Concluding Reflections

Chapter 13
Concluding Reflections


In multicultural Britain and other European countries Muslim families and their internal relations (between men and women and across generations) have become the object of intense public debate, scrutinized from all directions and subject to pressure to change in order to conform to Western liberal, in some respects fundamentally Christian, ways of life. Central in this is the ‘Muslim Woman’, as imagined in various – conflicting – narratives by both Muslims and non-Muslims, and in their lived experience. This concluding chapter reflects on three themes.


First, why Islam, why now? Why, during the current era, have Islam, and specifically Muslim family practices, become so problematic for the governance of diversity? Secondly, what do the debates about those practices, and the attempts to regulate them, tell us about the multiplicity of voices and networks of people and organizations that operate on this terrain? Thirdly, what does all this imply for the ‘negotiated order’ (Grillo 2012a) of British multiculturalism?


Why Islam, Why Now?


Muslims are not the only bêtes noires of British society. Currently there is widely reported antipathy to immigrants from Eastern Europe, notably, though not exclusively, Roma, whose beliefs and practices are likewise a source of increasing conflict with local populations and a matter of public attention, as are the child-rearing customs of some populations of Sub-Saharan African origin. Such concerns about what earlier generations thought of as ‘lesser breeds without the law’ are obviously not new, nor confined to Britain. Researching in France in the 1970s, I found many social workers and others who were deeply critical of the gender and parent-child relations they observed in families of North African background (Grillo 1985). But although such families were Muslim, their conduct was not generally attributed to their religion but rather to their origins in ‘traditional’, ‘backward’, ‘tribal’ societies. Coming straight from the countryside, they were unsuited, it was thought, to living in sophisticated, modern, urban France. No one mentioned ‘liberalism’, or laïcité come to that; their perceptions reflected the mission civilisatrice that ideologically justified French colonial intervention in Africa.


Islam certainly preoccupied febrile British (or French) imagination in the past (‘others’ come and go, and come again), but it was probably not until the late 1980s/early 1990s, perhaps from the Rushdie Affair (1989) onwards, that concerns in Britain shifted from ethnicity, culture and custom to religion as the marker of difference. As one of Jocelyne Cesari’s informants put it ‘I used to be called a “Paki” but now I’m called “Taliban”’ (2013: 56; see also Grillo 2010). Nowadays, antipathy towards Muslims, which may take the form of, or be subsumed within, more general hostility to ‘immigrants’, or multiculturalism or simply persons of colour, is widespread and increasing, and it is worth rehearsing the reasons (see also Bowen 2012b; Göle 2014).


In Why the West Fears Islam (2013) Cesari addresses this question by focusing on three contemporary developments: the crisis of secularism (especially in Western Europe), the impact of globally promoted Salafist Islam and the rise of the ‘securitization paradigm’. Through these combined developments Islam is constituted as an ‘existential threat’ to Western societies which must be challenged through exceptional legal measures. The evidence (and justification) for the perceived threat is political Islamism, or ‘jihad’, as public discourse has it, personified in various periods by the Ayatollahs of Iran, the Taliban of Afghanistan or in mid-2014 the brutal advance of the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria-Iraq. Part and parcel of this is a strict interpretation of Islamic norms and values, with puritanical views on women and gender relations and how people should dress and comport themselves and antipathy towards secularism. Shaykh Haitham al-Haddad’s approach to marriage and divorce (p. 93), and his castigation of those who disagree as kufr, represent, for the West, the incompatible social principles which Islamists seek to impose through violence or subversion (‘creeping Shari’a’).


This fear may be observed in the multitude of reports and legislative measures during the 2000s under both Labour and Coalition governments, from the Cantle Report of 2001, through the PREVENT strategy of the mid-2000s, to the responses to the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, and in 2014 the ‘radicalization’ of young Britons recruited to jihad in Syria. In response to Lee Rigby’s murder the government proposed to extend what had previously been defined as extremism (‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, HM Government 2013: 1) to encompass ‘Islamist extremism’ as ‘a distinct ideology’,


based on a distorted interpretation of Islam, which betrays Islam’s peaceful principles … creating a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us’. They seek to impose a global Islamic state governed by their interpretation of Shari’ah as state law, rejecting liberal values such as democracy, the rule of law and equality. Their ideology also includes the uncompromising belief that people cannot be Muslim and British, and insists that those who do not agree with them are not true Muslims.


Although some warned that this approach carried the danger of stigmatizing Muslims generally,1 it was widely welcomed, with an article in Frontpage magazine claiming that while it did not actually criminalize Islam, by moving against one form of Islamic ideology (with ‘characteristics that Islam overall shares’), it was ‘a base for something much bigger’.2 In his Daily Telegraph blog the Rev. Dr Peter Mullen likewise saw ‘signs of hope’:


… might we at last be beginning to escape the mealy-mouthed world of all that has for long remained unsayable. Perhaps there are, after all, limits to political correctness … The fact is that a resurgent, militant anti-western Islamic fundamentalism is the gravest threat to civilization … the good news … is that finally we are being allowed to name this peril for what it is. Militant fanaticism wherever and whenever it arises has to be resisted and put down. It was defeated at the Battle of Tours in AD 732. At the siege of Malta in 1565. At Lepanto in 1571. It is not so many centuries since the barbarians were at the gates of Vienna. And without our resistance they will soon be there again.3


The idea that Islam(ism) constitutes such a threat to the (British, European, Western) body politic, its social, cultural and religious values and way of life, may be observed in many statements by supporters of the Cox Bill, even though they may not agree on what specifically it threatens. But, as Martijn de Koning (2014) contends, ‘dangerous, dis-integrated and intolerable [Muslims]’ are seen as menacing both liberal-secularist values and the Judeo-Christian heritage, which explains some unlikely alliances. Islamist fantasies, such as that of the Caliphate of the ‘Islamic State’, simply reinforce such perceptions. Against that is the belief that the West is seeking to universalize its corrupt values in a ‘crusade’ against Muslim-majority societies. Consequently, says Cesari (2013: 137), there is a ‘confrontation of two opposite tropes’ or essentialisms, both assuming the worst in each other. Parallels with the Cold War are readily apparent; Margaret Thatcher, it will be recalled, described Islamism as the ‘new Bolshevism’,4 another totalitarian ideology threatening the West’s freedoms (and see Cox and Marks 2006).


Developments in the 1990s–2000s, the heightened salience and attraction of Islam globally, especially fundamentalist versions (Sunni and Shi’ite), ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Central-South Asia, public rhetoric promoting a certain view of those conflicts and above all the shock of 9/11 and what followed, help explain such perceptions. Always in the shadow of these is the widening and deepening of the Muslim family presence (albeit with ongoing ties to places and practices of origin), a growing (re)attachment to faith and public visibility of the Islamic infrastructure (mosques, modes of dress and so on), with increasing claims for the recognition and accommodation of Islamic principles. This encourages the view that Muslims are leading separate, parallel (and transnational) lives in families thought to maintain values (notably in gender relations) at odds with contemporary, liberal values, which are also a breeding ground for extremism.


All this has come together in cascading fashion in the first decade of the twenty-first century at a time of increasing tension and anxiety about what is happening to the traditional nation-state in a globalizing, transnational, neo-liberal ecumene (Grillo 2003), to encourage a contemporary ‘fear of Islam’ (the literal meaning of ‘Islamophobia’), or of the ‘Islamization’ of Europe and North America, which it is believed multiculturalism encourages.5 There has thus emerged a mindset of a ‘Muslim problem’ to be confronted and managed (contained or nullified) on multiple fronts: immigration policy, economic and cultural integration, security, family organization (marriage, gender relations, the upbringing of children), mosques, Shari’a councils and so on. ‘Reforming’ conservative Muslim practices (Birt 2010) and backing institutions supporting British values (Home Office 2011b; Carlile 2011) is thus a key element in policies designed to tackle and encourage integration and discourage radicalization of the young, which in 2014 the mayor of London (Boris Johnson) contended was a form of child abuse.6 This is not to deny that there are issues to be addressed, but the non-Muslim reader is invited to consider the cumulative effect of the multiple interventions on all these fronts from the viewpoint of a devout Muslim.


There is, of course, a long history of the liberal state intervening in family matters, and in the late twentieth century, gender relations, for the best of motives, in the interests of equality and justice. Concerns about the Muslim family which focus on men and women and their real or imagined relationships and how they might be transformed could thus be viewed as a special case within that history. What makes that case distinctive, however, is the way it is caught up in the complex developments described above which have intensified, and seemingly made more urgent, the demand to oblige Muslims to conform to hegemonic practices. Until the mid-2000s, with certain exceptions (notably regarding Imams and madrasas, Birt 2006, 2010; Hart Dyke 2009), successive governments in fact generally refrained from intervening legislatively in minority family matters. But now, with policy driven by ‘existential threat’ and international conventions, as over forced marriages (O’Toole et al. 2013), ‘creeping Shari’a’, is increasingly being met by creeping restrictive legislation.


MILLI: Multiple Voices


A distinctive feature of the public debate about Islam is the range of actors and voices representing different subject positions who are engaged in it – that on criminalizing forced marriages, for example, involved government ministers, MPs and members of the Lords, local councillors, civil servants, the media, the judiciary, the courts, the police, social workers, teachers, lawyers, representative religious bodies, prominent members of minority communities and their associations, minority and majority NGOs, political parties, minority men and women of all ages, novelists, playwrights, film-makers and not least academics (including anthropologists). One consequence is that sometimes groups and individuals with widely different approaches and ideological positions find common ground, and strange coalitions form. For instance, opponents of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006) included PEN, the Evangelical Alliance of the UK, the Democratic Unionist Party of Ulster, the SBS, the Muslim Parliament, the Old Catholic Church of Great Britain, Baroness Cox and the actor Rowan Atkinson, while the government found on its side the Socialist Workers Party, the MCB, the Catholic Association for Racial Justice, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Churches’ Commission for Interfaith Relations (Grillo 2007b). Similarly, while the far-right are active in the ‘anti-burqa’ movement, opponents also include parties of the centre-left and feminist groups, though manifestly not for the same reasons (Grillo and Shah 2013). Other uneasy coalitions bring together Jews and Muslims who face common challenges to halal/kosher food,7 male circumcision, religious councils and sometimes patriarchy.8