’ communities.

The construction of a narrowly Muslim identity is a terrible idea. It incites young folk in Britain, America and elsewhere to cut themselves off from their own history and their own society. It inevitably stokes feelings of hostility, both for one’s own community and one’s own society. And it can lead, as we’ve seen, to huge numbers of Muslim identitarians taking to the streets of London and other capitals to cheer the fascists of Hamas. Well, they’re part of ‘the Muslim world’ too, right, and thus good? Identity politics is a disaster. It weakens the moral authority of community elders and national institutions and nurtures a kind of savage narcissism. Undoing its damage is the most pressing task we face.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK World

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