Rehana Ahmed’s Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism is a work of both literary criticism and sociological analysis which ‘combines detailed readings of texts’ with a ‘sustained engagement with their social context’ (p. 17). This is a difficult balance to maintain, however, and as the book proceeds, the author seems to be less concerned to use her detailed knowledge of Muslim society and culture in Britain to enrich the readers’ understanding of the texts under consideration, and more concerned to use the texts to shed light on debates surrounding multiculturalism and the challenges and opportunities facing British Muslims today. Though she restricts her attention to a few select texts published within the last 30 years by British writers of South Asian Muslim heritage, this is enough to demonstrate a diversity of responses to multiculturalism and the tensions between secular liberal values and religious community ones, and this enables Ahmed to provide a more nuanced approach than the stereotypes and oversimplification all too often served up in the media. Writing British Muslims follows an increasingly familiar pattern in titles (cf. the BBC’s Writing the Century), which draws attention to the almost Pygmalion-like ability of the text to bring its subject to life. Indeed, Ahmed is writing about British Muslim writers, and writing about writing about British Muslims, both as individuals and as members of a community, as are the authors she explores. Yet there is a tacit acknowledgement here of the symbiotic relationship between text and identity and how identities are created through the act of writing. Issues are raised about identity and difference, individuality and community membership, conformity and resistance, and the homophonic echoes within the title raise further notions of getting British Muslims on the right track, putting the community to rights. For a book whose title has so many layers of significance, the actual structure is surprisingly straightforward. A lengthy Introduction contextualizes the work in two ways—first, through a snapshot of Muslims in twenty-first century multicultural Britain, and second through a brief but highly useful summary of recent writing by and about Muslims in Britain, including literary criticism. Chapter 1 continues the contextualization process with a more historical account of South Asian Muslims in Britain in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Ahmed tells the story, for example, of a petition, a protest march and a book burning organized by the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin in 1938 against H. G. Wells’ A Short History of the World which they said contained offensive references to the Prophet and to the Qurʾān. The aim of this historical section is to show that Muslim protests and resistance did not appear out of the blue in the 1980s and that they were not an unanticipated consequence of multicultural policies developed in that decade. The next four chapters are devoted to particular texts by Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali and Nadeem Aslam, and ch. 6 rounds off the book (apart from a brief Conclusion) with a discussion of autobiographical memoirs written by Ed Husain, Sarfraz Manzoor, Yasmin Hai, Zaiba Malik, and Shalina Zahra Janmahomed. One of the main problems that Ahmed encounters is how to identify the key issues affecting Muslims in Britain. If she claims to be exploring the ways that novels and autobiographical writing ‘intervene in Muslim-majority relations and mediate cross-cultural understanding in multicultural Britain’ (p. 184), this may overshadow the fact that class differences within the Muslim community may be just as significant as ethnic or religious differences between communities. This problem is exemplified in the case of the public-school and Cambridge-educated Rushdie, who is very much in touch with middle-class ideas and current fashions in literature, but less in touch with the everyday lives of ordinary Muslims in Britain (who may know little of postmodernism and may take parts of The Satanic Verses literally which the author intends to be taken symbolically and ironically). Social class may indeed be relevant to our understanding of the novel and the protests it generated, but perhaps not so much in terms of economic disadvantage and racial antagonisms as in terms of a lack of understanding of current academic thinking and a failure to feel at home in a liberal society. Like Hanif Kureishi, Rushdie wants the individual freedoms that liberalism offers while despising the liberal worldview. But the protests that The Satanic Verses provoked (unlike those against Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, which were more concerned with the novel’s portrayal of the Bangladeshi community) had religious issues at their heart—blasphemy and insulting the Prophet—rather than social injustice. Insofar as British Muslims felt oppressed at this time by the novel and its white liberal supporters, they felt oppressed more as Muslims, and less as a disadvantaged minority who were targets of discrimination and prejudice. Ahmed writes of the ‘the working-class Bradford protesters who transgressed boundaries by refusing to accept their “subordinated place” within neoliberal capitalism’s structures’ (p. 87); but this sounds a better description of the Bradford riots in 1995 and 2001 than it does of the Rushdie protests. At the heart of the author’s concerns is what she calls the ‘uncomfortable fit of Muslims within a secular liberal Britain that cannot tolerate communitarian faith-based identities’ (pp. 219–20). But she is not without hope for the future. Some readers might have their doubts about Ahmed’s self-conscious focus on authorial intention and ‘message’, but I for one appreciated the blend of literary criticism and social commentary. The emphasis on social issues opens the book up to a much wider readership than just specialists in literature, post-colonial studies or cultural studies. Nevertheless, the examination of literary techniques remains a significant part of the book. Ahmed unpacks the way Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers works through conflicting discourses, (over-) aestheticized language and a circular structure to convey a sense of entrapment within the community; she illuminates the insights into the real (rather than idealized) lives of British Muslims in Ali’s Brick Lane and in the novels of Kureishi; and she raises to consciousness more general themes of love, disharmony and human frailty with which the novels are concerned. Story-telling has a long history in South Asia, and it is good to see that the skills developed over the centuries are still flourishing despite the authors’ resettlement in a context that remains in many ways alien and unwelcoming. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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