The Islamic race

Ali Eteraz has an article titled Mistaken identity in The Guardian which is a long rambling reflection on Islamic identity, and specifically his Islamic identity. He is somewhat confused by the conflation of Islam with a quasi-ethnic identity.

There are a few distinct issues here; though in the modern era we deemphasize terms such as “Christendom” or the “Dar-al-Islam,” it would be disingenuous to deny that religious affinity is a powerful cross-cultural current. After all, one reason that American evangelicals are focused on the oppression of black Christians in Sudan and Chinese Christians in China is that they are fellow Christians, no matter their race, language or ethnic identity. Similarly, Muslims often idealize their own community, and declare that they must defend fellow believers (this is explicitly laid out in Islam, though often honored more in the breach). One does not think of similar occurrences in Buddhism, but the Sri Lankan Buddhist renaissance was aided in part by Therevada monks from Burma and Thailand (as well as Western converts!), while the neo-Buddhist movement in India has derived material and human assistance from Sri Lankan and Southeast Asian Buddhists. In the case of neo-Buddhists in India these are generally Dalit communities who were Hindu (or Hindu-identified) and had no recent history of Buddhist identity, but by the very act of public profession of faith they established a connection with people from as afar as Thailand! The point is that bonds of religious confession are not trivial, even today. Neither were they trivial in the past, the medieval Muslim traveler and geographer Ibn Battuta noted the customs of Islamic peoples across the world and to some extent his journey was smoothed over by the fact that he was by and large criss-crossing domains where his religion was dominant (though India was predominantly non-Muslim, when Ibn Battuta visited it was ruled by Muslim warlords).
Though I would not hold that pan-Islamic identity is a product of the modern era, the way in which it manifests and its character is conditioned by modern circumstances and technologies. Ali lives in the United States, and the circumstances here for Islam are very different from that in the United Kingdom. In the United States the Muslim religion is multiracial, there are black converts, a smaller number of white European converts, as well as Muslims from West, South and Southeast Asia and Africa who are immigrants or the children of immigrants. There is no natural identity between Muslim religion and ethnicity, the majority of American Arabs are Christian and the majority of American Muslims are not Arab. In contrast in the United Kingdom the vast majority of Muslims are Asian, that is, those who trace their ancestry to the Indian Subcontinent. Specifically, there are large communities of ethnic Punjabis from Mirpur in Pakistan and Bangladeshis from Sylhet. There is a much sharper correspondence between race and religion, and the ethnic landscape is less fragmented as a few large groups account for the vast majority of Muslims. The transposition of a ethnic Islamic communities to a Western landscape has resulted in a natural evolution toward a spare and ideological religion which strips away its local flavors, in large part because it is no longer moored in its local surroundings. Traditional South Asian Islam might be focused around the tomb of the Sufi saint who converted the villagers to the Islamic faith, but when these villagers emigrate to a distant land the saint and the customs associated with his veneration become memories. A land without an Islamic past produces a religion for the portable present, consisting of beliefs and practices which are simple, cross-cultural and incontrovertible.
Finally, there is the Other, the society in which Muslims reside. In a multicultural society the government and elites negotiate with minorities and cede to their “community leaders” the right to dictate and direct the shape of communal affairs. In the process they offer the imprimatur of legitimacy toward a particular interpretation of Islam. Muslims often like to analogize their situation in the modern West to Jews, and this model works in this particular dynamic because in the pre-modern age Jews were governed by their community leaders. Some of these community leaders even objected to emancipation precisely because it liberated other Jews from their control. The Indian economist Amartya Sen has spoken of “plural monoculturalism,” especially in the context of the emerging Bangaldeshi Muslim identity in the United Kingdom, and how community leaders given the seal of approval by the powers that be then reshape a fluid identity into a sharp and distinct one. Sen is a Bengali who feels some affinity with the culture of Bangladeshis because they are ethnic Bengalis, but when their identity is reshaped into a predominantly religious one he feels excluded, and he resents the fact that the British government is aiding in this ethnic reshaping. But this trend is a natural byproduct of the symbiosis between Western intellectuals who accept multiculturalism and so cede to ethnic minorities their own value systems and self-definitions and the most aggressive and well organized minority organizations. I have noted multiple times the fact that many Westerners will use terms such as “Muslim atheist” to describe apostates such as Ibn Warraq, but will never refer to Richard Dawkins as a “Christian atheist.” Muslims are members of groups, and so what is rendered to them as a people is not rendered to them as individuals, they have no choice in their identity and their personal, private, individual beliefs are almost trivial secondary issues. A multicultural society carved up at the joints of group identity is not suffused with infinite diversity, rather, there are a set number of finite blocks which operate within the public space and receive governmental and cultural sanction. Those who operate outside of these acceptable blocks are paradoxes who must be forced back into their categories. This is made explicit in a nation such as Malaysia where to be Malay is to be Muslim, and to be Muslim is to some extent to be Malay (though there are Indian Muslims and Chinese Muslims, in practice these often intermarry and assimilate into Malay ethnic identity). This is why the government has refused to recognize Lina Joy’s conversion to Christianity from Islam, as it flies in the face of accepted categories and customs. A much milder form of custom prevails in the West, where multiculturalism in practice has resulted in an implicit double standard where the traditional peoples of Western nations are accorded the Enlightenment right to choose their own religious identity and experiment as individuals, but other groups, especially Muslims, are assumed to be “naturally” attached to their natal faith. Therefore, when a Christian abjures their religion they are simply a non-Christian, when a Muslim abjures their religion they are a secular Muslim or an atheist Muslim. And of course a Muslim community leader is pleased with this development, for those who are not accepted as individuals in the greater society are far more likely to withdraw back into the only community which will accept them.

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