Since 9/11 and the subsequent ‘global war on terror’ Muslims across the world have found themselves under greater scrutiny in the name of security, especially in Western states such as Britain where the motivations and loyalty of Britain’s Muslim minority population and their ability or intention to integrate into society have been questioned. The label Muslim is frequently misunderstood or misused to portray a fundamentalist threat whilst ‘British Muslim’ as a term is exploited as a means of identification rather than to provide a view of self-identity.
The purpose of a study conducted last year was to investigate whether or not the understanding of Muslim identity in Britain had changed over the past decade and investigate what internal and external factors influenced such changes in identity, specifically frame-changing events such as terrorist incidents and the effects of regional social and political tolerances. Interviews were conducted in May and July 2012 with a small sample of university students aged 20-22 from a mix of urban and sub-urban home environments and either working- or middle-class backgrounds, and the qualitative analysis of these interviews compared to the findings of previous studies, specifically secondary data from: Ansari (2004), Basit (2009), Blackwood et al. (2012), Hopkins and Kahani-Hopkins (2004), N Hopkins (2011), P Hopkins (2004, 2007), Jaspal and Cinnirella (2010), Modood (2000a) and Saeed et al. (1999). The contrast or concurrence of the primary data with the findings of previous academic studies formed the basis for the conclusion of this study. The notion of both self-identity and externally imposed identification formed a significant element of this study, considering whether or not events such as 9/11 altered British society’s perception of Muslims and if so how this in turn effected young ‘British Muslims’ today.
During the study the issue of terrorism was raised by every participant either in relation to external perceptions of Islam and Muslims or its exploitation by the media. 9/11 was specifically referred to by all but one of the participants on numerous occasions (by comparison only half of the respondents mentioned the 7/7 bombings) and despite their age almost all respondents had clear memories of the terrorist attacks of 2001, including the reactions of people around them at the time. This study fully supported the current research which observes how young Muslims in Britain acknowledge Muslim as a religious rather than cultural identifier, and the term British as much as a cultural marker as a national one. At a personal level there is a great diversity between individual interpretations of Muslim identity while from a group or community perspective there is a degree of comfort in identifying with its collective ideology.
During and after events such as the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks suspicion immediately falls upon those easily identified non-indigenous minorities. The duration of such suspicion depends upon the nature of the event and the continued exploitation of it by controlling interests. Poole (2002) noted how:
Commentators… continue to argue that the events of 11 September signal a kind of rapture, that the world has changed irrevocably and that a new world order must be established in the aftermath. At a global level, the media have played a role in constructing this idea in the psychic imagination. (Poole, 2002: 1)
9/11 featured heavily in many of the studies conducted in the years following its occurrence and it is clear that more than a decade and numerous terrorist incidents later it still features preeminently in the minds of young Muslims in Britain. Terrorist attacks such as 9/11 also had an enduring influence as identity markers for young Muslims in the research conducted over the past decade, from the perceived loss of civil liberties to a greater awareness of Muslims by the non-Muslim population. The ‘clash of civilisations’ initially employed by the West in the wake of 9/11 installed the concept of a Muslim civilisation which could be defined as an existential threat, despite the lack of evidence for there being such a thing as a religious or even cultural civilisation, whether Islamic or Christian, and the lack of any homogeneous Muslim civilisation or culture on which to base it. 9/11’s influence as an identity signifier may not have had an immediate and direct impact on the self-identity of Muslims but it did provide, primarily through the media, an enduring image of the Muslim ‘other’ with a direct influence on external identification which subsequently permeated through to the individual and community perceptions of both Muslims and their representative groups. Hopkins (2007) noted how young Muslims avoided association with the umma and brotherhood because of ‘the events and the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the subsequent global circulation of images of Muslim men as terrorists, and their perceptions about politicians responses to the events’ (Hopkins, 2007: 1126), highlighting how self-identity choices can be inhibited by externally imposed labelling.
British Muslim identity, as much as it can be defined, has not only changed in the twenty first century but continues to evolve just as all identities do. Young British Muslims tend to view their religious identity in terms of personal faith and do not associate it with the images of fundamentalism frequently portrayed in the media. Neither do they consider their Muslim identity to be in any way in conflict with their British identity, despite the social barriers constructed and supported in the wake of terrorist incidents such as 9/11. The portrayal of such events serves to construct an external image of Muslims which continues to influence their acceptance by the majority population and by derivation their sense of being British, raising questions such as the extent to which the identity of Britain’s Muslims (or other minority populations) might be influenced by similar transformative events in the future.
Ansari, H. (2004). The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain Since 1800 (London: C. Hurst & Co.)
Basit, T. (2009). ‘White British; Dual Heritage; British Muslim: Young Britons’ Conceptualisation of Identity and Citizenship’, in British Educational Research Journal, Vol.35, No.5, pp.723-743
Blackwood, L., Hopkins, N. & Reicher, S. (2012). ‘I Know Who I Am, But Who Do They Think I Am? Muslim Perspectives on Encounters with Airport Authorities’, in Ethnic and Racial Studies, DOI:10.1080/01419870.2011.645845, pp.1-19
Hopkins, N. & Kahani-Hopkins, V. (2004). ‘The Antecedents of Identification: A Rhetorical Analysis of British Muslim Activists’ Constructions of Community and Identity’. in British Journal of Social Psychology, Vol.43, No.1, pp.41-57
Hopkins, N. (2011). ‘Dual Identities and Their Recognition: Minority Group Members Perspectives’, in Political Psychology, Vol.32, No.2, pp.251-70
Hopkins, P. (2004). ‘Young Muslim Men in Scotland: Inclusions and Exclusions’, in Children’s Geographies, Vol.2, No.2, pp.257-272
Hopkins, P. (2007). ‘Global Events, National Politics, Local Lives: Young Muslim Men in Scotland’, in Environment and Planning A, Vol.39, No.5, pp.1119-1133
Jaspal, R. & Cinnirella, M. (2010). ‘Media Representations of British Muslims and Hybridised Threats to Identiity’, in Contemporary Islam, Vol.4, No.3, pp.289-310
Modood, T. (2000a). ‘Culture and Identity’, in Modood, T. & Berthoud, R. Ethnic Minorities in Britain (London: Policy Studies Institute)
Poole, E. (2002). Reporting Islam: Media Representations of British Muslims (London: I.B. Tauris)
Saeed, A., Blain, N. & Forbes, D. (1999). ‘New Ethnic and National Questions in Scotland: Post-British Identities Among Glasgow Pakistani Teenagers’, in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol.22, No.5, pp.821-844