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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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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