Divided loyalties

December 14, 2001

'God will not forsake us.. Muslims will remain on this earth; they will not die out but will spread throughout the world. Judaism will die out. Christianity will die out. Hinduism will die out, and one day the name of Islam and only Islam, "God is one and Muhammad is His Prophet", will remain'

News that western citizens, including British Pakistanis who have been fighting alongside Taliban and al-Qaida troops in Afghanistan, could face charges of treason reflects a growing moral panic about the limits of liberal multiculturalism. As journalist Hugo Young stated recently, multiculturalism "can now be seen as a useful Bible for any Muslim who insists that his religio-cultural priorities, including the defence of jihad against America, override his civic duties of loyalty, tolerance, justice and respect for democracy".

Counter-statements by Muslim leaders that such volunteers are merely a tiny unrepresentative minority have failed to convince, pitched as they have been against reports of widespread support by British Muslims for the Taliban, almost total condemnation by Muslims in Britain of the war in Afghanistan, a widespread perception that the war is an attack on Islam and an equally pervasive denial that the West has proved its case against Osama bin Laden.

The "loyalty debate" has taken on a momentum of its own, carried forward in the media. Eastern Eye proclaimed in bold capitals that "British Asians are proud to be British". Home secretary David Blunkett has unveiled schemes for new immigrant education in citizenship and warned of the need to disperse Muslim "ghettos", while education secretary Estelle Morris has cautioned that religious schools "must integrate in the community".

Such authoritarian responses gloss over the tragic predicament of a diaspora caught between deeply felt loyalties at a historical moment not of its own making. The response of Muslims has been in many ways predictable for those, like myself, whose research has focused on the Pakistani diaspora in the United Kingdom. It also raises questions about a widespread discourse of Islamic millennialism, pervasive in Muslim gatherings, which echoes a global utopian rhetoric.

The rhetoric is a hybrid one, rooted in anti-colonial struggles and calling for equal citizenship rights in Britain. It can be heard on many different occasions, from Quaidi-Azam Day commemorations of the life of the founder of Pakistan to celebrations around the birth of the Prophet. In these events, the more conservative religious-nationalists among local Pakistanis, usually aspiring community leaders locked in factional battles, enunciate manichaean visions of apocalyptic battles between Islam and the West, especially the United States, the source of all evil.

Like Islamist activists, they criticise contemporary Muslim regimes for their authoritarianism, corruption and weakness towards the West. It is a story that Muslims tell themselves in the confines of their own arenas, far from the public gaze; an empowering millenarian discourse that starts from a sense of the cataclysmic failure of Islam. Like Jewish fundamentalist explanations for the Holocaust, speakers suggest that God has abandoned Muslims because of their sinfulness. The trauma of partition, the loss of three wars with India, the 1967 six-day war, Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, are read as signals of a cosmic Islamic crisis. As early as 1987, well before the Salman Rushdie affair and the Gulf war, speeches in Manchester envisaged the ultimate global triumph of Islam. Despite present failures, as one orator declared: "God will not forsake us... Muslims will remain on this earth; they will not die out but will spread throughout the world. Judaism will die out. Christianity will die out. Hinduism will die out, and one day the name of Islam and only Islam, 'God is one and Muhammad is His Prophet', will remain. And when this day occurs, it will be a day when the conscience of the Muslims will be fully awakened and they will be able to differentiate between theirs and others and will be able to unite."

By contrast to the Islamist discourse, however, British Pakistani diasporic flights of rhetoric are rooted in a political imagination that makes no serious attempt to implement its millennial fantasies. Moreover, countering the conservative camp is a social democratic camp from which most Muslim Labour Party members, city councillors and MPs spring.

Even when lay orators or Muslim clerics position themselves imaginatively at the hub of a global civilisational battle centred on Britain, their fantasy is not underpinned by fundamentalist organisation or violent mobilisation. Hence the moment of real apocalypse on September 11, beyond the imagination, was for Muslims in Britain a moment of shock; of tangible fear of the potential rage and terror of the West.

What must it be like to feel under siege in your home? Images of global terror and Muslim crowds burning effigies of western leaders or supporting Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have invaded every home in Britain since September 11. They underline the terrible vulnerability of Muslim diasporas in the West, susceptible to being essentialised as fanatical and irrational, a potential fifth column in a clash of civilisations. Although normally a vocal minority demanding equal citizenship rights and never afraid to express deviant opinions, the initial reaction of Pakistani Muslim leaders in Britain to the attack in New York was one of stunned silence and instant condemnation.

But as the bombing campaign in Afghanistan intensified, with news of civilian casualties and refugees, the familiar Pakistani diasporic rhetoric of dissent again surfaced. Unlike the Gulf war and the Rushdie affair, this time Muslim activists coordinated their response with the anti-war lobby in Britain and shared its anti-American rhetoric. This in itself indicates a more mature sense of the need for diasporas to present a rational and morally defensible face in public and to act as citizens legitimately critiquing state policy.

The predicament for Muslims has been one of a diasporic minority having to make impossible choices. In a post-national world, the meaning of loyalty to the state has arguably been rendered ambiguous. Short of being a paid spy or terrorist, how is disloyalty to be construed?

In ordinary times, the struggle for British citizenship rights and the long-term diasporic commitment to Muslim communities overseas, especially those suffering from human rights abuses, are not necessarily in conflict. South Asian Muslims living in the West subscribe to the Islamic juridical position that, since western democracies allow freedom of worship, Muslims owe complete allegiance to the state, defined as a "Land of Treaty". Only a small minority subscribe to alternative Islamic rulings that either forbid Muslims to settle permanently in the "Land of Unbelief" and serve in its armed forces, or define Muslims as the vanguard of Islam in the "Land of Preaching".

To the extent that the discourse of Islamic dissent is grasped as a utopian fantasy with no practical organisational backup, young Pakistanis who join extremist Islamist organisations, usually imported from the Middle East, are a newly emergent, deviant minority. The Taliban form of neo-fundamentalism is, in Britain, connected to the minority Deobandi Muslim stream that takes a politically quiescent form in the UK, as it does in India. While the rhetoric deployed by this movement is a militant one of global jihad , the stress is on the inner jihad of personal purification. Most British Asian Muslims arrived in Britain as economic labour migrants and are committed to bourgeois economic advancement for themselves and their children, not to militant dissent.

For youngsters who have grown up in Britain, however, the sense of cosmic malaise may be taken as a reality to be actively changed. In this, they are quite unlike the underprivileged youngsters who join Asian youth gangs engaged in violent turf fights in the inner city, and who have little intention of joining a holy war in Afghanistan. As in the rest of the Muslim world, young Islamist activists are, as a rule, educated and relatively privileged. The mistake is, then, to explain these youngsters' radicalism as the product of racist victimisation or deprivation in Britain. If Islamic millennialism is a sense of false, fantastical empowerment in the face of perceived almost cosmic disempowerment, it attracts those who in their own eyes are potentially powerful (young, educated, successful) but have no way of affecting world politics.

With the moderate majority silent, the problem for Muslim diaspora leaders is how to control the young radicals without giving up their own millennial rhetoric with its demonisation of America/Israel and the West and its dreams of world Islam.

That British Muslims feel secure enough in Britain to enunciate a discourse of political dissent in times of crisis attests to their rootedness in our society. There is some sense both in prime minister Tony Blair's invocations of a tolerant, peaceful Islam and in other Labour ministers' more strident demands for accountability. Ultimately, living in the diaspora is a matter of continually negotiating the parameters of minority citizenship. For British Muslims this process has tragically had to lurch from one confrontation to another, from the Rushdie affair to the Gulf war to the present crisis. Each time the signs are, however, of a more mature grasp by local diasporic Muslims of what it means to be a British citizen in a global world.

Pnina Werbner is professor of social anthropology in the School of Social Relations, Keele University. Her book, Imagined Diasporas among Manchester Muslims : The Public Performance of Transnational Identity Politics , is due to be published by James Currie in March 2002.

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