Defining British Muslims by faith and not cultural heritage

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The increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from members of the Cabinet in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair has emboldened all sorts to (mis)direct their grievances at Muslims and though many of us will be hesitant to agree with much of the criticisms voiced in recent weeks, silence isn’t an option; we should straddle a careful line between affirming glaringly obvious facts and rejecting conflations. For many it is the preponderant view that the political notion of multiculturalism shall afford Muslims the right to practice their faith, yet we have overlooked the fact that firstly we are neither cultural nor moral relativists, and secondly, that groups of people are bound to appropriate the ‘right to belief’ to justify their backward cultural practices, and if they can’t, then at least palm them off as being Islamic (or on occasion some other religion).

Now my point isn’t to denigrate legitimate expressions of human living that form in different ways all over the world, I deeply appreciate cultural variation and the diversity it has brought to cities such as London, providing its citizens with an amazingly rich experience. However, not all beliefs and practices within any culture are godly or even beneficial, in fact some cultures have overarching ideals (and all cultures have practices) that are ethically dubious, even if some practices within them tend to be praiseworthy. God has affirmed throughout the ages, most notably via the scriptures of Abraham, the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Gospel of Christ, and the Qur’an of Muhammad, that there is a moral standard to which all shall be held accountable.

It is with this in mind that we should evaluate assessments that are maliciously ascribed to Muslims. Beyond the general aversion that some Liberals have expressed towards all faith schools, I am yet to hear criticism of the shari’ah, and by extension the Islamic faith, that is a valid attribution to Islamic ethics – that’s to say one that is correctly linked to Islamic belief rather than something else. (Although I acknowledge this can be somewhat challenging given the competing claims of ‘authenticity’.) From honour killings to repudiating the English language, the conflations have been numerous and farcical. A good example of the absurdity now becoming commonplace in the public realm is Allison Pearson’s recent article in the Telegraph which misrepresents Asians as Muslims throughout. In order to justify her tirade against backward Muslim practices she depends on the cultural practices of Asian parents, telling us of ‘irate Pakistani patriarchs’, ‘13-year-old Muslim girls suddenly disappear from the classroom to be taken “home” for a forced marriage’, ‘75 per cent of Pakistanis in the city’, ‘British Pakistanis’, ‘Children as young as six told that Western women are “white prostitutes”’, and quoting Honeyford that ‘British-born Asian children begin their mastery of English by being taught in Urdu’. Yet with having affirmed throughout that the matter is completely unrelated to theology or religious ethics, she rather inanely concludes that ‘many Muslims are adrift from the mainstream’ and ‘We have to expose Muslim children to as wide a range of experiences.’

The unjustified conflation between the deen and Asian cultural practices, or ascribing certain observances to the attribute of being a Muslim isn’t unique to non-Muslims, in fact it is propagated first and foremost by those from ethnic minorities who happen to ascribe to the Islamic faith. Many if not most are unable to distinguish religious practice from cultural observances. Although many Muslims are quick to point out the difference, their language often betrays this belief; many from foreign backgrounds tend to use pronouns that suggest an ethnicity when actually referring to their religious identity. Usually, it’s ‘us’ in contrast to ‘white people’, or the misuse of ‘them’ in the context of theology to perversely refer to a race/ethnicity rather than believers. Irresponsible misconceptions such as these imply that the white majority aren’t given to believing in Abrahamic monotheism, whilst also nominally implying that brownness (of varying degrees) is a qualification of faith. Regrettably, such Muslims don’t seem to understand what a Muslim identity entails; often they’re sharing ethnic culture with non-Muslim neighbours in the name of proliferating the faith – a simple example is that of the iftar; the process of breaking a fast is meant to be the simple consumption of dates and water but somehow turns into a gluttonous feast of samosas, falafels, pakoras and various other ethnic fritters. Sharing your “home” culture is perfectly fine, I’m just not sure where islam (subservience to God) or Ramadan comes into it, especially where propriety doesn’t tell you to refrain from food and drink all day only to stuff your face at maghrib (dusk).

So it is this mixed message that has come to confuse a whole host of people, and not only non-Muslims. The fostering of foreign values at odds with sensible reason has meant that our own religious institutions, often run on the basis of such values, have been rendered impotent, our intellectual endeavours paralysed, and our religious expression meaningless.

Now this doesn’t necessitate that I agree with Michael Gove or critics who rather than offer reasoned remarks resort to aggregating false notions. Cameron’s more recent appropriation of the Magna Carta is satirical; a charter to ensure the freedom of ‘freemen’ (basically the rich) against the arbitrary authority of a despot appropriated by those using authoritarian means to demonise conservative Muslims, treat the poor with contempt, or prosecute people in secret. Peter Hitchins criticised, “So when we’re told that this is ‘extremism’, then we tend to think that in that case we, too, are ‘extremists’. The word means nothing except ‘person holding unfashionable views’. It means even less than the foggy, squelchy ‘British values’ Michael Gove says we must espouse.” Gove’s offering of British values is ridiculously pretentious (as is the Prime Minister’s backing), and the use of silly nationalistic rhetoric to garner wider support against a significant section of society profoundly irresponsible. In fact the only values these lot support are those that maintain the power of the political elite, their exploitation of ordinary people, and turning them against one another so as to subdue any resistance to their authority. It’s very well known that nationality has never been a source of morality; such statements are used for political purposes usually at times of heightened xenophobia – every nation claims the values of tolerance and fairness, even North Vietnam would declare them as being part of the nation’s moral repertoire.

But does that mean we must reject the idea of Britishness completely, especially in the context of society being told that Muslims hate Britain? There are two ways in which values might be referred to as British: either as originating from Britain (which is clearly absurd) or as upright ideals that we agree with. In this context I somewhat agree with Myriam Francois-Cerrah on the promotion of universal values, but I don’t think it necessarily discounts them as simultaneously being British – the extreme forms of nationalism disparaged by the shari’ah was in reference to hubristic sentiment based on the notion of racial superiority, not the attribution of virtuous ideals to one’s own people. To affirm them as British (while cognisant that we don’t hold a monopoly over them) isn’t wrong, in fact the faithful should struggle against the unrighteous in power in a way that shows wider society our commitment to righteousness and our sense of belonging (both of which are widely questioned), promoting shar’i values such as being charitable and sympathetic, dispensing with justice impartially, coming to the aid of the weak and oppressed, affirming truth without partisanship, civility and courteousness, democracy and representation, and freedom from authoritarian rule. Not only does the Most High exhort us to enjoin in good, we are encouraged to cooperate with others to achieve it. Of course, much of this will come from believers who have an inherent sense of belonging, rather than immigrants or those born of immigrant parents who strongly maintain the primacy of their own “home” cultures and languages, spurning integration and/or cultural evolution. Personally I cannot understand the aversion some hold against their host country given the initial attraction it held when deciding to emigrate there in the first place. One might even ask why some remain in a country so detestable if “home” is so great.

It is at this juncture that critics pipe up with a number of contentions, glad to have found supposed flaws. Firstly, they will assert that the suggestion of “going home” is inherently racist. Secondly, that I am attempting to silence critics of politicians and government. Thirdly, that it is inconsistent to criticise backward foreign cultural practices yet remain silent of immorality found in British culture. And lastly, that why should one accept being British, and furthermore, how do we define Britishness? These contentions either conflate issues or fallaciously necessitate corollaries. My response to these contentions are as follows:

  • As we’ve often heard, Muslims are often told to “go to Saudi Arabia” if they affirm revelation or choose to practice their faith in accordance with orthodox tradition. I agree, when that happens it is racist. I am yet to hear a white marxist be told to go to Russia, a white avid secularist to go to France, or a white socialist to go to South America, yet brown Muslims are often told to join their brown co-religionists (whom they probably don’t completely agree with in any case). However, my point isn’t about ideologies or abstract values Muslims hold that are irrelevant to ethnicity or country, mine is about regressive cultural values that are specific to a region the advocate refers to as “home”.
  • As for silencing critics of government, the assertion is laughable – nothing in this piece (or anywhere else for that matter) even suggests such a thing. I strongly believe in the notion of democracy and amongst its most noble principles is to hold those in authority to account. In fact the Prophet stated, “the greatest jihad is to speak the truth in the face of a tyrant.” (al-Bukhari)
  • To assume criticism of one thing should entail criticising everything else at that moment is imbecilic – that would mean that criticism of the government necessitates criticism of every other government simultaneously. This argument is merely a puerile tactic to subvert focus from important issues; what does iniquity found in certain British cultural practices have to do with the focus of this piece: associations that allow for the conflation between foreign cultural practices that contradict the shari’ah and noble shar’i ideals God has exhorted mankind to?
  • The notion of being British needn’t be a complicated affair, it’s very much about stating the obvious. If one emigrates to Britain with no intention to return to their homeland and often looking for a better life, or was born and raised here, how are they not British?
  • As for what constitutes Britishness, if you have to ask the question evidently you’re not very British. I am yet to hear many of those who smugly ask the question able to pedantically define what being Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Somali, Algerian, etc. means. Cultures are very sophisticated and there is no defined set of conditions, yet that doesn’t negate overarching ideals that people buy into and where they also share certain practices and a common identity. Now providing tweets or quotes of white Anglo-Saxons questioning Gove’s notion of British values isn’t convincing, those tweets do not take issue with the idea of a British identity but with its misappropriation by politicians who clothe it with jingoistic sentiment to ostracise sections of society, especially when they are themselves persistently exposed as a dishonourable lot.

Finding ourselves in this miserable position has meant that for a while we’ve settled for playing the cultural relativism card, although I’m not sure that it is the most cogent way to affirm our own right to religious practice or bring about societal acquiescence. Ms Francois-Cerrah’s retort on Channel 4 News: “What does that say to children in a classroom whose heritage harks from outside the British Isles? It says this country has superior moral values and you are coming from some backward culture whose values you … must not consider equal to our own”, is with all respect to Ms Francois-Cerrah, somewhat unsound. The Telegraph’s Pearson is right to denigrate various regressive foreign customs that are prevalent in immigrant communities; I’m in agreement where the same customs are also disparaged by the shari’ah. Aside from her focus on Asian culture, and generally speaking, it is a superior moral value to hold the sanctity of blood in high regard, to value women as more than domestic slaves, or to take issue with nepotism, and I don’t think we should be reticent in stating it.

I am fully aware that many people will feel the articulation of such sentiment merely aids current hostilities towards Muslims but I fail to see how; the proponents of backward and primitive practices do not make for good bedfellows, not least for the fact that not only do we facilitate the misrepresentation of our faith by associating with their customs, but as the faithful we ourselves are negatively affected by their ways. The nepotism ingrained in those who run mosques and madrassahs, often as a result of their foreign cultural norms, has meant that ethno-religious communities have progressed little. Often their aversion to progression is comical – Islamic scholarship is deemed illegitimate because the scholar received training “sitting on tables and chairs like a westerner” as opposed to sitting on the floor with a wooden bench. Beyond such fatuity there are more serious concerns to be had; Western converts are often subjected to cultural hegemony and racism, at times shunned for not wanting to give up their own cultural practices; amongst some they are mistrusted because of the colour of their skin or indicted as sell-outs for manifesting western cultural norms though the norms sit within shar’i parameters. This cultural hegemony on the faith extends into wider society, secular schools are told that Muslim apparel is a shalwar kameez, or some appropriate the religion crying Islamophobia at any criticism of their ethnic practices.

Aligning with foreign cultures, or even worse, portraying Abrahamic ethics as another ‘culture’ rather than an intellectual body of objective moral principles that enhances human interactions betrays our confidence in Abrahamic precepts being wholly rational and agreeable to the human intellect – its concordance with reason means that we don’t need to be tolerated on the back of equality or cultural relativism, but that we may proactively engage wider society on the basis of moral objectivity, rational precepts, intelligent conceptions and sound internalised faith. The faithful should not be in the business of upholding backward cultural values, and as a collective of believers such values have nothing to do with us; they neither strengthen our right to belief nor bring us closer to wider societal acceptance of God.

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