“If Tony Blair wants to “open up” Islam for reformist penetration, subsuming the plurality of Islams into an undifferentiated political category such as “the Muslim community in Britain” provokes the exact opposite.”
Since the terrorist attacks on the London Tube on 7 July 2004 by four British suicide bombers, Tony Blair and others in his cabinet have repeatedly called on “moderate Muslims” living in the country to be more assertive in countering radicalisation amongst the “Muslim community.” One of the rather more positive outcomes of this plea is that it makes the government’s search for Muslim agents of “reformed Islam” explicit. What an opportunity to make a career for members of my generation with similar Arab-sounding names and footholds in both the Islamic worlds and Western Europe. Anybody who would like to take on the state-sponsored role of embedded “Muslim informer,” this is your time!
Yet for those who have chosen the rather more unrewarding and cumbersome task of deconstructing such seemingly monolithic entities such as “Muslim” and “Islam” the repeated reference to the “Muslim community in Britain” by Tony Blair and others is obfuscating. Employing such undifferentiated labels is problematic because by reifying the existence of seemingly Unitarian communities (“Muslim,” “Islamic” or otherwise) their inner structure and hence the individualism of their constituent parts is ignored. Surely we can do better than the bifurcation of radical versus reformist Islam suggested by Blair. Surely, differentiating between interdependent objects of analysis such as inner-city deprivation of immigrant youths, the ideational fortification of Bangladeshi and Pakistani families against what is perceived to be a hostile and alien host culture, socio-economic depression and neo-fundamentalist ideology is rather more rewarding analytically than enmeshing them into one iron-clad narrative.
If Tony Blair wants to “open up” Islam for reformist penetration, subsuming the plurality of Islams into an undifferentiated political category such as “the Muslim community in Britain” provokes the exact opposite: It reduces the multiplication of singular Islams to one oversimplified common denominator rather than differentiating them in order to marginalize the radical few; it contracts the various Muslim communities in Britain (Iraqi, Turk, Bosnian, Syrian, Jordanian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, Sudanese, Somali etc.) to one mnemonic rather than extending them and hence empowering them against radicalism on the contested fringes. Thus, perhaps unconsciously, Tony Blair has chosen a type of exclusionary discourse that does not lower the barriers in order to make Islams more accessible, comprehendible, analysable. His choice of words does not engage or include Muslims in Britain. Rather to the contrary, it externalises them as an object to be reformed in order to be reintegrated into the “healthy” body of the country, it reifies the image of Islam as a place of minimum saturation shattering the infinitesimally small mosaics that constitute the plurality of Muslim communities in this country. Now he effectively tells self-proclaimed “community leaders” to pick up the pieces and redesign them within a “British” frame, as if “Britishness” itself is not a contested category, as if the Cross of St. George does not arouse distinctively English passions, as if cultures are monolithic, watertight, a-historical.
A second serious consequence of this mode of discourse is that it makes it difficult to individualise the political formation of terrorism, that it complicates the task of threading the narratives constituting it, dissecting the mindsets sustaining it and deconstructing the ideas legitimating it. In other words, by adhering to totalitarian concepts such as the “Muslim community,” Tony Blair makes it more difficult to penetrate the ideational “epicentre” of terrorism, the thick layer of normative constructions, rhetorical practices, textual representations, power configurations, institutional endowments etc. which envelope the terrorist nucleus in this country and in other cultural settings. These have to be disentangled and spread out for analytical investigation rather than enmeshed into unitary categories. It should become obvious that such an endeavour can not be done from “within” as Tony Blair has requested. Rather to the contrary, in order to break terrorism up, in order to decipher its codes and penetrate the Weltanschauung producing it, abstractions such as “Muslim” “Islam”, “British”, “Asian”, all of them problematic and alas part and parcel of political discourse, must be interrogated from “without”, from a dispassionate, apolitical vantage point, a position that is the exact opposite of the embedded informants’ advocated by Blair.
Rather than reifying the unity of categories such as Islam or Muslim, rather than enforcing their totalitarian claim, rather than ignoring their inner centrifugal and centripetal forces, rather than reducing their differences could one not rather investigate their dispersion, their multifarious presence, their multi-dimensional immanence in British society? Instead of finding reassurance in retroactive categories, instead of keeping the discourse within the certainties to which the media and elite is accustomed is it not worthwhile to explore the opportunity to enter unfamiliar territories? I think that deciphering the grammar of international terrorism in the name of Islam requires inclusive dialogue that is a) politically “disinterested”, uncompromisingly avoiding adherence to institutional agendas, party manifestos grand sociological reform processes and b) analytically secular, rigorously bracketing throughout any questions of the ultimate truth or other matters of religious interpretation. Compromising one or the other is always for someone, always for the party, the terrorist movement or other political entity. Engendering discourse which works against nihilistic violence, in short, asks for societal emancipation from politics, not encroachment by it. Remember Antonio Gramsci’s cautionary note: hegemony is exercised in society by the ruling class supported by those intellectuals who perpetuate and legitimate the coercive apparatuses controlled by the state.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy (Routledge, 2006) and Essays on Iran: Foreign Relations and Domestic Politics in the Islamic Republic (forthcoming). He teaches International Relations at Oxford University.