Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism

By Ho, Janice | ARIEL, April-July 2019 | Go to article overview

Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism


Ho, Janice, ARIEL


Rehana Ahmed. Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism. Manchester UP, 2015. Pp. x, 246. [pounds sterling]80.00.

In May 2016, London elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, after an unprecedentedly "ugly" campaign in which coded racist epithets ("radical," "dangerous") were deployed by the Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith, to smear Khan (Hattenstone). Indeed, an op-ed by Goldsmith in The Daily Mail, headlined "Are We Really Going to Hand the World's Greatest City to a Labour Party That Thinks Terrorists Is [sic] Its Friends?", was accompanied by a photo of the 7/7 bomb blasts in London. Islamophobia, of course, has been on the rise, not just in Britain but globally, fuelled by the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the emergence of so-called political Islam. Rehana Ahmed's Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism is thus a timely monograph on a subject that matters very much beyond academic circles--that is, on the politics of representing Islam, Muslims, and their communities.

Ahmed's concerns, however, are understandably more circumscribed than what an analysis of the current global dispensation calls for. She focuses on South Asian Muslims in Britain and their negotiations of the British state's liberal multicultural rhetoric, particularly visible during the New Labour party's embrace of cosmopolitanism after Margaret Thatcher's more insular defense of old-fashioned Victorian values. Building on key critiques of liberal secularism made by Saba Mahmood, Charles Taylor, Talal Asad, and Tariq Modood, Ahmed explores the "limits of liberalism" in accommodating the cultural and religious differences posed by Muslim communities in Britain (Ahmed 10). Alongside these critics, she argues against any firm demarcation between the public and the private, noting that the public sphere can never be neutral; hence, liberalism's tendency to relegate Muslim practices to the private sphere necessarily marginalizes and depoliticizes religious minorities while reinforcing a set of dominant values (liberal, secular, individualistic). In arguing for a potential politics of faith, Ahmed critiques the New Atheists--figures like Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Richard Dawkins--who have espoused an unbending adherence to secularism. Ahmed also aims to restore the centrality of class in understanding the sociopolitical contexts of Muslims. As she argues, the well-rehearsed "liberal dichotomies"--"liberty versus authority, secularism versus religion, free speech versus censorship, universalism versus multiculturalism, feminism versus the family"--invariably employed to stigmatize Muslims in public discourse "stand in for and obfuscate structures of power" that have shaped the conditions of existence for these minority communities (11). These two frames of analysis--the privatizing tendencies of liberalism and the material inequities of class--animate the chapters that follow.

The monograph begins with a terrific first chapter that reminds readers that Muslims did not simply arrive on British shores in the postwar era but were already a visible community in the early twentieth century. Ahmed analyzes a series of early twentieth-century markers of Muslim political presence: the burning of H. G. Wells' A Short History of the World in August 1938 by members of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin--an organization associated with the East London Mosque--for disrespectful references to the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran (an incident that resonates across time with the burning of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in Bradford in 1989); the 1932 publication of Angare, an anthology of short stories by four Indian Muslims that critiques both colonial and religious authorities; Sajjad Zaheer's fictionalization of the experience of Muslim students in Britain in his 1938 novella A Night in London; and the publication of Islamic Review (founded in 1913), a journal that attempted to counter Muslim stereotypes. …

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