Hindsight in 2020: US think tanks and the deterioration of Muslim civil society space

The promise represented by the emergence of Muslim civil society activism in late 1980’s Britain has failed to translate into effective political agency. In fact, if anything, it has regressed under the weight of internal contradictions, powerful external opposition,  and the absence of principled strategies. Arzu Merali explores how Muslims can get back on track.*

It’s been a funny few years/decades.  It has only just struck me how far the post-colonial narrative has shifted, and been shifted by Muslims in large part in the last 40 years.  What has been all too evident is the countermovement of capitulation or internalisation of hegemonic colonial narratives at the day to day level of Muslim civil society in which I work.  This piece requires me to add examples and anecdotes, and as far as possible I want to anonymise the organisations and individuals referred to.  This piece is not about individual or organisational blame, though there is much to be doled out.  It must be a critique of Muslim civil society and Muslim leadership in minoritized situations.  A world which includes me, and a critique that starts with me too.

It is ironic or apt that I am writing this while overlooking a monument to Charles, Earl Grey KC.  This (in context) radical political figure is here commemorated for the Great Reform Act of 1832, where some sort of semi-universal suffrage was granted to the English masses (at the very least rotten boroughs were abolished).  He is also feted as presiding over the abolition of slavery and fell out with the Pitt the Younger over the latter’s rejection of Catholic emancipation.  He is also the man Earl Grey tea is named after.  Tea, that most potent symbol of colonial humiliation.  As they (don’t) say, one man’s radical is another man’s symbol of oppression. I am drinking a cup of English breakfast tea as an act of accidental, muddled and muted resistance.

At the time of publication the following IHRC research projects may already be available or are in the final stages of publication: The New Colonialism -The US Model of Human Rights; a podcast on Genocide Prevention and Understandings of Genocide with one of the contributors to that volume, Saeed Khan, and a book on Political Islamophobia at American Policy Institutes: Battling the Power of Islamic Resistance by Hakimeh Saghaye-Biria.  These three continue in detail micro and macro theorizing the conveyor belt of anti-Islamic and hegemonic forces that impact not just Muslims but many and all oppressed peoples in some form or another.  The catastrophe of water contamination in Flint, the role of multi-national corporations and the economic desolation of swathes of the US since the 1970s (Saeed Khan in The New Colonialism), intersects and has unexpected consonance with the structural forces that the Kerner Commission, appointed to discuss the so-called race riots of 1967, identified as the foundational discourse of a country that built itself on the notion and praxes of whiteness (Mary K. Ryan ibid) .

Saghaye-Biria’s book, however, is what has largely motivated this article.  I am lucky enough to be reviewing it pre-publication, and its analysis of the thinking and praxes of three US Think tanks – RAND, the Brookings Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), highlights a sustained obsession with the world of Islam and Muslims that predates the Islamic Revolution in Iran, but which accelerates from then on as the primary driver of policy focus and recommendations to the US government.  Saghaye Biria argues that their work must be understood by Muslim countries as having profound security implications for them.  But it got me thinking, mainly about RAND and also the impact on Muslims – specifically our civil society – in minoritized settings.

What impact has this intense effort by US think tanks had on enervating our movements and work not just of efficacy but – as is their stated aim – their ontology and epistemologies?  Here are some thoughts – a start or contribution to a very needed conversation about where Muslims are going and how.

RAND in summary

The RAND reports that have some resonance amongst Muslim civil society date back to 2003, in particular  Civil Democratic Islam by Cheryl Benard and Building Moderate Muslim Networks also co-authored by Benard in 2007.   Benard in 2003 (amongst many other things) argues that Muslims could be categorised in four ways as: fundamentalists, traditionalists, modernists, and secularists.  Let’s leave aside the critique of such terms, but focus on the reality that they are made meaningful as praxes recommended by US think tanks.

In this neat and tidy Muslim world of RAND, only the secularists and some modernists can be engaged by the US to further US aims in the region.  Make no mistake, at this level, conversations about the future of Islam and Muslims are brutal.  RAND’s overarching agenda is to reform Islam fundamentally, thus removing any possibility that should the US move towards a position of fostering or allowing democracy in the region – or indeed if there are momentums and movements that make the US’ actions and aims moot – ‘Islamists’ do not come to power through the ballot box.  All three think tanks fear this scenario, to a greater and lesser extent, looking to the Islamic Revolution in Iran as the main focus, but lumping in with this the Morsi government of 2012 in Egypt, the Sudanese regime involving the National Islamic Front of circa 1989 – mid noughties.  RAND is clear – whatever the short-term benefits of working with Muslims of the fundamentalist/ traditionalist ilk, the US’ long term interests lie solely with those who would either relegate Islam entirely to the private space, or better still, engineer its tenets to become an enlightenment ‘religion lite’ a la Christianity.

RAND’s vision even then, saw more than simply alliances with ‘traditionalists’ as expedient realism.  This was never to be a static relationship – the social changes being enforced in Saudi may attest, 17 years down the line, to being something akin to an aim of RAND.  Having propped up a dictatorship resting on superficial Islamicity, the US now finds itself with an equally authoritarian but socially liberalized ‘Islamic’ country as its steadfast ally.

As Saghaye-Biria explains:

“The Islamic world is not just facing different interpretations of Islam with some being in concurrence with American interests.  Rather, powerful voices and forces among the American foreign policy elites and in the foreign policy apparatus are actively engaging in religion-building, fostering certain interpretations of Islam that would pacify the religion in the face of hegemonic Western powers.”

So what of civil society over here?

Benard and RAND more generally spoke of reaching out to traditionalists against fundamentalists thus:

  • Publicize traditionalist criticism of fundamentalist violence and extremism; encourage disagreements between traditionalists and fundamentalists.
  • Discourage alliances between traditionalists and fundamentalists.
  • Encourage cooperation between modernists and the traditionalists who are closer to the modernist end of the spectrum.
  • Where appropriate, educate the traditionalists to equip them better for debates against fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are often rhetorically superior, while traditionalists practice a politically inarticulate “folk Islam.” In such places as Central Asia, they may need to be educated and trained in orthodox Islam to be able to stand their ground.
  • Increase the presence and profile of modernists in traditionalist institutions.
  • Discriminate between different sectors of traditionalism. Encourage those with a greater affinity to modernism, such as the Hanafi law school, versus others. Encourage them to issue religious opinions and popularize these to weaken the authority of backward Wahhabi- inspired religious rulings. This relates to funding: Wahhabi money goes to the support of the conservative Hanbali school. It also relates to knowledge: More-backward parts of the Muslim world are not aware of advances in the application and interpretation of Islamic law.
  • Encourage the popularity and acceptance of Sufism. (Barnard, pxii, 2003)

These partnerships are refined further in ‘Building Moderate Muslim Networks’: the US can work with “secularists; liberal Muslims; and moderate traditionalists, including Sufis.”

How far have these ideas been internalised by Muslim communities in minoritized situations? Whilst as a community we have berated and lambasted the direct engineering and attacks by government, their minions and supporters like the Quilliam Foundation, the Commission for Countering Extremism, Sufi Muslim Council et al, that desire to be ‘understood’, to show ourselves and more specifically Islam as sympatico with the ‘West’ is a trend that can be found across our communities’ leadership.

Benard’s contention that:

“The traditionalist belief set does include democratic elements. It can be made to justify reforms, but not without significant effort. Traditionalists have produced a large number of publications sketching a “kinder, gentler” vision of Islam, in rebuttal of the religion’s negative image and of the public statements by radicals, whom they do not wish to be tainted by. These books typically praise the socially positive aspects of Islam, find rationalizations and softened interpretations for practices that are today considered oppressive, and argue that Islam is not only compatible with the principles of the modern age (democracy, equality, social welfare, education) but indeed pioneered them…”

can be found in any number of projects, documents, speeches and so on.  Benard is in fact conceding that this thought process already exists.  The Brookings Institute, as Saghaye-Biria points out, positively pushes the point for outreach to ‘good Islamists’.  The introduction To Power Sharing Islam (ed. Tamimi, 1993) is just one of the many cases in point.  Based on papers submitted to ‘contribute to the growing effort to bring about intellectual rapprochement between Islamic and Western thinkers, to eliminate misconceptions about Islam and Islamic movements…’. Naïve at best, this approach feeds into the later RAND type vision of an Islam that seeks the understanding of the hegemon – a capitulation to its power and an undergirding of its legitimacy.  Contributors to this volume discussed in these terms, Jordan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Kuwait and Algeria.  Tunisia and Yemen get a name check too.  The editor made clear at the outset that this was set in juxtaposition to Iran, and its ‘anomalous interpretation of Islam’ under the revolution.

Ironically, as the years have worn on, from that list of countries, many have found themselves now categorised as Iran is, by Muslim civil society, intellectuals or activists.  This dual track of West-focussed political organisation, coupled with denunciation of the ‘other’ Muslim, is ironically also part of not simply a RAND recommendation of outreach to those within ‘traditionalist’ camps, but a wider praxis of pitting Muslims against each other, a surprisingly British divide and rule which is echoed in WINEP’s assertions regarding what is legitimate Islam.

Salman Sayyid has argued (2003) it was : “[Imam] Khomeini’s political thought, alone among Muslim thinkers of the last hundred years, [that] does not try to have a dialogue with western discourse”.  It is this way of understanding and acting – where the political conversation does not begin and end or even acknowledge the relevance of traditional super-powers that RAND et al have devoted their energy to scupper and up-end.

Organisations and movements needn’t be formally or even consciously in support of US or Eurocentric interests and thinking.  Understanding this, and reviewing civil society organisation around it is the basic challenge we face.

Anomalous interpreting

The actual anomaly of an American think tank directing what is and isn’t Islamic – not least one considered to be staunchly pro-Israel in the case of WINEP – is an actual problem that Muslims should have been discussing, analysing and berating.  Instead we appear to have implemented it wholeheartedly from the level of how to pray salah, to how to manage society – or even to accept that there is such a thing.

Mehdi Khalaji at WINEP, characterises the Islamic Revolution in a similar frame, seeking outreach to other Shi’I Muslim institutions to bolster them against any idea of Velayat-e-faqih.  This endless turn in US think tank recommendations, of gutting Islam of its political content or urging change in the name of modernity or moderation is powerfully analysed by Saghaye-Biria.  To adapt her words, the polarization of Muslim societies based on the moderation/radicalism duality is a strategy that has real… security consequences for Muslim societies.  According to her use of a constructivist-framing, the lack of clarity that the think tanks have in the identity labels used, according to certain powerful frames, end in the excommunication (or takfir) of large segments of Muslims.  Allowing Islamic political culture to be taken over by such polarization is surely disastrous.  She argues:

“Ultimately, there is the danger that these labels would solidify over the long term into ideational structures.  The solidification of such ideational structures can result in overlooking the real diversity of ideas within Muslim societies which has for years been a source of strength rather than weakness.  Accepting the legitimacy of the moderation vs. radicalism duality hinders efforts at defining Muslim identity in terms of the ummah of Islam.”

The ummah, in this reading is vast, transnational, of diverse Muslim understanding and may even include oppressed from different traditions.  Instead we find a drive to homogenize the understanding of the ummah around particularized identities of Muslimness.

Looking at Building Muslim Networks, in particular on existing ‘Moderate European Organizations’ one could argue that the decimation of Muslim civil society space in the UK is a fait accompli.  Those named and shamed in the report have been forced into a number of recalcitrant positions – dropping support for pro-Palestinian activism, no longer criticizing the problems associated with the foundation of Holocaust Memorial Day, dropping association with organizations deemed beyond the pale – all in the hope of reasserting their previous position vis a vis government.  This latter hope is still elusive despite over a decade of transformation.  Those lauded in the report as moderate are now promoted as leaders, or at least the only acceptable figures government will deal with.  But can we simply blame the machinations of think tanks either in the US or UK?

In the wake of the killing of General Soleimani in January 2020 and the comments and reactions from Muslims, it seems even more apt to ask this question: how far have RAND et al won in the minoritized Muslim space in, say, the UK, North America etc. by dint of Muslim civil society and leadership’s own lack of vision and desire to promote identity issues over ummatic ones?  When each US think tank has identified Iran as its prime target, and sought to break Muslim solidarity with it, how bizarre that Muslim civil society leadership puts out statements claiming that secretly Iran is in league with the country that has done everything to cripple it for forty years, including targeted assassinations, an imposed war that it supported and, most recently, crippling and arguably genocidal economic sanctions.

Yet this is where we are at.  What do we need to do if we are really serious about tackling the elephant in the room – being political Muslims through Islamised thinking?

You can’t be really serious?

Five years ago, IHRC started a modest campaign to take back the narrative on anti-terrorism laws.  We want them all scrapped.  Always have done.  Alongside our longstanding rejection of Countering Violent Extremism projects, we felt that they were based on a knee-jerk response to be seen to be doing something but that in reality they were unfit for purpose and that existing criminal laws were enough to prosecute crimes of political violence such as terrorism.  It’s actually not that controversial, or at least it didn’t used to be.  However, the characterisation of Muslim dissent by targeting groups and advocates as extremist had the requisite chilling effect on Muslim civil society space.  In 2015 we asked for collaboration from other organisations.

Whilst few Muslim organisations agreed (we had less trouble with members of the House of Lords, and other civil society groups), one Muslim group sent a lot of advice.  A lot.  I quote some below:

“We cannot endorse the last line about scrapping all legislation post-2000. It looks as though we are saying the problem is not as great as imagined and we don’t need these laws to exist. Unless we have scrutinised these things effectively, we cannot call for them to be dismissed. It’s not sensible.

“Also, the letter is all negative. It should add a few positive points: Passing of Protection of Freedoms Act which repealed Section 44, passing of Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act which amended Schedule 7 (not fully, but some good changes introduced). Letter should acknowledge Government took good steps forward and is now taking considerable steps backward.”

The letter was published in The Guardian without the changes requested above.

Sensible is as sensible does

We are still not able to move forward without feeling the need to address as interlocutor the powers that oppress us.  Any amount of honest reflection would highlight just how poor we all have been in this regard.  From the endless submissions to government consultations, long after they became simply rubber-stamping exercises, to prevaricating over calling for Prevent to be scrapped (how many times have we heard ‘we can’t deny there is a problem’?)  A clear up of the office recently meant finding some left over early ‘Know Your Rights’ leaflets IHRC launched in the early noughties regarding anti-terror laws.  A larger organisation with government approval issued the Know Your Rights and Responsibilities leaflet.  IHRC’s project sought to empower Muslims, then being targeted en masse by anti-terrorism laws with arrests and stops running into the thousands annually with few or no actual prosecutions.  At a time when speaking of rights was more normative than now, it seems Muslims themselves felt they needed to undermine their status, putting in peril the idea that they were equal citizens.

This exacerbating of Muslim vulnerability is not the only own goal.  The desire to be the only partner – of government or other movements – from the Muslim community, is more evidence of the misplaced political gaze of Muslim leadership.  This leads to gatekeeping and undermines solidarity.  Whilst claiming to work on issues of society wide importance, this desire to keep out other Muslims negates that claim.  Furthermore, it perpetuates Islamophobia – prioritising only your own voice and excluding others, is simply a replication of institutional exclusionary practice.

This failure to be both humble and show solidarity is not just a sorry spectacle to behold, a smaller and smaller group of Muslims NGOs vying against each other for a few political spaces, instead of struggling to make political space larger and better for everyone which we saw in the run up to the Iraq war.  Muslim civil society marched, in some cases led protests against the upcoming onslaught. It claimed that it did so NOT because it supported Saddam Hussein but because of the illegality of the precedent; the futility of war; the need to protect already beleaguered civilians and so on.  We would do the same, we all argued regardless of whichever country was involved.  Come 2011, and Syria, Muslim civil society did a volte face.  This is civil society in minoritized settings.  There is much to be said about this, and here is not the space.  What can and must be said is that the dropping of principle so swiftly and obviously is seen as weakness.  Its instrumentalization to such devastating effect is something we need to be deeply ashamed of.  This is no longer about the denial of rights and discrimination.  People are dead and murdered in thousands, millions are homeless.  Yet we remain trying to explain how far our project aligns with Western interests, and remain bemused that once our role in destabilisation has been exhausted, and devastation reigns, we are now rejected, demonised even criminalised.

Then there is (always) Palestine

Some time ago, perhaps even just before 9-11, a mosque contacted IHRC to say they had been contacted by the Charity Commission.  The Commission was querying why it was that prayers after Jum’ah included prayers for Palestine.  This is political they claimed and violates charities law on political causes.  This space – the spiritual – where the Islamic diktat to at least hate injustice in your heart – has come frequently under attack in the years since.  Now it is also the breeding ground for a project to legitimise Israeli illegality through the idea of inter-faith in particular, a project that looks at the similarities between Jewish and Muslim faith practices – in and of itself an excellent educational project.  However, many complaints have been raised – the introduction of the idea of Israel as an undisputed article of faith, and criticism of it as anti-Semitic, and worse still to an audience of believers, an affront to religious sensibilities.

Arguably the 2019 Journey to Jerusalem trip, featuring senior Muslim ulema from the UK claiming that they aimed to: “advance peace and coexistence in the Holy Land of Muslims and Jews and Christians”, is an extension of this.

Saghaye-Biria, discusses WINEP’s contribution to developing similar sounding projects:

“Mohammed S. Dajani, the Weston Fellow at The Washington Institute, previously a professor of political science at al-Quds University in Jerusalem, founded the Wasatia movement of moderate Islam.  Through this movement, he sought to break three taboos in Palestinian society: “attitudes toward the United States, toward Islamic education, and toward Holocaust education” (Dajani, 2015a).  Through his activism, Dajani aims to change Palestinian culture in three ways: creating a favorable image of the United States, a pluralistic vision of religion with Islam being one among other acceptable faiths, and a change of narrative regarding the Holocaust.  This was carried out through the initiation of a Master’s program in American studies at al-Quds University, starting the al-Wasatia (moderate) movement in Palestine in 2007, and doing student tours of Auschwitz and a Palestinian refugee camp.

“The Wasatia movement is especially noteworthy for this study. While Dajani (2012) calls the movement non-political, its ultimate goal is to create a favorable environment for “a negotiated peace with Israel that would help to bring peaceful solutions to the acute religious, economic, social, and political crises plaguing Palestinian society.”  In what he calls Islamic education, Dajani aims to further specific interpretation of selective verses of the Qur’an and Hadith to show how Islam is compatible with liberal values. Citing his own experience, Dajani says that at a point in his life he “began to think of [his] enemy as a partner.”  In line with WINEP’s other expert productions on Islamism, he views the competing interpretations of Islam put forth by the several Palestinian Islamist parties as the obstacle to peace and reconciliation with Israel.”

Sound familiar?

The German Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism (KIgA) project of taking Muslim, usually Turkish heritage youth to Israel to combat anti-Semitism fits this narrative too.  Whilst far-right thinking rises in Germany, the exceptionalization of Muslim youth as singularly needing education on the issue is becoming a repeated refrain.  There are many arguments that Muslim civil society can make in response.  Yet have they?

Hatem Bazian describes this type of process – specifically the US MLI initiative, as faith washing.  He cites recent faith activist history as a warning that Muslims are failing to take on board:

“Instead of such contrived meetings, MLI participants genuinely interested in interfaith work should engage Jewish liberation theologians on the question of Zionism and Judaism so as not to conflate the two, and to refuse to operate within erroneous and pernicious nationalism.

“They should learn from the mistakes of Christian leaders in the US who long made what theologian Marc Ellis has criticized as the “ecumenical deal,” where Christian-Jewish “dialogue” is structured around a quid pro quo: Jews absolve Christians for historic anti-Semitism on condition that Christians remain silent about Israel’s abuses of Palestinians.

“Muslims are being invited to strike a new ecumenical deal with Zionism in the United States, which may result in access to circles of influence in civil society as well as other benefits.

“The only precondition is that critique of Israel is set aside and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) or other effective forms of solidarity with Palestinians rejected.

This Zionist effort to co-opt Muslims, under the guise of “interfaith” understanding, comes at precisely the moment when the ecumenical deal with Christian denominations is eroding, as more and more people, including churches in the US and Europe, embrace BDS.”

In the UK, Muslim and Jewish co-operation in the struggle against Israeli apartheid has strengthened in the last twenty years but is increasingly characterised by staunch pro-Israelis as anti-Semitic. A new project aiming to connect Jewish and Muslim liberation theologians and Jewish and Muslim activists to work on actual theological discussions around justice and peace, politics and injustice in Israel / Palestine is already being rolled out.  Such projects need to tackle commonality and difference because difference is not bad.  Our communities, whether at the micro level of Muslim or the macro levels of national and international, suffer from the ability to manage difference, from an insistence on singular identity and hierarchy.  Only ‘I’ can be right, and ‘I’ must be boss.

The danger of an inter-faith dialogue premised on an acceptance of Israel right or wrong can be seen in the recent debacle around the invitation of a figure from the British Board of Deputies to speak on the issue of the persecution of the Uighurs at Regents Park Mosque.  The venue was changed after protests from leading Muslim organisations.  This latter act is an example of overdue action in this field.  Without it, such events will legitimise anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian hatred, by elevating the voices of pro-Israel organisations.

A long while back, whilst trying to persuade key Muslim organisations to sign a statement condemning the massacres in Darfur, one explained why they refused.  Some Darfurian groups had set up shop in Tel Aviv.  It was a step too far, a betrayal.  As with the Stop war – Start war fiasco, the same leader had jettisoned these reservations when backing some of the more overtly pro-Israel opposition in the conflict in Syria.

We can break this cycle. One of the best examples comes from American Jewish youth walking out of Birthright tours in Israel.  Taking part in such tours, widely promoted to get US Jewish youth to engage with and sympathise with Israel, many use the forum to protest Israeli atrocities – publicly and vociferously walking out of the tours, recording their protests and circulating them on social media.

Put simply, maybe it is time to just walk out.  It’s time to protest.

January 2020 has seen the revelation that many left wing and anti-racist groups, alongside environmental groups have been added to lists of extremist groups and ideologies.  This includes pro-Palestinian groups from outside the Muslim stable.  Again, the attempts to demonize and marginalise Al-Quds Day is a case which requires Muslim civil society action.  Whilst Muslim organisations have been pressurised to drop their support, ironically non-Muslim organisational support, and general attendance have increased.  It is a sign of the chilling effect political pressure and Islamophobic discourses that posit Muslims (unjustly) as anti-Semites based on their critique of Israel, that Muslim leadership is running counter to both its grassroots and progressive civil society.

‘Ummahness’ and border thinking

The narrowing of the idea of ummah to the mirror image of what you are – e.g. Syrian or Libyan of a certain stripe, is an act of theoretical, political and actual violence in combination.  The victims are the diversity of the ummah generally, and Palestine in particular.  As the Arab Spring collapsed under the weight of its contradictions, one Palestinian activist in London aligned to such thinking announced at an awards ceremony to celebrate writing on Palestine, no less, that, in effect,  he did not care if there was no Palestine and only Israel, he just wanted the family house and land, which contained a mosque, back.  He argued that there had never been a Palestine ever, it was only the Palestinian that required justice in the way he demanded it.

The idea that there could be some sort of accommodation with racist structures so long as individuals are recompensed is nonsensical.    This obfuscation of the injustice of systems and structures is both a denial of Quranic ideas of taghut – of oppressor entities and systems (Pharaoh was both a despot and the symbol of a structure of injustice), and an example of the internalization and universalization of the said systems of injustice as normal and natural.  We no longer look to change how the world works, just our individual positions, or that of our narrow group within those structures.

As insidious as this love of un-Islamic structures is the insidious term non-Muslim.  Sometimes used as translation of kafir, more often just as a shorthand for anything not Muslim, it has a perverse normativity that homogenises those of other faiths, non-believers and the outright perverse and unjust.  They are not all one.

The works of Imam Muhammad al-Asi and Imam Achmad Cassiem are instructive on this point.  Muslim thinking is hampered by what is in effect a chauvinism against the non-Muslim ‘other’ at the level of the individual whilst internalising and celebrating the system.

Whilst national rhetoric cannot rid itself of the underlying jingoism of nation (one religion, one ethnicity, one language, one culture – all misimagined), ummah means that even the borders policed by passports then, and guns, walls and fences now, do not matter.  Not morally and eventually – in the reimagined world – not politically either.

Where does that aspiration stand now?  As we – Muslim activists – have gotten older, and the reality of the world more obviously complicated we have allowed that complexity to grind us down, or even worse to give up on the ideas altogether, or worse still reappropriated them to fit the very chauvinisms we supposedly deplore, and repurpose their narrow content to align with the very forces that had and would deny us any form of liberation.

The endless money poured into Muslim infrastructure promoting a one (type of) Muslim consciousness has resulted not in creating a unified Muslim ummah, but a variety of fractured and competing ummahs.  The sectarian uber narrative has eventually created in response a competing set of narratives – Shi’i, sufi, jihadi and so on.  All claim their universalism without a hint of irony.  In the current moment, ummahness has come to mean fighting and dying in nationalist causes (the correct Syrianess is but one painful example), and it can be fought alongside any old foe so long as that singular unified vision of who is the right Muslim can prevail.  Yet another is the plethora of engagement projects that sprung up in the wake of the Rushdie Affair.  Muslims are not political enough, it has been commented, again without irony.  The Muslims of 1989 were affronted by a media and political onslaught that nothing, or at least nothing belonging to the oppressed, emotional, spiritual, cultural – is sacred.  They fought back. Characterising them as apolitical is simply offensive.  Political agency in that moment for Muslims was at its peak.  Every day since has been a step backwards.

Whilst other liberation movements track towards transnationalism, why the Musexit from the ummah? This inability to connect with our diversity- especially in the face of overwhelming Islamophobia unravels apace.  A recent claim to advocacy victory in the UK centred on the changing of the term ‘imam’ to ‘Muslim leader’ in a newspaper article. The term appeared in an article constructed through deeply racialising narratives.  That was the point to call out.  Read the recommendations on media from the UK paper on Counter-Islamophobia Narratives from media professionals and academics.  Or the Kerner report, or any work of critical race theory and media.  These counter-narratives are transferrable across national settings, just as much as the demonization they challenge.

This is a sorry state, but really it doesn’t have to be.  We have agency even if we keep denying it.  It requires courage and a lot of humble pie.  It requires taking on risk, and solidarity.  Things are difficult, but we know that if it’s not hurting it’s not working.

Arzu Merali is one of the founders of Islamic Human Rights Commission.  She has written extensively on Islamophobia, human rights, Islamic feminism and a variety of other topics.  She is based in London, UK

* This essay was originally published in The Long View, volume 2, issue 1.  Read the original here.