Identities

© Peter Sanders
© Peter Sanders

As your learning has progressed through this course, you will have come to appreciate the kaleidoscopic range of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural traditions that have shaped British Muslim communities over time. There is no homogeneous ‘Muslim community’, and neither is there a unified understanding of who a British Muslim is, or should be. There are probably as many identities within the British Muslim population, as there are members of it.

It is unfortunate that over the last decade or so, the religious identity and label ‘Muslim’ has acquired problematic dimensions. It has become exaggerated by the media and by politicians, with Muslims being increasingly defined solely through the lens of their religion. Their other identities as men, women, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, employees, Londoners or Glaswegians, athletes, chaplains, or musicians, have become obscured by the tendency to see Muslims solely through a religious prism. This undervalues the complexity of identity, and the fact that identification with Islam can change through the course of an individual lifetime, being more or less meaningful at different times. Furthermore, the label ‘Muslim’ is one which may or may not be important to those to whom it is applied.

You might rightly note that to some extent this course, which is focussing on Muslims in Britain, is reflecting the same tendency to privilege religious identity over and above other identities. This would be a fair conclusion to reach. However, on balance, we believe that it is still helpful and meaningful to think about Muslims as a distinctive social group, on the basis of attachment to a generally shared set of core religious beliefs. These translate into religious practices that are often undertaken as part of ‘belonging’ (however loosely) to a distinctive faith ‘community’. Clearly, the boundaries of any group are permeable, and the manner in which individual Muslims express or practice their faith is highly subjective, and shaped by context and circumstance. Furthermore, world events (especially the Rushdie affair) have been a catalyst for the increasing prioritisation of religious identity among British Muslims themselves. Since the 1990s, Muslim organisations have pressed for the public and legal recognition of their religious identity, and this found particular expression in the successful efforts for the inclusion of a question on religious identification in the 2001 Census.

Early research on the settlement of Muslims in Britain in the post-World War Two period tended to focus on the arrival of distinctive ethnic groups, such as Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, who happened to be Muslim. Over the last few decades, far more research has been directed towards exploration of the specifically religious aspects of Muslim identity, and the relationship between religious and national identification. The label ‘British Muslim’ has entered common parlance, and some Muslims – especially among the younger generations (but not all) – take pride in this identity. However, there is a danger that this research can focus upon the ‘otherness’ of Muslims, thereby obscuring their shared humanity and reducing them to being a function of their religion. This course is intended as a powerful antidote to this tendency, by stressing the ‘everyday’ lives of some British Muslims who are both ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ in ways that are rarely seen in public life and in media discourse.


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