A Dis-integrating Society: David Goodhart vs Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan

My colleague and friend Dr. Philip G. Ziegler directed my attention to a recent debate which has started between Tariq Ramadan and the Editor of Prospect, David Goodhart. The diatribe started when The Guardian published a letter by Prof. Ramadan. It is important to say that Prof. Ramadan has been at the centre of a controversial debate himself. Some consider him a progressive and moderate Muslim scholar, while others suggest that he is a cunning, insidious, and double-tongued extremist. Much of this allegation and subsequent debate took off when Prof. Ramadan accepted in February 2004 the tenured position of Luce Professor of Religion at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA. After first granting permission, the US State Department later revoked his visa in late July 2004, forcing him to resign his position. The State Department stated that Prof. Ramadan had connections with and supported extremist organizations. In reality, behind these allegations there were neo-con advisors and right-wing Israel supporters. The main voice against the appointment of Prof. Tariq Ramadan was Daniel Pipes, who despite his attacks and speculations never wished to be accredited with the result of his campaign. In other words, Pipes, somebody whom, rightly, condemns the boycott of Israeli scholars, even if some of them may be controversial, was actively wrongly boycotting a European one. No surprise, since Pipes is quite famous for his “selective partiality”. Even when Ramadan’s visa controversy was resolved in favour of the Swiss professor, allegations that he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing remained open.

In the UK, Prof. Ramadan maintains his reputation of being a moderate Muslim scholar engaged in what some people love to define as the ‘modernization of Islam’. The government was quite happy to invite him among the speakers during conferences and meetings in which Muslims in the UK were “discussed”, and “debated”. David Goodhart has met and interviewed Tariq Ramadan more than once, and defended him from the French-American allegations. This can help us to understand David Goodhart’s surprise and disappointment with Prof. Ramadan’s letter to The Guardian. So much was his disappointment that David Goodhart felt compelled to reply with an open letter published in the last Prospect issue
So, what has Prof. Ramadan argued in this letter? First of all, I have to admit that the letter was surely less sophisticated than Prof. Ramadan’s usual writing style. Actually, any of my Muslim friends, with no academic background, could be the author of that letter. Yet it is exactly in this fact that Prof. Ramadan’s letter finds its strength, and I will try to explain why. But first, I summarize below his argument:

1) Muslims in the UK are integrated, as the reaction of the majority to the 7/7 has demonstrated.
2) The UK Government has reduced the ‘Muslim question’ to ‘security’ and is in a phase of denial as far as the impact the war in Iraq on the Muslim community is concerned.
3) The Government is continually linking its policies on terrorism to the discussion of the integration of Muslims, associating terrorism and integration.
4) The government has “many fine intentions and words about openness, while the facts speak instead of petty politics”.

Prof. Ramadan concludes his letter by observing, “If Muslims, in Britain and throughout the world, are to refuse to cast themselves as victims and instead assume their responsibilities and develop a critical political awareness, the process must begin by resisting political manoeuvres designed to lull them, to select their representatives for them, and even to make cynical use of them. The imperative is theirs, but it can only be a positive development for democracy in Britain.”

The professor stepped down from the cathedra and spoke the same language of his Muslim audience, and expressed very similar positions that I can confirm, remain until today extremely popular. Why? I have the impression that in this letter, which dismisses the spreading Blairite “integration” rhetoric, Prof. Ramadan has given voice to those ordinary British citizens (who happened to be Muslims) that the government, like Marie Antoinette , does not want to hear. And why did Ramadan decide to do so? I can guess that Prof. Ramadan, whom Tony Blair appointed last year to a government taskforce attempting to root out Islamic extremism, felt he had become the famous “brioche”. And I can suggest that it is not nice to be Tony Blair’s brioche; and consequently you have Prof. Ramadan’s ‘anti-brioche’ letter. He preferred to become the megaphone for what the majority of young Muslims wanted to say and hear.

Now, we can move to David Goodhart’s reply . As with Ramadan’s letter, let me summarize in few points Goodhart’s open letter:

1) To claim that Muslim extremism in Britain is the fault of the British government’s foreign and anti-terror policies is nonsense.
2) The two main reasons why young Muslims are vulnerable to extremism are “First, the acute generational conflict created by moving from traditional social and moral orders to a modern liberal society; second, the existence of various Islamist political-religious ideologies offering a total explanation of the world and the young Muslim’s potentially heroic role in ushering in a new one.”
3) Goodhart, then, begins a glowing description of how good Britain is to its Muslims, with a number of rhetorical questions such as “Do some Muslims do less well than the average on educational and employment outcomes?” and over rhetorical (pretty old arguments) answers such as “Yes, of course, especially those from poor countries with traditional outlooks such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. It is notable that many other ethnic minorities, including the more middle-class Muslims from India, do far better.”
4) He reminds Ramadan that it is true that the majority of Muslims reacted correctly to the 7/7 but (and here Goodhart uses the poll as a very bad first-year undergraduate) “a significant minority—anything between 7 and 15 per cent according to opinion polls—sympathised with the action, and a staggering 25 per cent (according to another poll) think that the action was not undertaken by Muslims at all, and was instead part of some western anti-Muslim conspiracy. This should surely give any rational Muslim pause for thought.” He finally tells us who the champion is, “I would suggest that if anyone’s reaction was exemplary, it was the British government’s.”
5) He then points to the real issue of the lack of integration, noticing “the history of Khan’s radicalisation it is clearly the case that the older generation […] have no real idea what is going on among the youth, often make the alienation problem worse, and sometimes express a visceral hostility to the west in general and Britain in particular. They often identify far more with co-religionists in other countries than with fellow British citizens, and see everything through an ethnic or religious prism—whether expressed in the language of traditional Islam or modern political Islamism, or an odd hybrid of the two.”

In the end, this rhetorically inflamed debate can be summarized in one sentence: Are the UK government’s policies responsible for the alienation of British Muslims and is the ‘integration’ card just a cunning political scapegoat, or are the Muslim community rejecting integration and “British values”, and using Islamophobia as an excuse?

My friend Philip asked me what I thought about the Goodhart vs. Ramadan match. I understand both positions. I understand Prof. Ramadan who does not want to become Tony Blair’s “brioche”. I also can understand Goodhart’s position that, like that of the three monkeys, is one that prefers not to see, hear or say what really is happening in the UK. At this point, since I cannot give the palm of victory to either of the contenders, I shall try myself to answer the ‘Do You Want to be Millionaire’ style question (with the frustration of knowing that even if I struck it right, my Head of the School would not raise my pay!): Do British Muslims lack British values? Or is the British Government anti-Islamic?

After many years of living among Muslims in the UK and Europe, observing and participating (as much as possible) in their lives, I have reached some conclusions that Iare developed in my forthcoming book. But before I can offer you the fruit of my research, I have to offer some points for reflection:

A): Muslims are not a monolithic entity. There are many differences (too many to list them here) in ethnicity, race, political creeds, doctrinal beliefs, education, economic status, and so on. Many even differ among themselves in opinion about who can be considered a Muslim. In other words, nobody can define who a Muslim is other than the person feeling himself or herself to be Muslim; thus the incredible divisions and disagreements.
B) Islam can be used as part of rhetorical language, manipulated in different directions, but can only exist, as embodiment ad personam, through interpretation, i.e. through personal identity. So, Islam as religion (i.e. codified norms of texts and rituals) has nothing to do with the will to integrate or not within British society.
C) Criticism of the UK government and strong views of its policies are as common among Muslims with strong religious views as among the ‘secularized’ or even Muslims who do not practice their own religion.
d) Young Muslims (of whatever extraction) who are born, educated, and grow up in the UK (many being the children of Muslim immigrants) are full citizens of the UK, share a great deal of the same UK culture as their non-Muslim peers and their minds have been strongly influenced by the youth culture in which they participate. They have absorbed and lived within those ‘British values’ (whatever these might mean) that their peers share. In other words, those ‘British values’ were, and are, not alien to them.
e) Politically extreme movements, and groups of dissidents or even isolated ‘revolutionaries’ have sometimes used violence, mass murder, and terrorism against civilians [see this article]. From this viewpoint, the murderous actions of, for instance, Mohammad Sidique Khan and the other member of the 7/7 commando are certainly no novelty, as we can see in Italy. What is shocking is the means through which the 7/7 bombers achieved their massacre: using their own bodies as deadly weapons. It seems, for psychological reasons that I shall not explain here, that this system creates more anxiety than other methods previously used.
f) ‘Islamic Terrorism’, because of its dynamics and political consequences, and in particular the mass media involvement, produces more anxiety and fear than the real risk it poses would justify. So, for instance, 10 people are killed across the UK and many more seriously injured everyday in car accidents (according to the UK Transport Department 3,500 people are killed per year). Or, according to the UK government, another 3,500 people committed suicides last year, while more than 300 people in the UK were murdered. Although their actions are tragic and repugnant, and any loss of life should be condemned, statistically ‘terrorists’ who declared themselves Muslim have killed 52 people in the UK since 2001. Yet we spend more time discussing the danger of terrorism (with generous use of hyperbole such as the suggestion that terrorism is challenging our democracies and threatening our nations) than finding solutions to car accidents, the increase of suicide among young people and influenza (which has so far killed millions of people). Furthermore, even when compared to other terrorism, the so-called ‘Islamic terrorism’ has not yet reached a death toll comparable to the violent terrorism that, for equality’s sake, we stupidly should call ‘Christian terrorism’. Just to provide one example of many, since 1990 Northern Irish ‘terrorism’ has killed 489 civilians!
g) It is clear that the fear of terrorism has been used for political aims and not just by the terrorists themselves. The government has used it in an irresponsible way, much more irresponsibly than during the worst period of IRA activities. The question is: Why have they done so?
h) The “crisis of values” is affecting all the UK society, and not just young Muslims or Black Africans. Britain is experiencing an incredible collective crisis of identity, which involves a great majority of the young population. Only the spasmodic and morbid political and mass media interest in Muslims has created the illusion that young Muslims are the only ones who are not integrated, leaving the dramatic reality of dis-integration of the social connectivity of the nation unnoticed. Furthermore, there is also a dramatic crisis of UK national identity. This has been recently demonstrated by the Nationalist victory in Scotland and the increasing Scottish support for the end of the Union.
i) Thanks to my years of research and my recent fieldwork in prisons, I can affirm that young Muslims are perhaps even too integrated in the urban sub-culture of the major UK cities. The majority of Muslims in prison are not there for political, religious or ideological reasons. Their crimes are the same as their peers of the same social and economic status (i.e. drug abuse and related crimes, gang related activities, assaults, alcohol related problems, robberies, frauds, driving offences and so on). They (at least before ending in prison) listen to the same music, share the same slang, support the same football teams and practice the same lifestyle as the majority of their non-Muslim peers. Let me say something clear here. Politicians, the mass media and the public speak of integration as an abstract category, as if it could exist beyond location. As an anthropologist, I can reassure you that there is no such thing as an abstract ‘integration’. Integration is and can only be local; extremely local. You integrate where you are. If you live in a sub-urban space affected by social and economic problems, you are going to be part of it, you are going to integrate within it, and possibly you are going to become part of the problem itself; in other words you fully integrate in that context. Of course, there is a way to escape this danger: not to integrate. This is a valid point not just for Muslims but also for everybody wherever they live. Indeed, people who were born in a certain location, during their years, have to integrate through the same process as the ones who were born to immigrant parents. The only difference is the starting point: the children of immigrants have to face more difficulties and have to struggle to be accepted. This actually forces them to ‘integrate’ within sub-urban cultures and environments even more than their peers to show that they are part of the place, part of the community. I can provide a simple example from Scotland. Some of my young Muslim respondents in Glasgow had a stronger Scottish accent than their non-Muslim, non-Pakistani friends. It appeared, after a while, that they emphasised the accent and that they were stressing it to sound more Scottish than a Scot. Unfortunately, this process does not stop at dialects. We have also to notice that that children of immigrant origin are integrating at a higher speed than their parents, since their parents are involved in a different process: they are learning how to be part of the community instead of growing up in it. Their children are not only integrated within the local place, but they contribute (positively or negatively according to individual cases) to it. Constantly, politicians like Tony Blair seem totally blind to this simple reality, probably because they are too busy playing a real-life version of Risk.

What do these observations tell us? Certainly, both Goodhart and Ramadan have discussed integration as an abstract category, as many are doing today. We have also seen that integration can only be local. British Muslims, and in particular young people, are living in a time in which Britain suffers from a generalized crisis of identity. The emphasis on ‘British values’ initiated by Blair, identified often as liberty, tolerance, democracy, etc., are so broad and certainly not so originally British as to conquer the hearts and minds of our young people. The politicians should be honest. These values, while I am writing, are not in danger. Blair may convince the older generations with his rhetoric of ‘British values’, but certainly not young people, whether Muslim and non-Muslim. The reality is that the values that we enjoy can be endangered by the politicians pushing us toward a circle of panic. Indeed, fascism, like the case of Nazism, came to power through a collective anxiety and fear of the constructed ‘Other’ and by political demagogical appeals to save ‘the national values’. Nazi-Fascism resulted from fear-induced processes and not just because of the genius of two fanatic dictators.

We, in the UK, are witness to a widespread dis-integration of social connectivity, social empathy and altruism that is polarising the country. The majority of young Muslims are fully integrated, even assimilated, within this dis-integrating system. Some of them end in trouble with the law exactly because they follow the rest of their peers. Many of them are subjected to the same emptiness of values and hopes, as I have discovered while interviewing mixed groups of young people in Leeds and Bradford, London, and Glasgow, just to mention few places. Although explained in different forms of rhetoric, the suffering and the alienation were the same as their non-Muslim friends. Integration is not positive by default; integration depends, I stress again, upon local variables and contexts. The assumption that ‘integration’ is a positive event and ‘lack of integration’ a negative one is not dissimilar from the Bush-Blair mentality of the axis of Evil and Good: ridiculous and useless. Hence, integration can also be the issue instead of the solution.

So integration can be seen as a negative value, if, for instance, it means to be involved in activities that can damage the person, his or her social group or family. I can say that the experience of some Muslim migrant fathers and mothers who witness their children’s ‘integration” have been at times horrific. I want to report just one experience that I have collected in Glasgow during my last research. A father of a sixteen-year-old Muslim of Pakistani origin noted,

“Among my 5 children, I had two sons. One has grown up in Pakistan and came here as an adult, the other was born here, and now he is sixteen and you know that his bed at home is empty because his home is now prison. He became so different from his brother and sisters and from the children I knew in Pakistan. I know, he is a young lad, and young lads do lots of stupid things at that age even in Pakistan. But at least they respect the authority of their parents and have some healthy values which come from our religion, Islam. My son left the madrasa [i.e. the mosque Sunday school] at the age of 11. His friends were mainly Scottish boys. I tell you, I could not understand my son, but they could because he was like them. I mean, he was part of that culture of the street, of pop, slang, bad words, girls and wasting his time. He had grown up thinking only about money, cars and parties. These are not our values; he got them from here, from the place we are living in. I know that I had failed as a father. Yet it was impossible to live here and isolate your children; I want him to be part of Scotland, but at the same time to retain some of the beautiful aspects of our culture and religion. I know that some of my Muslim brothers try to avoid this. I was against it, but now I understand that I was wrong. I did not know it when I arrived, but this neighbourhood is not good, but I did not have money to find a better place. He met his friends at school and spent all his time with them. I lost him; I failed him. He became totally one of them. Now he is there in his cell and consumed, at sixteen, by drugs”.

Some of these young people, upon reaching adulthood, “see the light”, as it were. After different experiences, they compare their lives with the ones of their fathers, mothers and Muslim families. They find themselves often shattered by their previous ‘integration’ within local reality that had caused them to ‘loose’ their ‘real identity’. Yet they reject also their family traditions because they do not know enough about them, they are critical of the ‘folklore’ linked to them, and in particular because they do not know how to move within their difficult social rules. They wish to have something that can empower them without linking themselves to something that is disempowering such as their family traditions. After some tried the ‘integration’ route, and sometimes tested the wrong side of it, they now look for a bridge that can reconnect them to family memories: a bridge, however that carries modernity and rejects ancestral authority; a bridge that makes them free to be what they feel to be; a bridge that makes them free from authority or at least the human authority which is so strong within their family traditions. Islam (with all its multiple expressions available) becomes their preferred bridge. La ilaha illa allah achieves among them a very different meaning than the theological one. Of course, they say, as any other Muslim, that there is nothing to worship other than Allah. Yet among some of them, it means that there is no other human being who may have any authority over them; the ultimate freedom. A new way, a new life, a new chance; but also new fears, new anxieties, and a new search for a community within which to become part emotionally and share through empathy its history, myth and become part of its story.

This process of rediscovering themselves is not limited to Muslims as it is a clear trend among young people in general, at least in the UK. The increasing numbers of Born Again Christians, End-Timers, Fundamentalist Catholics, Wiccans, as well as non-religious affiliations to extreme youth cultures, passionate environmentalism, radical nationalism, anarchism, and anti-globalization movements, tell us that very similar processes are affecting young generations of different backgrounds. Are these young non-Muslims integrated within the UK and within the spirit of ‘British Values’? The answer is, of course, no. As any other individual, they experience ‘integration’ within their local dimension, while trying to survive the far reaching dis-integration process affecting what still we call the United Kingdom, which increasingly looks more like a geopolitical expression rather than an imagined community, in Benedict Anderson’s sense. Fanatics, ideologically driven people, golden-era seekers, and the politically alienated exist in all these groups and surely some perpetrate violence and mass murder or even terrorism (and I leave to you to find the examples that you prefer as so many are available). Nonetheless, only one category of fanatic, ideologically driven, golden-era seeker, and politically alienated people is labelled in terms of their religion when they commit a crime: the criminals who identify as Muslim. In this case, the integration is truly universal.

Gabriele Marranci


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