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Islam and the West ( 17 Jan 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islam: Identity or Faith?

By Saif Shahin,


15 Jan 2012


Mohammad Ibrahim’s real name is not Mohammad Ibrahim. But then, very few things about him are real. Born to Pakistani Muslim immigrants in Britain, he grew up on the outskirts of Manchester in the 1990s, picking up a twang few outside his circle of friends could discern. And his Urdu/Punjabi being limited to salan’lekum, he needed to bring in his elder brother as interpreter on the occasions he wanted to speak to his parents.


Like most British kids his age, Mohammad loved football and all things David Beckham (though he could afford little more than a jersey and a T-shirt with the captain’s face on it). He couldn’t eat home-cooked food, and sustained his wiry frame almost entirely on burgers, pizzas and french fries. But like many Pakistani men, he was also deeply chauvinistic, and talked approvingly of how his father sent one of his sisters back to Pakistan when he found out she had a boyfriend.


While studying in college to become a police officer, he used to get kicked out of pubs almost every night for engaging in drunken brawls. He would blame this, and various other issues such as getting poor grades etc., on his being Muslim. Catching him high, which was not too difficult, would make for an interesting evening. All he would talk about on such occasions was that he was a Muslim, and belonging to the most glorious religion in the world was the most important thing in his life—despite all the discrimination he had to face because of it.


What made it interesting was how he could just go on and on about it, bringing up instances from the entire course of his life to justify his choice. “Yeah mate,” he would testily conclude, “I may be British-born, but I am a Muslim.”


Mohammad’s rant betrayed a cultural crisis—not among actual migrants, who usually remain steadfast to the values they grew up with, but among their children, who find themselves growing up in seemingly irreconcilable environments. Faced with the dichotomy between home and school, between family and friends, they end up choosing bits and pieces: a burger from here, a family value from there, and so on.


But this cultural confluence does not resolve another crisis—that of identity! Who are you? Where, or to what, do you belong? It is here that Mohammad’s drunken monologues were most instructive. He chose, in his mind, to be neither British nor Pakistani, nor Asian, nor Punjabi, but Muslim.


Being a Muslim, for Mohammad, did not mean living up to, understanding or even trying to find out what Islam is (and I am not talking of edicts against drinking here). It simply meant attaching a name-tag to himself so he could be surer of his place in the world. It also meant that instead of taking responsibility for his failures and doing something about them, he could simply blame them on discrimination against Muslims.


Looking around, the world seems full of Mohammad Ibrahims whose real name is not Mohammad Ibrahim—people who have opted for Islam simply as an identity rather than as a faith. Had they done so with an interest in the religion and its teachings, this would have been a positive, integrative phenomenon. It would have helped them improve themselves through education and reflection, inculcated liberal values in them and allowed them to assimilate in their immediate societies and co-exist in peace with non-Muslims—as Islam prescribes.


That, however, is not the case. People who turn to Islam simply to anchor their identity in a world of cultural churn find it to be a negative, dissociative undertaking. Hardly knowing anything about Islam, they are susceptible to many illusory narratives. For instance, they find it heartening to believe that theirs is the supreme religion—even though the Quran clearly says the word of God was revealed to many people, and warns against supremacism.


They believe they belong to a global ummah, when in truth there is no such thing: Muslims in different parts of the world have very different cultures and values. But such pluralism militates against their Islamic identity, and so they often castigate Muslims who become steeped in localised mores.


Identity demands uniqueness, and thus those in search of identity turn towards an ever-narrowing interpretation of what Islam is and what it means to be a Muslim. They even reinvent history to suit their needs—believing in a “golden age” of the reign of the first four caliphs of Islam, even though political degeneration had already set in by then.


Some take their need for identity even further—when they see that the world is not like them, they go on a Quixotic charge to make it so by force. In doing so, they find solace in Quranic verses that called on Muslims to fight. But their ignorance prevents them from realising that these verses were only meant for a time when a small Muslim community faced the threat of obliteration. It also blinkers from their view verses that prohibit compulsion in religion, and allow people to interpret their faith in their own ways.


Most conveniently, being a Muslim means they can blame all their troubles on discrimination. To be sure, Muslims face all kinds of persecution around the world. But so do many other communities—be they religious, sectarian, racial, regional, classist, casteist, ideological or gender-based. Indeed, Muslims discriminate against non-Muslim and even Muslim communities for sectarian or racial reasons. But the sense of victimhood they develop as part of their Islamic identity obviates the need for self-criticism—which is always a difficult thing to do.


Not all who adopt the Islamic identity, as opposed to the Islamic faith, are second generation migrants. In the age of globalisation, you may never leave your home town and still be forced to ask: Where, or to what, do I belong?


To be sure, different people adopt their Islamic identity in differing degrees. Mohammad did manage to join the British police, but was recently laid off and is now planning to take the authorities to court for “religious discrimination” (which may well have been the case). The global ummah also features regularly in his talks, but he remains steeped in “British/Western” ways—drinking as much as in his college days and surviving on fast food. He has grown no beard and does not push anyone to be a Muslim.


But a number of other Mohammads end up viewing everything in black and white, as Islamic and anti-Islamic. This grand narrative informs their understanding of all that happens in the world: from global events such as invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, to personal matters such as not getting a promotion in office. Growing Islamophobia makes such a view of the world appear all the more genuine. The narrative pushes them towards fundamentalism, and in extreme cases, towards terrorism.


Globalisation has posed questions of culture and identity to everyone. Europe is living in fear of turning into “Eurabia”, while Arabs are afraid their children, being brought up by housemaids from Kerala, will speak Malayalam as their mother tongue. In such a world, there is no running away from the question: who am I? And there is no harm in the answer being: I am a Muslim. But Islam need not be just an illusory identity, it can be a liberating faith that helps people not just find their place in the world but be at peace with it as well.


Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.