Muslim Spaces of Hope: Geographies of Possibility in Britain and the West

Muslim Spaces of Hope: Geographies of Possibility in Britain and the West

by Richard Phillips

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Overview

Debates about contemporary Islam and Muslims in the West have taken some negative turns in the depressing atmosphere of the war on terror and its aftermath. This book argues that we have been too preoccupied with problems, not enough with solutions. It acknowledges but challenges what has come to be viewed as the 'Islamic problem' - the widespread perception or construction of Muslims as a troubled and troublesome minority - by asking what Muslims have to be hopeful about today, and how others might share this hope. It argues that there are grounds for hope in many areas of everyday life, and challenges assumptions and assertions that have been made about Muslims in the West. Segregation is set against integration, fear and hate against what cultural critic Paul Gilroy has termed convivial culture. Assertions of difference are put on hold, suggestions of compatibility entertained. Assumptions that Muslims are non-liberal and anti-modern are challenged with evidence about their negotiations of liberalism and modernity. And allegations about Islamic aloofness are set against nuanced evidence of their interaction with other social groups. 

The increased mobilisation and scrutiny of Muslim identities has taken place in the context of a more general recasting of racial ideas and racism: a shift from overtly racial to ostensibly ethnic and cultural including religious categories within discourses of social difference. The targeting of Muslims has been associated with new forms of an older phenomenon: imperialism. New divisions between Muslims and others echo colonial binaries of black and white, colonised and coloniser, within practices of divide and rule. So this book speaks to others who have been marginalised and colonised, and to wider debates about social difference, oppression and liberation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848133013
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 11/12/2009
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Richard Phillips is a reader in geography at the University of Liverpool and the author of, most recently, Sex, Politics and Empire: A Postcolonial Geography.

Read an Excerpt

Muslim Spaces of Hope

Geographies of Possibility in Britain and the West


By Richard Phillips

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Richard Phillips
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-301-3



CHAPTER 1

Spaces of hope: interventions

ZIAUDDIN SARDAR


In contemporary Britain being Muslim is a problem no matter what you do as a human being or as a British citizen. The problem begins with perception, the general perception that Muslims seek out and live in segregated communities. The perception is supported by a complex of stereotypical commonplace cultural ideas about the nature of Islam and Muslims. These ideas rationalize Muslims' supposed desire to remain different and distinct from British society, the better to sustain a separate identity. I argue that such assumptions are wrong, factually questionable and ultimately prevent us identifying the spaces of hope that exist to build more genuine, sustainable and mutually beneficial integration.


SEGREGATION

Muslim segregation is deemed a problem. Yet a realistic review of Britain today and in its history would suggest such spatial segregation is not peculiar to Muslims and not considered a problem, so long as those who segregate themselves are not Muslim. Take, for example, the growth of gated communities – nothing could be more segregated than the gated community. The rich and famous, the British billionaires and all those 'non-doms' we seem so pleased to attract to live in this country segregate and seclude themselves behind high walls, security cameras and need never interact with ordinary British people. They live penned-in lives as they make a utility of British residence – and that is not considered a problem.

There are minority communities long resident in Britain that lead segregated lives. Take the Chinese – a Chinese takeaway is likely to exist on every corner of every high street in Britain. Yet the Chinese community maintains its language and culture, through special classes for its children, for instance, without the attention of prying eyes. We are also quite happy to encourage the emergence of Chinatowns, with their distinctive remaking of the urban landscape, right in the heart of our major cities. So segregation and its visible markers are not necessarily a problem in this case. Nor is it a problem for Jews. I grew up near Stoke Newington, which supported a large Jewish community. When I was growing up in the sixties they lived as an isolated, segregated community and lived perfectly wonderful lives without any problem. Now I live in North London on the fringes of the Finchley/Golders Green area that has been roped off, literally, in accordance with the Talmud to accommodate and ease the Sabbath requirements of the large Orthodox Jewish community. And until a few years ago one never saw Christmas lights on the main shopping thoroughfare of Golders Green; only the large installation at the bus and tube station of the Lubavitch Hanukkah candles, one lit with much fanfare for each day of the holiday. These days you will find both Christmas lights in the main street and the Hanukkah candles. But again this provides signs and symbols of a distinct community maintaining its identity which are not considered a problem.

We need to be clear about what these examples tell us. The rope around an area of North London is far more than notional. It is the tie that binds an entire community to the endurance of a discrete and distinct lived identity transmitted from generation to generation here in Britain. It is a line of demarcation; it claims real space that is not just physical but also cultural, spiritual, social, philosophical and ideological. It caused some argument in the local newspapers when first proposed, but passed and passes the attention of the majority of non-Jewish Britons entirely.

The case of Chinatowns is analogous yet slightly different. The demarcation of these spaces is distinctively visible. Think of Soho and its dragon arch, an outburst of bright red paint topped with its typically oriental curved tiled roof that serves as a gateway to an enclave of shops and restaurants that service the lifestyle of a community which determinedly transmits its heritage from generation to generation. These are spaces of hope which demonstrate the possibilities of acceptable diversity.

The first question I want to ask is this: why Muslims aspiring to domestication of their identity, creating the infrastructure that supports the lived identity they wish to pass from generation to generation, as other minorities clearly do, are considered segregated communities and inherently a 'problem'? The answer, I think, is simple. It is not 9/11; it extends beyond, back before and after that watershed. Muslims living in Britain have a record of campaigning, arguing and protesting to secure their right to the signs and symbols of their identity. For years, this spirit of insistence was summed up in demands for halal food and the hijab, the kernels around which community activism began. It progressed to include activism against racism and went on to object to specific instances of what has become known as Islamophobia in the protests against Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses and more recently the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. And this is the nub of the problem. Securing Muslim identity impinges on the majority population in ways that are quite different in scale and scope than has been the case with other minorities. There are a number of points to be made here. Muslims do not present Britain with the prospect of a small exclusivist identity content to exist as an example of acceptable diversity on the margins within the undisturbed fabric of society as usual. Muslim identity is seen as part of a larger global identity which competes with loyalty to Britain. Both Chinese and Jewish identities are also part of larger, global identities; they come complete with ongoing attachments and loyalties to things beyond Britain. Muslims are similar, yet significantly different. Muslim identity is the product of a worldview that is universal and an alternative to British identity. It connotes not just ongoing attachments and loyalties to something beyond Britain but an enduring, competitive, proselytising identity capable of overtaking and displacing indigenous identity. Chinese and Jewish identity is not understood as capable of co-opting Britons. When Muslims complain and campaign to root their identity in Britain they are not seen as merely seeking justice, fairness and equitable provision, like other minorities, but rather as attempting to aggrandize themselves to secure a superior position that in and of itself undermines British identity.

The precise definition of Islamophobia is 'an irrational fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims', because it records the historic memory of Islam as a competitor and inimical civilization. When all activism is perceived through this mindset the reality of Muslim communal endeavours here in Britain is easily misconstrued, misunderstood and seen as potentially hostile to the host nation. The most legitimate and basic of rights – to freedom from racism, injustice and inequitable treatment in education, employment and health – become not reasonable and proper requests which are necessary elements of healthy integration but demands for special concessions that will both bolster segregation and act as incipient covert threats to British identity. The result is that we do not see the reality of how the Muslim communities of Britain regard themselves, nor take proper account of the conditions of Muslim life and adaptation to living in Britain. Most of all we fail to recognize the spaces of hope that already exist, which can and should become the basis for building a more inclusive integrated British future.

My argument is that what is perceived as segregation can be turned into hopeful space. The process begins by making a real appraisal of what is actually happening in communities around Britain. To recognize hopeful space we have to get beyond the stereotypes, unfounded assumptions and scaremongering. We have to defuse the fears of overheated imaginations with the more mundane realities of the ordinary, everyday lives and aspirations of Muslim communities.

Take Tower Hamlets, for instance, which is regarded as a classic example of a segregated community. The borough contains the largest concentration of Bangladeshis in Britain, clustered around two mosques. It is one of those boroughs where minorities, Bangladeshis prominent among them, are set to become the majority of residents. The prospect seems to fulfil all the worst fears of segregation displacing the host community and utterly changing the face of Britain. The fear obscures the rather different story of what has been and is happening in this one area of London.

There is nothing surprising, or indeed sinister, in the fact that a Muslim community should be found clustered around a mosque: it is the basic necessity for confessional communal survival. The problem is that in the case of Muslims this natural impulse is seen as both exclusive and a rejection of mainstream Britain. Further, the mosque is regarded as doubly subversive: acting as a base for both proselytizing and potential plots. Mosques are terra incognita for non-Muslims, who are largely unaware of what activities go on within, how they serve their congregation, and, not without some justification, regard them as hostile environments closed to non-Muslims. Mosques, for better but mostly for worse, are taken as symbolic of the segregation sought by an entire community, a segregation that is a characteristic of its way of life.

What we should understand is that the mosques came after the establishment of a community. We also need to acknowledge that Bangladeshis' residence in London is no new phenomenon. This is a community with a long British history, especially in London, the hub of Britain's long connection and interaction with the subcontinent. The arrival of purpose-built mosques is a logical progression of belonging, the long untold story of being at home in Britain.

The Bangladeshis, in their long history in Britain, have made a niche for themselves in the catering trade. The 'Indian' restaurant was the invention of those communities we now call Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Kashmiri, virtually exclusively a Muslim endeavour. These 'Indian' restaurants have their own history in Britain and, as in all histories, have changed and adapted over time. Not least of the transformations that took place in Tower Hamlets can be traced back to the one good deed of Mrs Thatcher. She introduced the legislation that allowed the people of Tower Hamlets to buy their council houses. And, clever chaps that they are, they bought their council houses for modest sums, rented them out to people working in the City and moved out to Walthamstow and Hackney themselves. The money generated was reinvested in the restaurants clustered in Tower Hamlets. The restaurants expanded in number, creating new jobs for members of the Bangladeshi community and new sources of prosperity. The restaurant industry around Brick Lane is specialized, yet in marketing and culinary terms has diversified, becoming more sophisticated and upmarket over the course of the last few decades. Everyone who works in the industry in this area knows everybody else. Far from being a classic case of segregation, what has been happening in Tower Hamlets is the generation of a thriving community with its own specialized economy, making the most of its opportunities and enhancing its contribution to British life. It is hardly surprising that the achievements of Brick Lane, centre of Bangladeshi culinary arts, are a source of pride for the community. And it was pride, the earned self-respect, which led them to refuse to be portrayed through what they regarded as standardized stereotypes. When a film company wanted to make the movie of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane – the story of a second-generation British-Bangladeshi young woman's arranged marriage to an older and apparently ridiculous recent arrival from Bangladesh – the community said no, and the film-makers were forced to work elsewhere.

Another reason for the rejection of Ms Ali's vision of Brick Lane can be found by taking a more accurate appraisal of another development in Tower Hamlets: what has been happening among Bangladeshi women. They not only rented property to City people; they have actually taken to working in the City themselves! There is now a whole generation of young Bangladeshi women, highly educated, working in the City as accountants, insurance brokers, bankers and what have you. And they, in consequence, have changed the community.

Young women and young men born and educated in Tower Hamlets who are making careers for themselves are a new and unrecognized face of the Bangladeshi community. They have relinquished the fading dream of the older generation, the myth that one day they would all go back to Bangladesh. The dream of return created some of the dynamics taken as evidence of a segregated community intent on preserving a discrete identity and resistant to integration in the mainstream. It was the mindset of long-term residents who nevertheless regarded their place in Britain as temporary. The attitude reflected not just the motives behind migration to Britain, serial migration to earn enough to make a better life back in Bangladesh, but also a response to their disappointment at the cold reception they received in Britain. But again time and community history move on. The younger generations are committed to what their parents' generation have built despite all the obstacles they faced – a community that thrives but which is still far from ideal. The success of Bangladeshi restaurants is only one aspect of the reality of Tower Hamlets; others are entrenched poverty, crumbling housing stock and infrastructure, gaps in provision for education and leisure activities for the youth, difficulties with health provision and, most of all, the social effects of malaise and disaffection incubated by racism – Islamophobic attitudes that are the wider context of the lives of these young Britons.

League tables of social indicators place Bangladeshis at the bottom of the pyramid of British well-being. Indeed, when social statistics are broken down by ethnicity and correlated with religious affiliation it is apparent that Muslims generally have not fared as well as other minority groups. They lag behind in education, skills and employment, and when in employment often tend to be underemployed. Disadvantage has seemed to cohere around Muslim identity. Genuine integration requires unravelling the complex reasons behind this state of affairs. The social, economic and environmental disadvantages that afflict Muslim communities around the country are not primarily Muslim issues; they are the generic issues of blight, deprivation, neglect and decay. They afflict not just Muslims but also their non-Muslim neighbours. What matters is how these problems are now being addressed.

So I return to Tower Hamlets, where the new generation committed to their future in Britain have become engaged in tackling the endemic problems of the area with their own communal resources and approaches. You will find young people in the mosque running a drug centre, trying to do something about the scourge of addiction. Then there is the thriving local soccer league providing a constructive alternative outlet for the energy that too often gets channelled into gang membership. You will find people venturing out from the mosque and knocking on doors to persuade parents to become school governors and take a proactive role in their children's education. And their efforts have not been in vain. The schools, some of which were once marked for closure as failing institutions, have been brought back to life and transformed into some of the best schools in the area.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Muslim Spaces of Hope by Richard Phillips. Copyright © 2009 Richard Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Muslim Geographies: Spaces of Hope? - Richard Phillips and Tahir Abbas

Part 1: Spaces of Hope?
1. Spaces of Hope: Interventions - Ziauddin Sardar
2. Muslims in the West: Deconstructing Geographical Binaries - Peter Hopkins
3. The Hopeful and Exclusionary Politics of Islam in Australia: Constructing Alternative Geographies of Western Islam - Kevin Dunn and Alanna Kamp

Part 2: Convivial Cities
4. Veils and Sales: Muslims and the Spaces of Postcolonial Fashion Retail - Reina Lewis
5. Citizenship and Faith: Muslim Scout Groups - Sarah Mills
6. The Utopian Space of the Islamic Bathhouse or Hammam - Magda Sibley and Fodil Fadli
7. Making space for Muslims: Housing for Bangladeshis in London - Ayona Datta

Part 3: Economic and Political Empowerment
8. Muslim Economic Initiatives: Global Finance and Local Projects - Jane Pollard, Hilary Lim and Rajeswary Ampalavanar Brown
9. Muslims and the Anti-War Movements - Richard Phillips and Jamil Iqbal
10. Liberalising Islam: Creating Brits of the Islamic Persuasion - Sarah Glynn

Part 4: Integration and Resistance
11. British Muslims and 'Community Cohesion' Debates - Claire Dwyer and Varun Uberoi
12. Residential Integration: Evidence from the UK Census - Kevin Brice
13. Muslim-American Hyphenated Identity: Negotiating a Positive Path - Selcuk R. Sirin and Selen Imamo
14. 'After 7/7': Challenging the Dominant Hegemony - Tahir Abbas

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Debates about contemporary Islam and Muslims in the West have taken some negative turns in the depressing atmosphere of the war on terror and its aftermath. This book argues that we have been too preoccupied with problems, not enough with solutions. It acknowledges but challenges what has come to be viewed as the 'Islamic problem' - the widespread perception or construction of Muslims as a troubled and troublesome minority - by asking what Muslims have to be hopeful about today, and how others might share this hope. It argues that there are grounds for hope in many areas of everyday life, and challenges assumptions and assertions that have been made about Muslims in the West. Segregation is set against integration, fear and hate against what cultural critic Paul Gilroy has termed convivial culture. Assertions of difference are put on hold, suggestions of compatibility entertained. Assumptions that Muslims are non-liberal and anti-modern are challenged with evidence about their negotiations of liberalism and modernity. And allegations about Islamic aloofness are set against nuanced evidence of their interaction with other social groups. The increased mobilisation and scrutiny of Muslim identities has taken place in the context of a more general recasting of racial ideas and racism: a shift from overtly racial to ostensibly ethnic and cultural including religious categories within discourses of social difference. The targeting of Muslims has been associated with new forms of an older phenomenon: imperialism. New divisions between Muslims and others echo colonial binaries of black and white, colonised and coloniser, within practices of divide and rule. So this book speaks to others who have been marginalised and colonised, and to wider debates about social difference, oppression and liberation.