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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Identity Crises of British Muslims

With the knowledge that the 7/7 bombers were "homegrown" terrorists, the ability of the Muslim community to successfully become part of mainstream British/Western society is being questioned, while on the other hand the need for Muslims in Britain and elsewhere to abandon their cultural ties, religious traditions, and other customs is also being challenged. In other words, the questions has become whether integration to a particular point is now required for social safety and whether multiculturalism is a liability -- not an asset -- to open democracies [see previous post].

Indeed, Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality was reported as saying that "multiculturalism is no longer the way forward and we must pursue integration in the UK." Echoing these sentiments, Tory leader David Davis reportedly argued that "multiculturalism allowed people of different religions and cultures to live together without expecting them to integrate – which was wrong." Davis additionally stated that that multiculturalism was "outdated."

The integration vs. multiculturalism question is most difficult for British Muslims themselves, who are now suffering from an identity crisis - e.g., are they sufficiently British given the extra scrutiny they will endure after 7/7, to what extent can they be Muslim without generating this heightened attention, and what allegiance does a British Muslim have to other Muslims who have resorted to, or are interested in using, terrorism as a means of addressing some grievance?
Maruf Khwaja, for example, writes that the issue has been framed as to "whether religious or national identity should take precedence in the Muslim’s acute sense of awareness." Complicating matters, according to Khwaja, is that "Islam is not an easy faith to practice.... It is also a very 'public' or demonstrative religion, and both its divisions and contradictions are in the open." In addition, Muslims in Western society are already"faced with the challenge of preserving some sort of identity against the combined impact of powerful inherited cultures and a hedonism-driven media."

To Khwaja, this self-examination is easier in the West because it "can only be undertaken in places where rational debate is protected from death threats." For this particular author, the West provides an environment in which the individual Muslim mind, especially one of a Muslim youth, can establish a fine balance between adhering to the faith and being "secular." Khwaja himself notes that, after going to America, "I rearranged my mental universe, abandoned all the schools I was born into and indoctrinated with, and went all by myself happy and free into the land of the infidel."

This individual story suggests that integration and multiculturalism aren't inconsistent concepts. This thought was repeated by the The Muslim Council of Britain, which argued that there was "no contradiction" between having a multicultural society and achieving integration.

The debate surrounding identity in the context of the integration vs. multiculturalism has now turned to a question of labeling, specifically whether hyphenated titles such as Indian-American or Italian-American should be used in Britain. Joseph Harker, a columnist for the Guardian (UK), thinks such titles are a negative thing: "Across the Atlantic, the double identities of the various minorities are a measure of their exclusion from society, not of their integration into it." Harker also argues that it is inconsistent for Muslims and Asians in Britain to want hyphenated names (and thus to be identified differently), but for these same people to complain when they are treated differently (i.e., during the 7/7 backlash). Apparently, however, some Muslims are criticizing the idea as well: Manzoor Moghal, chairman of the Muslim Forum said, “What is being proposed is divisive … it would create a lower strata of British."

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