Interview: Jordan Peterson, White Supremacy, and the Perils of Engagement
Transcript of an interview with Muhammad Jalal of the “Thinking Muslim Podcast”, Episode 73, July 2022 (may vary slightly from the recording in places).
The original podcast can be found here: “Jordan Peterson, White Supremacy and the Perils of Engagement”, Thinking Muslim Podcast, Episode 73, July 2022.
The article upon which the podcast is based is here. Y. Birt, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Convert Leaders in the West and the New Ethno-Nationalism”, The Long View (London), 4/3, July 2022, pp.3–6. The pdf version is here. The interview below expands on some of the issues in the article, so it is better to read the article first of all.
Further background is my interview with Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad back in 2020 about his book, Travelling Home, where I first expressed these reservations in direct engagement with him.
MJ: You very eloquently and persuasively argue that there is a white nativist undercurrent developing in the west and Muslims, particularly white converts are not immune to its extremes. Can you please spell out for our listeners what white nativism is first of all — because many deny its significance.
YB: What is white nativism? Emotionally, it is a fear of demographic change that will fuel “the great replacement” of white culture by black or brown cultures that are seen as intellectually and morally inferior. White nativist ideology tends to provide whites with a way to legitimise a shared past and national identity that ignores or minimizes its history of colonialism, slavery, and racial violence and discrimination. It is also used to overcome class antagonisms among whites and replaces them with racial antagonisms instead.
Whiteness itself is a malleable legal and political category, to give the historical example of Anglo-American Whiteness. At one point, it was exclusively Anglo-Saxon but it broadened over time to include Nordic and Germanic peoples, the Irish, the Mediterranean Europeans (the Italians, the Spanish, the Greeks), and at the moment, it is being extended to Ukrainians. Yet, at earlier points of history, these white people were stigmatised as foreigners and as inferior in ways similar to the racialisation of brown and black peoples.
At the heart of contemporary white nativism sits Great Replacement theory, which came out of France a decade ago, which has now gone global and has been found for instance of the manifestos written by Christchurch mosque attacker or heard in the chants of the Alt-Right at the Charlottesville rally.
In Europe, it has become increasingly mainstream with tightening immigration and refugee controls, and two-tier citizenship especially after what was described as the Syrian refugee crisis (contrast the recent warm reception of Ukrainian refugees). If anything defines white nativism, it is this recourse to law to formally exclude non-whites. In Britain now, citizenship for non-white Britons is being chipped away at, as the Windrush scandal and the stripping of Shamima Begum’s citizenship show.
It has developed a youth movement wing, especially among young men, the Identitarian Movement in Europe, and the Alt-Right in North America. It is manifested in the right-wing populism in recent years of Trump and Johnson, in the Brexit vote, in the emergence of quasi-fascist figures like Viktor Orbán in Hungary. It is instituted in the wide range of powers that Western governments now use in the surveillance and securitization of Muslim communities, turning them into suspect communities, seen as a threat or danger.
So, I don’t see how it is possible — empirically speaking — to deny the significance of these developments.
MJ: Is white nativism just a political tool created by the left?
YB: I guess this is what I would describe as a Daily Mail or Fox News talking point. It’s not really worth answering that question. Every serious Muslim intellectual or activist is acutely aware of the lurch to the right because in the West they have been the canaries in the coalmine as far as this rising nationalism is concerned. Muslims have been the internal and external enemies of this ethno-nationalist project, particularly since 9/11. Unless we are going to put our heads in the sand, I don’t think that’s a credible argument.
MJ: I want to come to your central argument about what you see to be your responsibility as a white convert, but it seems to me you are very uneasy about some Muslim public intellectuals and their close proximity to this trend. Who are we talking about here and what makes you uneasy?
YB: Let me say first of all that, in the essay, I take care to say this is a general issue, not a convert-only issue. In other words, the appeal of white nativism is quite widespread now among second- and third-generation Muslim men in the West, in particular, of different ethnic backgrounds.
It seems to me that the real problem is our confusion about the relationship of religious orthodoxy to cultural change. Islam is a universal message, and so all cultures come within its purview, and our cultural and other differences are a sign of God’s creative power and a means by which we recognise each other’s humanity through ta‘arruf (mutual recognition). So in our context what does that mean? It means a couple of things, that no one should have to give up their culture per se to become an orthodox Muslim, although certain practices or customs may not be in harmony with Islamic principles. But certainly conversion to Islam should not mean deculturation or adoption of another culture. Equally, migrants should not be expected to assimilate and give up their cultures entirely to belong. They have cultural rights to maintain and pass on their history, language, culture, and Islamicate values to their children even in a foreign land. Practically, they will be bicultural in that they will be able to navigate the public and private spheres. Also, cultures are obviously never bounded, so there will be integration and creativity and mixing over time, but what I am objecting to specifically here is the nativist assumption that immigrants or refugees must assimilate. That is a nationalist demand, and it is a nativist demand.
The confusion over culture and religion is apparent in a number of ways. First is the contention that the first migrants had cultural Islam whereas their children were rediscovering pristine deculturated Islam, which is a myth. Actually, they were reculturing their relationship to Islam in their own hybrid terms. Second, among white converts in particular, there has been a tendency over decades (one tendency among others) to do the same, that is to claim that they have converted to pristine, classical Islam while the immigrants are trapped in forms of cultural Islam. By this move they claim undue authority in the question of how a new culture fits into a universal tradition. And they deny the struggles and sacrifices of the pioneer generations who came to the West. Simply to say they migrated for worldly reasons alone, to completely leave out consideration of the colonial context out of which they came, the racist rejection, violence and discrimination they endured, is a travesty of history. A viable multi-ethnic, multicultural Muslim community cannot ride roughshod over each other’s histories in this way. We should be compassionate, careful, and good listeners and willing to be open to the experiences of others. It is through understanding and acceptance that we will come together as a community over time.
With all that said, I would observe that some key convert leaders act as conduits who provide legitimacy towards some figures attached to white nativism or we could say they soften up resistance to some of its ideas. This is true even if they decisively reject a lot of what white nativism is about at the same time.
So, in the Anglophone Islamic world of the West, the two key figures here are Sheikh Hamza Yusuf in America and Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad in the UK, as they have the most credibility and are the most mainstream. There are converts who are much more extreme, who advocate whites-only marriage and openly support forms of white ethno-centrism but they are also thankfully more marginal.
What makes me uneasy, more so in the case with Hamza Yusuf, is that his engagements with populist recruiters for the radical right like Peterson or an intellectual leader of it like the late Sir Roger Scruton who died in 2020 provide no intellectual challenge on either their own track record of Islamophobia or their uncritical boosting of Islamophobes like Douglas Murray or Ayaan Hirsi Ali who are advocating for direct discrimination against Muslims in the West, whom they paint as an enemy within.
But more so as I would say working directly with the Trump presidency on the Committee of Unalienable Rights, which essentially wanted to take the culture wars into US constitutional law. This necessitated taking a back seat on all the other things Trump was doing during his tenure, like his Muslim travel ban, his cruel separation of migrant children from parents at the southern border, and including his support for an insurrectionist attempt to take over the Capitol once he had lost the election in 2020. Trump was no ordinary president but was in my estimation the opportunistic face of a white nationalist insurgency. He is the only American president to have been impeached twice. He was not someone in whose administration a respected religious leader should serve.
MJ: But what is wrong with da‘wa and outreach? I did watch the Hamza Yusuf and Jordan Peterson interview and, yes, I did find it generally to be lacking clarity and challenge — but I suppose we meet and engage with non-Muslims all the time and if they can reach people in positions of influence then in a sense this is emulating the Prophetic Sunnah? The Messenger met with the leaders of Quraysh and the tribal chiefs around Makkah — even his meeting at Taif led to what some may argue was a humiliating outcome.
YB: This was not a private chat. This was a staged event with tens of thousands of viewers. I’m quite sure on both sides it was a strategic decision and not an ad hoc one. The approach taken was a soft one, which allowed Peterson to set the agenda and offered no challenge, and did this knowing that it would be read by Peterson’s numerous Muslim followers as validation and affirmation of all his content. But as I said before he has promoted some of the most notorious Islamophobes in the Anglophone cultural sphere today. That cannot be left aside for any reason.
Da‘wa is often used as a catch-all rationale for all kinds of outreach and interaction with non-Muslims. I suggest we merely tread with caution here before labelling all interactions willy-nilly in this way. Given the whole approach of Hamza Yusuf since 2001 but especially in the years after the Arab Spring has been to get closer to the Republicans. It is mostly a political exercise not one of da‘wa per se.
MJ: Tell me about Jordan Peterson, his thinking and ideology — you say he is one iteration of this white nativism?
YB: I am not an expert on Peterson in the sense that I have not made a thorough study of his output to an academic standard. That said, I have followed his career and his influence on Muslim men from a distance since he came to prominence. There is the separate question of the gender dynamics at play here in his appeal to men to become real men as he defines it. This clearly chimes with Muslim men, but I am going to pass over that matter here, not because it is unimportant, but because I want to look into it further before commenting in writing or in engagements like this.
My piece was written and had gone to press before Peterson’s latest Message to Muslims. It was received badly by nearly all Muslims, and even some of those who had previously looked up to him, repented and left following him.
We just need to ask what is the point of da‘wa to a person who thinks Muslims are barbarians, who are always in-fighting and who must make peace with the country that is colonizing a Muslim land and dispossessing its people? At least, not without grappling with this directly? As Khaled Abou El Fadl reminds us, if you want to hear the echo of the dehumanizing language that Israel uses about Palestinians you find the same language in American history and its discourse about its ethnically cleansed indigenous peoples. The same talk of peace while breaking promises and dispossessing them of land and killing them indiscriminately while calling them barbarians, and asserting the superiority of the West. The same language of settler colonialism. The same language that Peterson used unabashedly in his Message to Muslims.
As for his place within white nativism, I see Peterson as the gateway drug to its harder forms to those who call for direct discrimination against Muslims in the West, who champion Islamophobia, and who sanction wars and bombing against Muslims abroad. He soft sells this political agenda through personal morality issues that chime with orthodox Muslim men.
MJ: In your article you talk about the Dutch MP Joram Van Klaveren, former colleague of Islam hater Geert Wilders and member of his right-wing PVV — at the hands of Abdal Hakim Murad. I remember some Muslims at the time hailing this as an ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab moment, and you can see why. Isn’t this a victory for engagement with the right wing?
YB: Of course I happy that someone has embraced Islam. How could I not be? To feel that way is related to having faith itself. So let’s leave that to one side.
What I would question is the logic that allows one to say that this is an instance of ‘Umari conversion, that someone who is hostile to Islam, who is a doughty enemy to Muslims, converts and becomes their doughtiest protector and later one of their greatest leaders.
In researching this article I talked to a number of Muslim activists and intellectuals in Holland about the conversion and its impact. My research drew two conclusions:
· Van Klaveren’s public record (and I am happy to be corrected on this score) on immigration and refugee policies post-conversion is mixed. On immigration, he said he left the PVV because it had become too hard-line, but in another interview, he indicated that refugees should not be brought to Europe but kept in their regions of origin. He is also a fan of Abdal Hakim Murad’s Travelling Home, which I criticize in my essay for promoting the white nativist demand that migrants assimilate and blaming them and their children for creating their own problems in a way runs counter to the spirit of cultural recognition in Surat al-Hujurat.
· Van Klaveren is being lauded abroad in America and Britain and (so I am told) being funded by money from the Gulf for his da‘wa project, but within Holland itself he still seen to have few connections to a largely working-class Muslim community and its immediate concerns around structural Islamophobia and racism. He sits precisely nowhere in that struggle, unsurprisingly so, given his background. He remains a cultural conservative by conviction. So I do not see in this a doughty defence of a beleaguered Muslim community, as Umar was to the early Muslims to Makkah.
MJ: If we were to look at both Hamza Yusuf and Abdal Hakim Murad — they are part of broader grassroots seminaries and institutes that are culturally and ethnically diverse, the Cambridge Mosque strikes me to be a project that involves all Muslims — how much do you think their individual mindsets reflect this cultural and ethnic superiority or can we be charitable and say at most they may be acting naively when engaging with Jordan Peterson and Roger Scruton?
YB: I agree that Zaytuna and the Cambridge Muslim College are inclusive institutions, not just culturally but also ideologically. I should have made that point clearer about Zaytuna in the essay as I did for the CMC, which was an error. My view is that this political and cultural outreach to the white nativist radical right undermines the ethos of these institutions, so, given that they are the heads of these admirable educational initiatives and are the primary founding figures, they are tied up with the branding of the two colleges.
So I think ultimately that is a question for them, not for me. They may think the risk can be defrayed but as an outside observer that is not my assessment. But as I have been arguing the risks go much wider than managing the reputation of two Islamic colleges in the West.
MJ: I may be reading too much into your article, but do you think some white Muslim converts look upon non-white Muslim cultures with a level of disdain?
YB: Yes, I think the matter is subtler than you suggest. I am going to speak about the neo-traditionalist movement as it is the one I know best as an insider, but this is not to suggest this phenomenon does not exist in other movements.
So, within neo-traditionalism, there is a hierarchy of non-white traditional Muslim cultures that it views as having been least adversely affected by Western modernity. There is a romance, if you like, of the authentic sage of the East who imparts timeless, undisturbed tradition, accessed by an accomplished translator who is only a simple mediator of it to the Anglophone West. The translator is positioned as someone who has no agency, no interpretive power or political agency, but is merely like a relay station changing Morse code into Latin characters. I think we should not be so naïve, as translation is always an interpretive and hence political act.
To return to your question, the top tier lies reflects the educational histories of the neo-traditionalism’s main figures in the West, so the former Ottoman world, the Maghreb, the Yemen, Egypt and Syria. As a result, there was a lack of engagement with forms of traditional Sunnism in other places, most significantly South Asia. So there has been disparagement of South Asian Muslim cultures and Islamic scholarship as well as appreciation and pragmatic engagement (it is a mixed picture). But let us say that neo-traditionalism, like Salafism or Deobandism to a lesser degree did, provided a space for second-generation South Asian Muslims to dispute with their parents’ so-called “cultural Islam” in favour of authentic, deculturated Islam, carried largely by Arab neo-traditionalists and their Western translators.
What I am saying is that we have to put this myth of deculturated Islam, an Islam without culture, to bed. It has outstayed its welcome, as its consequences have been divisive in my view. Instead what we need is to see ta‘arruf as an invitation to have a healthy, creative relationship between our faith and our culture, and we should recognise the same for others. We should be thankful for this sign of Allah’s creative power and in our context we can only do so if we forge a commitment to anti-racism and to a cosmopolitan outlook, culturally speaking. This is happening anyway in our habits of cultural consumption anyway, but I suggest we deepen this as a spiritual and ethical practice.
MJ: Isn’t it the case that sometimes cultures do get in the way of this anti-racism call? You are a white convert; you live in Bradford. I had a friend who is a white convert who moved to London and he partly did so because he felt he was never accepted by some parts of the Muslim community, because racism was quite rife in South Asian cultures and there was a reluctance to embrace him as part of the community. Fair enough, we cannot deculturalise Islam, but isn’t there a need to tackle these ideas and habits that have become part of our cultural make-up?
YB: Well, I think that’s right. Anti-racism is a self-critical practice, first and foremost. Like any form of self-examination (muhasaba), anti-racism is a spiritual Islamic practice — you should start with yourself, and that means examining our own attitudes. Since the Black Lives Matter global protests, I’ve seen much more reflection and energy among British Muslims of South Asian heritage about addressing anti-blackness in their communities. There’s a lot more movement on this now, and for decades it was a dismal picture. I see signs that this self-critique is already in play, … and we should welcome that.
Everyone needs to do their homework, whether it’s white converts or second-generation Desis or whoever it is. We all have to do ethical homework on ourselves. … But anti-racism is about structural injustice as well not just personal ethical practice.
MH: I grew up experiencing the 1990s Muslim university scene [in Britain] and I suppose this disdain for the cultures of our parents was shared by many Muslims — indeed many expressions of Islam called for what you call ‘deculturated Islam’. In a sense aren’t white converts inheritors of this project, as many do not fit into Muslim community life. [This question wasn’t asked in the interview itself, but was asked in advance]
YB: I have already touched on this already in my answer to the previous question.
Let me add another consideration here. We have talked a little bit about the politics, poetics, and perils of claiming deculturated Islam. Let me say something more about reculturated Islam. We have to stop masking the creative and agonistic dimensions of our reculturation as Westernized Muslims. This is a much touchier subject than even deculturation. I say this because we mask the process of reculturation entirely through the language of deculturation and authenticity.
But a mature discussion would be much more open and honest about the reinterpretation and adaptation that is going on in all circles, including the neo-traditionalist trend. We are beginning to see a few early signs of this, so let me give an example.
The commodification of Islam, or turning the Dīn into a consumer product, a lifestyle choice. In a neoliberal society that is highly individualised, collective forms of piety are downgraded and everything is freighted on individual choice and autonomy in the market, in culture, in society and in politics. This neoliberal outlook has permeated all of middle-class Muslim religious revivalism in the West. It has led to a focus on inner piety and ritual performance with political quietism while the Ummah burns. It has not led to the cultivation of the self but the cultivation of selfishness. Do we have nothing to say about this? With our beautiful bespoke kūfīs, tasbīhs, elegant hardback awrād and mawlid books, all beyond the price or everyday concerns of your average working-class Muslim? Are we to stay silent out of respect for our teachers when some of them push openly for normalisation with Israel with no peace or security or dignity for the Palestinians? Are we to say nothing when they speak of peace but ignore wars waged on other Muslim countries or political prisoners including ulama tortured in the jails of their state sponsors? That would apparently be bad manners. Yet, where has our uncritical reculturation left us? I would suggest that it has left us in a moral mess, where we know the price of everything but not its value.
But I do see in neo-traditionalist circles as well the stirrings of a push-back against its elitist tendencies in the West. Maybe zuhd and deeply Green alternatives, righteous activism, and service to humanity could be recentred.
MH: Now the aforementioned Muslim public intellectuals have often been characterised as ‘neo-traditionalists’ — the inheritors of a pure Sunni tradition that revives usul al-fiqh, scholarship and Sufi mysticism. I think you make an interesting point that they equally are a response to Salafism but also by the ethos of Syrian ‘survivalist political quietism’ — what is quietism and why is it problematic in your eyes when considering Islam’s take on justice.
YB: Put simply, it is the politics of survivalism in the autocratic postcolonial state transplanted uncritically into an entirely different context, the secular, democratic one of the West where we have considerable political freedoms, where, despite the pressures on us, we may yet thrive. Yet the neo-traditionalist argument is that we should suffer in silence or stand aside from great causes of injustice in our times. But we should not be naïve. States like the UAE are actively trying to undermine democratically elected Muslims in the West, and are working with the Israelis to undermine Muslim activism that is critical of undemocratic state power in the Middle East and the dispossession of the Palestinian people. This is freighted on to a theological argument between neo-traditionalism and Salafism, whether in its own quietest or activist manifestations. After the Arab Spring, the counter-revolution led by the Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms, as well as the secular Arab republics, with their in-house ulama have developed a political theology of abject submission to arbitrary state power with no civil society freedoms of any sort. Here Madkhali Salafism and Neo-traditionalist Islam have converged. So, to be precise, the quietism is for the Muslim masses, who must put up with gross injustices as a spiritual practice to bear patiently with tribulations, while political activism is outsourced to state-aligned ulama on behalf of the political authority, whose task is to keep the masses quiescent. I note that Abdal Hakim Murad has thankfully dissented from this curated form of state Islam but in a muted rather than a forceful way, which is what is really needed here.
MJ: Are you asking for too much when you require that all scholars should have very strong political positions on all issues?
YB: No, if you broach the issue, if you talk about the state control of Islam you have to do it in a clear way, that’s all I’m saying. As Abdal Hakim Murad has raised the issue himself, I feel it has to be done clearly.
Not all ulama have to speak out: some can stay away from politics and remain focused on education and tarbiya. That’s perfectly valid and part of Sunni Islam, but there have to some who speak out.
MH: We are considered a minority in the west with little political voice, so, in a sense, even if migrant Muslims are frankly lifted by white converts that take a lead, maybe that reflects our own insecurities and possibly even our sense of inferiority — I have come across many, even children of migrants, who say da‘wa in the west would be more effective if conducted by indigenous white Muslims. Is this wrong?
YB: The joy of seeing someone convert to Islam comes from faith. I’m not one to deny that joy, pleasure and gratitude. And contextual cultural knowledge is important to da‘wa, of course. The prophets were sent to their own peoples. But as time goes on, and the percentage of British-born Muslims grows, this will no longer be a relevant point.
I do think separate work has to be done to address these insecurities. But perhaps that is not really my place. All I will say is that colonialism poisoned the well in the relationships between white peoples and non-white peoples, between the colonizers and the colonized, in profound ways that stretch deeply into our times today. There is much to unlearn, but perhaps we could do it together? If I need to dismantle the idol of white supremacy, maybe a desi could work on dismantling the Brown Sahib? Popularized by the Sri Lankan political exile Tarzie Vittachi (d.1963), who wrote a book about it, the brown sahib was a desi who preferred English culture and customs and looked down on those of the East. It has fallen out of use but perhaps we could revive it for critical, even playful, purposes. There is no reason why reculturation has to be dour and agonistic, as it can also be done with a sense of humour.
Finally, da‘wa is a general calling, and so ultimately it cannot be subcontracted. That said, converts should and could do more. I admonish myself firstly for my own deficits here.
MH: I think you make a deeper point about Islam and justice in your article, can you expand on this? How important is anti-racism and challenging for example western foreign policy when it comes to dawah in the west?
YB: I would make a simple point about da‘wa here. There is a popular argument made nowadays that da‘wa should firstly be theological in nature and that it should be divorced from ethics. The argument is predicated on the sequential nature of the Quran’s revelation over 23 years. The early focus was on faith, on establishing belief in monotheism, in God’s judgement in the Afterlife.
This is incontestable in one sense. But it is misleading in another. I would ask anyone to show to me that the Makkan period describes a circumstance in which monotheism is divorced from ethical principles. I can’t see it. Justice was always at the cornerstone of the call to Islam. The Prophet invited people of all backgrounds to Islam, including those from the margins of that chauvinistic, tribal society. The Qurayshite sense of tribal superiority was never indulged: to the contrary, all believers stood equally in front of One God, all would be judged on their conduct in the world. This is all of a piece of course with the neoliberalised Islam that we now see, which prefers personal spiritual comfort over a struggle for justice and rights.
This leads me on to anti-racism. I can’t see how Muslims cannot be anti-racists. Our theology teaches that piety is the distinction of merit in God’s eyes and nothing else, not culture, nation, skin-colour, class, wealth, etc. So it seems to me we are enjoined to uphold that principle in any society in which we form a part, whether as a minority or a majority. Obviously, we need to address internal prejudices among Muslims too, such as anti-blackness as well as white nativism among white converts and others.
A final point that I touch on in the essay. I think we need to work towards Anti-Racism 2.0 by which I mean one that is post-secular and that allows space for Muslim agency and distinctiveness. The reason why I say this is that Western anti-racism movements largely came out of the secular left, which has traditionally been uncomfortable with religious communities. In Britain, it was suspicious or lukewarm about Islamophobia and has often been obstructive to its furtherance as a policy agenda. But there is a new post-9/11 generation that grew up with structural Islamophobia through the War on Terrorism as a political fact.
So part of this work towards Anti-Racism 2.0 would include deepening the story of race-making in European history. The focus has been upon telling the story of race from the early modern period through colonialism and Transatlantic chattel slavery to its pseudo-scientific forms in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Recent work, however, has done more to push the story of race-making back into medieval Christendom, where it is much more wrapped up with religious intolerance, so the relations between the Curse of Ham, Adam’s cursed black son, and later skin-colour racism, the Blood Libel and antisemitism, and the Ishmaelite Saracen and Orientalism/Islamophobia. This deepened story would hopefully enable connections between racism as it manifests in stigmatisation between cultural and civilizational and not just phenotypical or bodily differences. I should note the pioneering work of the decolonial intellectual Syed Mustafa Ali of the Open University in this regard. A lot more attention should be paid to his work in this matter.
MH: Tell me about the contrast your draw between the forgotten earlier figures of Ivan “Abd al-Hadi” Aguéli (1869‒1917) and Lord “Al-Faruq” Headley (1855‒1935) — two early converts to Islam.
YB: One of the reasons why I’m interested in the early history of conversion to Islam in Britain is that I want to see what converts did in earlier times, what choices were open to them, and what choices they actually made, because otherwise we could end up thinking that Islam requires us to make a particular choice in this particular moment, whereas that was never the case: they were always making different choices and trying to justify them Islamically. I use these examples to reflect on my own choices critically, and that’s why I do it.
During the high noon of European colonialism, similar questions of political loyalties dogged converts of the day too. But even back then, different choices were available. Consider the nearly forgotten earlier figures of Ivan “Abd al-Hadi” Aguéli (1869‒1917) and Lord “Al-Faruq” Headley (1855‒1935). A noted Swedish painter, Aguéli moved in avant-garde circles in Paris and became an anarchist. In 1900, he fired a revolver to stop the introduction of Spanish bullfighting (where the animal is killed at the end) into France, a direct action that proved successful. Converting in around 1900, he was initiated into Sufism in Egypt during or shortly after 1902 and established a branch of the Shadhili order in Paris in 1910. After his conversion, he married his faith with his radical politics, writing against imperialism and coining the term, “Islamophobia” in 1904 to analyse the “enemies of Islam”. Roland George Allanson-Winn, an Anglo-Irish peer, remained a stolid Empire loyalist after his conversion in 1913. His campaign to preserve British India, where he had worked in Kashmir as an imperial civil engineer in the 1890s, was forceful compared with his tepid involvement in protesting the break-up of the Ottoman domains after the First World War. The neo-traditionalists note but seem to pass over the implications of Aguéli’s radicalism to focus on his role in Rene Guenon’s initiation into Sufism. But I would argue it is the marriage of principled radical politics and mysticism in Aguéli that is worth reflecting on today, rather than rehashing Headley’s unreflective loyalism through a twenty-first-century makeover.
MJ: What do you mean by ‘Three-Tone Islam’ and why do you claim it profoundly makes a point about Islam that helps da‘wa?
YB: For me, the future of Islam in the West won’t be (and obviously shouldn’t be) indigenous in a purist or nativist sense, but resolutely “Three Tone”, or brown, black, and white, a term coined by the British grassroots activist, Salih Whelbourne of Nottingham. My reflections on Three-Tone Islam come out of prolonged discussion with him.
Three-Tone Islam is a play upon the Two-Tone Movement, the late twentieth-century popular British subculture in which black and white working-class youth created their own indigenous hybrid movement reflected in music, fashion, and anti-racism activism in the 1970s and 1980s.
It goes beyond a public argument to faith in action, to envision a space in which black, brown, and white British Muslims come together in fellowship and service, breaking down barriers of race, culture, and class.
Three-Tone Islam is an opening gambit that embodies the Quranic process of mutual understanding and recognition through difference (ta‘arruf) rather than some seamless end product. It recognises that (i) forms of Western indigeneity can be multicultural and open to change; (ii) that conversion itself is Three-Tone; and (iii) that Three-Tone itself points to a wider superdiversity.
Three-Tone Islam must develop a post-secular anti-racism 2.0 too, which is informed by a wider, deeper story of religious chauvinism and race-making, which I expanded on a bit earlier.
MJ: Finally, you write a lot about Abdullah Quilliam — from my cursory reading of his life, we may see him as someone what wanted to create an indigenous Islam, possibly even a British Islam — at least that’s how some who claim him characterise his aspirations — how do we interpret this important early figure in ‘British’ Islam?
YB: Let me introduce him first for listeners who are unfamiliar with him. Why is Abdullah Quilliam (1856‒1932), born in Liverpool, an important figure in the history of Islam in Britain? Firstly, he is the first convert in British history to make a concerted effort to call people to Islam. Around 250 people embraced Islam at his hands at a time when Islam was viewed as heretical and dangerous or as strange and unknown. It is hard for us to imagine quite how difficult that was to do. His early community had stones thrown at them, manure heaped on them, and their prayer meetings broken up, sometimes violently. Yet, they persevered. Fatima Cates (1865‒1900), the first female covert in that community, wrote a prayerful poem in 1892 reflecting those early challenges. The first stanza reads:
Beset by numerous foes,
Concealed along the way,
We must those enemies oppose,
And ever work and pray.
The second reason why Quilliam is an historical figure is that he founds Britain’s first attested mosque community, the Liverpool Muslim institute, in the summer of 1887. In many ways, this multi-ethnic Muslim community, comprised of converts as well as sailors, travellers and notables moving in and out of Britain’s great imperial port of Liverpool, was ahead of its time. It fed the local poor, it provided free adult education, it established an orphanage, the Medina Home in 1896, it provided legal representation for Muslim sailors mistreated by the shipping companies, it ran political campaigns — local, national, and international — on issues of concern to Muslims, it published a journal and a newspaper distributed to over eighty nations, and it developed a pan-Islamic network that stretched from Australia to America. News of the Institute’s affairs was reported weekly in Cairo, Istanbul, Bombay, and Rangoon. At times, Quilliam was unafraid to be critical of British imperial expansion, such as into the Sudan in the 1890s and he issued a fatwa condemning any Muslims who would aid the British against their fellow believers.
As for how we should assess Quilliam, I would discourage a hagiographical approach in favour of warts and all, but with the eye of charity to circumstances and context. I understand the hagiographical impulse to find pristine roots for Islam in Britain when our community is being constantly vilified, but I think we should resist that impulse for reasons I shall elaborate a bit on.
I was drawn to research Quilliam and his community further because I thought there was more to be uncovered than previous scholars had found. There were several unanswered questions about him and his community. To that end, I spent quite a lot of time working with other sources outside of his own publications, not just in English but also in Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish with the assistance of other scholars, notably Riordan Macnamara and Münire Zeyneb Maksudoğlu. It is important not only to see Quilliam as he presented himself but how others saw him. Among the Muslims of the day, he had his critics as well as his supporters.
Let me take the example of an Ottoman travelogue that we worked on. It’s a translation of an 1895 travelogue, Liverpool Müslümanlığı or Islam in Liverpool, which was published last year through Claritas Press. It casts new light on the early Liverpool Muslims and caused a stir among them, and was eventually banned by the Ottoman authorities in 1898. The author was a journalist and travel writer, Yusuf Samih Asmay (d.1942), who started a pro-Ottoman newspaper in Cairo, Misr, in 1889. He was quite fiercely anti-British and wanted the Ottomans to reassert authority over Egypt after it had become a British protectorate. It’s a witty and engaging first-hand account based on his 33-day stay, through which we meet an extraordinary cast of characters, not least the lawyer-journalist, Good Templar and convert Quilliam, who lies at the centre of Asmay’s critique of the Institute.
Asmay’s travelogue throws up three issues that resonate with today’s Muslims. The first is how much can conversion to Islam be a process of gradual adaption rather than an instant adoption of the expectations of “born Muslims”? After all, Quilliam was largely self-taught from meagre resources and his community faced familiar questions about their adoption of an Anglo-Islamic synthesis with Protestant liturgical forms. The second is where do British Muslims stand regarding the politics of the Ummah and the nation? For Quilliam’s community, this wasn’t yet a post-caliphate conundrum, but the debate about dual loyalties then provides an instructive mirror for our times now. The third is how do we respond if we find out that our religious leaders are not the role models we would like them to be? Asmay’s account questions Quilliam’s fitness as a religious leader in ways that fascinatingly echo the “Me Too” moment today.
So I think reviewing the arguments back then among Muslims allows us to reflect more critically on our arguments now with an enhanced appreciation for differences and similarities between their time and ours and our possibilities going forward.