Saif Rehman

It has now been over a decade since the fateful 9/11 attacks, and the world has watched as the consequences of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the global ‘War on Terror’ have unfolded.

But the question of who speaks for Muslims living in the West still remains unanswered.

In the UK for example, there are dozens of Muslim organizations, each one seeming desperate to pull in market share. But is it all about ownership? It shouldn’t be. Is it all about portraying a better image of Muslims? I doubt it. Indeed, it seems to be primarily about monopolising the Muslim voice to push individual agendas.

By not steadfastly denouncing armed ‘jihad’ against those very Western societies where they live, by not calling out honour killings, the Taliban’s attack on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, al-Qaeda’s war on minorities across several Muslim countries, many of these organisations do a great disservice to Muslims and Islam. They help promote negative stereotypes whilst conveniently sidestepping the real issues within.

The fact that a majority of Muslims are not associated with any Islamic organisations that claim to represent them should speak volumes. That alone should make us sceptical of some claims made by groups like the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and their US counter-parts Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

So where are the voices of the average Muslims?  They are more numerous than you might think, but too disorganised or too intimidated to speak out.

What many in the West fail to understand is that a Muslim born to a Muslim father usually takes on his or her paternal identity without necessarily consciously subscribing to the beliefs and practices associated with the faith.  Just as a Jew might describe himself as Jewish without observing the Halacha, or 59% of British people who ticked the Christian box in the recent referendum despite disassociation with the Church.
In non-Muslim societies, most Muslims subscribe to secular identities. The Muslims of Bosnia, descendants of Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule, are not always noted for attendance at prayer, abstention from alcohol, seclusion of women and other social practices associated with believing Muslims in other parts of the world. They were simply designated as Muslims by nationality to distinguish them from Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats under the former Yugoslav communist regime. The label Muslim might indicate their ethnicity and sometimes even group allegiance, but not necessarily always their beliefs.

In my experience most Muslims are secular individuals who strongly identify with Muslim culture due to family background, personal experiences, or the social and cultural environment in which they grew up.

I believe these Muslims must organise and challenge the separatism that the current Islamic organisations seem to be pushing for. They must stand in favour of a spirit of togetherness where we all learn from each other, instead of a divisive one which pulls us apart. And crucially, they must move past the propagation of negative narratives.

It is well known that the Quran clearly states ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’. During Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) early migration from Mecca to Medina, he preached a message of cohabitation. The famous Charter of Medina that he drew up encouraged assimilation, and he ensured that the doors of the mosque were always open to homeless wayfarers of any creed. As Irshad Manji says “translations of any scripture are human, as are interpretations – including literal ones”.

Rather than engaging in inflammatory rhetoric and fear-mongering, its high-time Islamic organisations began to celebrate our positive differences and similarities. However, the negative portrayal of Muslims is also a result of the Western media; the ever-ready media seems perpetually hungry to capture the rabid soundbites of a minority of extremist Muslims. Egged on by a small cabal of xenophobes they tend to portray all Muslims as similar to the recently extradited, and infamous hook-handed and one-eyed Abu Hamza, or as some other scimitar brandishing Philistine.

But how close is this to the truth?

Unfortunately, the majority are not visible in the media or recognized by Western politicians and policymakers. These people have a certain responsibility towards regular Muslims, as like it or not, Muslims are now part of the essential fabric of Western societies. Just as Germans are not held responsible for the crimes of Hitler, it is important not to point fingers at regular Muslims for the crimes of Bin Laden. It only serves to magnify their dissonance, alienate them further and leave them as cannon fodder for extremists.

It is now 2013 and little has changed. However, enough is enough. The time has come to stop blaming Western leaders and Muslim extremists for our problems; regular Muslims in the West must finally come forward as a collective and form new voices against the issues they face. After all, the majority of them are just ordinary folks worried about ordinary things, like paying their bills, planning their holidays, and especially in the UK, complaining about the weather!


(Published in The Laaltain – Issue 8)

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