Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism 16 June 2016

9781784532314The terms Islamism, Salafism and Jihadism have acquired common linguistic currency in recent years –used most often to describe forms of undesirable Muslim religiousity. But what do they actually mean? Why does Muslim religious conservatism and radicalisation appear to be on the increase? What long term impact could this have on British society? Much of the analyses of Islam in Britain over the last decade have adopted a problem-centred approach –producing crisis driven publications that focus entirely upon radicalisation, extremism and political violence. While this is understandable, journalistic accounts and securitised research by think-tanks frequently lack the academic rigour required to accurately interpret the diversities within British Muslim communities. With ongoing anxieties about the threat of terrorism –many politicians, policy makers and elements of the media continue to confuse assertive Muslim identities or religious conservatism with sympathy for the likes of ISIS. A weak comprehension of the role of religion among Britain’s second largest religious minority can reduce them to a simplistic dichotomy of ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ and perpetuate hostile anti-Muslims discourses that have become embedded in the public imagination since the London Bombings of 2005.

In my new book Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, I explain the historical transmission and impact of three globally influential religious paradigms upon the religious identity formation of second-generation Muslim young people. Understanding the role of the Islamist oriented Young Muslims UK and Hizb ut-Tahrir movements, Salafi JIMAS organisation and neo-traditionalist Sufi networks is crucial as they assumed positions of informal religious authority and defined the parameters of those aspiring to become devout Muslims. Descriptors such as ‘Islamists’ and ‘Salafis’ are casually used with little appreciation for the diverse meanings that these terms imply. Instead, they are most often used interchangeably to discredit politically active Muslim individuals and institutions. Sufis tend to focus upon the spiritual dimensions of faith and practice, Salafis are known for subscribing to literalist interpretations of Islam and insistence on matters of correct doctrine while Islamists encompasses a broad spectrum of socio-political movements that share a desire to have religious values inform their politics, economics and culture. Just as there are various traditions within Judaism and denominations within Christianity—theological distinctions matter to people inside Muslim communities and should be recognised outside of them.

The first half the book describes each of the four faces of faith-based activism: reformist Islamist, radical pan-Islamist, Salafi and neo-Sufi by tracing their intellectual genealogies and explaining how these trends migrated, evolved and integrated into British society. By analysing primary sources, dozens of interviews and first-hand participant observations, I explain how young people young British Muslims participate in collective faith-based activism, grappled with issues of religious identity, culture and reform. I also introduce the key individuals that have shaped the Islamic religious currents in the UK and illustrate how second and third-generation Muslim Britons developed solidarities with transnational political struggles, differentiate claims over religious authenticity and how demonstrate how they were instrumental in shaping re-Islamisation trends in Muslim communities between the mid-1980s into the early 2000s. This is important as a number of the leading members of these groups went on to acquire prominent places in British Muslim communities and a handful are influential outside it. Some have gone on to lead some of the biggest Muslim charities in the UK , others hold positions within the UK’s largest umbrella body the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) positions within Prison Service, local government and a founding member of one youth movement is now a Member of the European Parliament

The second part of the book contextualises the religious narratives of the four trends and shows how these discourses helped to recruit people into Islamic activism. This is then mapped against the internal and external dynamics that caused social change within British Muslim communities and follows the repercussions upon these groups. I argue that population growth, youth acculturation, education and new communication technologies produced new elites who had to deal with the impact of 9/11 and 7/7 -reshaping the way Islam is understood and expressed. I conclude by highlighting new emerging Islamic trends that are synthesising the best elements of British and Muslim cultures through the medium of music, art, literature, social enterprise and sketch some potential challenges and opportunities for those working in the activist scene today. The fear of terrorism and rise of conservative forms of assertive religiousity among Muslim young people is of particular concern to a government anxious about preserving social cohesion and security —I hope my book will help people to decipher the various types of British Muslim religiousity and distinguish the between ‘islamicisation’ and ‘radicalisation.’

Sadek Hamid’s book is available from I.B Tauris

About Sadek Hamid

Dr Sadek Hamid is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Liverpool Hope University. He has written widely about British Muslims, young people and religious activism and is the editor of Young British Muslims: Between Rhetoric and Real Lives (2016) and co-editor of Youth Work and Islam: a Leap of Faith for Young People (2011)