"We Speak English": Language and Identity Processes in Northern Ireland's Muslim Community

By Marranci, Gabriele | Ethnologies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

"We Speak English": Language and Identity Processes in Northern Ireland's Muslim Community


Marranci, Gabriele, Ethnologies


La langue est un marqueur identitaire important et symbolise souvent la resistance de l'immigrant a son assimilation dans la societe d'accueil. Effectivement, en parlant leurs propres langues, les immigrants en Europe developpent leurs identites transnationales et mettent en place des frontieres defensives contre une possible homogeneisation culturelle. Ce phenomene s'applique particulierement aux immigrants musulmans, puisque la langue arabe constitue a la fois une identite et un symbole religieux. Dans de nombreuses mosquees en Europe, les Musulmans considerent l'arabe comme la seule langue acceptable. Le khutbat [sermon du vendredi] en particulier, doit etre de preference ecrit et lu en arabe. A l'oppose, les Musulmans d'Irlande du Nord, qui ont developpe leur ummah [communaute de fideles] dans l'unique mosquee -- et centre culturel -- dont ils disposent (situee dans la capitale de l'Irlande du Nord, Belfast), ont choisi l'anglais comme langue d'usage principale de leur communaute. Dans cet article, l'auteur analyse les raisons qui ont pousse cette communaute musulmane a utiliser l'anglais a la maniere d'une metaphore complexe de leur situation socioculturelle particuliere au sein de la societe nord-irlandaise.

Language is an important identity marker and is often a symbol of immigrants' resistance to assimilation within the host societies. Indeed, by speaking their own languages, immigrants in Europe develop their transnational identities and set up defensive boundaries against possible cultural homogenisations. This is particularly relevant for Muslim immigrants, since Arabic is both an identity and a religious symbol. In many European mosques, Muslims consider Arabic as the only acceptable language. In particular the khutbat [Friday sermon] should be written and read in Arabic. In contrast, Muslims in Northern Ireland, who have developed their ummah [community of believers] in the only mosque and cultural centre they have (located in the Northern Ireland's capital, Belfast), have selected English as their main community language. In this article, the author analyzes the reasons that have brought this Muslim community to use English as a complex metaphor of their peculiar social-cultural position within Northern Irish society.

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Language is one of the most complex and fascinating human skills, from physical, cognitive, and social-cultural viewpoints (Taylor 1991). Yet anthropologists studying Muslim communities in Europe tend only to deal with effects of bilingualism on second generations (De Ruiter and Obdeijn 1998). Indeed, many scholars take for granted that in European mosques immigrants speak Arabic or their local languages among themselves, and use the host country's language to communicate with local people (Strijp 1998b). The lack of studies dedicated to this topic highlights the need to focus on the cultural significance that language changes have in European Muslim communities (Giles 1977).

De Rutier observes, however, that the lack of studies could be explained by the fact that "[t]he world of the mosques in Europe is not an easy one to approach" (1998a: 28). Nevertheless, Muslims in Northern Ireland have welcomed my research and helped me to understand their lives. This has allowed me to observe many aspects of this community, including the prevalence of English within it.

Language is more than a medium of communication. It often becomes a symbol of membership in and belonging to a group or (as in the case of Arabic) to a religion (Saint-Jacques and Giles 1979). However, as Dorais (1988) emphasizes, languages are not abstract objects but are linked to political and economic situations. He observes that in the case of Canadian Inuit, a development of the inuktituty [Inuit identity] would be possible only through political autonomy and independent management of economic resources.

During my fieldwork (1), I studied the Muslim presence in Northern Ireland. …

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