BOOK REVIEW: Sufis, Salafis and Islamists 13 July 2016
It is increasingly common to meet journalists, politicians and interested members of the general public who are curious about the theological and denominational diversity of British Muslims. Muslims are not a homogenous block, a truism that media and policy makers need to often be reminded about. But if the idea of a monolithic Muslim community is mistaken, what is the reality? For those who are interested enough, I would usually direct them to Sophie Gilliat-Ray’s Muslims in Britain: An Introduction, which contains two chapters tracing South Asian and Middle Eastern reform movements in the United Kingdom. For those desiring a more detailed history, there are no alternatives of note. Enter Sadek Hamid, whose latest book Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism provides a history of an important section of British Muslim diversity, what he calls the “activists”.
The activists consist of four significant British Muslim movements, a reformist Islamist youth movement (inspired by Jamaat Islamiyyah and the Muslim Brotherhood), the Hizb ut-Tahrir, Salafism and a particular Sufi coalescence that the author describes as “Traditional Islam”. Hamid concedes that “that most British Muslims are not members of these four trends” but stresses that that “their understanding and practise of Islam is likely to have been influenced by them.” The activists, while being a minority amongst British Muslims, have been responsible for public perceptions, shaped the landscape of British Muslim identity, and drawn the borders of various ideological and sectarian struggles.
I imagine there are three primary audiences for Sufis, Salafis and Islamists. The first is no doubt academic. In this regard, the work pulls together the patchwork of pre-existing research, and adds to it with Hamid’s wealth of empirical data, providing a valuable addition to British Muslim studies. In my own research, I’ve struggled to contextualise “Islamism”. The nature of international Islamism is well researched, but there has been little written on Islamism in Britain, making it difficult to engage with the term beyond notions of “the bad Muslims”. Hamid provides a history of British Islamists, which steers well clear of the sensationalist rhetoric of newspapers and right-wing think tanks, and takes the reader up to the modern period, indicating the significant changes that Jamaat Islamiyya and Muslim Brotherhood inspired activists have undergone themselves. The danger of describing any movement is to ossify it, failing to indicate the dynamism and flux. Hamid is conscious of this danger, and does much to show to the reader the way in which these movements are constantly in motion.
The second audience is British Muslims themselves. Demographically, nearly half of British Muslims at the time of the 2011 census are under the age of 25. This means that the pivotal period Hamid identifies and describes in his work, the 90s, is an era when many of these young Muslims were children. Few today have direct experience of the period which Hamid describes in detail, but the consequences of it form the inheritance and the baggage that younger British Muslims must contend with today. The government’s counter-extremism strategy, for example, is heavily influenced by the Quilliam Foundation. Two of the founding members, Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Two further current members belonged to groups described in Hamid’s work (Usama Hasan to the Salafi movement, Adam Deen to al-Muhajiroon). In this sense, Hamid provides an orientating prologue for Muslims curious as to how the current state of affairs of British Muslim activism came to be, as well gaining an appreciation of the internal politics which play out in the contemporary period.
The final and third audience is those aforementioned curious journalists, politicians and others who are interested in better understanding British Muslims. Without doubt, Sufis, Salafis and Islamists provides one of the most authoritative and comprehensive accounts of Muslim activism. A danger lies in the reader failing to appreciate that the work isn’t a description of British Muslim diversity in totality, but simply a significant portion of it. Hamid doesn’t, by his own admission, provide an account of Barelwis or Deobandis – and thus by implication, the Tablighi Jamaat, but he does signal the ways in which they fit around the story being told. Provided they keep this in mind, the reader of Hamid’s work will come away with an understanding of the diversity of Islamism itself, the significance of Salafism and its own various manifestations in Britain, and the important ways in which Sufism – particularly an organised transatlantic movement – has responded to challenges from co-religionists.
The work also does much to rewrite the overpowering discourse of violent extremism. Whereas academics studying less charged areas can be left to present their research findings as authentically as possible, Hamid has the unenviable task of needing to engage with contemporary debates about radicalisation and terrorism, without allowing the sheer prevalence of the debates to turn his study into a study of radicalisation itself. Hamid does this well, disentangling genuine criticism from knee-jerk sensationalism.
Sufis, Salafis and Islamists ends on the question of what the future holds for Muslim activist groups. Hamid identifies 9/11 and 7/7 as important moments in their developing story, and introduces the fundamental shift introduced by the Arab Spring. He concludes by observing that “the next decade could equally see a further emeshing of different orientations until they are unrecognisable from their origins”. I’m inclined to agree with this assessment. Though it’s unlikely the words Sufi, Salafi and Islamist will go out of fashion, what and who they refer to amongst British Muslims, I believe, will change hugely (and arguably, already has). This only makes Sadek Hamid’s book more important, for providing an account of the history of British Muslim diversity that will allow future scholars to better understand coming developments.