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.