Religion


It is now over a month since the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo; since the ensuing siege, the solidarity marches and vigils, the seemingly endless outpourings of opinion and comment; and a month since the publication of the special issue of Charlie, financed by the French state to the tune of 3 million copies. The dust has settled somewhat, the news cycle has moved on, but the reverberations continue to thrum in the background.

Typically, the cover image of this special issue was controversial. It portrays the Prophet Muhammad holding a ‘Je suis Charlie’ placard and shedding a tear. The caption above him reads ‘All is forgiven’. If the wording is ambiguous – who is forgiven? Who is doing the forgiving? – the image is ambivalent. It simultaneously distances the Prophet and, by extension, ‘ordinary’ Muslims from the terrorists that committed this atrocity in his name, and at the same it mocks those same ‘ordinary’ Muslims by offending their belief that the Prophet should not be visually represented. This doubleness – some might call it duplicity – warrants further investigation because it raises some very important and awkward moral questions that have not yet been posed.

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I don’t often agree with Baronness Warsi: our politics are too different in almost every respect; but, credit where it is due, she gave a brave speech some weeks ago denouncing how prejudice against Muslims had passed the dinner table test and become acceptable in a way other prejudices are not.

So it is disappointing that the Prime Minster’s speech to a security conference in Munich today will further legitimise such prejudices by its illogical, incoherent and contradictory attempt to define “acceptable” and “unacceptable” Muslims not according to their propensity to use violent and criminal means to achieve their political ends, but according to some calculus of cultural proximity or otherwise to some putative (and mythical) set of ‘British’ values – in other words, according to how culturally similar or different ‘they’ are from ‘us’.

As with much else, Cameron’s claim that this marks a radical departure from the previous government’s ‘fear and muddled thinking by backing a state-sponsored form of multiculturalism,’ is a rhetorical ruse which obscures the reality of continuity, for the hallmarks of the previous government’s approach were to blame multiculturalism for creating ‘segregated communities’ that did not share ‘British values’ of liberalism, tolerance and equality etc., etc. They too sought to define ‘moderate’ (good, acceptable) versus ‘extremist’ (bad, unacceptable) Muslims using ‘British values’ and other nebulous terms such as ‘way of life’ as yardsticks. If this were university assignment Cameron would be hauled up for plagiarism.

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The following book review first appeared in the magazine The Middle East in London, vol.7 no.4 October 2010 p.17.

Emma Tarlo, Visibly Muslism: Fashion, Politics, Faith (Oxford: Berg, 2010)

Emma Tarlo’s first book was entitled Clothing Matters, and this would not have been inappropriate for her latest work because no other items of clothing matter more in our contemporary world than those garments that mark out the wearer as ‘visibly Muslim’. In particular, garments worn by visibly Muslim women have gathered around them cultural and political significances and associations that situate them at the core of some of the key debates of our time: immigration and integration, multiculturalism, the role of religion in public life, political extremism, and, of course, the vexed relationship between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. In this timely book, Tarlo shows with great skill, subtlety and nuance how hijabs, niqabs, jilbabs, abayas and so on are not – and never can be – just simple pieces of cloth that wearers either choose to wear or not; rather, they are ‘overdetermined’ markers of identity and otherness; vehicles of history and tradition; emblems of moral rectitude; symbols of oppression; political statements; and ideological investments.

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The following is a response to Eric Kaufmann’s article ‘Europe’s Muslim Future’, which appeared the April 2010 issue of Prospect (issue 169).

The demographic threat of Europe’s growing Muslim population to its culture and identity is a dog-whistle trope in the many contemporary debates about Muslims, immigration, integration and multiculturalism: barely audible at mainstream frequencies, it nevertheless possesses a shrill power to to conjure up from the submerged depths of Europe’s collective unconscious all sorts of phantoms and fantasies about the Muslim ‘Other’. So Eric Kaufmann’s careful scrutiny and forensic demolition of the ‘Eurabian’ claims in April’s issue of Prospect was entirely welcome. Such claims invariably prey on ignorance and fear and wither when exposed to the cold light of fact and the illumination of rational analysis.

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