Postcard from Birmingham: islam and ethnicity in everyday life

Right now Im making a trip in the UK, visiting London, Birmingham, Leicester and Manchester. The aim of this trip is twofold. Firstly, tying up some loose ends for my Salafism research. I am mainly interested in the lives of Salafi men and women, regardless their ethnic background, who migrated from the Netherlands to the UK. Some of them see this as a mode of doing hijra (lit. migration); migrating to an Islamic country. Certainly Birmingham is seen, in some Salafi circles, as a city where Muslims can practice their faith without almost any restrictions and without much prejudice and racism against Muslims.

Secondly, I’m planning to do new comparative research focusing on activism among Muslims (not only Salafi) in the UK and the Netherlands. It focuses on the various and multiple positions Muslims have taken up with respect to contested public events and conflicts in terms of Muslim activism. So far little is known about how such conflicts involving Islam are discussed among Muslims, let alone how they affect the level of lived experience. While the public, and hence easily accessible, dimension of these conflicts is important, we need to understand and investigate both how Muslims conceptualize and understand freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as well as the practices and processes of turning grievances and claims into public issues. Focusing on different modalities of Muslim activism, we understand Muslim activism as producing forms of social and political mobilisation aimed at contesting the exclusion of Islam from the public domain and of claiming a Muslim voice. Activism is a way for people to express their moral visions for themselves and on behalf of what they view as the common good, mobilizing others to share these moral visions.

Whereas much work on a Muslim public presence oscillates between a focus on highly radical/orthodox or very liberal Muslims, this research project engages with a far broader range of positions. It recognizes that religion needs to be taken seriously, but cannot be assumed to structure Muslims‘ engagement with the public completely. Starting from the concept of multiple positionalities that may well be ambiguous, ambivalent and at times contradictory, it also takes other aspects of people‘s everyday life serious. This then raises the question under which conditions Muslims engage in higher profile forms of public participation.

My trip to England is therefore intented to learn about the practices and experience of Salafi Muslim men and women in the UK after they migrated there from the Netherlands and to explore the field and getting to know new people for possibly future research. I will be staying in Birmingham most of the time, more in particular in the Small Heath area, known for its large share of migrants: Somalians and Asians and also as the headquarters for one of the Salafi branches in Europe: Salafipublications.

In both researches the realm of the every day life is very important. This makes research among Dutch Muslim migrants in the UK so interesting. It is in particular Salafi islam, in which it is emphasized that Islam is significant for all spheres of life, have the risk of reifying ‘Islam’ as the principal identity for Muslims and making Muslims ‘all about Islam’. A focus on the everyday life identity politics of Salafi Muslims in the Netherlands, brings about a more ambiguous and ambivalent interplay between local and transnational politics and between overcommunication and undercommunication of religious identity and ethnic identity. Many studies on European Muslims taking up the idea of Islam as a primary identity marker, are influenced by some sort of ‘groupism’ in which, for example, Salafi Muslims by definition are seen as upholding Muslim as a primary identity and rejecting ethnic identities because that is what being Salafi Muslim is all about. ‘Groupist’ readings take the existence of groups in society for granted and neglect that ethnicity and other types of social identities are part and parcel of processes of categorization and identification (Brubakers, Jenkins). Groupism is, following Brubaker, ’ the tendency to treat ethnic groups, nations and races as substantial entities to which interests and agency can be attributed.’ It conflates social categories with groups and groups with organizations that appear to speak on their behalf. In research this would mean ignoring how ethnicity works (as in how people attach particular meanings to social relationships) in daily life.

An approach that starts from the everyday life experiences of people in the case of the Salafi movement, means that I start with, following Ammerman’s writing on everyday religion, the experiences of nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas or as political entrepeneurs. The official discourses are important of course, but only when they are used by the people themselves. Everyday also means activities outside religious institutions or movements according to Ammerman but without exluding those institutions and movements all together. Everyday ethnicity and religion can be related to mundane activities but also with crisis and special events. It means that we look as to how religion and ethnicity are interwoven with the lives of people we observe. In the case of ethnic and religious identity it means what Brubakers and others called the politics of categorization: how categories are proposed, propagated, imposed and articulated top down and how at a grass roots level they are appropriated, internalized, subverted, evaded or how transformed. It means to look at how, why and when particular social categories emerge or not, how these categories are used to mobilize people, how the provide people with a sense of belonging and self-understanding, and how they are used to communicate differences and similarities and so on. Or in other words, how religion and ethnicity make sense in daily life.

A focus on how ethnicity and religion make sense, or not, in daily lives of people, shows a more ambiguous side of the identity politics in which both overcommunication and undercommunication of ethnic identity and religious identity appear at the same time, where categories that are dominant at the national level are trickling down in daily interactions, get appropriated, transformed and subverted. Instead of being a game of one identity replacing the other, or coexisting hybrid identities, strong over- and under-communication is also part of identity negotiations.

A new postcard is due on Tuesday or Wednesday.

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