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Striving to be better in Britain

The status of Islam and of Muslims is a phenomenon that cannot escape anthropological interest today. Since the declaration of the ‘war on terror’ at the turn of the century, global interest in Islam and its followers has accelerated – for all the wrong reasons, one might say. Islam has been continuously associated by those in the Liberal West with devastating violence, uncompromising fanaticism, and patriarchal oppression. Images and descriptions of violent Muslim men and ‘unfree’ Muslim women have dominated television screens, newspaper columns, social media and political debates, and a number of far-right protest organisations have emerged in Europe and the US in order to counter the perceived tide of ‘creeping’ Islamic extremism. Being a Muslim man or woman in the West therefore means balancing all the quotidian pressures of life in the modern world in addition to managing an often hostile gaze from others. Given this insider and outsider status of Muslim subjectivities in the West, the relevance for anthropology of the study of Islam and Muslims in such contexts cannot be overstated. In particular, a focus on exploring the lives of new generations of Muslims, born and raised in the West, and who refer to the West as their ‘home’, bears increasing significance for the discipline. These individuals carry difference with them wherever they go, not just in terms of ethnicity and religion (in often very multicultural, ‘super-diverse’ societies), but as intransigent cultural pariahs in an ever-evolving secularised world. Being a Muslim in the West now, therefore, carries quite a number of unprecedented challenges for a rapidly expanding population of ‘Westerners’.

Agitating for the future of the anthropology of Islam, Lila Abu-Lughod once recommended that the focus of this specialism should move in new directions away from classical obsessions with harems, tribes, and men of piety, to possible explorations of ‘transnational cultural forms, global communications, labour migration and international debt’ (1989:300). While so much anthropological work, understandably, continues to be carried out in the Islamic ‘heartlands’, a growing corpus of works are emerging where Muslims are peripheral in their respective societies of residence. These studies are important not just in marshalling discussions away from Orientalist preoccupations, but also because they provide much-needed nuance and grounding to discursive currents of public opinion swirling in potentially pernicious times. However, such studies can also reveal uncomfortable truths. In my own work with young working-class Muslims in London and its outskirts, interlocutors were constantly juggling with the pressures of providing for their families, confronting everyday racism and Islamophobia, and struggling to cope with poverty and structural depravation. Moreover, I became aware of troubling issues within the communities themselves. The patriarchal nature of kinship and community structures, domestic violence, petty criminality, and cultural segregation are just some pertinent examples. Alongside these pressures, however, one also finds the aspiration to be ‘better’. This not only takes the form of consumption (although it is very much a register for ‘success’), but is also seen in the realm of ethics. Young Muslims, in fact all Muslims, want to be better ‘Muslims’, if they claim to possess faith (iman). But how can one become a better Muslim in a society where simply being one comes with a great deal of baggage?    

To this end, Talal Asad’s (1986) famous insistence on Islam as a ‘discursive tradition’ ought to be borne in mind. It remains ontologically relevant not just in Islamicate societies, but also in the diaspora. All Muslims, in their own individuated ways, and according to their own conceptions of temporality, seek ethical recourse in the Qur’an and the exemplary example of the Prophet Mohammed. ‘Submitting’ to God and committing to a more ethical life where one’s desires and temptations are contained, can help in being ‘better’. But in the postcolonial West, such submission is far more complex, not least due to the disparaged minority status of Muslims. Despite this, however, young Muslims in the West continue to be drawn to Islam. In Britain, they do this in spite of state surveillance policies, disproportionately targeted at Muslim communities, that seek to root out ‘signs’ of religious radicalisation. Intervention strategies work on the principle of identifying ‘bad’ Muslims from a crop of ‘good’ ones (Mamdani 2004). Then, when a subject is identified, he (invariably a ‘he’, although this trend is shifting) is offered mainly theological and psychological alternatives to his chosen route of travel. At the heart of the identifying process is the role of Reform Islam, more specifically Salafism (or Wahabism, depending on which side of the fence you occupy).  All of the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were self-proclaimed Salafi Muslims. Osama Bin Laden was a Salafi, in creed (aqida) at least. Reform Islam seeks to ‘purify’ Islam of its cultural, and therefore ‘ungodly’, excesses. As a reaction to European colonialism, a number of religious movements arose to combat the loss of power and sovereignty in the Muslim world. With the realisation that an armed struggle was no longer possible against the far superior colonial military machines, scholars of Islam were compelled to look inwards for a solution to the loss of authority. Reformist thinkers sought to locate reasons why such a great and enduring civilisation had been reduced to servitude and bondage to non-Muslim overlords. The answer was that they were not pious enough. That Muslims had failed in their observance of the religion. It was an ethical response.   

Reform Islam is the most dominant strand of Islam in the UK, particularly among the young. It is especially attractive to young people as it detaches Islam from its discursive, territorial manifestations, and provides a sense of certainty through its ‘back to basics’ doctrines. ‘Deculturalising’ Islam succeeds in bypassing the ‘backward’ regional practices and magical beliefs that, it is argued, have come to denote Islamic beliefs and customs in the Islamic world, and which over centuries have developed as a consequence of cultural interactions with pre/non-Islamic local belief systems. These hegemonic influences are abrogated with an insistence that only that which is included within the holy scriptures (Qur’an and Hadith) should be referred to as the source material for any subsequent religious instruction. In doing so, Muslims will be able to attain a closer proximity with the ‘true’ teachings of the Prophetic mission and avoid the path of ‘deviance’ associated with polytheistic practices (shirk), such as saint worshiping. Reform Islam still has a long way to go to before it replaces traditional beliefs in most of the Islamic world. Through my own work in Bangladesh, for example, I found that the influence of saint cults and historic legitimacy of Sufism in the region has provided robust resistance to reformist advances. However, in the context of diaspora the opposite is seemingly true. Second and third generation Muslims in Britain are increasingly rejecting the ‘traditional Islam’ dominant in their countries of origin in favour of a variant that suits their experiences and aspirations. Instead of replicating their parents and grandparents in their particularistic religious pursuits, British Muslims are resorting to universalistic forms of the religion, necessarily abstracted from all cultural and regional innovations, as a means of achieving ethical coherence. However, the austerity, puritanism and unwillingness to compromise on issues of religion has caused alarm among liberal policymakers, not least those charged with preventing Islamic radicalisation. Reformist Muslims are thus far more susceptible to arousing the suspicion of the authorities, and since the London bombings of 2005, a number have been arrested, questioned, and released without charge.

It is within this highly complex environment that Giulia Liberatore’s remarkable ethnography Somali, Muslim, British comes into its own. Set in London, the book follows the lives of a number of first and second generation Somali women striving to be ‘better’ in their everyday lives. Situated in a context where Muslims are seen as a security ‘problem’ for the authorities, Liberatore follows a diverse cohort of British Somali women running the gauntlet of life in Britain. Central to this pursuit is the role that piety plays in the fashioning of moral selves. Like a number of recent anthropological works on Muslims, and following on from Saba Mahmood’s critique of liberal notions of freedom (2004), the book places the quest for pious lives, and the associated promises of the Hereafter, as an aspirational-cum-ontological endpoint of Muslim subjectivities. This complex negotiation is further muddled by competing and complimentary cultural registers of money-making, romantic relationships, consumption, and struggles with Islamophobia. These women seemingly occupy a contact zone not just due to being ‘Other’ in society, but also between their own generational and ancestral predecessors. Diaspora theorists have been keen to point out that this ‘Third Space’ (Bhabha 1994) or these unstable ‘points of identification’ (Hall 2003), where novel forms of cultural production are said to take place, do so in perpetuity when confronted with the spectre of ‘difference’.  What Liberatore rigorously shows, however, is that Somali women accomplish this in ‘discursive, embodied, affective, and imagined’ ways (p.15). Through this process, she argues, the women find ways of ‘intervening’ in structurally constructed ‘problematizations’ that cannot merely be reduced to ‘distinctive discursive traditions – whether Islamic or secular-liberal –  nor to particular sets of rules, norms, value systems, moral registers or ‘grand schemes’. Through a rich ethnographic exploration of what it means to be Somali, a daughter, a Muslim, and a citizen, the book provides a portrait of young women in a multicultural urban context, searching for a sense of ethical satisfaction.

Another refreshing aspect of the book is that it charts the hopes and desires of two generations of Somali women. This is important not just for the purposes of highlighting continuities and ruptures in intergenerational relations, but also because the Somali diaspora in the UK is quite unique compared to its other, more established, counterparts. The vast majority of British Muslims are South Asian in origin, and their presence in Britain can be traced back to the post-war period when swathes of commonwealth subjects – particularly from the Caribbean and South Asia – made the journey to the UK for work. Never intending to remain permanently, a series of immigration restrictions in the 1960s meant that settlement became inevitable as entry was not restricted to spouses and children of workers already residing in the UK. Faced with the prospect of returning home without needs being met, these ‘economic migrants’, (overwhelmingly men), brought their families over to Britain in the hope of a better life. Once here, migrants went about creating distinct communities through kin and village-based solidarity, aided by a combination of ‘chain-migration’[1] and ‘white flight’.[2] Over time, impoverished areas of ex-industrial towns and cities became dominated by South Asian households. Today, South Asian enclaves can be found in ex-mill towns in the north of the country, as well as within most major cities. Early migrants were keen to provide their children with a cultural education at home, in order to preserve their roots in a minority setting. This included inculcating codes of normative cultural behaviour, religious schooling, and generational renewal through arranged marriages. Their children, however, had other plans. Exposure to wider society meant that such renewal become somewhat cumbersome. Young Muslims began questioning the very culture and values that their parents had held so dear. It is this interface – between the expectations of the pioneer generation and the aspirations of the emerging – that provides so much anthropological value to Liberatore’s interventions.

Unlike British South Asians, British Somalis migrated in larges waves from the late 1980s onwards, and were escaping their war-torn country rather than searching for work per se. When Somalis began arriving to the UK, they gravitated towards areas with an established Muslim community. The east end of London, for example, where much of the book is set, has an established Bangladeshi Muslim population. In addition to differences in population size and migration impetus, Somali households are disproportionately single-parent and female-headed when compared to their South Asian counterparts. Liberatore suggests that there are varying explanations for high rates of divorce and separation, ranging from men feeling emasculated in a new environment where they have to start again from ‘the bottom’, to dependence on qaad[3], to their failure to effectively provide for their families. These masculine inadequacies coupled with the prevalence of the welfare state facilitates Somali women’s independence and freedom from patriarchal constraints. Other interlocutors, however, were uncomfortable, expressing reservations at the perceived ‘disposability’ of men (p.88). The most significant difference, though, is in the realm of religion. The vast majority of first generation South Asian Muslims practised a regional variant of folk or Sufi Islam at the point of migration. When mosques were built in respective communities, an attempt was made to recruit imams and religious teachers that were trained in these traditions. Mosques built in diaspora, therefore, mirrored the sectarian programme of those that could be located in South Asia. The Somali case is somewhat different. It reflects the recent historical developments of the country, and the ongoing debate within Somali households both in the UK and Somalia on what constitutes ‘Somaliness’ (Soomaalinimo).

The arrival and promulgation of Reform and Revivalist Islam in Somalia throughout the 1970s and 1980s has led to contestations of what constitutes ‘true’ Islam. Liberatore locates the origins of this debate in the rule of the socialist dictator Siad Barre and his modernist vision for the country. When Barre introduced a controversial family law in 1975, giving men and women equal rights, it was met with outrage by the hitherto marginalised religious establishment – many of whom had been influenced by reform and revivalist Islam. It triggered a reappraisal of Somaliness as reflective of a nostalgic pre-colonial nomadic culture (dhaqan) – which included religion – to a purified, renewed religion (diin) stripped of non-Islamic cultural excesses. By the time Somalis began arriving in Britain in large numbers, ‘Somali Islam’ had undergone significant shifts in perception. Being Somali was less about being ‘modern’, ‘progressive’, and ‘independent’, as it was in the post-colonial socialist era, and more to do with being a ‘good Muslim’. Somali mothers in the book display anxieties regarding their children, especially in the realm of being a good Somali in the community. Being ‘good’ means living ostensibly according to religious principles, and not shaming oneself in the eyes of the community. Daughters, however, express resentment at being forced to perform religiosity for the benefit of the ever-gazing community. They seek new approaches to ethical fashioning that depart from the morality of their parents. It is this interface that resonates with other British-born Muslims – between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’. And it is here that the efficacy of reform and revivalist Islam is most potent.

Young Somali women in the book embark upon a journey to ‘seek knowledge’ of Islam in order to fashion appropriate and authentic ways of ‘practising’ the religion. Although ‘practising’ Islam is a somewhat problematic analytical concept more generally, what the women meant by it was observing correct sartorial codes, upholding the five daily prayers, fasting in Ramadan, and cultivating inward spiritual modalities that are affective and consistent with Prophetic guidance. To the latter end, the women spend considerable time ‘forum shopping’ or ‘mosque hopping’ at various mosques, community centres, and Islamic study circles dotted around London in search of ethical instruction. What is peculiar about this, and what I would argue is intrinsic to Muslims born and/or raised in diaspora in the West, is the range of sectarian and denominational sources from which the women attempt to glean knowledge. They attended Salafi (Brixton), Islamist (East London Mosque) and Sufi (Cricklewood) congregations, and even a seminar given by the notorious pro-ISIS preacher, Sheikh Faisal. According to Liberatore, the women ‘only rarely discussed the differences between different reformist traditions or movements’ (p.176), due to possessing insufficient knowledge to challenge or critique the sources, but that ‘the ultimate aim [of seeking knowledge in this way] is the self-fashioning of pious subjects and the establishment of a connection with God’ (p.182). She thus concludes that such experiences and desires to seek Islamic knowledge are ‘best understood from the point of view of individual actors rather than through the lens of particular reformist groups or movements’ (p.185). While I hold deep sympathy for this position, the very act of embodied piety through ‘rehearsed spontaneity’ (Mahmood 2001) and the pursuit of textual ‘purity’ are the symptomatic hallmarks of reformist agendas. For second-generation Somali women, the credibility of Somali ‘cultural Islam’ is questioned and replaced by the certainty of ‘true Islam’, i.e. a form of Islam based solely on the holy texts, and not on discursive or localised variants that may adopt non-Islamic customs, (such as FGM or arranged marriages). Even though the women in the study are reticent in declaring a denominational allegiance, it is evident in their multifarious method of ‘seeking’ that an idea of Islam as one that is disenchanted from the innovations of ‘culture’ is the preferred option.

Somali, Muslim, British triumphs in demonstrating that Islam is important for Muslims, not just as an identity marker, but as a means for spiritual mobility.  The women in the study display a critical awareness of the society they live in and their place within it. They are also acutely aware of their cultural and religious roots, jostling to find an ethical space that works for them. But what is most illuminating, is how discursive and structural factors shape such aspirations and subjectivities. In a scenario where a critical (and sometimes hostile) gaze is generated from both wider liberal society and within the Somali household, second-generation Somali women are fashioning novel ways to be Muslim and successful in Britain. Although the book provides ample description of the women striving for ethical coherence, there is less emphasis on how they respond to the politics of being Black, Muslim, as well as women in contemporary Britain. In my own work, this Otherness translated into forged allegiances and alliances, both actual and imaginary, with the international community of believers (ummah) – a conception pushed by reformist Islam. Young Muslims attempted to subvert and rearticulate difference by transcending exclusionary narratives of the state, and aligning themselves with an imagined transnational community. Given the ubiquitous presence of Reform Islam as a dominant source of ethical instruction in the book, it is unfortunate that links with such alternative social forms were not explored further – especially when such associations often provide a sense of succour, agency and empowerment in the process of religious and political striving.  Having said this, Somali, Muslim, British is a much-needed study for our times. It draws out the complexities of negotiating competing social and community demands and the unique and individuated ways through which protagonists manage expectations of themselves, their families, and society at large. It paints a picture of emerging British subjectivities reflecting state multicultural doctrines that have matured over recent decades, coupled with a security agenda that disproportionately problematizes Muslim communities. It provides unequivocal voice to British Somali women of their personal struggles and worries, dreams for the future, and a yearning to be better despite the myths, misconceptions and everyday obstacles in their way.


Abu-Lughod, L. (1989) ‘Zones of Theory in the Anthropology of the Arab World.’ Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 18:267-306.

Asad, T. (1986) ‘The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.’ Occasional Paper Series 1-17, Georgetown University.

Bhabha, H. K. (1994) The Location of Culture. London, New York: Routledge.

Hall, S. (2003) ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ in J. E. Braziel & A. Mannur (eds.) Theorizing Diaspora. Malden, Oxford: Blackwell.

Mahmood, S. (2004) Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mahmood, S. (2001) ‘Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Şalat.’ American Ethnologist 28(4): 827-853.

Mamdani, M. (2004) Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Islam, the USA and the global war against terror. New York: Pantheon Books.

  1. [1]Early migrants drew on networks of workers already residing in the UK in order to sponsor and organise passage from South Asia. Resident workers in the UK were often fellow kin or village acquaintances. When new migrants arrived, they sought accommodation and work with their sponsors, leading to wards and neighbourhoods of industrial towns and cities being dominated by migrants from a particular region of South Asia, such as Mirpur in Pakistan, and Sylhet in Bangladesh.
  2. [2]The influx of New Commonwealth migrants in the 1970s and 1980s created ethnically segregated areas in British towns and cities.  ‘White flight’ refers to White working-class residents moving out of their traditional neighbourhoods, which were experiencing the impact of mass immigration, and into majority White areas in other parts of town.
  3. [3]Qaad is a plant which is chewed for stimulating effect. It can be highly addictive and excessive use can cause adverse health risks.

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