National Voices

Clashing overseas interests bedevil the social and political organizations that have developed since the 1970s and which should in theory become the expressions of increasingly self-confident autonomous Muslim communities. Also, they become much more activist, politicized, and religiously conservative than the people they claim to represent.

Earlier observers of the new immigration imagined that social problems would be defined in terms of race rather than religion. In Britain, migrants from the Indian subcontinent were conventionally grouped together as "Asians," whether Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu. Only gradually did Muslim migrants define themselves more clearly in religious terms and begin to perceive themselves as a united interest group. By the end of the 1980s, some were beginning to think of Europe as Islam's newest frontier territory and the migrants as the pioneers of a glorious future. In Britain, as elsewhere, the great leap toward self-identification came when the Rushdie affair provoked the formation of a national federation, the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs. Other more radical networks emerged at the same time, including the Muslim Parliament that was intended to exercise separate political and legal authority over Muslims. The effort died with its radical founder, Kalim Siddiqui, but in 1996, the various movements came together in the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). In other nations too, we see the emergence of national Muslim federations, such as Italy's UCOII, the Unione delle Comunità e Organizzazioni Islamiche in Italia, founded in 1990.32

Despite their unifying goals, such organizations reflect deep divisions within the Muslim communities of the respective nations, and their activities enhance these splits. Commonly, these coalitions involved different kinds of pressure groups, each oriented to international perspectives, and each in its way pledged to oppose the assimilation of Muslim communities. Some Muslim organizations are dominated by foreign governments, whether overtly or as thinly disguised front groups; others are controlled by hard-line traditionalist movements, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the JI.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a more complex organization than it appears from some recent Western exposés, where it is often presented as a simple manifestation of Islamic terrorism and confrontational extremism, engaged in a single-minded quest for global domination. The Brotherhood is a large grouping with diverse currents, and its Egyptian leadership recently startled observers by asserting that it would have no objection to seeing a Christian president of that country, were he (or even she) to be elected democratically. Both the Egyptian Ikhwan and Hamas field women electoral candidates. While no one pretends the Ikhwan are closet liberals, an association with the group should not of itself condemn any organization as a terrorist ally. But undeniably, the Brotherhood does represent a strict current of Islamic politics, which leaves a strong mark on the organizations it dominates. While UCOII includes mosques with diverse views, the organization itself is closely connected to the Brotherhood, and the most militant and obstreperous mosques are usually affiliated with UCOII.33 France, meanwhile, has three major national organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood has close and continuing ties to the Union of the Islamic Organizations of France, which includes a range of thinly disguised front groups, including the women's section, LFFM, Ligue Française de la Femme Musulmane, and the student organization, EMF, Étudiants Musulmans de France. The Union itself admits that a quarter of its budget comes from overseas sources, in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE. Another French network, headed by the Paris Great Mosque, is "openly bankrolled by the Algerian government" while Morocco favors the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF). In 2003, the three combined to form the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, CFCM, but individual groups maintained their rivalries. Ironically, the French government contributed mightily to expanding the influence of the more conservative and reactionary elements by the formula it chose for elections to the new body. Lacking a religious census, votes were apportioned according to the ground area covered by individual mosques, which gave a huge advantage to the spacious buildings financed by the Saudis or other Gulf states. In the first national election to the CFCM, the UOIF won fourteen out of forty-one seats, leaving sixteen to the pro-Moroccan FNMF. The UOIF dominated the vote in the Paris area, and in the cities of the southern coast, and initially took control of twelve of twenty-five regional councils.34

In Britain too, the main national structure has a hard-line quality, in this instance reflecting conservative Pakistani interests. The organizations that merged to form the MCB include the extremist Ahl-e-Hadith, while the Islamic Foundation is connected to JI, and promotes Maududi's books. Another component is the Muslim Association of Britain, which is ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Illustrating its conservatism, the MCB follows a strict line when it comes to accepting the Muslim credentials of sectarian groups. In 2003, the council dismissed news of the huge new Ahmadiyya mosque at Morden on the grounds that the building was not really a mosque.

While the Ahmadiyyas were welcome to practice their own religion, said the MCB, "it is clearly misleading to describe them as Muslims. They are not." The MCB also looks dimly on the Sufi traditions that have such deep roots in Pakistan and India. So rigid, in fact, did the MCB become that in 2005, other, broader-minded mosques formed a new rival organization, the British Muslim Forum (BMF). Among other innovations, the BMF has issued a stern fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombings, and cultivates a warmer relationship with Jewish organizations.35

Spain's best-established Muslim organization is FEERI, La Federación Española de Entidades Religiosas Islámicas, largely led by converts of European origin. FEERI has repeatedly promoted a distinctive Spanish Islam, in which only imams with Spanish citizenship would preach in the nation's mosques. The group also favors sending children to public schools and is open to women's leadership. Its secretary, Mansur Escudero, became the first Muslim leader to issue a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden as an apostate. He argues that

[Bin Laden's] association with the Taliban movement shows that he advocates an Islam which has lost all its richness and its open character. They pick up a few phrases and convert them into legal precepts stripped of all nuance. This loss of context robs Islam of all its human dimension and in fact bypasses the greater part of the Quranic message.

Besides this moderate organization, however, and representing very different stances, we find the mainly immigrant UCIDE, Unión de Comunidades Islámicas de España, and a Moroccan-dominated federation, Consejo Islámico Cultural de Cataluña.36

Conflicts between national interests and the governments behind them undermine efforts at creating any kind of Muslim unity, with the result that Muslim political endeavors remain scattered and much less effective than population numbers would suggest. These conflicts scandalize many of the faithful, who often refuse to take part in the national organizations for just these reasons. In Versailles, near Paris, local Muslims refuse to participate in the affairs of the CFCM, asserting that foreign interventions "feed divisions" among Muslims. According to the local imam, "there should be no nationalism. We are all French here." In practice, though, Europe's Muslim institutions are far less European—far less French or German or Dutch—than are many such ordinary believers.37

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