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Islamism…somewhere between tradition and modernity? June 26, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Islam, Religion.


While we’re on the subject of the Supreme Being a most interesting article in Prospect this month about the genesis of the 7-7 London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan. In interview Shiv Malik managed to talk to acquaintances and relatives of Khan and the picture he paints is of a curious clash of modernism and tradition in the circles within which Khan moved. It also speaks of the incredible tenacity of traditions drawn from the rural, something we have seen – and perhaps continue to see – in this society in terms of the area of home ownership, organisation of our cities and so on (and for more I can only recommend the excellent series of articles on Dublin Opinion by Conor).

Most notable to my eyes, and Prospect Editor David Goodhart mentioned this in the editorial, was the ‘extent to which extreme Islam can act as a kind of “liberation theology”, allowing young Muslims to claim western freedoms, such as marrying for love, without rejecting their Islamic heritage’.

Malik deepens this analysis pointing to how a generational conflict was a spur to differentiation of approach to Islam amongst parents and an off-spring:

When the first generation of Mirpuri immigrants (from Pakistan) moved to Britain in the 1960s, the baraderi system [whereby marriages were arranged in order to retain tribal ownership of lands] should in theory have faded away, as social services were supplied by the state. But traditions have their uses for preserving solidarity in a migrant community, and the mechanism still flourishes. Explaining his parents attitudes, Ali [a member of the community] said they would ‘rather you marry someone from your own caste, your own community, your own relations’.

So when the Mullah boys [the circle Sidique Khan was part of] started conducting marriages from the premises of Iqra, the local Islamic bookshop on the Bude road, it caused a stir. Ali says that when Sidique Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and his brother married white girls, and a Bangladeshi girl married and Afro-Caribbean guy, the community elders became very worried.

One aspect of the above which is remarkable is that this process incorporated both men and women, quite at variance with the traditional roles imposed within the baraderi system. Of course it is difficult to read externally precisely the dynamics which would lead to a Bangladeshi girl marrying an Afro-Caribbean, but at least it is indicative of a substantial rupture with the previous system.

But the Mullah boys were armed with faith. As long as the marriages were between Muslims, they didn’t care about tribal tradition. And since the outsiders all converted to Islam before the marriages, the older generation’s insistence that their young marry their cousins was simply ignored.

How much of this was down to Khan’s personality is an interesting question. Malik notes that Sidique had moved away from his family as he was drawn to the more fundamentalist (at least on one axis)Wahhabism. He had a ‘determination to marry for love’ and his future wife was ‘a Deobandi Muslim – a South Asian Wahhabi-linked movement directly opposed to the Khan family’s traditionalist Barelvi convictions’. Yet there are also curiosities about Wahhabism. Unlike the traditional mosques Wahhabi’s ‘did things differently’ from delivering sermons and pamphlets in English, unlike the Urdu used by the community mosques. And there is a bizarre echo of Protestantism in this.

Yet it would be unwise to draw the comparison too far. I don’t want to pre-empt others reading what is a compelling and fascinating article, but it is clear that the socially revolutionary aspects of Khan’s circle were limited to what was possible through very strict and literalist readings of the Koran (which granted is similar to the processes that have fuelled Protestant fundamentalism into the modern period).

And if one takes that as the starting point text will limit or curtail action. So what may appear to be a ‘liberation theology’ may indeed be anything but. Although Islamists treat Islam as Malik puts it as ‘not just a religion but as a socioeconomic system’ there are clearly difficulties in translating it into the sphere or the social or the economic, particularly the latter. Many is the transformative project which has foundered in that area.

Yet, there are interesting echoes of an argument I have never really found entirely convincing, that articulated by John Grey in Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern that Islamists are very much a product of ‘modernity’.

Here perhaps there has been a subtle process of societal osmosis whereby elements of the dominant culture have been appropriated in part by Islamists. And this should be no surprise at all. Because identity, even in this hugely contested area, is a process of negotiation and constant refinement. Just as Khan sought to shape the world in a particularly malevolent fashion, he too was shaped by it in more subtle ways than might have been expected.


and while we’re on the subject of Prospect…

I first started subscribing to Prospect magazine back in 2003 having endured years of trying to get every new issue in Eason’s. A thankless task due to the curious approach they had at the time to stocking it. Minor gripe, it’s impossible if you live in Ireland to get the two year subscription plan – neither good, nor heartening as an indication of it’s possible longevity, despite the fact the UK Arts Council now supports it.

Anyhow in the years since it started it has remained an essential channel of communication for anyone on the centre left concerned with a broad range of issues (and I know Donagh of Dublin Opinion is another reader). It’s non party political but it has taken a clear line, as for instance with it’s considered but ultimately anti-Iraq war stance in 2003. Moreover the scope of the discourse within it’s covers (and on-line) is remarkable. Economics, social policy, history, current affairs, culture and so forth (even to the point of getting Gay Dad’s former drummer to write about music).

As a means of understanding the dynamics of International and US foreign and social policy it’s hard to better with a range of contributors from Robert Kagan to Frances Fukiyama. Off the top of my head it’s had a series of excellent articles on Lebanon, the US, France over the past twelve months. Multi-page, in depth analysis of a sort rarely found anywhere else outside the pages of the really heavy duty international policy journals which to be honest are too expensive anyway.

And it’s not been shy of controversy. Some years back David Goodhart, the editor, ran into a row about identity and race when discussing those issues where he argued for – and I hope I’m not doing him an injustice – the formation of a stronger British identity to strengthen social cohesion in a society with differing ethnic and religious groups. Whatever else he is Goodhart isn’t a racist and some of the charges against him appeared willful at best.

I’ve never been entirely happy with their coverage of Ireland, for example two of their contributors on that subject have been Fintan O Toole and Carlos Gebler (although heartening to see Mick Fealty of Slugger writing more recently). So it’s fair to say that it has run to a rather dated post-nationalism of sorts…but that quibble aside it’s still a serious endeavour and it’s heart remains wedded to what could be called ‘progressive politics’. Sure, it’s centrist, liberal and probably overly pragmatic for many a reader from the left.

But at least it remains of the left… and for that reason alone I think it’s worth anyone who is interested in the discourse you read on here checking it out.

Anyhow, they underwent something of a redesign for the March 2007 issue.

And…it’s not bad. I’m sorry they’ve refined their previous rather ‘classical’ design style, all subdued rules, white space and serif fonts and headings. But the new look is as the joke goes pretty much like the old look, ‘classical’ design style, all subdued rules, white space and serif fonts and headings with the addition of a smattering of sans serif faces and some new illustrations for their regular articles. And the not always very funny cartoons remain, which is oddly comforting.

So all told not bad. And as a resource I’ll keep mining it for information, even that strange “in fact” column of not entirely enlightening statistics, for example did you know that just before WW1 the UK Home Office employed just 28 people whereas today it employs 70,000?

Where else but Prospect?


1. Pidge - June 27, 2007

Sounds interesting. Do Easons usually have it, or should I just not bother?


2. ejh - June 27, 2007

I thought Goodhart’s article was thoroughly objectionable and if he copped a lot of criticism for it then I’m not particularly upset about that.

I don’t really think it’s of the left (and I’m not engaging in an exclusivist definition). Actually if it has a centre I wonder whether it’s not in an identification with “modernity” and its values and assumptions, which seem to me very much to reject the left (in the sense of organised labour, widespread state provision and so on). Of course one of the benefits of that “modernity” concept is that these things can all be considered as being consigned to the past, which gives its adherents the self-image of being focussed, realistic, in tune with current and long-term trends, when arguably what they are in fact doiung is looking after their careers and making sure nothing happens that would disturb the comfortably-off.

“Blairite without the war”, perhaps.


3. soubresauts - June 27, 2007

I’ll hardly get around to reading Prospect, but I find these issues interesting. I wonder if sufficient attention is being paid to the money aspect — all the attention seems to be on religion, ideology, tradition, modernity, and so on.

I mean Saudi money in particular, billions of it. Money doesn’t create terrorists of course, but some of that money comes with the ideology and teachings (and Wahhabism is not necessarily the appropriate term) that create dangerous lunatics. Like Osama Bin Laden, and the 9/11 bombers.

And I mean only a tiny proportion of that money creates the evil effect, but there’s SO MUCH of that money, and it’s going to mosques, Islamic schools, cultural centres, etc. all over the world. I wonder has anyone tried to put a figure on it. Since the money comes from Saudi Arabia (SA), what it buys is likely to reflect, to some extent, what’s going on in SA. And what’s going on there is a crazy mixture of the modern and mind-boggling narrow-mindedness, restriction and repression.

I’ve been there — I spent eight months there in 1982-83, doing stints of software-related work. I’m just amazed that, basically, nothing has changed in the last 25 years. They still don’t allow women to go out alone, or drive cars; even though girls have been allowed to go to university for many years past. There are still no cinemas, theatres, bars, churches… I thought there would have to be some sort of revolution by now, or at least serious social unrest. But these days there seems to be less sign of that than ever.

I don’t know how the Saudi regime does it (apart from getting so much support from the U.S. and Britain), but I’m sure that some of that repressive mentality is exported with the money that goes all over the place.

It’s just… sad. There must be a lot of suffering within SA itself, because of the lack of human rights. I had the privilege of getting to know some young Saudi men. They were as fine as any people I’ve ever met. I wonder what has happened to them. They had pretty-much the same family backgrounds, traditions, and religion as Bin Laden and the 9/11 bombers.

We in the west are so selective in our condemnation of repressive regimes…


4. WorldbyStorm - June 27, 2007

That’s a good point soubresaut. Saudi money has been a feature of the last decade or two.

I don’t disagree ejh that Goodhart could be construed as objectionable, but I don’t think he was wrong to air it. I’m always intrigued as to how a contemporary identity can be forged in the UK and I think a debate is good.

I’m not as certain though that Prospect is not of the centre centre/left. If you look at the contributors they’re fairly solidly left liberal in the main with some from the right. I do agree that it is strongly in favour of ‘modernity’, if not necessarily modernism which I think is slightly different.


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