Being Muslims and More Besides: Muslim Identities as Complex and Cosmopolitan

By Farish A. Noor ~ April 21st, 2010. Filed under: TOM_Main, The Other Malaysia.

(*Note: I was invited to write a think-piece for an upcoming project and I thought I’d share it with anyone interested)

The past decade has witnessed a period of intense speculation on the subject of Muslim subjectivity; often prompted by reasons that have less to do with academic concerns and more with politics instead. We are back to the question of what is a Muslim subject, and what does Muslim subjectivity imply as far as individual actions in the public domain is concerned. It is not an exaggeration to state that the question of ‘what is being a Muslim’ has been asked more than ever. Why?

A simple answer to the question of why Muslim subjectivity has become a concern for so many is that Muslim identity today has been conflated with a host of other real and imagined agendas and objectives. Across North America and Western Europe in particular we see how the debate over issues of national identity and citizenship has brought forth the symbol of the Muslim subject as the liminal marker that stands on the border of what constitutes the nation. In countries such as Holland, Denmark, France and Switzerland, Europeans seem to be standing on the precipice of making a decision that will – in the long run – determine the heading of Europe and what Europe will come to mean in the future, as they debate the standing and status of European Muslims who may or may not be seen and accepted as part of the European family of nations and as European citizen-subjects.

Meanwhile in many Muslim-majority countries the debate has not been forgotten either, for in almost all postcolonial Muslim societies the same question is asked, albeit framed in slightly different terms: Can Muslims also be citizens of states, and if so which identity is to come first – Muslim identity or national identity couched in terms of a universal citizenship.

That such a question can be asked at all today is hardly a novel development as the challenge of reconciling many – sometimes primordial and essentialised – identities and loyalties has been part and parcel of modern nationalism and the project of modern nation-states from the outset. However this question as it is framed in the terms that it finds itself in today is of equal significance and importance for Muslims as well, wherever they may be, as it points us to a deeper existential and ontological question about Islam, Muslim religiosity and Muslim identity.

So let us identify some working premises: The Muslim citizen-subject is, and has always been, a cosmopolitan figure. Muslims live, work and abide by the laws and customs of the societies they find themselves in and exist in a plethora of contexts, be they in Muslim-minority or Muslim-majority states. However consciousness of being Muslim has grown as a result of the rise of identity politics, which is one mode of political economy that was the result of the advances and development of late industrial capitalism and its attendant phenomena, including globalisation.

In many parts of the world, Muslims exist and occupy several levels of identity at the same time: They are Muslims by faith, yet also defined by their class, gender, ethnic, communal, linguistic and historical background. Millions of Muslims also happen to be migrants who may harbour diverse loyalties and attachments, including loyalties to the new host country as well as nostalgic loyalties to their respective home countries. In their daily lives they also owe loyalties to the corporate/institutional bodies where they work and which employ them.

Yet all of the above are perfectly normal and mundane, everyday considerations that are faced by everyone on this planet. How is a Muslim any more different or unique to his or her non-Muslim neighbour when it comes to paying taxes, worrying about their children’s school fees and exam reports, or deciding where to eat and which movie to watch on the weekend? Amidst the academic and non-academic (or even pseudo-academic) debates over what constitutes Muslim identity, many of us have forgotten the simple fact that Muslims are perfectly ordinary human beings with downright ordinary (even pedestrian and humdrum) concerns like anyone else.

The tendency to render Muslim identity as specific, unique – and by extension different, even alien – however has grown in tandem with much of the over-hyped political discourse about ‘political Islam’ and Muslim political mobilisation. There are two sources that have contributed to this over-speculation and excessive concern over Muslims: The realities of international politics and the geo-strategic concerns of security agencies that now see and present Islam and Muslims as a potential threat to others; and on the other hand Muslims themselves who have taken on board the particularist logic of sectarian communal politics and who have used Islam as the basis for the construction of a communal form of identity politics.

It is to the latter that we will focus our attention here, as we feel that Muslims have more to lose if and when they choose to define their identities solely and primarily on Islam and Muslim identity alone. Simply put, the predicament is as follows: In many Muslim circles today, there has grown the tendency for some Muslims to identify themselves solely as Muslims – as if their normative religious behaviour was the benchmark of their respective individual identities in the most totalised sense, negating or sidelining all other identity-attachments.

This is not a universal phenomenon among all Muslims, but its development among some of the more vocal quarters of the Muslim community is something that has been noted by observers in and outside the community at least. In such instances, the Muslim subject becomes precisely that: A subjectivity that is defined in hyphenated terms with ‘Islam’ as the master signifier that defines all other values and identities. We have all come across instances of young idealistic Muslims who state time and again that they are Muslims first, and that all other identity-concerns come second.

Yet the problems that this poses are dual: Firstly if and when anyone locates the basis of his/her identity solely and primarily on any particular attachment – be it to religion, ethnicity, race or even nation – then it would be assumed that that primary attachment informs and determines all that he or she does, down to the most mundane level of everyday activity. This poses a logical problem for scholars at least, who fail to see how the most mundane of daily life-choices like parking your car, ordering a cheeseburger or watching a DVD can be determined (in a totally deterministic manner) by one primary identity-attachment. It also means that if we were to accept such claims at face value then the subject is left with no room for contingency, random choices or even free will, as all thought and action have become entirely determined by one identity-attachment solely. Cynics of such claims worry that in making such a claim the subject is surrendering all autonomy, independence and free will to a belief-system (be it religious or even secular) that henceforth takes over the subject like an autopilot. If and when such claims are made by Muslims, it has the added negative effect of reinforcing the negative prejudice against Islam that poses Islam as a totalising system that leaves no room for the individual’s conscience and rational agency.

The second problem with taking such a position is of a practical nature, and has to do with our concern about the negative stereotyping of Islam as an all-pervasive totalising system, which we have alluded to above. If and when we come across Muslim political actors and agents who articulate their politics in terms of a vocabulary of absolutes, and who then claim to speak as Muslim enunciators speaking of the religion and on behalf of the entire religion and its faith community, then our worries are compounded. Instances of this are abundant: Militants who kill do so in the name of the faith they profess, while conservative Imams and Mullahs may make irrational and/or downright faulty and false statements while speaking from the subject-position of Muslim enunciators speaking for Islam. Thus when an Iranian Mullah opines that earthquakes are caused by scantily-clad women behaving badly, the falseness (and downright irrationality) of that claim is attributed not only to the individual Mullah, but sadly to Islam as well – for the simple reason that the Mullah has claimed to be speaking on behalf of the faith he professes.

Here lies our concern with the privileging of one singular identity as the basis of subjectivity, regardless of whether that identity is a religious, ethnic, racial or cultural one: It denies the reality that we are all complex composite subjectivities who are the amalgamated assembly of many loyalties and attachments. But if and when Muslim identity is seen and presented as the one and only base to our individual subjectivities, then everything that we say, do, think (or do not do) is pinned on Islam too. Thus let us ask ourselves these simple questions: If and when a Muslim double-parks, is that the fault of the driver or Islam? If and when a Muslim fails to file in his tax forms on time, is that the fault of the individual or his entire religion and belief-system? Surely a commonsensical reply to these questions would be to rescue Islam from the responsibility of being a totalising all-encompassing factor that determines the behaviour of subjects in a totalised, maximalist manner.

It is for this reason that talk of identity and identity politics today has to be tempered by realistic and logical considerations about human subjectivities and how we live in the ordinary way. Identity politics – be it in the name of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or any religion, ethnicity, language or culture for that matter – has the tendency to foreground one particular identity attachment at the expense of others; but this also has the effect of narrowing down the horizons of our subjectivities and perhaps also limiting the range of logical possibilities of our actions and behaviour. Islam as a way of life does not and need not be understood in terms of an identity straight-jacket that shapes Muslim subjectivities in such a closed and enforced manner; and Muslim subjects are not like Bonsai trees that are constrained by moral wires and ethical bonds so tight as to deny contingency, complexity and cosmopolitan multiple attachments to other things as well. Being a Muslim should not impoverish Muslim subjects, but this also entails accepting the mundane fact that Muslims are Muslims, but also something more.

7 Responses to Being Muslims and More Besides: Muslim Identities as Complex and Cosmopolitan

  1. Gram Massla

    First, thanks for throwing us some red meat. We were being starved.
    Second this discussson would have no traction were the subject Christians or even other religious groups. More or less they have been relegated to the sidelines. So why Islam and Muslims? As weltanschaaung goes only Islam challenges the Western perspective and current narrative. Like it or not this is a fact.
    Westerners may feel smug about the superiorty of their rationality but their numbers are dropping. Oops! Something is wrong. The so-called Islamic problem in Europe is due to the fact that they cannot replenish themselves. They should sit up and question why.
    Islam is the only religion that retains its weltanschaaung; nontheless I wouldn’t like to live in an islamic state. Such are the contradictions of life.

  2. clk

    Without going into the academic field in detailed, I can only give my views from a layman perspective.

    If one were to wind back the clock a few centuries ago, the same challenges facing the muslim community in a predominant Western culture were the same being faced by the less fundamental christians in the then Christian Western society then. One could just imagine an unmarried christian to-be-mother facing up to society much the same as an unmarried muslim to-be-mother facing up to society in Malaysia or any other muslim nation in the middle-east.

    The other issue facing the Islamic world today is partly due to the fact that the media of this world is nearly dominated by the West and hence Islam-phobia gets a wider coverage.

    Did anyone read about the debate over ethics vs scripture classes in the Australian school system? How much media coverage does Christophen Hitchens or Richard Dawkins gets compared to their equivalent (if any) in the muslim world in a media dominated by the Western perspective?

    Why doesn’t Islam have any opposite view apart from the view they are currently potrayed? If it does have, why is this opposing view silent?

  3. IHD

    When I read this post, what strucked in my my mind is “this is what happening to the muslim or so called malay community in specific”. And to say it outloud may get you in trouble just because I am also a malay. It is hard to explain when I see people who potray to be a good muslim and when at work still play office politics and perhaps not following the islamic way in total. Well since this is my own opinion, I do accept my perception maybe due to my own filters. But I think, it is good to know that even to be a muslim , I am still an individual who has my own identity who will not be stucked with just 1 label. And this doesn’t mean I am weird but perhaps a minority in my own circle. But it is better than be a majority just because we need to fit in.. Thank you for highlighting.

  4. Fess

    Gram Massla rest assured Europe’s so called Islamic problem has little or nothing to do with falling numbers of european natives in Europe. When it comes to issues of residency Europe can, and probably will, favour those from among the hundreds of millions of non Muslims whose alternative “weltanschaaung” can coexist happily alongside ours.

    Europe is fast getting beyond the post colonial guilt phase and entering into different one. A phase less likely to favour the importation of populations hostile to the host culture and way of life and more likely to favour people from non islamic backgrounds. It isn’t about being nasty to Muslims or being unfriendly it’s about self preservation and Europeans for all their faults are not, despite what some may think, suicidal.

    Your argument is an amusing one though, amounting as it does to admitting that the rationality “crown” belongs to the west but hey, look at the Muslims, we have more kids. Brilliant, just brilliant.

  5. Zainal Ajamain

    IHD, a friend of mine did an analysis a while back on this issue, he is arguing on the teaching approach of the religion itself. He believes this differentiate the Malays in Malaya and the Malays in Sabah. As the result, it influence their outlook and decisions they made. His papers can be found here:

  6. normareza

    perhaps a more simple (or simplistic?) view on this is: i am a muslim first in the sense that in any given situation, i would base my decision/choice on islamic values and ideals first before any other consideration.Be that as it may, i would be particularly wary (and on my guard) of anything and anybody that uses “Islam” in its name - a label does not automatically make you genuine, much like being a muslim does not automatically make you a good person…

  7. Capt

    ,,,just dont confuse religion with common sense would be my humble advise to all.

    ,,,stop blaming too, ask oneself first ?…what can or have i contributed to add value on subject issue or is it a non-issue ?.

    ,,,be genuine be realistic be honest…….just be your goodself ?. Makes a better world too.

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