The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism

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Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Con­test­ed Ground of British Islam­ic Activism by Sadek Hamid, 2016. Lon­don: I. B. Tau­ris, £56.00, xv + 202 pp., ISBN: 978–1‑78453–231‑4

I often won­der what sort of Maqalat Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari would have writ­ten had he been a res­i­dent of late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Lon­don, instead of Abbasid Bas­ra. Would he have reserved chap­ters for Super Salafis and the gener­ic Desi masjid uncle? Or, if he cared to say some­thing about sar­to­r­i­al prac­tices, might we have expect­ed to find a page on the smart casu­als and design­er stub­ble of HT activists? What about the lap-danc­ing antics of the Quil­liamites? Some strange antin­o­mi­an­ist rit­u­al, no doubt. For­tu­nate­ly, with Sadek Hamid’s recent book we have an aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous account of the British Islam­ic activist scene that is no less engag­ing – and much more edi­fy­ing. He brack­ets the Deoban­di and Barel­wi affil­i­a­tions from the out­set to explore four major activist trends (Young Mus­lims, HT, Salafi and Tra­di­tion­al­ist), pre­sent­ing the read­er with a peri­odised his­to­ry of each from their genealog­i­cal ori­gins to their future prospects. Hamid duly pays atten­tion to the glob­al con­text of Mus­lim revival and the result­ing influ­ence of transna­tion­al Mus­lim net­works, and uses the lense of social move­ment the­o­ry (SMT) to engage with the rel­e­vant group dynam­ics. This is much, much more than oral his­to­ry; it is a the­o­ret­i­cal­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed and inter­dis­ci­pli­nary account of Islam­ic activism, draw­ing on dozens of inter­views with lead­ing activists. It will sure­ly come to form a new point of depar­ture for any­one work­ing on the intel­lec­tu­al and social his­to­ry of British Mus­lims, as the numer­ous enco­mia pref­ac­ing the book suggest.

Hamid begins by mak­ing the point, echoed by Kenan Malik among oth­ers, that at first the British Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty defined itself – and in turn was defined – in eth­nic terms. This came to change par­tic­u­lar­ly in the course of the eight­ies; ear­ly activism’s roots reach fur­ther back, to influ­en­tial transna­tion­al net­works like Mawdudi’s Jamaat-e-Isla­mi or the Ikhwan. But it is in the eight­ies that the domes­tic land­scape became more recog­nis­able to the younger among us today. Hamid charts the devel­op­ment of British Islam­ic activism in five key stages; arrival, with the estab­lish­ment of FOSIS and relat­ed organ­i­sa­tions in the 60’s and 70’s; incep­tion, when most of the key trends had begun to emerge; estab­lish­ment, in the ear­ly to mid-90’s, when groups like HT and the Salafis began to have a nation­al fol­low­ing; frag­men­ta­tion, when the major trends with the excep­tion of the tra­di­tion­al­ists began to implode and to haem­or­rhage mem­bers and influ­ence; renew­al, in the ear­ly 2000’s, when most of these groups sought to repair some of the dam­age done, and final­ly the con­tem­po­rary period.

Each phase in the growth of activism is marked by par­tic­u­lar actors, devel­op­ments and ideas. At least at the lead­er­ship lev­el, iden­ti­ties are more flu­id than they have been any time since the emer­gence of the major trends in the 80’s, though the author sus­pects that they are more rigid at the grass­roots lev­el. One notice­able change is the rela­tion­ship with transna­tion­al move­ments; they are much less pro­nounced than before. A num­ber of organ­i­sa­tions have changed almost beyond recog­ni­tion; YM is now much more close­ly con­trolled by the Islam­ic Soci­ety of Britain, and is much less overt­ly Islamist (if that is an apt descrip­tor at all). Many of the for­mer lead­er­ship of the Salafi move­ment are reluc­tant to iden­ti­fy with that label; there is greater hybridi­s­a­tion now, and bound­aries are more porous than they were in the recent past. The author offers some salu­tary advice to cur­rent activists, bear­ing in mind these his­to­ries; there must be greater trans­paren­cy and pro­fes­sion­al­ism in Mus­lim organ­i­sa­tions, more intel­lec­tu­al­ism – and women must be more involved in posi­tions of lead­er­ship. There is also the sober­ing and impor­tant reminder that activist cir­cles embrace only a small per­cent­age of British Mus­lims; on some lev­el, there has been a fail­ure to address a broad­er audi­ence. There is also a need to engage more wide­ly with British civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions. Hamid pre­dicts that reformist Islamist groups will become less impor­tant in the near future, and sug­gests that there is a need for greater self-reflex­iv­i­ty and self-criticism.

These points are all well tak­en. The author’s crit­i­cisms of each trend are even hand­ed and prin­ci­pled; tra­di­tion­al­ism, for instance, has been over­ly nos­tal­gic about the past and is high­ly selec­tive in its rep­re­sen­ta­tion (Nuh Keller’s omis­sion of slav­ery from his trans­la­tion of the Reliance owes much more to ‘Abduh and Rida than to clas­si­cal fiqh). But sage­ly advice is only an inci­den­tal fea­ture of the book, as it were; the focus is on a nar­ra­tive his­to­ry of each of the four major trends, their inter­ac­tions and their col­lec­tive tra­jec­to­ry. There is also, of course, a use­ful ana­lyt­ic frame­work in SMT, and enough typolo­gies to sat­is­fy the most ardent of social sci­en­tists. In terms of move­ment tra­jec­to­ry, I was fas­ci­nat­ed to learn that YM began to suf­fer when it was per­ceived to have a cav­a­lier atti­tude towards ‘ilm and the tra­di­tion; the res­ig­na­tion of two nation­al lead­ers of the move­ment in the mid-90’s pre­cip­i­tat­ed a cri­sis from which it has nev­er prop­er­ly recov­ered. The tra­di­tion­al­ist incep­tion phase began a good decade or so after the oth­er groups, from which it was able to entice many a defec­tor. It was a sur­prise to learn that fix­tures on the tra­di­tion­al­ist speak­er cir­cuit were once part of the JIMAS con­fer­ence, and that only once rela­tion­ships with oth­er groups had been estab­lished were the tra­di­tion­al­ists able to cre­ate net­works and organ­i­sa­tions of their own. There is many an instruc­tive les­son here. For­mer utopi­an Islamists, until they were dis­placed by Quil­liam and oth­er more amenable con­ver­sa­tion part­ners, came to have the ear of gov­ern­ment – and they reflect on those tran­si­tions. In some sense, peo­ple grew up; there is a kind of age-cohort analy­sis implic­it in what Hamid is doing. Class fea­tures, but too late in the book for my lik­ing; while it is clear that tra­di­tion­al­ism is elit­ist and that this can even come with a cer­tain aes­thet­ic, this is not dis­cussed – and then, in pass­ing – until towards the end. For exam­ple, why is it that Salafism came to flour­ish in the mean streets of Brix­ton, and not, say, HT? These ques­tions are not addressed at much length.

Most of all, lessons aside, I enjoyed the colour­ful drama­tis per­son­ae; the good ones are saint­ly, and stu­dious; and there are plen­ty of rogues, more or less love­able accord­ing to how well you know them. Omar Bakri is a case in point. Although Hamid makes it clear that the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty expe­ri­enced many flash­points in com­mon – the Rushdie cri­sis, the Gulf War, Bosnia, 9/11 and 7/7 – there is still a way in which par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal actors seem to dri­ve the nar­ra­tive for­ward. A friend made this point when dis­cussing the his­to­ry the book describes; there is scope for agency, but only the lead­ers seem to enjoy it.

Though they do not detract much at all from the qual­i­ty of the book, there are some minor errors that reviewer’s con­science oblig­es me to point out; Ibn ‘Arabi’s death date is incor­rect­ly giv­en as 1088 (p. 69), before being giv­en cor­rect­ly lat­er on; the Ottoman Empire is said to have been estab­lished in 1517 (p. 34) and, more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the con­flict in Bosnia is mis­lead­ing­ly described as a ‘civ­il war’ (pp. 26, 122). While some have used this term, it is worth remem­ber­ing that the war was waged against a state whose sov­er­eign­ty was recog­nised by the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, in an attempt to bring it under the dom­i­na­tion of a Serb-dom­i­nat­ed Yugoslavia.

This is a superb book, and I would urge all Mus­lims involved in activism to read it; for the gen­er­al read­er look­ing for an account of British Islam­ic activism in the recent past, there could be no bet­ter place to turn to, and no sur­er guide than the author. In the spir­it of full dis­clo­sure, he describes his own activist past in a foot­note – but he has man­aged the emic/etic divide with great dex­ter­i­ty, and has giv­en us a con­sci­en­tious, well-informed, and extreme­ly engag­ing his­to­ry. I rec­om­mend it with­out hesitation.