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A Very English Islam

Islam in the West is “de-territorialized,” says the French writer Olivier Roy. He means it is “less and less ascribed to a specific territory and civilizational area” and he thinks this is dangerous because it helps to form an environment of vulnerability that the Islamist recruiters—all skilled entrepreneurs of identity—exploit.

First, de-territorialization increases the appeal of the construct of a “global Ummah” as a transnational fellowship of belief and membership. Second, it undermines the authority of the local ulema, or religious scholars. Third, according to Quintan Wiktorowicz, it allows Islamist movements to present themselves as “autonomous interpreters capable of assessing the divine sources of Islam without bias.”

Philip Lewis, a man with intimate knowledge of the Muslim communities formed in Britain in the last several decades, has suggested this deterritorialized and extremist Islam is in good part a response to racism and exclusion and the feelings of alienation and resentment it produces. The Islamists then exploit an “oppositional postcolonial sensibility” that is widespread in the Muslim community’s collective memory.

Because the same sensibility—in the form of a crude and Manichean “anti-imperialism”—is dear to the fringes of the secular left, alliances have emerged. (Note the deeply depressing defense of Sheikh Raed Salah by the left-wing Labor MP Jeremy Corbyn.)

The genius of the Islamists has been to seduce confused young men (mostly, it is men) by exploiting collective, “old country” myths and memories and creating the illusion of a narrative that at once solves both personal and geopolitical anguish. Lewis says this leaves some vulnerable Muslims “imagin[ing] their collective social life—what social scientists refer to as the ‘social imaginary’—within a utopian and millenarian framework.” So it is that a weird Islamic eschatology has put down roots in 21st-century Britain.

To see what I am getting at, watch this video of an Islamist sect protesting at the Danish Embassy in London in 2006.

A good part of the alternative to the finger-wagging gurus of YouTube will be developed by those Muslims who feel themselves members of this society and who can develop “an Islam of the soil” (as a devout Muslim put it to me). Their sharp conceptual critique of extremism will draw on the inheritance of both Islam and the liberal democratic traditions of the West in unpredictable ways. As important, their critique will be marked by a very British—oh, alright, I mean English—sensibility: deflationary, ironic, and self-deprecating.

To see what I am getting at, look at this video of Muslims for Secular Democracy, a UK campaign group.

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