One intellectual response to September 11 has been an outpouring of scholarly commentaries, each in turn suggesting an interpretation of September 11 from a particular personal and disciplinary angle. 2 In the present paper I reflect, like these other commentaries, on the impact of September 11 from my own scholarly perspective, that of an anthropologist who has studied the South Asian Muslim diaspora in Britain. One strand of my argument considers the production of an Islamic utopian or millennial discourse in the diasporic public sphere and its possible impact on the younger generation of Muslims growing up in Britain. Associated with such a discourse, the article considers the vulnerability of diasporas — the process whereby global events can precipitate radical diasporic estrangement, leading to self-estrangement. Such estrangement is fed by moral panics, expressed in the speeches of politicians, in newspaper columns and global news reports.
Early historical accounts of religious utopianism or millennialism tended to focus almost exclusively on Jewish and Christian millennial movements and their expression in apocalyptic texts such as the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelations. Islam was at best accorded a footnote. Of these scholarly works, The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn remains a classic. 3 In his analysis Cohn recognises a key feature of millennial movements which the present paper highlights; namely, that these movements were associated with a far more widely pervasive discourse 4 which extended well beyond any particular movement. Nevertheless, the focus of Cohn’s analysis, as indeed of most analyses of millennialism, is on specific movements, religious organisations or utopian communities. Here, by contrast, I want to stress the fact that millennial discourses may exist and be widely pervasive without organisation or effective mobilisation.
The millennial vision in contemporary Islam, as articulated by a wide range of movements, is of ‘return’ to the pristine Islam of the time of the Prophet’s reign. This is conceived of as a golden age of unity (tauhid), harmony, lawfulness, economic prosperity and peace. 5 In this latter sense, it is also often imagined as the moment when Islam will become the only and final universal religion and will prevail globally as a total way of life. 6 The vision is not of a rural Arcadia, but of the ideal city or the perfect moral commonwealth, 7 so that,
The sacred community grouped around the God-given text voiced by a charismatic emissary who is simultaneously a man like any other stands at the origin of Islamic political memory and at the end point of Muslim political aspirations. 8
Like other utopias, the Islamic one too must be grasped as a narrative, myth or fable. It is a fabulation of an earthly paradise, which charts the way it will come into existence.
Visions of new islamic millenniums differ in this respect. Some groups espouse personal moral reform, the education of desire; others attempt to impose this reform through coercion (as was the case with the Taliban); still others work for violent revolution while the majority hope for the coming of a divinely inspired charismatic reformer; in Sufi parlance, ‘the renewer (mujaddid) of a hundred years [or] of the millennium’. Hence, while the transcendental vision is one, routes to the millennium differ. Some Muslim traditions describe the millennium as being preceded by the coming of the Mahdi and a confrontation with a mythical figure, Dajjal, the equivalent of the Antichrist, before right prevails, Jesus (believed to be alive in heaven) descends and rules on earth for forty years. Others highlight the need for in-worldly personal asceticism and reform.
It is important to stress that the millennium in all three monotheistic faiths is not to be confused with the Jewish or Muslim paradise, or the Christian Kingdom of Heaven. Whether or not it lasts a thousand years, or comes at the turn of a millennium, the imaginary is of an earthly kingdom. Hence the Manuels argue that ‘Utopia is a hybrid plant, born of the crossing of a paradisiacal, other-worldly belief of Judeo-Christian religion with the Hellenic myth of an ideal city on earth.’ 9 In this respect movements of jihad, of martyrdom, which lead through death to paradise, are not the same as those aiming for earthly Islamic utopias. What such utopias share with other utopian visions, including the marxist-socialist one, is their totality, their absolute perfection. Second, utopian visions are pitched again present chaos and perceived anarchy, the jahilliya of the pre-Islamic city-state, and their eschatological ideas of salvation often envisage the overpowering of a terrible opponent, the beast of the apocalypse, the Antichrist, or in contemporary Muslim cosmology, America, the West and capitalism as omnipotent, evil Satanic forces. 10 In this sense, like other utopias, the Islamic one contains a critical reformist message about the present and is produced through the education of desire. 11 Nevertheless, because of their tendency to promote absolutist or totalitarian visions, utopias have frequently been subjected to anti-utopian counter-narratives, not unlike Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. 12
The inclusion of Islam within analyses of utopian and millennial movements is relatively unusual, despite the fact that the islamist ideal is clearly depicted in utopianist terms. In the several volumes on fundamentalism edited by Marty and Appleby, 13 only passing mention is made of Islam as one of the ‘messianic’ religions which has emerged recently. 14 A more sustained analysis of the utopianist elements in such religious movements, in which Islam is included alongside Judaism and Christianity, is suggested by S.N. Eisenstadt. 15 Like most scholars of utopian and millennial movements, Eisenstadt too stresses that they occur during periods of transition, change and uncertainty, or, more specifically, among persons ‘dislocated’ or ‘banned’ from the cultural or political centre and positioned on the periphery (p. 273).
Their vision of the past-as-present-future has led Eisenstadt to argue that new utopianist religious movements are simultaneously modern and anti-modern, traditional and anti-traditional. While they are grounded in ‘an eschatological vision that combines the reconstruction of the mundane world according to a sharply articulated transcendental vision’ of a pristine past (p. 263), their modernist stress on the primacy of politics and totalitarian universalism, and their rejection of complex traditions in the name of a ‘pure’, authentic tradition make them uniquely modern. 16 Hence another widely shared feature of millennial movement is their stress on the opposition between pure and impure. This is part of the moral manicheanism of such movements. The same stress on purity often makes them highly ritualistic if and when they assume organisational trappings.
The millennium implies the end of suffering. It is an apocalyptic, redemptive moment, the ‘final destructive struggle in which a world tyranny will be overcome by a “chosen people” and through this the world will be renewed and history brought to its consummation’. 17
As a form of rhetoric, millennial discourses may constitute a critical political commentary on world events which can be empowering in its own right. To the extent that it is millennial and redemptive, it demands no immediate action. Much like the marxist utopias advanced by the radical left in Europe, the articulation of utopian Islamic visions is a badge of moral virtue which does not necessarily imply a serious willingness to give up the material comforts of bourgeois society. The decision to mobilise, organise and act are a further step which most people, I want to suggest here, never take. Yet the discourse may travel widely across national boundaries and be shared by believers in widely dispersed places. This seems to have occurred in the case of Muslim millennial discourses, widely articulated in Britain among immigrant-settlers with nationalist-religious political tendencies, just as they are in the rest of the Islamic world, despite the evident need of British Muslims to create durable bridges to the West. 18
The Response to September 11
In Britain, like in the USA, September 11 threatened to precipitate a moral panic about Islam, multiculturalism and the toleration of difference. Moral panics work, as Stanley Cohen long ago argued, by demonising tangible surface targets through a process of ‘displacement’. 19 In a moral panic, underlying social contradictions converge on apparently concrete causes. As moral panics overlap, as the ‘demons proliferate’, the sense of threat reaches a point of crisis in which ordinary people begin to fear ‘the breakdown of social life itself, the coming of chaos, the onset of anarchy’, 20 in short, apocalypse, which only an ‘exceptional’ response can forestall. September 11 became such an event which seemed to threaten the social order of the world and which generated a manichean discourse of good and evil. Muslims settled in the West were in danger of being scapegoated for the crisis. In Britain the news that young British Pakistanis had joined the ranks of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan led to a debate about whether these young men should be tried for treason or some other criminal offence. 21 The debate reflected a growing moral panic about the limits of liberal multiculturalism. As Hugo Young, a journalist for the Guardian newspaper put it, multiculturalism,
[C]an now be seen as a useful bible for any Muslim who insists that his religio-cultural priorities, including the defence of jihad against America, overrides his civic duties of loyalty, tolerance, justice and respect for democracy. 22
Counter-statements by Muslim leaders that these young radicals were merely a tiny, unrepresentative minority failed to convince fully, pitched as they were against reports of widespread support by British Muslims for the Taliban (four in ten thought it right to fight for them according to a Sunday Times poll 23), almost total condemnation by Muslims in Britain of the war in Afghanistan (as many as 80-100 per cent were reported to be against the war, in different surveys), widespread perception that the war was an attack on Islam and equally pervasive denial that the West has proved its case against bin-Laden.
Following the revelations of the antagonisms of young Muslims in the West to the Western alliance, the ‘loyalty debate’ in Britain took on a momentum of its own, carried forward by surveys, TV forums, Radio Live phone-ins and newspaper letter columns. An Asian weekly, Eastern Eye, attempting to counter such claims of disloyalty, announced as its front page caption in giant letters that ‘British Asians are Proud to be British’. This followed a survey in which Asians and Muslims were asked if they felt ‘loyal’ to Britain (sic!). About 90 per cent claimed that they did. 24 British Ministers such as the Home Office Secretary, David Blunkett, unveiled schemes for new immigrant education to citizenship and warned of the need to disperse Muslim ‘ghettos’. 25 Another minister, Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, cautioned that religious schools ‘must integrate in the community’. 26
Such authoritarian state responses gloss over the tragic predicament of a diaspora caught between deeply felt loyalties, at an historical moment not of its own making. Most British Muslims in the diaspora witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers on television, sitting in their living rooms, with the same helpless sense of horror as western spectators. As it emerged that an obscure Islamist, Osama Bin Laden, and his al-Qaida clandestine global network, were probably responsible for the devastation, it seemed that the clash of civilisations predicted by Huntington (1993) between Islam and the West had finally materialised. At that moment diaspora Muslims in the West became symbolic victims of a global mythology, caught in a spiral of alienation and ambivalent identifications that no local protestations of innocence could counter.
Since September 11, global images of terror have invaded every home in Britain, France, Germany and the US. They reveal the terrible vulnerability of Muslim diaspora communities in the West, susceptible to being essentialised as fanatical and irrational, a potential fifth column in a clash of civilisations. In the past British Pakistani Muslims had always been a vocal minority, demanding equal citizenship rights, never afraid to speak their minds even if their opinions – support for the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie or for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War — were out of line with British popular sentiments. They felt sufficiently secure in Britain to express their political opinions, however contentious, without fear. Indeed, in their own public arenas, in the diasporic public sphere they had created for themselves, Manchester Muslims articulated familiar visions of apocalyptic battles between Islam and the West, especially the USA, the source of all evil. So too, they used Islamist rhetoric to attack Middle Eastern regimes, criticising them for their corruption and weakness in the face of the West. 27
Michael Ignatieff has argued that faced with autocratic regimes which suppress all dissent, Muslim
…political opposition takes the form of apocalyptic nihilism, a rejection of the world as it is – the existence of the state of Israel, the failure of Arab leadership and its elites, the miserable inequalities of modernisation in the Arab world. Modern jihad (he says) seeks escape in fantasies of violent expulsion of the infidel, the driving of the Israelis into the sea and mortal strikes against the Great Satan. 28
By contrast to the Middle East, however, in Manchester Muslim diasporic flights of rhetoric are rooted in a political imagination that makes no serious attempt to implement its millennial fantasies. In imagining the different diasporas to which they ‘belong’ as matter of course — Pakistani, South Asian, Muslim — local Pakistanis tended in the past to position themselves imaginatively as the heroes of global battles. Now came the moment of real apocalypse, beyond the imagination, and with it a self-silencing by a people who felt tangibly the potential rage and terror of the West.
Unlike the Iranian revolution or the Rushdie affair, the ensuing moral panic against Muslim minorities in Britain was initially relatively muted. A massive police presence was mounted in vulnerable neighbourhoods. Some mosques were daubed with graffiti, an Afghan taxi driver was seriously injured in London the day after the bombings, Asians (not just Muslims) were insulted in streets, buses and pubs as they went around their daily business. In the United States, there was more violence with two Asians murdered. Above all, Asians and Muslims felt stigmatised as never before, associated with terror and subject to constant surveillance and suspicion. Young Asians moved around in groups. Women stayed home. Men avoided going out in the evenings. Businessmen suspected that customers were avoiding their firms. There was resentment as well as fear, a feeling of being perceived as unwanted outsiders. As new draconian laws for non-Citizens have been introduced by the British Parliament, infringing on basic rights, and as security at airports, targeting mostly Muslims, has been stepped up; as the rounding up of suspected terrorists in the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany continues to make the news headlines, this sense of alienation has grown. We are witnessing a process of what might be called ‘spiraling progressive alienation’ of Muslim South Asians in the West which began with the Rushdie affair.
Global images of terror, violence and fanaticism are contagious. As the world watched bin Laden and the Taliban condemning the West and calling for its destruction, or witnessed Muslim crowds in Pakistan and the Middle East burning American flags and Bush effigies in a violent display of hatred, it was hard for ordinary Englishmen and women not to associate these images with their Asian Muslim neighbours next door. Nevertheless, a Guardian ICM poll found that 82 per cent of Britons had not changed their feelings towards British Muslims, and 88 per cent thought it unfair to link them to the terror attacks, according to an NOP Daily Telegraph survey (The Guardian, October 12: 4). Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, stepped in at the very start of the crisis to declare that Islam was a religion of peace and that the Koran did not condone suicide bombings. The battle was not, he assured Muslims and the public at large, between the West and Islam, but against a small number of evil individuals, terrorists. By now Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations – or its denial – had become the jargon of politicians and the media.
Akbar Ahmed points out in The Guardian (22/10/01 G2: 6) that ‘The terrible and tragic events of September 11 have opened a Pandora’s box of questions about Islam’. Among these, the status of suicide bombings remains unresolved. Arguably, the line between martyrdom and suicide in Islam is highly ambiguous and Middle East suicide bombings have not so far been condemned by most Muslim religious authorities. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister and Muslim clergy in Britain invoked a moderate Koranic interpretation which was intended to protect local Muslims from a local backlash. Muslim leaders, in turn, condemned the World Trade Center bombings as they gathered in Downing Street for a media and press conference. Dressed smartly in Western suits and ties, they spoke in rational tones and lucid English. Gone were the Muslim mullahs of The Satanic Verses affair, with their long beards and foreign accents, declaring death to Salman Rushdie in broken English. The men and women now representing the Muslims of Britain through the Muslim Council of Britain appeared to be highly respectable members of their communities and their tone was moderate. Here was an exemplary diaspora; a diaspora that understood its minority status and identified with its newly adopted nation.
Yet before long, endemic internecine schisms and divisions between Muslim organisations also surfaced. 29 Nevertheless, the representatives initially appeared to have achieved a change in British policy for which they had been struggling since the Rushdie affair: the extension of the Race Relations Act to include a clause against incitement to religious hatred. They used the opportunity presented by the global crisis to extend their bid for equal citizenship.
In the end, the law was dropped. But the victory it represented would have been in any case a bitter and double-edged one. The new law was intended as much to curb extremist Islamist rhetoric in British mosques, as it was anti-Muslim racist discourses. London had reputedly become a centre of world Islamic terror. 30 Quite explicitly, the envisaged law was not intended to silence pretentious postmodern writers such as Salman Rushdie or sacrilegious comedians who spoofed Islam. Yet the existence of such a law would probably have made the publication of The Satanic Verses actionable in court, even if the novel might ultimately have escaped banning or censureship.
In the early days of diasporic Muslim silence after September 11, whether sympathetic, pragmatic, or merely enforced, there were some lone voices of dissent. The Shaikh of a Naqshbandi Deobandi mosque in Manchester invited his congregation to raise their hands in support of the Taliban. A young imam at the Manchester Central Mosque told his youthful congregation in English that it was not bin Laden but the Jews who had in fact bombed the World Trade Center. This was proved by the fact, he said, that all the Jews had stayed away from the towers that day. But on the whole, criticism was muted. Muslims in Britain – and worldwide – were genuinely deeply shocked by the devastation and loss of life in Manhattan.
Nevertheless, as American bombing in Afghanistan assumed its fearful, monotonous pounding, so familiar from Vietnam, Cambodia or the Gulf War, and as scenes of wounded Afghan refugees and on-the-ground devastation filled television screens, the usual British Muslim transnational identity politics, with its anti-American and anti-Arab regime rhetoric, reasserted itself, but with one important difference. This time the diaspora joined a growing British peace movement critical of the war or the way it was being fought. Muslims could share the same anti-American, anti-war rhetoric with others in the society. Rather than being seen as deviant and out on a limb, diasporic Muslims succeeded in creating alliances with local activists – CND, the English Left, anti-globalisation lobbyists, pacifists. Muslim, mostly Pakistani, spokespersons were young and articulate. But the sentiments and discourses had not really changed.
Political commitments can be very long-term and passionate, embedded in moral narratives of self and community. If, as I have argued elsewhere 31, diasporas are transnational communities of co-responsibility, we need to disclose where their identifications, the centres of their subjective universe, lie. Undoubtedly, the sufferings of New Yorkers touched everyone. But not everyone saw New York as ‘their’ global city and New Yorkers as compatriots. The Evil Attack on the Free World, in the rhetoric of western leaders, meant something different to those for whom the Manhattan skyline had a beauty and permanence of its own; who saw its towering skyscrapers not merely as the expression of unbridled capitalism but as cathedrals of modernity, embodiments of the human imagination and its desire to transcend itself. By the same token, while westerners might share Muslim concern for Kashmiri, Palestinian or Iraqi victims of war, the pain felt by Muslims in the face of this suffering was one of shared selfhood. For liberals, the essential fragility of the capitalist economy compounded the horror of the mass murder. For most Muslims this economy was a side show if not itself an evil global plot. Everyone recognised that the attack was symbolic, but only westerners fully comprehended its potentially devastating consequences.
While people might agree that an act is heinous, as an aesthetic, embodied experience its impact varies between moral communities. This was a critical aspect of the global conflict over The Satanic Verses affair. That conflict could be seen above all as a passionate argument about the aesthetics of the religious imagination. So too, ideas about politics and leadership differ. For most postcolonial Pakistanis, politics, even democratic politics, evokes a world of self-serving corruption and nepotism. As a result, they are deeply sceptical of all political leadership and state power. Yet they are passionate political actors themselves and so they go on believing that some place, somewhere, the ideal, exemplary political leader will emerge. Inevitably such a leader is envisioned as a charismatic saviour, bearing a religious mantle. In a society were most people are deeply pious, dissent is often couched in religious terms. The Prophet Muhammad was the exemplary leader for all times, legislator, holy man, warrior and statesman. In speeches made in the diasporic public sphere in Manchester, outstanding individuals, from Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, to Imran Khan, the great cricketer turned philanthropist and politician, are repeatedly mythologised in local narratives as exemplary, unique, God-chosen persons.
This also makes sense of the ambivalence surrounding the figures of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War or Osama bin Laden in the present international crisis. A Pakistani survey in October 2001 found that – against the judgement of their own president – 86 per cent of the people of Pakistan believed there was no evidence linking Osama bin Laden to the World Trade Center bombings. In his posture and appearance, bin Laden projects the classic image of a pious, saintly Muslim world renouncer, a man who has abandoned his great wealth to live an austere existence in the desert for the sake of Islam, dedicating his life to the battle against western domination. He speaks calmly and looks peaceful and almost ethereal. Such a man could not by definition be capable of mass murder. Nor, for my Pakistani friends, was it thinkable that any Muslim would be capable of such an atrocity. Hence the bizarre but nevertheless widely believed Jewish conspiracy theory, with the Jews accused, simultaneously, of being the evil arm of American imperialism and its hidden destroyers. Where a westerner might see in bin Laden an evil megalomaniac, ordinary Muslims see a courageous mujaheddin contending with the evil forces that oppress Palestinians, Iraqis and Kashmiris, and that desecrate the holy lands of Islam.
This manichean discourse of good and evil hides other diasporic vulnerabilities. Pakistanis in Britain are sensitive to the opinions of friends and relatives on the subcontinent. They watch Pakistani satellite TV (there are several stations) and read Pakistani daily newspapers. They fear for the fate of their families back home if violence and civil war erupt there. They identify with the plight of the Afghan refugees, the Kashmiris and the Palestinians. They were aware, more than most westerners, of the murderous record of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan after they took power with the fall of the communist regime. No wonder, then, that neither the smoldering ruins of Ground Zero, still emitting acrid smoke over the Manhattan skyline weeks after the devastation, nor the deadly and mysterious anthrax attack on the USA, nor even the rational pragmatism of President Musharraf, seemed to them to justify the Allied war with Afghanistan. The alliance with Arab regimes created so painstakingly by Britain and the US was treated by my Pakistani friends with cynical scepticism.
This divergence of political interpretations, even if rooted in somewhat different political cultures, nevertheless does not amount to a clash of civilisations. After all, within the West too, perceptions of the conflict have differed. Hence, in the initial stages of the crisis, virtually all commentators on the terror attack in the British Press, Muslim and English alike, tended to preface their columns with reminders of the sufferings of Palestinians and Iraqi children, and of America’s complicit role in the rise of bin Laden and the Taliban. It is evident that neither Pakistani nor western intellectual interpretations of the current crisis are uniform. They are what I call meroscopic: partial, positioned, sited and inevitably perspectival political visions.
A young British Asian friend of mine, a sociology professor in the USA, by origin a Hindu who was born and raised in the Midlands, told me that she and her Asian friends in the USA were increasingly being subjected to surveillance by the authorities. For the first time in her life she and her friends have felt stigmatised as outsiders; for example, when one of her friends tried to board an air flight and was kept back for two hours. She feared greatly that civil liberties in America were being eroded as massive arrests of Muslims (mainly Middle Easterners) took place both in the USA and in the rest of Europe.
The tragedy is that in Manchester the majority of Pakistanis had moved on, away from religious radicalism to more positive activism for human rights. Young Pakistanis were increasingly taking their full place in society. With the first generation of immigrants on the point of retirement, the days of strangerhood seemed to be over for many. True, there were still deprived inner city neighbourhoods in Britain where unemployed Pakistani youth clashed with police and racist groups. This had happened in Oldham and Bradford in the summer of 2001, causing massive destruction of property and ending in fragile truces. But in the more affluent suburbs of Manchester or London young, British born Asians, including Muslims, were entering university and embarking on managerial and professional careers.
The new global vulnerabilities that were revealed by the intensification of conflicts in the Middle East, affected not only Muslims but Asians more generally, and even diasporic Jews living in the West. Such vulnerabilities raise the question whether members of diaspora communities can ever fully cease to be strangers.
In a recent article in the journal Diaspora, Khachig Tololyan highlights the historical rise and fall of Armenian diaspora centres1 32. The history of the Armenian diaspora is one marked by repeated expulsions, on the one hand, and periodic consolidations of new diasporic centres, on the other. The transition Tololyan identifies in the modern era is from exilic nationalism to diasporic transnationalism. But equally, one can view this history as one marked by alternation between alienation and consolidation, exile and peaceful sojourning. During periods of consolidation diasporas not only prosper but establish powerful transnational organisations and community institutions. This long and complex history means that at any one time, dominant, emergent and dying diaspora communities co-exist simultaneously in different parts of the world, some in a state of ascendency, some in decline.
For a while it seemed that new diasporas in the West had achieved a golden age; one of creativity, freedom, civil rights, equal citizenship, and along with these, immense prosperity. They were the fortunate few who had escaped postcolonial underdevelopment, poverty and oppression to create flourishing communities in the West. The dark side of diaspora: persecution, racism, exclusion, so familiar from the histories of the Jewish, Black or Armenian diasporas, had been banished – or so it seemed – forever. Thus Karen Leonard, writing about American South Asians, highlights the efflorescence of voluntary activities and popular culture in what has increasingly become a successful, prosperous diaspora community, only occasionally divided by religious or national conflicts and loyalties. 33 In Britain too the South Asian community overall has prospered, although Pakistanis in some depressed Northern towns have not shared this general affluence. Despite this, like other South Asians, they have felt themselves to be more fortunate than those they left behind on the subcontinent.
But global crises such as September 11 or the subsequent confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir bring out the dark side of diaspora. They may also divide complex diaspora communities such as the South Asian one in Britain and raise serious questions about multiculturalism and the kinds of cultural commitments minorities might legitimately foster. In Britain, the South Asian diaspora is a complex one which includes Indians and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans. It is multi-faith and linguistically plural. Pakistanis, who are mostly Punjabis, a fact expressed in their tastes, life styles, clothing, food, love of music, and customary weddings popular culture, prefer to highlight their Muslim identity in Britain, especially in public political contexts. Islam is increasingly seen by them to be their most valued, high-cultural identity, especially as a second generation of immigrants begins to lose touch with its Punjabi popular cultural roots. Parents insist on their children learning to read the Koran and respecting prohibitions on alcohol and premarital sex.
After September 11, however, privileging a Muslim identity in the public sphere has become potentially problematic. Alleged acts of Islamic terror have tarred local Punjabi Muslims, aspiring bourgeois pragmatists, with the brush of Muslim extremism, and cast into jeopardy all their past demands for public respect and multicultural rights within British society. While Hindus and Sikhs seem to be on a path of progressive integration, South Asian Muslims, in many respects identical culturally, seem to be bent on a path of self-destructive self-exclusion and progressive alienation from the Western societies in which they have voluntarily chosen to settle. This, despite the fact that so far, most of the suspected al Qaida terrorists arrested in Britain have been Middle Easterners and North Africans, not Pakistanis but Algerians, Saudis, Jordanians and Palestinians, many of them recent asylum seekers apparently wanted in their own countries for terror offences.
The two trajectories evident within the South Asian community, one positive, leading to mutual respect and toleration, the other negative, leading to spiraling estrangement, clearly contain their own contradictions. The first hint that British Pakistani Muslims were beginning to draw a line within the Muslim diaspora community between themselves and an alien Other, also Muslim, came following the arrest of more than a dozen Algerians in Leicester, a city commended for its racial tolerance and progressive multicultural policies. Appalled by the arrest, Muslim leaders in Leicester, mostly South Asians by origin, announced that
…we were more shocked than anyone. We didn’t know who these people were but we knew they were not involved in our community.
The Algerians arrested, they said, had
‘almost no contact at all with Leicester’s mainstream indigenous Muslim community.’ 34
Evident here are the linguistic contortions increasingly required by local Pakistanis to distinguish Good Muslims from Bad Muslims in Britain, ‘our’ Muslims from Muslim ‘others’.
But then the news came that three young Pakistanis from Tipton, an obscure town in the English West Midlands, had been arrested in Afghanistan and taken to Camp X-Ray. They were very young, quite educated, soccer players for local teams, apparently well integrated, although two had belonged to an Asian youth gang at one point in their lives. Why did they join the Taliban?
To answer that question we need to consider further the Muslim Pakistani diasporic response to the war in Afghanistan. Pakistanis are the majority Muslim community in Britain. For those, like myself, whose research has focused on the Pakistani diasporic public sphere in Britain, their ambivalent response to the present global crisis was predictable. It was embedded in a widespread discourse of Islamic millennialism, pervasive in Muslim gatherings, which echoes a global utopian rhetoric.
This millennial rhetoric is a hybrid one, rooted in anti-colonial struggles and calling for equal citizenship rights in Britain. It can be heard on many different occasions, from commemorations of the life of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to celebrations of the birth of the Prophet. In these events, the more conservative religious-nationalists among local Pakistanis, usually aspiring community leaders who are often locked in factional battles among themselves, enunciate a virtual discourse of global Islamic hegemony.
It is a story that Muslims tell themselves in the confines of their own arenas, far from the public gaze; an empowering millennial discourse which starts from a sense of the cataclysmic failure of Islam. Like Jewish fundamentalists’ explanations for the Holocaust, speakers suggest that God has abandoned Muslims because of their sinfulness. The trauma of Partition, the loss of three wars with India, the 1967 Six Day War debacle, Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, are read as signals of a cosmic Islamic crisis. As early as 1987, well before the Rushdie affair and the Gulf War, speeches in Manchester envisioned the ultimate global triumph of Islam. Despite present failures, as one orator declared,
God will not forsake us… Muslims will remain on this earth; they will not die out but will spread throughout the world. Judaism will die out. Christianity will die out. Hinduism will die out, and one day the name of Islam and only Islam, “God is one and Muhammad is His Prophet”, will remain. And when this day occurs – I may or may not be here to see it – it will be a day when the conscience of the Muslims will be fully awakened, and they will be able to differentiate between theirs and others, and will be able to unite.
By contrast to the Islamist discourse, however, British Pakistani diasporic flights of rhetoric are rooted in a political imagination that makes no serious attempt to implement its millennial fantasies. Moreover, countering the conservative camp is a social democratic camp from whence most Labour Party members, city councillors and MPs spring. The camps reflect major political divisions in Pakistan itself between different political parties (the Muslim League versus the Pakistan People’s Party). All these parties recruit from the majority Barelwi stream of Islam which is traditionalist and relatively apolitical. Even when lay orators or Muslim clerics position themselves imaginatively at the hub of a global civilisational battle centred on Britain, their fantasy is not underpinned by fundamentalist organisation or violent mobilisation.
The Predicament of Diaspora
What must it be like to feel under siege in one’s own home? The predicament for Muslims has been one of a diasporic minority having to make impossible choices. In a post-national world the meaning of loyalty to the state has arguably been rendered ambiguous. Short of being a paid spy or terrorist, how is disloyalty to be construed? In recent years Muslims in Britain have developed progressively focused agendas to fight for their rights as British citizens. They actively participate in electoral politics in large numbers and field a large number of local and increasingly national candidates in the different parties. The ‘ethnic’ vote is a significant factor in British electoral politics.
The point is that in ordinary times the struggle for British citizenship rights and the long-term diasporic commitment to Muslim communities overseas, especially those suffering from human rights abuses (as in Bosnia, Kashmir or Palestine) are not necessarily conflictual. South Asian Muslims living in the West subscribe to the Islamic juridical position that since western democracies allow freedom of worship, Muslims owe complete allegiance to the state, defined as a ‘Land of Treaty’. Only a small minority subscribes to alternative Islamic rulings which either forbid Muslims to settle permanently in the ‘Land of Unbelief’ and serve in its armed forces, or define Muslims as the vanguard of Islam in the ‘Land of Preaching’. 35
To the extent that the discourse of Islamic dissent is grasped as a utopian fantasy with no practical organisational backup, then young Pakistanis who join extremist Islamist organisations, usually imported from the Middle East, are a newly emergent, deviant minority. The Taliban form of neo-fundamentalism is, in Britain, connected to the minority Deobandi Muslim stream which takes a politically quiescent stance in the UK, as it does in India. While the rhetoric deployed by this movement is a militant one of global jihad, the stress is on the inner jihad of personal purification. 36 Most British Asian Muslims arrived in Britain as economic labour migrants and are committed to bourgeois economic advancement for themselves and their children, not to violent dissent.
For youngsters who have grown up in Britain, however, the sense of cosmic malaise may be grasped as a reality to be actively changed. In this they are somewhat set apart from the underprivileged youngsters who join Asian youth gangs and who engage in violent turf fights in the inner city, sometimes with other Asian youth gangs, sometimes with white skinheads affiliated to British fascist parties. These latter youngsters may have little intention of joining a holy war in Afghanistan. As in the rest of the Muslim world, young Islamist activists are as a rule educated and relatively privileged. In Tipton, one of the prisoners taken was a law student, the other a computer student. The mistake is, then, to explain these youngsters’ Islamic radicalism as the product of personal racist victimisation or deprivation in Britain. If Islamic millennialism is a sense of false, fantastical empowerment in the face of perceived almost cosmic disempowerment, it attracts those who in their own eyes are potentially powerful (that is, young, educated, successful) but have no way of affecting world politics.
The problem for Muslim diaspora leaders is how to control these young and potentially dangerous Islamic radicals while continuing to sustain and perpetuate their own millennial rhetoric with its demonisation of America, Israel and the West and its dreams of world Islam. Among British Pakistanis, as we have seen, the large and vocal social democratic camp enunciates a moderate counter-rhetoric. 37 But whether moderation can displace the extravagant but exciting and empowering virtual discourses of global Islam remains a question.
The fact that British Muslims feel secure enough in Britain to enunciate a discourse of political dissent in times of crisis attests to their rootedness in British society. Yet their ambivalence is tangible. It was, after all, Mr. Blair, the British Prime Minister, who invoked the image of a tolerant, peaceful Islam. But almost simultaneously, other Labour Ministers were perpetuating myths about Islam and its oppressive treatment of women, the unwillingness of local Muslims to integrate, even to learn English, their self-exclusion, in what emerged as a garbled set of racialised stereotypes. 38
On the surface, nothing much has changed for British Pakistanis and they increasingly go about their daily business as usual. But events leave a trace. They become ‘texts’, in the sense suggested by Paul Ricoeur. Taken out of time and place, they affect the reading not only of the past and present, but of the future. The tragedy is that the global crisis precipitated on September 11 will leave its own trace, a sediment of alienation and radical estrangement which will impact in future on the way people conceive of their identity and citizenship in their country of settlement. Ultimately, living in the diaspora is a matter of continually negotiating the parameters of minority citizenship. For British Muslims this process, which is usually peaceful, has tragically had to lurch from one confrontation to another, from the Rushdie affair to the Gulf War to the present crisis. The hope is that each time the signs are of a more mature grasp by local diaspora Muslims of what it means to be a British citizen in a global world. The danger is that diaspora Muslims in the West will increasingly withdraw from positive engagement with their English neigbours, and lose faith in the capacity of their country of settlement to recognise what they perceive to be their deepest moral commitments and aspirations.