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THE SUFIS, SALAFIS AND ISLAMISTS: THE CONTESTED GROUND OF BRITISH ISLAMIC ACTIVISM

Published by I. B. Tauris & Company on May 30th 2016 ​

British muslim activism has evolved constantly in recent decades. what have been its main groups and how do their leaders compete to attract followers? which social and religious ideas from abroad are most influential? in this groundbreaking study, sadek hamid traces the evolution of sufi, salafi and islamist activist groups in britain, including the young muslims uk, hizb ut-tahrir, the salafi jimas organisation and traditional islam network. with reference to second-generation british muslims especially, he explains how these groups gain and lose support, embrace and reject foreign ideologies, and succeed and fail to provide youth with compelling models of british muslim identity. analyzing historical and firsthand community research, hamid gives a compelling account of the complexity that underlies reductionist media narratives of islamic activism in britain.


islam’s future is quite literally in the hands of its youth” peter mandaville


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I have been involved in British Islamic activism for 13 years now. I started my activism when I was in college by leading Islamic teaching circles, teaching in Islamic schools and organising cultural exchange fayers. When I started university, I joined a variety of local and national groups in Wales. As I began my postgraduate studies I was elected a chair for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) in 2012. Joining FOSIS was a big milestone and indeed the most challenging role I have ever taken. FOSIS provided me an invaluable experience and a national view of British Islamic activism at a young age. I interacted and worked with all types of young active Muslims; the Sufis, Salafis, Ikhwanis and the so called ‘Islamists’ as described in the book. I did not and I do not belong to any group or affiliate to any ‘school of thought’ and this unfraternity enabled me to access many of those groups and appreciate the diversity of British Islamic activism that was extensively analysed in the book and I found myself nodding my head (in agreement) throughout the read.


The media and policy makers have reduced British Muslim diversity and divided Muslims into moderate good and extremist bad and therefore discourses around British Muslims are mostly polarised and inaccurate. It should be noted that this book is not an attempt to be part of this reduction, favouring one group over another or demonising one, nor a sensationalist ‘ex-radical Muslim’ counter book but rather an attempt to fairly contextualise each of these fluid Islamic trends and their evolution in Britain.


According to the author, Dr Hamid, these Islamic trends include; Sufis, Salafis, Islamists, anti-Islamists, post-Islamists, Jihadists and civil society service-based initiatives. Dr Hamid’s classifications slightly differ from Prof Tariq Ramadan’s classifications which are Scholastic Traditionalism, Salafi Literalism, Salafi Reformism, Salafi Political Reformism, Liberal or Rationalist Reformism and Sufism. Dr Hamid uses references to traditionalism and Sufism being synonymous which I find troubling since other Islamic trends consider themselves traditionalist, by adhering to the four main schools of jurisprudence. For instance, the Salafis, who no longer call themselves Salafis and prefer to be called Orthodox Muslims.


I find it troublesome to use the term Islamist in the book because it is a fluid term that has diverse meanings at different contexts. Furthermore, the term Islamist is used by the far right ‘intelligentsia’ and government official such as Melanie Philips, Douglas Murray, Andrew Gilligan and Michael Gove, to discredit politically active Muslims, claiming that they are aiming to Islamise Britain. Additionally, in the Western scholarship the term Islamist is mostly used to describe violent ‘radicals’ of Muslim faith. One might wonder if using such problematic term by an intellectual Muslim will give it undeserved legitimacy.

All these Islamic trends agree on the decline of Islamic civilisation but deeply differ in the causes, solutions and priorities, something I have experienced in my activism. Dr Hamid suggests that each of these trends develop and evolve through four main stages. The first is establishment upon arrival, in which the priorities were about securing the necessities from Halal food and building mosques to Islamic education, followed by the second stage which is transformation, whereby the Muslim organisation transforms to respond to a particular cause e.g. charity, calling to Islam or increasing political literacy and civic engagement, followed by the third stage which is fragmentationas a result of uncertainty and internal problems that lead the organisation to divide from within.

If an organisation survives fragmentation, then it develops to the final stage which is the adaptation; in response to internal and external factors. The internal factors include; growing youth population, the joining of middle-class Muslim professionals who are less ideologically committed than formal members and youth acculturation as a result of the rise of Islamophobia, anti-terrorism legislations and aggressive policing. The external factors include; the impact of 9/11 and 7/7, where the government attempts to define a ‘moderate Islam’ and funds Muslim organisation to promote its version of Islam. Other external factor is the emergence of new communication technologies that decentralises knowledge and widen communication, whereby a global Islamic marketplace of ideas is established for Muslim activists to shop from.


Dr Hamid concluded that increased religiosity among British Muslims is not necessarily a problem and none of these trends has achieved a mass following because they failed to engage with the unmosqued young Muslims. However, the author suggests that due to the globalised nature of these Islamic trends, none will vanish anytime soon.


The major challenge for all these Islamic trends is remaining relevant in an ultra-securitised and exceptionally politicised environment. The British Muslim communities are well integrated through their cultural, economical and political contributions but British Muslims in inner-city areas are structurally disadvantaged in numerous ways and suffering from social problems which are worsen by the media biased reporting and institutional Islamophobia.


Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, who has been at the helm of community affairs and spent many years interacting with the community’s grassroots, wrote a paper exploring the challenges of British Islamic activism, titled Meet the Challenge, Make the Change: A call to action for Muslim civil society in Britain. He mapped all these challenges and presented them in a form of Shikwa ‘complaint’. These Shikwas are deficiency of knowledge and scholarship, lack of effective leadership, failure to harness the talents of Muslim youth especially women and lack of proactive strategies to address these challenges. Both Dr Hamid and Abdul Bari agree that the biggest challenges of British Islamic activism are firstly remaining relevant to the youth and secondly the failure of unlocking the talent of British Muslim women by enabling them to represent themselves and take leadership roles and not limit them to mere women-only services.


To begin addressing these challenges, these trends must agree on common ground, put aside differences, rediscover the Islamic ethics of managing disagreement and developing a shared vocabulary which facilitate intra-community conversations.This book provides an extensive insight into the diverse British Islamic trends to which I find pertinent and therefore I consider it the ‘bible’ of British Islamic activism and a must-read book by any young Muslim activist.  After all, the future of Islam in Britain is shaped by the young Islamic activists!

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