Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Baroness Warsi: Anjem Choudary and co are not Muslims

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Baroness Warsi
I'm aware that this is the second time in the last month or so that I've posted on arguments made by Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party chair (take one here), but I was so bemused by her latest comments that I felt like I needed to flag them up here.

In a video interview with the Guardian's John Harris, Warsi discusses the recent banning of Muslims Against Crusades, the extremist Islamist group run by Anjem Choudary. She argues that the group's activities, which have included burning Remembrance Day poppies and supposedly establishing "Sharia Controlled Zones" in UK cities, mean that they can no longer be considered to be Muslims:
"From the Islam that I have been taught, and grown up with … and most people have been bought up with, it has to be rationed, reasoned, contextualised. Now if you detach reason from religion, then you are no longer a follower of that faith. If you are a follower of a religion that is so clear in its support of humanity [and you behave the way they do] then you are no longer part of that faith."
These comments are worth analysing further, as they relate to the argument that there is somehow a "proper" form of Islam that can be contrasted with extremist forms (similar arguments are made regarding Christian extremism), but it was Warsi's next statement that prompted me to write this post:
"Now I could stand up and say, I actually am Chinese. You take one look at me and say, 'well you're not Chinese, you don't look Chinese, and there's nothing about you that would allow you to say that'. That doesn't stop me from saying it, but it doesn't make me Chinese either. In my view, I fundamentally believe that the minute they detach reason from religion, they're not part of that faith any more."
With this bizarre statement, Warsi provides a useful example of the way in which concepts such as "religion", "race", "ethnicity" and "nationality" are conflated and confused in debates over multiculturalism and identity. By comparing Anjem Choudary's claim to be Muslim to her own hypothetical claim to be Chinese, Warsi seems to be suggesting that religion is equivalent to nationality or ethnicity – something that you are born into and permanently identified with, rather than a belief system that you can acquire and make a decision to actively identify with. Yet, in the case of Choudary, this doesn't work because she is arguing that he has forfeited his right to be considered a Muslim because he has deviated from the "reason" that she considers to be a key element of the Islamic belief system. And, even if we leave aside that problem, there's still an issue with her Chinese example, particularly if we consider it to be a nationality rather than an ethnicity – is it not possible for someone to acquire a national identity? Or do you need to "look Chinese" in order to be Chinese? (And how would this affect different ethnic groups within China?) You only need to try applying this to being "British" or "English" for a sense of how confused it is. And once again, it's hard to see how this works in relation to Choudary and co, who certainly "look Muslim", because Warsi is talking about what he believes, not how he looks. By that logic, do you need to believe certain things in order to belong to a particular nationality or ethnic group?

All in all, very confusing stuff, highlighting just how confused the identity debate can be. For a spot of sanity, I found myself returning to this 2008 essay by Kenan Malik, in which he debunks the notion that people's cultural backgrounds irreversibly define who they are. I highly recommend it, and not just because we published it.
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