Citizenship and European Muslims: Summary of a roundtable discussion

Work on the pack started with a roundtable discussion involving Tariq Modood, Tariq Ramadan and Emel Abidin Algan. Appendix A summarizes the key points that were made.

Tariq Modood stressed that the British model of citizenship, as compared with the French model, allows a pluralist approach that provides space for Muslim identity. There are different ways of being a citizen, for example, in terms of factors such as gender, ethnicity, nationality and age. Citizenship should recognize people as they are and as they wish to be. Citizenship should not transcend or offend these identities but sit alongside them. It should not marginalize them and attempt to impose a new identity on them, as is being done in a number of European contexts, such as in relation to headscarves in French state schools. Citizenship should organize and interact with a range of identities and work to seek harmony, not uniformity, amongst them. This pluralistic model of citizenship has to be politically fought for, especially in the current political and social atmosphere surrounding Muslims and multiculturalism.

Tariq Ramadan similarly pointed out that the UK’s national political, legal and social framework allows Muslims to be at the heart of the nation. That is therefore where Muslims should be instead of promoting minority citizenship; being a good Muslim citizen is about promoting the common good. It is in fact in the interest of Muslims to draw upon the legal framework. Otherwise cultural belonging may be used to undermine the rights of Muslims as citizens. For example, Muslims are being cast as a minority presence in France in order to legitimize the discriminatory implementation of laïcité.  There needs therefore to be a focus on the gap between citizenship ideals and practices on the ground. A comparison of what is said about citizenship and participation and what is actually practised will show that the two do not match. For example, In Britain multiculturalism is promoted as the citizenship ideal. In practice, however, the UK can be seen to be culturally segregated.

Emel Abidin Algan spoke of the importance of understanding and contextualizing Islamic principles and engaging with wider society as an inherent part of it, not separate from it. She stressed that there needs to be an open dialogue within the Muslim community about social issues shared with non-Muslims, such as poverty and domestic violence. These issues, as well as the way in which they are addressed, play an important role in how an individual relates to other individuals and social groups. This relationship underpins active citizenship. An open dialogue will also form part of a process of becoming aware of deficits within Muslim communities. There is a discourse within certain Muslim circles, she continued, that reflects and expresses a lack of respect towards people with different thoughts and life styles. This discourse needs to be addressed and its sources should be focused on and explored in depth. Young Muslims must play a key role in this.

Other points made in the talks and subsequent discussions included the following:

  • A fundamental activity, for all citizens, is dialogue and deliberation. Being critically engaged through activities such as protest, demonstrations and campaigns is not inconsistent with citizenship. On the contrary, contestation is inherent to citizenship and is part of its evolution. It follows that citizenship, like dialogue, is always fluid and changing.
  • To be part of this interactive mainstream dialogical activity, Muslims need to be willing to take responsibility for contributing to the common good. Discourse within the Muslim community that disrespects fellow citizens needs to be tackled. Muslims must not perpetuate a dualistic perspective that opposes a Muslim ‘us’ against a non-Muslim ‘them’.
  • There is no such thing as ‘minority citizenship’. We are all equal before the law. Muslims should attempt to engage with citizenship not from the premise of being a Muslim politician, a Muslim MP or a Muslim citizen, but from the grounds of simply being a citizen. To prefix one’s position or status with one’s cultural or religious belonging supports discourses that accept Muslims as ‘minority citizens’ in order to put them outside the mainstream political debate.
  • Muslims in Europe need to return to a better understanding of Islamic traditions around citizenship. According to Islam, one must respect the social contracts of the structured political and social community one belongs to. So being a European citizen clarifies Muslims’ understanding of Islamic values, as also Islamic values clarify the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. The two sets of notions neither oppose nor contradict each other.
  • Muslims have a social responsibility towards non-Muslims. They should ask themselves ‘What do I, as a Muslim, have to offer to non-Muslim citizens in Europe?’ This will require a process of individual reflection as well as an exploration of Islamic traditions and values.
  • Muslim organizations in Europe need to engage more with basic social problems such as poverty, domestic violence and the low levels of education amongst Muslim women. Many Islamic organizations fail to make use of their position and power to promote an engagement with such issues.
  • Parents have a responsibility to impart the rich and diverse Muslim heritage to their children. Understanding and deciphering the richness of Islamic principles, and imparting them to children and young adults, is in itself an opening into better citizenship. 
  • There needs to be a better understanding of the historical contexts of Islam. These contexts are often omitted from teaching within Muslim schools and mosques. This has led to a situation in which Muslims are uncritically dependent on historical practice; this may not be conducive to promoting active citizenship in Britain today.

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