British Muslims Split along Sectarian Lines over Arab Uprisings

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British Muslims Split along Sectarian Lines over Arab Uprisings

For more than a decade I have been studying the community dynamics of Muslim Britons. Their views on the Arab uprisings are intriguing: sectarian fears, disappointments, scepticism, hope and ethnic concerns are all there.

Muslim British community activists have not ignored the Arab uprisings. They could not have. The Arab world is at the heart of the Muslim world.

True, most Muslim Britons do not have Arab ethnic backgrounds, and most have evolved to become essentially “post-Islamist”. Post-Islamism, in this sense, means their initial impetus for engaging in political life was from an emotional attachment to Islamism, but they have a secular rationale in the public arena that is not dissimilar from British social conservatives. But many of them have roots in Islamist community organisations and links, if only symbolic ones, to the Muslim Brotherhood.

So even the many Muslim Britons who are post-Islamist are deeply interested in the Islamist project in power, and in the challenges that project finds in Egypt and Tunisia, in particular.

There are, of course, differences of opinion. Many ordinary Muslim Britons of Pakistani descent, for example, now consider Pakistani politics to be utterly hopeless – and instinctively assume that the political state of the Arab world is likewise impervious to constructive change.

In activist circles, however, there is something of a quandary. On the one hand, many Muslim British activists came to political maturity in the anti-war movement, and their stances on the Arab uprisings are imbued by that experience, and by left, and far-left, opinions.

After the Nato intervention in Libya, I heard an interesting interview illustrating that tension. An activist intellectual was talking to a representative of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood who had lived in the UK for many years. The activist, as a staunch supporter of the anti-war movement, was opposed to the intervention. But the Libyan was very much in support of it.

That activist was not alone; his opinion is common among many Muslim British activists, who have come to be sceptical of any western engagement in the Muslim world.

Scepticism also appears to have reached over to the Egyptian revolution, where some – admittedly fewer – activists expressed great suspicion about the authenticity of the original uprising. They were convinced that this had been engineered, or heavily influenced, by US and other western institutions.

The Egyptian activists were of course aware of western pro-democracy efforts, but certainly did not see their efforts as serving the West.

There are equally, divisions among British Muslims on ethnic and sectarian grounds. I was surprised to learn that in many community circles, discussions about the uprisings have dwindled, replaced somewhat by talk about US drone attacks in Pakistan (which is, after all, the country of origin of many Muslim Britons). The carnage in Syria is far greater than the death toll in Pakistan, but there is far more certainty of opinion about the latter than about the former.

Discussion over Syria has been particularly bleak, and reveals that sectarianism is certainly alive and well in Muslim communities all over the world.

Publicly, the community has not seen large numbers of Muslim community activists come out against the Syrian revolution. But behind closed doors, there is certainly a divide between Sunni members of that community and Shiite ones.

A prominent Shia activist told me privately how he feared that if President Bashar Al Assad’s regime came tumbling down, there would be sectarian consequences in the UK. Discreetly, Shia leaders have left their community in no doubt about where they should throw their support: to the Assad regime.

None of those leaders are under any illusions that the Assad regime is a good one – but they seem to fear that the next stage would result in a lessening of Shia geopolitical strength in the region, and that shrines to which Shiites travel in Syria could be destroyed by a radical Salafi contingent.

None of these sectarian tensions have bubbled to the surface in Britain, but different Sunni and Shia activists certainly identified them, and were worried about what they might mean for the future of the Muslim community of the UK.

I also saw an intriguing reaction to the uprising from a non-Islamist Sunni community activist, who was far more partial to Sufism than others I encountered.

Traditional Islamic theology teaches that the best of communities was that of the Prophet, and that later communities, inevitably, become more morally corrupt as they become more distant from the Prophetic model.

Renewal might be possible, for specific parts of communities – but revolution for entire societies? A thoroughly un-Islamic notion; and one that deceived believers.

It was an interesting perspective, to say the least – but one that many in the Arab world would dispute on a political level. After all, one reading of that teaching might lead to political quietism, whereas some of the most virulent activist campaigns of the last few hundred years have been led by Sufi shaykhs.

I wondered if the response to that idea within Egypt might simply be: “We have to try – but we have to remember that the results and the outcome will always belong to God.”

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution and the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding.

This article was originally published by The National.

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