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Thoughts about doing history in public: The case for Muslims in Britain

By Hira Amin

As a PhD student with an interest in Muslims in Britain, my initial thoughts were to focus on religious ideas, their evolution and how they are creating new British Muslim subjectivities. I specifically wanted to distance myself from the media sensationalism and politics surrounding Muslims in the West. Of course, all historians must take into account sociopolitical contexts; the understanding and practice of religion does not take place in a vacuum. Yet my subject was to be on Muslims’ evolution in understanding and practicing their faith in late 20th and early 21st century Britain.

However, I very quickly realised that Islam is an unavoidably political topic. As mentioned above, politics and context plays a role in all studies, but for the case of Muslims this is intensely amplified. The sheer amount of public contestation over Islam, media frenzies over Islamic fundamentalism and discussion of specific laws for Muslim women’s dress frequently reach the headlines. This is not just restricted to Britain, but the West in general. This all feeds into Huntingdon’s famous clash of civilisation thesis, where Islam is pitted against the West. The underlying issue is the compatibility of Islamic and Western values. This debate is played out heavily in the public sphere.

What is the effect of such a strong presence in the public sphere? Hopkins and Gale argue that this highly restricts the way Islam itself is constructed. Muslims are only evaluated in relation to extremism, their conformity to Western values and whether they are a threat. In doing so, Muslims are homogenised in their faith and identity.[1] Russell Brand – yes the comedian! – also came to a similar conclusion. In an article in the Huffington Post, Brand narrated his experience of hearing the tragic story of Lee Rigby through a series of tweets. He states how he saw hateful and confused responses to the murder and how he was compelled to respond. He tweeted: “That bloke is a nut. A nut who happens to be Muslim. Blaming Muslims for this is like blaming Hitler’s moustache for the Holocaust.”[2]

Brand, in his article, continues to narrate his experience on twitter. He describes how people ferociously responded with quick simple points such as “the murderer said himself he did it for Islam” and “Hitler’s moustache did not invent an ideology that sanctions murder.” Brand admits that answers to these questions are not straightforward and cannot be answered in 140 characters. The situation is more complex and he continues to talk about global inequality and social conditions that can result in violent extremism. [3]

This article is not about the causes of extremism, but how debates occurring in the public sphere have a significant effect on both Muslim and non-Muslim identities in Britain. Scholars such as Barth, Castles and Miller state that identity is a dynamic interplay between “other-definition” and “self-definition.”[4] In other words, by drawing boundaries and defining a minority group as “other” this simultaneously redefines the majority group’s self-description. Therefore, these public debates contribute heavily not only to what it means to be “Muslim” but also what it means to be “non-Muslim” – in other words “white British”. At times these redefinitions result in violence in both directions. Recently, Legoland was forced to shut down after Muslims had hired it for a family day due to threats from far-right groups.[5]

The age of mass media and communication has created an environment where significant events regarding the identity of the nation are analysed and shared by facebook statuses, tweets and short blog posts. It is at these times, when there is a strong presence in the public sphere, that historians must get involved to provide a deeper meaning. In an excellent article, Heather Ann Thompson writes about the ethical difficulties of the historian in uncovering events in the recent past that can have a tangible effect on the present day, but concludes that historians are best equipped to excavate deeper meaning and causal links. [6] Here, the case of Muslims in Britain is an example of the dangers when historians do not get involved.

One of the ways historians can engage with the public is by drawing parallels to the past. For example, the case of Muslims in Britain is strikingly similar to the case of the Irish. Negative attitudes towards the Irish stem as far back as the 12th century as they remained firm in their Roman Catholic belief despite coercive force. The Irish were depicted as “backward”, “barbarous” and “uncivilised” and stereotypical images – like the one above – were common. The British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli  stated publicly, “The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character…Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.” Similarly, Muslims today are also portrayed as “uncivilised”, clinging to their “superstitious religion” and against democracy and freedom of the West.

This simple analogy provides a deeper meaning to current events and helps the public to re-think their stereotypes. Too much history of a group in public without historians is a recipe for broad sweeping assumptions and essentialism, which has far reaching ripple effects.

Footnotes:
[1]Richard Gale and Peter Hopkins, ed. Muslims in Britain: race, place and spatiality of identities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009). pp. 1-3.

[2] Russel Brand, “Woolwich”, The Huffington Post, UK, May 5, 2013,  http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/russell-brand/woolwich_b_3347964.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cited in Louise Ryan, “Young Muslims in London: Gendered negotiations of local, national and transnational places,” in Muslims in Britain : making social and political space, ed. W. I. U. Ahmad and Ziauddin Sardar (London: Routledge, 2012). p.102.

[5] Will Coldwell and agencies, “Legoland closes hotel for weekend after far-right threats over Muslim fun day,” The Guardian, Thursday 6 March 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/06/legoland-closes-hotel-far-right-threats-muslim-fun-day

[6] Heather Ann Thompson, “Writing the Perilously Recent Past: The Historian’s Dilemma,” Perspectives on History, October 2013, http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/october-2013/writing-the-perilously-recent-past-the-historians-dilemma

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