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Review of "Wandering Lonely in a Crowd" by

Summary

22 April 2012

I first met Dr Imtiaz last year when the Curriculum for Cohesion project started to be hosted by the Cambridge Muslim College, where he is the Academic Director. We had a long chat on 26 January during the official opening of the British Museum’s Hajj Exhibition about issues affecting Muslims in the UK. During that discussion he urged me to read his book.

That evening I went to Amazon.co.uk to buy it, and got a nice surprise. The website told me that I had purchased the book almost exactly a year earlier, on 27 January 2011. Obviously I must have seen it mentioned somewhere, bought it, added it to my overflowing collection of unread books, and then forgotten I had it! I read it a few weeks later.

Overview of the book

The book is quite short, 174 pages excluding endnotes. The subtitle is “Reflections on the Muslim Condition in the West.” The copyright notice states that it was published in 2011, so I must have bought it almost immediately upon publication.

After a forward by the journalist Madeleine Bunting and the introduction, the book contains nine independent chapters comprising essays written by the author.

Introduction

From the repeated mentions of "excessive individualism" in the extract below, it appears that the author places little value on personal freedom.

"Another major aspect of the context of these debates [about Islam in 'Western' society] is the great social change that has occurred in Western society in general but in British society in particular. This social change could be termed the rise of excessive individualism, detraditionalisation, demoralisation or the 'hollowing out' of modern society. It is an argument about how freedom has perhaps been taken too far, such that society itself is threatened and as such it is an argument that strikes at the psychological core of British society because there is no greater defining aspect of the modern British state than its reverence for freedom.

… (It was after all Durkheim as a founding father of sociology who warned against the excesses of individualism) and yet in many British cities there are now communities emerging that – though they may have similarly been affected by the atmosphere of liberation that surrounds them – present as real-life alternatives to the problems of excessive individualism. They call for community and discipline but this also creates an anxiety around the return of authoritarianism – and so the excessive communism of these communities is criticised. This context that Islam in particular and religion in general may be a meaningful and practical response to excessive individualism also affects the terms, the style and the manner of the discussions that surround the community."

September 11: Thoughts and Emotions

This is stated to have been written in the months after the 11 September 2001 attacks, and has been left unedited to preserve “a raw and honest first reflection.” However the precise date of writing is not given. As events developed rapidly at that time, it would have been helpful to know exactly when the piece was written.

The author appears to have struggled to decide where he stands on certain issues. For example, the Taliban of Afghanistan are mentioned several times, but I cannot tell if the author applauds or deplores them.

The Muslim Condition

In the introduction, the author describes this as “a response that distinguishes between Muslim identity politics and Islamic humanism.”

In a section headed "barriers to integration" the author writes:

"British Muslim communities face four options: assimilation, isolation, emigration or integration. In many senses, these options only remain options to the extent that Muslims themselves are able to achieve them. That is, Muslims cannot integrate themselves, they can only be integrated since 'to integrate' in this context can only make sense as a passive verb."

I disagree with the author's view of (unavoidable) passivity in relation to integration. It appears to be another aspect of the "victim mentality" that the British Muslim community is so often accused by critics of displaying.

In my view each individual is free to make his or her personal choices regarding how he or she lives his or her life, and needs to recognise that the choices he or she makes are likely to affect his or her level of integration into wider British society. Integration is at the level of the individual; the level of integration of "the Muslim community" is no more or less than the summation of the levels of integration of individual British Muslims.

The author goes on to write:

"Tariq Modood sees integration as socio-economic, socio-cultural and civic participation: socio-economic integration is about educational achievement and increasing employability; socio-cultural integration is about the sharing of values; and civic participation is about participation in local and national public life. Civic participation is in many ways up to others, mainly the political parties and the media and more specifically depends on the kinds of representatives they choose to work with."

Again I disagree with the emphasis on passivity in the extract above. In my view civic participation is a choice that the individual makes, not something that is done to him or under the control of others.

The author does make a good point about the narrow career choices of British Muslims and the implications:

"Much of British Muslim engagement relies upon fairly superficial readings of modernity and the present Western condition. This is because many young Muslim activists have mostly pursued careers in the technical, scientific, medical, financial or legal professions, and so they help to work the wheels of British society. There are relatively few Muslim graduates in the humanities and social sciences. One consequence is that our expertise on issues of culture and engagement, one of the foremost issues that we face, remains underdeveloped."

A Marcher’s Song

This is a partly fictionalised account of the author’s participation in an anti-war march in September 2002.

It is one of the most interesting chapters in the book, narrating the mishaps involved in getting from Bradford to the march in London and then back to Bradford.

Making Religion Relevant

This speech was given “at the inaugural meeting of the Cambridge Muslim College on the ways in which the training of Islamic religious leaders needs to consider the variety of formative experiences upon their congregations.”

It has an excellent short critique of the limited understanding of traditionally trained imams about the West:

"'Within a Western context' – how much should imams know about the intellectual hinterland of the West, Europe and Britain? Do they need to know the difference between empiricism and rationalism? Or the difference between Hume and Kant? Or the origins of the Enlightenment? And its relation to the atheist movement? Do they need to know the history of the social sciences? Or should they be trained in any of the social sciences? Sociology as the sociology of the city or the sociology of modernity? Psychology as child psychology or depth psychology?"

Seven Faces of Freedom

The author describes this as “an imagined speech given to the fictional Anglo-Liberal Fellowship of the South on the relationship between Islam and Liberalism” and says that “it describes seven ways in which a Muslim can experience freedom.”

The author has some interesting comments about Muslim identity politics.

"The fifth face of freedom that I wish to mention is Muslim identity politics. This is an expression of freedom, a yearning perhaps, but one that is rejected by its intended audience. Muslim identity politics takes after the other forms of identity politics that we have become so used to: the black civil rights movement, feminism etc. But in this particular case the advocates of Muslim identity politics are calling for their recognition as Muslims, to be free and equal as Muslims. However, this is not just about equality, it is about the freedom to be different – about the right to stand apart from others, the crowd, as one wishes and assert a form of distinctiveness which challenges stigma and discrimination. It is certainly a way of being free; it is a call to freedom but one that disrupts the social and discursive convention of its environs. Much of what we have experienced in British Islam over the last two decades can be put down to Muslim identity politics: the emergence of Muslim youth groups during the eighties, the formation of the Muslim Council of Britain in the nineties, the campaigns for the inclusion of religion in the 2001 census, the campaigns against Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses – these are all expressions of Muslim identity politics.

The campaign against The Satanic Verses is perhaps the most relevant here. It represented a total disconnect as the two opposing camps could not understand each other's positions at all: one asserting the absolute importance of free speech and the other calling for respect for the sacred. The identity politics paradigm would have suggested here that this campaign was similar to the civil rights campaign against the Black and White Minstrels and golliwogs, that it was an attempt to challenge the culture of misrepresentation that devalued their identity and hence restricted their freedom. Again, this is a form of freedom that has been readily and even enthusiastically adopted by Muslims."

In my view this is a misreading of the black civil rights movement which was a struggle to have black Americans receive the civil rights that white Americans took for granted. Conversely, from the author's outline above, Muslim identity politics appears to involve Muslims as a group seeking special rights (as opposed to the rights that all members of society are entitled to) simply on the grounds that they are Muslims.

Muslims and the Social

This is a review essay on the recent academic debate regarding Muslims and multicultural policy.

From Cultural Awareness to Cultural Competence

This is a speech at an event given by the author on the topic of considering the relevance of culture to public policy.

Finding a Saviour for a City in Need

The author describes this as “a short fictional piece” about how "a policymaker in a Northern city attempts to find a way forward for the city in the aftermath of rioting.”

When you read the chapter, you see that it is set in Bradford, again illustrating the impact that growing up in Bradford appears to have made upon the author's worldview.

Farewell to the Bush Years

This is an interview in which the author reflects back over the presidency of George W. Bush. I was pleased to see him giving credit to Tony Blair at a key moment in his term of office, immediately after the 7 July 2005 London bombings.

"I think this is one moment in which Tony Blair should be applauded for his leadership. He pulled, as Prime Minister, the Muslim community very close to him in the immediate aftermath of the attack by publicly inviting leaders to Downing Street and by making statements on television about not blaming the community. This was an important moment, and he acted as a leader should."

Conclusions

I found the book very easy to read, and quite interesting. I am confident I would have found it interesting even if I had not known the author, and think anyone interested in the development of Britain’s second largest faith group will find it similarly interesting.

My philosophical differences with the author commence right at the beginning, with the book’s subtitle “Reflections on the Muslim Condition in the West.” I take issue with both parts of this subtitle:

The Muslim Condition

This implies that Muslims are single homogeneous group. In my view they are not. At a religious level, Islam is a religion within which there are many different schools of thought and interpretation, which results in Muslims seeing the world in many different ways depending upon their theological views.

Furthermore, Muslims living in Britain, Europe and North America come from many different ethnic communities, and have very different levels of education and income. There is no reason to believe that they have a common “condition.”

To illustrate the point with an extreme example, what (apart from having the same religion) is the commonality between the following hypothetical individuals?

The West

With occasional lapses, I never use the phrase “the West.” In the days of the Cold War, it had some meaning when it referred to NATO and other countries in a military alliance with the USA, standing in opposition to the Warsaw Pact and other communist countries. However “the West” has become an increasing elastic concept, and is now essentially devoid of meaning. Some Muslims seem to regard any country that does not have a Muslim majority as part of “the West”, regardless of its geographical location, political system or level of economic development.

I don’t know when “the West” originated, but have always had in mind the 1918 book “The decline of the West” by Oswald Spengler, despite never having read it! In the minds of people like Spengler, and it appears Dr Imtiaz, there is some kind of fundamental otherness which means that “the West” and Islam are inevitably in opposition to each other.

If you see Islam as one of many different religions which are practiced by people who live in Britain, Europe and North America, you see a different world from someone who sees “the West” as fundamentally different from countries which have (or more precisely currently happen to have) a majority Muslim population.

The editing of the book

In my view the publishers have let the author down and should have taken a stronger editorial line on certain matters.

The author’s biography

All we are told about the author is written on the back cover, and can easily be reproduced in full:

“SM Imtiaz has worked in Equalities for the National Health Service, holds a doctorate in social psychology from the London School of Economics, and is a longstanding community activist.”

That biography would be insufficient for the author of almost any book, but is wholly inadequate where a book comprises entirely the author’s personal views about matters that are heavily dependent upon one’s perspective. For a book like this, one needs to be told:

The goal is not to supply personal information for the sake of it, but to give the reader a rounded picture of the author to enable the reader to better assess what the author is saying. Very simply, none of us can help being influenced by our environment.

For example, some of the comments in the book and the biography on the Cambridge Muslim College website indicate a long connection with Bradford. From a cultural perspective, Bradford is quite different from London or Manchester, and as a reader I would have liked to know more about how long the author lived in Bradford, and what periods of his life this represented.

Elsewhere in the book we learn that the author lived in Jordan for a year between 2002 and 2003, and that when questioned in 2008 by US immigration officials he informed them that he had lived in the UK for about 30 years. However such fragmentary information is no substitute for a proper biography.

Dating the essays

Apart from what we are told about the 9/11 essay, there is no chronological information regarding when the essays were first written, and whether they have been revised.

There have been many developments in the last decade that impinge upon the issues discussed in the book. Accordingly to assess an essay, one needs to know exactly when it was written, since one would expect the author’s views to develop over time.

 

 

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