Muslim women and girls at a funfair during Eid ul-Fitr in Wanstead, north-east London. Photo: Matthew Lloyd/Getty
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“The battle is among Muslims themselves – a battle for the very soul of Islam”

The British Muslim academic Mona Siddiqui writes about the “Arabisation” of Islam and changing attitudes to Muslims in the west.

If you were to assess much of the current coverage of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism and Islam, you could be forgiven for thinking that the three are defined respectively through the issues of gay clergy, child sex abuse and violence. The talk of homosexuality and child sex abuse, however, can be understood as expressing institutional and social concern; they are divisive and damaging to the churches and their congregations and leave victims, but by no means are they a threat to world peace. Furthermore, although both Protestant and Catholic Christianity are growing predominantly in the global south, they are perceived as western religions. Much of the language about Christianity still makes sense to Europeans; it is familiar territory even if some of the thinking and traditions are contested in the paradigm of debates about human rights.

By contrast, Islam has gradually come to western consciousness as a religion of another world, essentialised, archaic, its own European significance largely absent from any modern understanding of European history. Many are unaware of its complex histories of empires, civilisations and intellectual life. Rather, its presence in the west has been felt through uncomfortable socio-ethical concepts that modernity finds baffling – sharia, jihad, forced marriages, honour killings, and so on.

All kinds of socio-ethical issues are lumped together irrespective of country, culture or context, because the words “Islam” and “Muslim” become the common denominator. Islam isn’t the only religion facing internal conflict but it is widely seen as the only faith marked by conflict alone. Millions of Muslims struggle to show that their Islam is open, just and generous, compatible with all the liberal freedoms the west holds dear, but this is not headline stuff because, let’s face it, these sentiments just aren’t that interesting.

In many ways the Muslim presence in the west didn’t mean much until the beginning of the new millennium. Before then it was embedded within the migration story of multiculturalism. We didn’t think much about multiculturalism because most people growing up in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t realise they were part of any political experiment. Issues around the significant and uncomfortable visibility of Islam began not with the arrival of the first generation of Muslims from south Asia but with the distinct wearing of the headscarf (hijab) on European streets from the 1980s onwards. Some recognised early on that this rising trend would force a different and more narrow kind of discourse about Muslim societies, where piety and modesty would be judged largely by clothing alone. Any thinking person knows that what women wear matters in all societies, but for Muslim women, clothing began to symbolise far more than individual piety.

The discussions about veiling in Europe are now immersed in complex ideals of freedom, femininity and faith. Irrespective of the diverse motives behind the gradual “Arabisation” of Islam in all walks of life, the wearing of the hijab and the niqab, perhaps more than anything else, has had the unfortunate effect of defining Muslim otherness in the west.

For many years, “multiculturalism” was less about tolerating difference and more about ignoring it. But all that changed with the emergence of what is now called radical Islam. This is an Islam that uses religious texts to preach conformity, violence and, worst of all, treachery. It is because of violence and radicalisation among certain communities that multiculturalism is seen by some as the failure of the past and the impasse of the future. Whereas 30 years ago, multiculturalism was defined through food and festivals, especially the Indian takeaway, today it is examined through the prism of terror and terror is seen in everything – from jihadist rhetoric to Muslim schools to a piece of black cloth.

So great is the association of Islam with violence today that many see the religion only as a radical ideology full of groups perpetually plotting – against their own in sectarian violence, against corrupt governments and to bring down the west. Its violence isn’t the violence of civic unrest and internal factions, but apocalyptic violence, symbolised most shockingly and dramatically in the 9/11 attacks.

The subsequent attacks – whether it be the London bombings of 7 July 2005, the Boston Marathon killings or the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby – have confirmed in the eyes of many that not only are some Muslims a threat to peaceful coexistence, but they bear no loyalty to the country in which they were born or live. Their only loyalty is to the notion of a global Muslim brotherhood. For some, the impetus is to seek justice for those suffering in Muslim countries and to accept the high cost of taking that risk. That is why young men of school age, such as Abdullah Deghayes, leave everything to fight and be killed in civil wars such as Syria’s. Deghayes’s father called his son a martyr but that is a word that now rings pitifully hollow for many of us. The pattern is all too familiar, with so many young men lured by the wrong video and the wrong message.

Western foreign policies, geopolitics, sectarian violence and Muslim societies disenfranchised by their own corrupt governments are central to any debate about the rise of militant Islam and civil unrest across the world. We see it in south Asia, the Middle East and across Africa. Over the past decade or so, all kinds of words, from “moderate” to “extremist” and from “secular” to “fundamentalist”, have been used to assess religious sensibilities in the Islamic and western world. Although much scholarly research has explored the spread of radicalism, there is still no clear explanation why a certain kind of religious rhetoric has won the hearts and minds of many of today’s youth.

In his essay, David Selbourne warns that “the history of our age may one day be written under a caliphate’s supervision”. It is an alarming statement and one that he feels is being dangerously ignored by the liberal left. But the more important issue here is that this view is also harboured by many Muslims, much to the dismay of their co-religionists.

However, there is no single Islamist threat. There is no unified vision of implementing sharia, and the word “caliphate” plays to people’s simplistic imaginings of ritual and piety far more than it does to the complex realities of their lives. In these conflicting aspirations, the battle is among Muslims themselves; a battle for the very soul of Islam.

Selbourne paints a bleak political landscape and although many might disagree with his tone they will agree with his warnings. For me, as a Muslim, the issue is the conversations that Muslims are not having. Notwithstanding the current fears around terrorism and the power struggles in so many Muslim countries, there is a reluctance, even fear, of diverse ways of thinking and living in Islamic societies. There is also a propensity among many people in Islamic societies to undermine any kind of intellectualism, or critical inquiry about beliefs, traditions and institutions. The willingness to equate modernity with westernisation, and regard only certain cultural norms as the true expression of Islam, ensures a fear and control over people. People are either silenced or threatened.

Generosity and the spirit of intellectual inquiry, once hallmarks of Islamic civilisation, are being eclipsed by a gradual intolerance on so many levels. These are not symptoms of a yearning or a nostalgia, but a malaise that has made Islam appear a social and political anomaly in the eyes of many outside and inside the faith.

Several years ago, a senior member of the UK security services asked me: “What would you say to white, middle-class, British families who pretend to be liberal and inclusive but talk of Muslims only as a problem at their fancy dinner parties?”

I understood the question to be more about the clash of values than the threat of terrorism. I’m not sure what he expected me to say but replied that I couldn’t stop anyone from thinking and saying what they felt about the Muslim presence – but it was my duty as a British citizen to act locally and contribute to society in some small way. Home and religion were both important and the safety of one was tied to the safety of the other. Integration has become a buzzword, almost meaningless, but I know that being British shouldn’t make you feel any less Muslim. The choice between loyalty to state and loyalty to religion is false and dangerous. Yet religious extremism creates this division, destroying the possibilities of constructive relations in the community, in the nation and internationally.

For the time being at least, Muslims don’t have the luxury of sitting back and hoping all the negativity will just go away. This is the challenge for ordinary Muslims who don’t wish to be drawn in to these debates and who are tired of having to explain and reject jihadist imperialism and violence in the name of Islam. Nonetheless, there is no point in dismissing local and global events as having nothing to do with Islam.

However misguided many of us think terrorists are, to their followers they are heroes. Their propagation of an Islam v the west ideology is not only a false, but a toxic distinction, in which there are no winners. If we want to make this distinction meaningless, to show that there are voices of men, women, young and old who are speaking up for peaceful coexistence and not for an isolationist Islam, we can’t be disengaged from important conversations in public life.

The relative social and intellectual freedoms we all enjoy in the west should neverbe taken for granted. Pluralist societies flourish because of people’s commitment and civic engagement, not their indifference.

In the current climate, religious faith, especially theistic faith, is often seen as something that directs us to an intolerant past of conflict, whereas secularism grounds us in individual freedom and orients us towards a hopeful future. The debate has a simple premise, which is that a gradual secularisation of most of the western world has been realised through a conscious and enlightened distance between church and state, especially after the bloody religious wars of early-modern Europe, leading eventually to healthy, liberal democracies.

At the end of the cold war, Francis Fuku­yama’s thesis was that the liberal idea, rather than liberal practice, had become universal. Fukuyama argues that no ideology is in a position to challenge liberal democracy and that although Islam constitutes a coherent ideology, with its own code of morality and political rule, “this religion has virtually no appeal outside those areas that were culturally Islamic to begin with”. Yet, as Fuku­yama contends, we may want peaceful lives but as individuals we are mostly restless and passionate beings, in search of causes. For Fukuyama, our primordial instincts for struggle, our restlessness, are such that even if the world were full of liberal democracies people would struggle for the sake of struggle, out of boredom with peace. He contends that the struggle will be not for democracy but against peace, prosperity and democracy. We may be a long way off from a tyranny-free world but I do wonder whether part of the appeal of terrorism – the shunning of modernity for so many young Muslims – lies in that most basic of human conditions, boredom and the constant search for a new struggle.

Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood