Secular, liberal, and doggedly fundamentalist

March 17, 2006

The Danish cartoon controversy has failed to spark debate between Muslim academics and secular peers. Does the 'progressive intelligentsia' consider religion unworthy of attention, asks Sara Wajid

At the time, The Satanic Verses row seemed specifically designed as torture for my book-loving, firmly Muslim, left-leaning liberal parents.

For them, and all our Pakistani family and friends, the novel was a signifier of deep insult and shame. Not only because of the blasphemous content, defended by the British intelligentsia, but because it allowed the media to revel in the image of Muslims as book-burning nutters with no appreciation of that coolly cerebral pillar of Western civilisation: freedom of speech.

But Salman Rushdie held God-like status for my brother and me, and we brought a copy of The Satanic Verses into the house - cultural kryptonite for us smart-arsed teenagers. We instinctively knew we would get away with this challenge to our parents because we sensed our position was underwritten by an even more powerful authority, something to do with our Guardian -reading white teachers. Anyway, we all agreed that the fatwa was out of order, so what other position was there? But having won the battle, I felt increasingly queasy about it. There was something racist and smug about the way the pro-Rushdie camp conducted itself. Although I did not share my parents' visceral hurt, I knew the babble around the book demeaned them as Muslims, and I did not want to align myself with someone who was seen as a race traitor by other Pakistanis, so I hedged my bets in the end and never read it, though it stayed on the shelf, glowing.o The Danish cartoon controversy is an uncanny replay of many of the issues raised by the Rushdie affair. Specifically, it has aired the tensions between multiculturalism and what Tariq Modood, professor of sociology, politics and public policy at Bristol University, has called "radical secularism". In an article on web forum Open Democracy, Modood points to "the idea - prevalent among anti-racists, the progressive intelligentsia and beyond - that religious people are not worthy of protection; more than that, they should be subject to not just intellectual criticism but mockery and ridicule... The idea is that religion represents Europe's pre-Enlightenment dark age of superstition and clerical authoritarianism and so has to be constantly kept at bay... This understanding of religion is deep in the culture of the centre-left intelligentsia and is what is being appealed to in the current sloganeering around 'freedom of expression'. In this, liberals are no less following a creed, indeed are no less fundamentalist, than some of those who they want to be free to abuse."

Modood explains: "When I discuss the way Enlightenment secularist positions stand in the way of Muslims (being accepted as equal citizens in Europe), I do find that almost all my colleagues disagree with me. Their reactions tend toward: 'What you're saying cuts across secularism, which is at the core of my sociology.' Occasionally this kind of thing demoralises me, but on the whole it motivates me... And several people have said they don't agree with me, but that it has stirred up things for them about secularism that they hadn't considered before."

Is Modood right that there is an Islamophobic discourse that parades under the guise of the secular liberalism that higher education institutions so enthusiastically advocate? If so, how is such an "intellectual canteen culture" affecting Muslim academics in the UK? Figures from lecturers'

union Natfhe suggest Muslims are seriously underrepresented in the sector: Pakistanis and Bangladeshis comprise 1 per cent of the population, but only 0.4 per cent of academic staff. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence of Islamophobia in higher education. A lecturer working in Bradford, who is anonymously quoted in the report Natfhe and its Muslim Members , says: "There has always been a difference in how we have been managed, how Muslim staff and students have been treated. Since 9/11, the situation has worsened. The demonisation of Islam has been completely internalised. In Bradford, lecturers have changed to European dress in an attempt to fit in.

I'm also concerned that the reverse might happen and the Muslim community may become more insular and cut off from the rest of society."

Although there is no equivalent of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies for academics, Natfhe has recently begun facilitating a Muslim Members Network in response to a need identified by Naheed Arshad-Mather.

The former senior lecturer in applied criminology at Huddersfield University explains: "After 9/11, there has been a seismic shift, so Muslim members felt we needed a space to talk among ourselves. At our equality conferences, there were fringe meetings of groups who wanted separate forums. So we sent out an e-mail and had about 60 replies saying, 'Yes, we feel the need for this.' About 15 people came to the first meeting and I noticed that a good proportion of them were quite young and assertive, and most of the women wore hijab. Many people were relatively junior or working part time."

Such forums could, however, equally be read as an indicator of the development of a strong and confident Muslim presence in the academy. The Association of Muslim Social Scientists (UK) is "dedicated to the promotion of the Islamic position in various academic disciplines". Fawzia Ahmed, an executive committee member, says: "Most of us are pretty united in agreeing that the cartoons are offensive, and a lot of us are very grateful that they haven't been printed in the UK and we share a sense of annoyance at the violent protests in Muslim countries. Sometimes it seems there's been no improvement (since the Rushdie affair), except that there is now a younger cohort of Muslim academics organising ourselves."

The most common reaction Muslim academics have received from their non-Muslim colleagues has been an exaggerated silence or bafflement at the strength of Muslim feeling over the cartoons. Rania Hafez, a senior lecturer in post-compulsory education and training at the University of East London, says: "I haven't really found any hostility from colleagues in light of these cartoons, but there has been a real reluctance to discuss it around the watercooler, perhaps because it is so potentially explosive."

She ascribes this reluctance to a deep lack of knowledge about how Muslims feel. "Colleagues seem baffled by the Muslim reaction. A typical response has been, 'But it's only a cartoon.' To which I've replied, 'How would you feel if someone insulted your mother?' I would have expected more critical engagement from HE colleagues; if anything academics seem more reluctant than most to engage with the topic... Trying to make a (typically) secular academic grapple with Muslim sensibilities is nigh on impossible. The deeply entrenched secular discourse means there is no language for discussing the spiritual landscape... People don't really want to listen to someone like me (a practising Muslim who wears hijab); they prefer to hear from non-practising Muslims such as Tariq Ali. I have great respect for Tariq, but do not consider him a representative of the majority of practising Muslims."

However, while many see the cartoon controversy as a missed opportunity for sophisticated debate, others testify to positive and supportive conversations with secular colleagues. Noha Nasser, senior lecturer at the University of Central England, recounts a friendly conversation with a colleague over lunch. "He's an atheist and his perspective is, 'How can a bunch of clerics decide what is acceptable?' He found it hard to understand the depths of the hurt, which in turn led him to think that Muslims are overreacting. But I explained my position and the conversation ended on an amicable 'now you understand my perspective' note."

Mohammed Siddique Seddon of AMSS (UK) echoes many Muslim academics for whom the position of the liberal intelligentsia is a secondary concern to the framing of the cartoon issue in the media. "For Muslims, these cartoons are read as a hegemonic attack on Muslims who are problematic within the West, but also in theatres of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's read as an aggressive form of liberal secularism. The further you get from the nuanced debate of northwest Europe - if you're looking at it from the streets of Ramala or Islamabad - it looks like a war on Islam. The majority of Muslims, as minority communities in the West, are the real sufferers in all this because they've been lampooned but haven't taken to the streets, and have to take it on the chin."

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