COMMENT: Western Muslims: the politics of cultural critique —Ahmad Ali Khalid - Wednesday, October 27, 2010

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The clash of civilisations was just too simplistic. Our globalised world is so much more complicated, sophisticated and chaotic than that childish model Huntington passed off as scholarship. This current process of cultural synergy has produced a great period of questioning and soul searching

If the clash of civilisation is true, then western Muslims are caught in no man’s land, caught in between the feuding, fighting and mistrust. Though I cannot hope to speak for all my co-religionists living in the US and Europe, I have to say I feel that western Muslims are not only accused of being an inside menace in European and American societies (mostly by right wing and conservative demagogues), we are also suspected of being religiously and culturally inauthentic by some of our co-religionists back home. We evoke perhaps the most passionate of responses from any of these constituencies. Why? Because we are (or we should be) the natural bridge builders. We buy neither the polemical, half-baked narratives of right wing neo-cons nor the deadly and seductive slogans of fundamentalism.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place. Edward Said emphasised in his book Representations of the Intellectual this concept of the ‘liminal intellectual’ who is at once both an insider and outsider, privy to several points of view: “Because the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actual here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation. Every scene or situation in the new country necessarily draws on its counterpart in the old country.”

If that is true, then the western Muslim is the ‘liminal believer’ – caught between what appear to be several existential positions, grafting and struggling between the intensity of the polemic, conflict and mistrust, trying to construct something both meaningful and beautiful, a synergy between all the components of our own beings.

But I would not want it any other way. Western Muslims occupy that most precious of niches in today’s world of polarisation and polemic. We occupy that space which allows us precious insight into multiple vantage points. It allows us to maintain a critical distance and construct our own narratives of peace, pluralism, diversity and a cosmopolitan universalism.

It is this act of simultaneous cultural critique that western Muslims can undertake that is crucial. The ability to switch, go between and enter into new social environments, instantly aware of the mental and psychological framework can make for a deep and sustained cultural critique. In time, the critique should be able to reach a level of such maturity that we should realise that this arbitrary division between ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ is meaningless. That there is just too much complexity, subtlety and intricacy involved simply to reduce the whole discussion to two mutually reinforcing labels. For the sake of ease we use these labels, but as categories of thought and discussion they make little sense.

The identity western Muslims have as citizens of the UK (or any other western country) and the children of Muslim majority countries and cultures is just that. It is a transnational vocation, the occupation of a space which is the envy of the world. It is this precarious position, a shade of grey in the midst of the current kaleidoscope of conflict. Our identity or sense of communal loyalty becomes irrelevant to the extent a sophisticated global cosmopolitanism can take its place, which is at ease with uncertainty sewing fresher narratives from the opulent cloth of ambiguity.

We occupy a niche, a critical niche where we can pass observations on numerous societies and communities based on personal experience and empathy, which in itself is an elusive combination. Our being in the diaspora should not be a slave to the polemical debates on identity and culture, rather we can elevate the debates. We are the exception to the convoluted rules of the ideologies and bigots on all sides. We can be Muslim, European/American, Pakistani and what else there is that makes up our existence, moulding all these identities into something coherent and momentous. We may be exiles to a certain extent but we should be proud of this human condition, for it allows for synthesis, dynamism, innovation and a constant fusion of cultures, histories, experiences and ideas.

The clash of civilisations was just too simplistic. Our globalised world is so much more complicated, sophisticated and chaotic than that childish model Huntington passed off as scholarship. This current process of cultural synergy has produced a great period of questioning and soul searching. Some have no doubt retreated to the easy stereotypes and yielded to the seduction of easy certainty associated with fundamentalism. But others cannot in good conscience accept such shallow certitude. Deep questions deserve deep answers.

Hamza Yusuf, the influential Muslim reformist cleric in the States, summed it up well in the recentl ‘Rethinking Islamic Reform’ event hosted by the Oxford Islamic Society: “What’s happening now as you get this extraordinary post-modern environment that we’re in now; where the internet has opened up extraordinary exchange of ideas and you have many, many Muslims who have migrated to the West, have imbibed western liberalism, have imbibed many of the concepts of the West. They’re struggling. There is a lot of soul-searching going on.”

But Hamza Yusuf also spelled out what is at stake for the Muslim presence in the West:

“This is an immense opportunity, but it’s also a crisis, and we know that in the Chinese, one ideogram means both crisis and opportunity. It’s a crisis if we don’t somehow come to terms with the fact that Muslims do not have the intellectual tools to navigate their religion in uncharted waters, such as these that you are in now. If these tools are not presented in an intelligent way, that’s rooted and founded in the Islamic tradition, then we have a very serious problem.”

The great hurdle for cultural exchange for western Muslims is to somehow communicate their discourse of reformist thinking and intellectual dissent to domestic reformists in Muslim majority countries, as Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina points out: “There is much evidence to show that Muslim dissident scholarship in western languages remains inaccessible to the native intellectuals who can rethink Islamic theology and reinterpret Islamic juridical tradition by applying modern methodologies to the study of Islam.”

The challenge of travailing and engaging multiple communities, dialoguing with different social and cultural contexts whilst remaining faithful citizens and faithful believers, balancing the constraints and responsibilities of active human agents in different worlds is an awesome task, fraught with pitfalls but with the rewards immense.

The writer is a student at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. He can be reached at

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