Predicament of Diaspora and Millennial Islam: Reflections
in the Aftermath of September 11
Werbner, Professor of Social Anthropology, Keele University
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 discourse4
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
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
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
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 poll23), 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
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
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 elsewhere31, 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
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
In a recent article in the journal Diaspora, Khachig
Tololyan highlights the historical rise and fall of Armenian
diaspora centres132. 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
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
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
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
1 Public Lecture
Given at the University of California, Irvine, in February 2002.
A version of the paper also appeared in the Times Higher
Educational Supplement, 14/12/01, pp 31-32
2 Many of these are gathered on the US Social Science
Research website www.ssrc.org/sept11/
3 Norman Cohn (1957) The Pursuit of the Millennium:
Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe
and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements, London:
4 A key feature of this discourse was anti-Semitism
which appeared in various forms and manifestations, some more
violent than others.
5 See, for example, Olivier Roy (1994) The Failure
of Political Islam. London: I.B. Taurus.
6 Although, as Roy points out, many Islamist movements
have in recent years become more nationalist than internationalist,
while others, like Al-Qaida, are dislocated from any nation
7 J.C. Davis's fourfold classification of utopian
forms (arcadia, the perfect city, the moral commonwealth and
millennium) is discussed by Ruth Levitas (1990) The Concept
of Utopia. New York: Philip Allan, pp. 161-164. On the ideal
city see also Krishan Kumar (1991) Utopianism. Milton
Keynes: Open University Press, p. 11 passim. The ideal city,
Plato's republic, differs from the heavenly city, the millennial
Jerusalem, in the extent to which it is achieved through rationality
as against divine redemption. The Muslim ideal city-state combines
aspects of both.
8 Charles Lindholm (1996) The Islamic Middle East:
an Historical Anthropology. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 270.
9 Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel (1979) Utopian
Thought in the Western World. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p.
10 Gilles Kepel describes the 'four horses of the
apocalypse' seen as enemies of Islam by one Islamicist group,
which comprise 'the Jew', the 'Crusade', 'Communism' and 'Secularism'.
See G. Keppel (1985) The Prophet and Pharoah: Muslim Extremism
in Egypt. London: Al Saqi Books. During the Iranian revolution
the United States was described as the 'Great Satan'. See William
O. Beeman (1983) 'Images of the Great Satan: Representations
of the United States in the Iranian Revolution. In Nikki R.
Keddie (ed.) Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi'ism from
Quietism to Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press,
pp. 191 217.
11 See Levitas, p. 122.
12 On anti-utopia generally see Krishan Kumar (1987)
Utopia and anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford: Basil
Blackwell. Also Kumar (1991).
13 Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (1993a) Fundamentalisms
and the State, (1993b) Fundamentalisms and Society,
(1995) Fundamentalisms Comprehended, all published by
the University of Chicago Press.
14 E.g., by David. C. Rappoport, 'Comparing Militant
Fundamentalist Movements and Groups,' p. 448, and Martin E.
Marty and R. Scott Appleby 'Conclusion: Remaking the State:
the Limits of the Fundamentalist Imagination', p. 626 and p.
636, both in Marty and Appleby (1993a).
15 S.N. Eisenstadt 'Fundamentalism, Phenomenology,
and Comparative Dimensions', in Marty and Appleby (1995) pp.
16 Most new religious movements, including islamicist
ones, do not reject science or media technologies.
17 Cohn, p. 20.
18 Of course, this is not the only discourse articulated.
There are also liberal, democratic Muslim discourses, as Hefner
has argued (www.ssrc/sept11/hefner)
19 See Stanley Cohen (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics:
the Creation of Mods and Rockers. London: MacGibbon & Kee,
20 Hall et al (1978) Policing the Crisis.
London: Hutchinson, pp. 322-3.
21 The Guardian 20/11/01 p. 6. This followed
statements to that effect by the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon
(The Guardian 30/10/01, p. 3) and a debate in the House
of Commons on the topic broadcast live on satellite.
22 The Guardian, 6/11/01 p. 18
23 Sunday Mirror, 4/11/01, p. 7. The poll
was apparently conducted outside a large mosque after prayers.
24 Pages 2-3. The survey showed that 90 per cent
of all Asians and 87 per cent of Muslims felt 'loyal' to Britain
(Eastern Eye 23/11/01 p. 6)
25 Eastern Eye 9/11/01, p 2.
26 The Guardian 14/11/01 p. 13
27 On the diasporic public sphere see Pnina Werbner
(2002) Imagined Diasporas among Manchester Muslims: the Public
Performance of Transnational Identity Politics. Oxford:
28 The Guardian, October 19, 2001,G2, p.2
29 For a critique of the Muslim Council of Mosques
representativeness, see Bodi 2001.
30 Such allegations were widely made by the press
and other western security services, but were ultimately denied
by the British security forces after a series of arrests of
allegedly Muslim extremists was followed by their release in
the absence of concrete evidence.
31 Pnina Werbner (2002) Imagined Diasporas.
32 Khachig Tololyan (2000) 'Elites and Institutions
in the Armenian Transantion,' Diaspora 9, 1: 107-136.
33 Karen Leonard (2000) 'State, Culture, and Religion:
Political Action: Political Action and Representation among
South Asians in North America,' Diaspora 9, 1: 21-38.
34 Oliver Wright 'Our City is not Radicals' Haven,
say Leaders', The Times, Saturday, January 19 2002, p.
12. Emphasis added in both cases.
35 See my article 'Divided Loyalties, Empowered Citizenship?
Muslims in Britain' in Citizenship Studies Vol. 4, No.
3, 2000: 307-324.
36 In a distinguished lecture at the University of
Leiden in November 2001, Barbara Daly Metcalf illuminates the
complex political tendencies and discourses of Deobandis in
different national contexts. See the Social Science Research
37 E.g., an article by a Muslim MP, Khalid Mahmood,
in The Observer, 11/11/01, p. 21.
38 See my editorial, Pnina Werbner (2002) 'Reproducing
the Multicultural Nation', Anthropology Today, Vol. 18,
No. 2, April 2002, pp. 3-4.