British Pakistani Muslims in Search of a True Islam
By Hamza Beg
When I return home I always drink from the same mug. It has the perfect dimensions, squatness, distance between handle and mug. But more than anything, scrawled on its body are the words 'Medical Aid for Palestinians'. I'm not Palestinian by origin, but I cannot shake its resonance.
A connection to the Middle East has gripped a generation of young Muslims, particularly from the South Asian diaspora. Since 1999, Pakistan, for example, has had a military coup, a purported return to democracy, and the assassination of leader of the opposition, Benazir Bhutto. However, an entire generation of British-born Pakistanis have been more interested in Israeli incursions into Lebanon, the occupation of Palestine, and the war on Iraq. How has this occurred and what does it mean?
Third and fourth generation Muslims in Britain are growing up in a time of challenge to their emerging identity. The national identity of being British is particularly uninteresting to many Pakistani Muslims in the UK. However, equally sidelined is their identification with Pakistan, as later generations reject their parents' cultural understanding of Islam as a religion. British-Pakistani Muslims have become Muslims first, and are losing patience with the Pakistani practice of the religion embedded in Sufi traditions. Entering the debate on Islam that has been raging from its inception. Is the religion indivisible and monolithic, or is it naturally diverse and geographically contingent?
Benedict Anderson famously conceived of nations as 'imagined communities'1. British Pakistani Muslims have imagined a nation composed of the 'Ummah' of Muslim communities all over the world, but especially of the Middle East. With the Arabic tongue considered the foremost instrument of religious learning and practice, as well as the holiness and history of the Middle East, the focus has been toward the Arab nations. Concurrently, the political affairs of countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Saudi Arabia have provided fresh and ongoing causes for Muslims to rally around. The search therefore for truer religion leads young Muslims in Britain to ally themselves to Arab nations. It is important to draw this line of allegiance back to a search for an untainted Islam rather than the media discourse of Muslims reacting to Western stimuli.
The recent electoral victory of George Galloway in the Bradford West by-election in March has implications that support this idea. Galloway himself targeted young Muslims with his rhetoric of Palestinian solidarity and opposition to the Iraq war. His challenge was not merely to win the seat from Labour, but to win the seat from the party politics that had allowed Labour to create a strong-hold in the constituency. This clan-based voting, known as biraderi is a phenomenon that has transported a Pakistani caste tradition into political vote-winning in Britain. Galloway's victory is a sign that young Pakistani Muslims are experiencing a shift of concern. His election strategy of appealing to Muslim constituents with his 'ummah' concerns has made him a popular figure. His popularity, in the face of a firm, self-perpetuating system of biraderi-based voting is emblematic of how Pakistani Muslims have found a deep-seated interest in the Middle East at the expense of traditionally cultural concerns.
What does this mean then for the cultural and differentiated practice of Islam? Mohammad Iqbal, poet and philosopher, revered in Pakistan as founding ideologue of the state once spoke bravely of an Arab imperialism on the religion. 'Let the melody be Indian, my air is of the Hijaz'2 he once wrote. This strikes at the heart of the synthesis he believed possible between divine untouchable message and specified geographical practice.
As the spoken word poetry scene flowers across Britain, the fast-paced, hip-hop inspired art developed originally through African American anger at slavery, has been transformed into a tool to express British Pakistani anger at American imperialism and British collusion. The Palestinian plight, is a particularly hot topic, and rarely goes unaddressed on stage as young Muslims vent their frustration in prose and metre. Anger drives such pieces and the victimhood felt by young Muslims at the injustice in Palestine, or the oil-intentions of the Iraq war for example is a striking example of how deep the Ummah nationalism has penetrated. In search of true Islam, young Pakistani Muslims have become enamoured with the political consequences of actions perpetrated against 'their' people in 'their' lands. In short, their hunt for the religious has led them to the political.
This bond between British Pakistani Muslims and Arab nations is strong, however it seems unidirectional. Muslims in the Arab world are the recipients of British Islamic sympathy and charity; never has it seemed the other way round. The reason is practical: British Muslims do not face incursions into traditionally Islamic lands nor are they suffocated by blatant autocracy. On a theoretical basis, there is no Arab reverence for the British-Islamic discourse, mainly because it does not feature so strongly as a component part of identity. In rejecting a culturally conditioned Islam, Muslims in Britain have given up their equal footing and fallen prey to Arab imperialism. The ways in which Muslims have interacted with British law and culture to create a hybrid for example have been born of necessity. Navigating the British legal system in order to enact Islamic teachings has been a creative process of synthesis, but is more often than not inspired by an Arabized Islam.
So what is the alternative? Marshal Hodgson made an integral distinction in his work between Islamic and Islamicate3. The simplified explanation of this difference is between religious activity, and cultural achievements, Islamicate falling into the latter definition. The cultural achievements of the Islamic peoples throughout the ages are many and vital, ranging from medicine, geography and history, to politics, philosophy and literature. In these works, the essential spirit of the religion is manifest, and in these works, British Pakistanis can find novel and creative inspiration for their practice. In this they can breach time and space in their 'Ummah nationalism' turning the unidirectional relationship with Arabs, into a dynamic connection to Islam and its culture. This is neither a catch-all answer nor an infallible solution but a mere suggestion to revitalise Islamic faith in Britain. To qualify further, this is not to reject Arab influence wholesale, but a call to appreciate Islam as a social/cultural not merely a religious occurrence in history.
As young British Pakistani Muslims continue to search for their religion in the depths of the Arabian Desert there remains a void in the British-Islamic identity discourse. This is not to demonise the political allegiance with Arab countries, but to warn of the reverence and predominance that they hold in the minds of British Muslims. Further, an appreciation for wider Islamic culture may provide good ground to fill the void in British-Islamic identity discourse.
I may drink coffee in a mug with the 'Medical Aid for Palestinians' logo, but I do simply because it is a good mug.
1 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New Edition, Verso (London).