Yahya Birt argues that dangerous undercurrents of white nativism have found their way into Islamic thinking. Recognising and disaggregating these ideas from our work is vital to maintaining the divinely commanded duty to challenge inequality and establish justice.
Euro-America is going through a wave of populism that is pandering to ideas around Western superiority and white ethno-nationalism. Muslims have been defined as both the internal and external enemies of this project. They can only attempt to get on board if they assimilate culturally and ideologically to it, although this will not guarantee their immunity from its harms. In economic terms, neoliberalism still dominates Euro-America, as the left has not developed a coherent post-Keynesian economics nor embraced the radical possibilities of a deeply Green alternative. Instead, the left is working at the intersections of a post-white-male-dominated world but it is a transactional and secular vision and the Muslim place within it is precarious and unsettled.
Muslims of the West – and the rest of the Umma – have to survive this tribal Western retrenchment, but I would argue for cautious optimism, namely that we still have some room to do more than just survive it. We can articulate an alternative vision in which we thrive, even if that seems far from obvious at the moment. Presently, there is a series of manoeuvres to avoid being crushed by one or other of these political forces. Under this dual left–right pressure, most political and even cultural moves Muslims in the West make are placatory and reactionary in nature.
Under these conditions, white converts to Islam act as lightning rods in the debate on white ethno-nationalism, assimilation, and the perilous place of Muslims in the West. The challenge, as Esra Özyürek puts it, is not to predicate the inclusion of Islam in Europe through white conversion on the exclusion of racialised Muslims. In simpler terms, conversion should not be built on racialising assumptions about “cultural Islam” and finding “pristine” deculturated Islam. There is no deculturated Islam: there is only an endless process of deculturation and re-culturation. To resist the ethnicisation or racialisation of Islam, all Muslims, converts or those brought up in the faith, should acknowledge that it is a universal faith that includes within it all cultures, and furthermore that cultural difference is part of the Divine plan and a means by which we recognise each other’s humanity (Quran 49:13). Therefore, when “white” converts re-culture Islam as in their own terms, which is their right as members of a universal faith, they can only do so authentically if it is also anti-racist and builds solidarity with racialised Muslims. It is essential to add that there are similar misunderstandings at play in the second and third generations of the post-war Muslim communities that settled in the West, as the same false arguments about divorcing Islam from culture are similarly left underexamined.
As an exercise in self-examination (muhasaba), we white converts should consider why we are not immune to this placatory ethos among Western Muslims, but let me stress we are far from alone in making such supplicatory moves. It is right and appropriate in my view to think critically about how leading white converts approach white ethno-nationalism culturally and politically. I shall focus on two such figures, Hamza Yusuf (b.1958) and Abdal Hakim Murad (b.1960), both of whom have been my teachers and mentors during my own time spent within the neo-traditionalist movement since the early 1990s. Although, in the West, this movement presents itself as an immaculate recapitulation of late Sunni Islam in theology, law, and mysticism with all of Western modernity somehow magically extracted from it, a more reflective internal assessment is the need of the hour. It is more accurate to see it as most profoundly shaped by the Syrian ulama’s restatement of Sunnism in the face of neo-Salafi critique, mostly notably in the work of Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti (1929‒2013), but also by their ethos of survivalist political quietism with their co-option under the Baathist police state. Neo-traditionalism’s other hallmark is its indebtedness to the Guénonian critique of Western modernity, which I shall touch on further below. While acknowledging my own positioning as a critical insider within neo-traditionalism and fellow “white” convert to Islam, higher Islamic ethics still allows me the scope to disagree openly on matters of general public concern, even with these teachers to whom I am personally indebted and have learnt and continue to learn much from. It is because of this very proximity that I feel personally impelled to sketch out a space for radical politics with a strong anti-racist commitment within neo-traditionalist circles and indeed beyond them in this moment of re-energised white supremacy.
My reading of the American Sheikh Hamza Yusuf’s approach is that he sought to build alliances with the smaller non-Islamophobic part of the Evangelical coalition on the basis of shared “family values” between Islam and Christianity, which later facilitated an introduction into Republican circles. Trump’s election and openly anti-Muslim policies (among other things) made that awkward, but nonetheless he went on to accept an advisory role on a Trump administration quango, the Commission on Unalienable Rights (2017‒21), which was an attempt to roll back the contemporary conception of human rights to their eighteenth-century acceptation when the US Constitution was written, with a greater emphasis on religious rights (the latter is certainly under threat in some respects). The Director of Human Rights Watch called the Commission’s interim draft a “frontal assault on international human rights law” in 2020. The Commission was only advisory but clearly the intent was there to extend America’s culture wars into constitutional law.
So there was active political engagement with the Republicans, subsumed under a rhetoric that advocates for Muslim political quietism both in the West and in the Muslim majority world. In essence, it posits that the Umma should subcontract its political interests to the ulama in alliance with the state. Thus, quietism for the Muslim masses obscures the activism of its advocates. In this case, it works as ideological cover for active partnership with government on behalf of one’s own institutions and networks to the detriment of other Muslim institutions and networks castigated as dangerous or deviant or both. This justification of self-interested activism to protect the ulama’s institutions as quietism necessitated picking up and using the contemporary Republican lexicon about “the left”, “wokery”, “cultural Marxism”, etc., i.e. getting involved in America’s culture wars while claiming to rise above them.
The approach of Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad, based in the UK, is somewhat different. He focuses on cultural rather than open or crypto-political engagement with the new right. For years, he has openly criticised the political drift in Europe towards open Islamophobia. This dates from his experience of Serbian nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s. No European Muslim of our generation has forgotten the Srebrenica genocide of 1995 and many appreciate the early lead Murad took in highlighting the dangers of growing Serbian nationalism. However, more recently, he has undertaken a cultural engagement with the nativist right in Europe on the basis of da‘wa through private dialogue with some of its leading figures, which only became public knowledge around 2019. This engagement has affected his interlocutors, most notably the Dutchman Joram Van Klaveren (b.1979), the former MP in Geert Wilders’ right populist Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid – PVV), who converted to Islam in 2018, and whose post-conversion stance on immigration and refugee policy has been muddled. But, arguably, it has also affected Abdal Hakim Murad’s own presentational language in his recent scholarship. In Travelling Home, he concedes rather too easily an untrammelled right to majoritarian indigenous cultural expression with insufficient consideration of what this means for minority cultural rights (among other minority rights). And this means that the non-white Muslim immigrant is criticised for not assimilating, for worshipping in “race temples”, and for deservedly losing his children to faithlessness due to his original worldly motives for migrating to Europe (pp. 49‒51, 63, 69‒91, 125, 209). Others have commented more extensively on this hostile take on the Muslim migrant, but what really puzzles me is that it works against the practical institution-building he has undertaken, which is based on cross-ethnic and pan-Sunni partnerships, most notably at the Cambridge Muslim College. This polemic sits starkly at odds with its ostensible ethos.
By contrast, Abdal Hakim Murad shows compassion for an imagined Syrian refugee whom he names Ishmael, washed up on England’s shores:
This damp but hopeful figure, who has fled the hecatombs of a Middle East shattered by foreign invasion, climate change, and the endemic civic corruption that has recently triggered the explosion that destroyed Beirut, stands boldly, far seeing, and sinless upon Dover Beach.
Yet curiously, this refugee is culturally empty and there is no sustained engagement with what actual politics are needed to help the refugees dying in the Channel or the Mediterranean. Instead, the Muradian refugee is a culturally denuded and empty signifier who acts as both foil and antidote to European infertility, unbelief, and decadence (pp.6‒7, 45‒6). But, if we care about anti-racism, refugee rights, and oppose xenophobia and Islamophobia, then of more immediate moral urgency is to build coalitions on tackling these issues, most obviously with “the Left”.
By contrast, “the Right”, which derives its political energy from stoking Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism, puts Muslims “of colour” squarely in its crosshairs. Winning a few white converts from the nativist right in Europe, or America for that matter, who have no stake or standing in local Muslim communities and their legitimate priorities is a detour ending in a cul-de-sac. It undermines the necessary coalition-building that is needed to form a strong anti-racist politics. It is not being tanfiri, or holding a propensity to repel non-Muslims from Islam as Murad dubs it, to say so (pp.119‒141). More importantly, even in Makkah, the early call to monotheism was never divorced from ethics nor was the Qurayshi tribal sense of superiority ever indulged. Therefore, anti-racism should remain at the heart of the call to Islam in Europe – it is not for us to invite European nativism in by the back door, misconstruing the rationale of da‘wa to do so, which has notoriously been abused as a catch-all rationale by Muslims in the West.
The future of Islam in the West won’t be indigenous in a purist sense, but resolutely “Three Tone”, or brown, black, and white, a term coined by the British grassroots activist, Salih Welbourne. Three-Tone Islam is a play upon the Two-Tone Movement, the late twentieth-century popular British subculture in which black and white working-class youth created their own indigenous hybrid movement reflected in music, fashion, and anti-racism activism in the 1970s and 1980s. It goes beyond a public argument to faith in action, to envision a space in which black, brown, and white British Muslims come together in fellowship and service, breaking down barriers of race, culture, and class. Three-Tone Islam is an opening gambit that embodies the Quranic process of mutual understanding and recognition through difference (ta‘arruf) rather than some seamless end product. It recognises that (i) forms of Western indigeneity can be multicultural and open to change; (ii) that conversion itself is Three-Tone; and (iii) that Three-Tone itself points to a wider superdiversity.
Three-Tone Islam must develop a post-secular anti-racism 2.0 too, which is informed by a wider, deeper story of religious chauvinism and race-making, namely, how the antecedents of anti-black or phenotypical racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia are found in medieval Christendom’s Curse of Ham, the Blood Libel, and the Ishmaelite Saracen. In other words, the story of race-making needs to expand beyond early modern colonialism, Transatlantic chattel slavery, phrenology, and eugenics to include this earlier history.
It is in the light of the above that the cultural exchange between Jordan Peterson and Hamza Yusuf released in May 2022 should be understood. The pious hope is that Sheikh Hamza will have charmed Peterson so he becomes less Islamophobic and leaves aside the Ayaan Hirsi Alis, Douglas Murrays, Richard Dawkins’ et al for Islamophile Christianity or even Zaytuna’s quietist state-adjacent Islam. This downplays Peterson’s role as an aider and abetter of neoconservative and the old-guard libertarian Whiggish tendencies of the new populism. That is his base: compare Peterson’s ease on his podcast with Douglas Murray four weeks earlier compared with this latest exchange with Yusuf, where he offers no challenge to Murray’s thesis that the West is being destroyed by an unholy alliance of Muslims and the Left. We should also pay attention to what costs this engagement comes at over others, and how that sends shockwaves through the Western Muslim communities. Whose vital interests are being sacrificed by such engagements? One doesn’t have to look far to find the answer, for the criticisms have been loud and clear.
In the salient clip from the Peterson–Yusuf exchange (from 10.47), Peterson asks Yusuf about privilege being challenged without qualifying it, presenting it as an abstract concept. Such challenges invoke a post-Christian sense of individual responsibility and guilt (based on original sin) that Peterson says non-Christian traditions lack, and they ignore the irreducible fact of individualism and the uneven distribution of talents and resources. Yusuf doesn’t come back at Peterson on original sin to introduce him to the concept of fitra (the human being’s primordial or natural state of innocence at birth). Instead, Yusuf says that privilege is a trial to be borne by those who don’t have it, who, if they are believers, cultivate the faith to practise patience with tribulations. Those who don’t bear with it are, by default, desacralised leftists and Marxists, either in spirit or in actuality.
Now if that doesn’t strike any Western Muslim as an absurd capitulation and hugely simplified binary then it is hard to see how a serious conversation can be had. The elephant in the room is that injustices can be experienced as tribulations too, but the Sunna is not only to just to bear with them patiently in silence and hate them in our hearts. That is the lowest rank of faith. To speak out or to act in the world to change them does not make us all Marxisant Muslims. The collapse of any space for principled Muslim activism between silent capitulation to injustice and accommodation and deals with the government of day is obvious.
A precursor to Peterson as a radical right interlocutor for Yusuf was the late British Conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton (1944‒2020). Yusuf treated Scruton like a venerable master in their conversation from 2018, capitulating to his neo-Orientalist, “West-is-Best” discourse even when Scruton talked openly about the collapse of Islamic civilisation and its various deficits in modernity. British Muslims remember well Scruton’s long campaign in the 1980s against multiculturalism and anti-racism, his defence of Ray Honeyford in 1984 for his argument against recognising minority cultures in schools (in this instance, of Bradford’s Pakistani Muslims) or of Enoch Powell’s case that the children of Muslim migrants could only be disloyal to Britain, his attack on Islamophobia as a made-up propaganda word invented by the Muslim Brotherhood, or his advocacy of a Muslim threat to Europe that his friend, the quasi-fascist Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, later took up. Neither Yusuf nor his American Muslim colleagues at the Zaytuna College took him up publicly on any part of this record.
Let me end with four avenues of creative possibility that lie in front of us (there are many more, but these will do for the time being). We need to get back to basics to be truly creative. What’s the end goal of our engagement as Muslim minorities in the West? This allows us to refresh and refocus our deliberations when our discussion gets bogged down with modalities of engagement and the relatively minor challenges of democratic alternation, which is chastening when compared to the authoritarianism, tyranny, and state collapse that our compatriots in faith are facing in the Muslim majority world.
The first is a reformed deliberative democracy that seeks to outmanoeuvre and overturn the oligarchic buyout of political parties and the electoral cycle and vulnerability of elected representatives to powerful lobbies. That can only be achieved by overturning oligarchic control of the media, obviously not through public ownership but regulated so that the media looks and sounds more like the society it speaks to.
The second is to push for peaceable politics that can handle deep pluralism and superdiversity, or what precolonial orders like the Ottomans dealt with so successfully that converges interestingly with what John Gray calls a modus vivendi liberalism and Chandran Kukathas calls “the liberal archipelago” that makes no claim to police various forms of the good life and protects associational life from state interference. In other words, peaceful coexistence and deep pluralism can only emerge in a new post-nationalist politics; if we want to defuse identity politics we have to take on its biggest form today, which is nationalism. It seems like all of us need that, not just the Muslims, if we want to develop a planetary politics, as articulated by Achille Mbembe, and not to degrade further into warring tribes fighting over diminishing resources.
The third is to develop a new anti-racism that is not secular but provides a dignified space for Muslims and Islamophobia. While a lot of work has been done on the religious roots of Islamophobia, racism, and antisemitism in Christendom, this has yet to translate into informed self-understanding of an anti-racist movement 2.0 that is more than just inclusive and that embraces Muslim distinctiveness and agency. Another is post-nationalist politics, but where are the neo-traditionalist convert leaders on that? Why the insistence on riding the tiger of white nationalism, riffing off the same move that Julius Evola (1898‒1974), Italy’s most influential post-war fascist thinker, made away from the French metaphysician René Guénon (1886‒1951), that “traditionalism” can be saved or best served by an alliance with ethno-nationalism, either culturally or politically or both? From Evola and the Russian supremacist Alexander Dugin (b.1962), there is a straight line of influence to Steven Bannon, the American Alt-Right and their capture of the Trump Administration. So neo-traditionalism, which leans heavily on Guénon’s critique of modernity, shows itself prone to finding safe harbour with Western ethno-nationalisms. But what is that but a myopic act of self-harm?
During the high noon of European colonialism, similar questions of political loyalties dogged converts of the day too. But even back then, different choices were available. Consider the nearly forgotten earlier figures of Ivan “Abd al-Hadi” Aguéli (1869‒1917) and Lord “Al-Faruq” Headley (1855‒1935). A noted Swedish painter, Aguéli moved in avant-garde circles in Paris and became an anarchist. In 1900, he fired a revolver to stop the introduction of Spanish bullfighting (where the animal is killed at the end) into France, a direct action that proved successful. Converting in around 1900, he was initiated into Sufism in Egypt during or shortly after 1902 and established a branch of the Shadhili order in Paris in 1910. After his conversion, he married his faith with his radical politics, writing against imperialism and coining the term, “Islamophobia” in 1904 to analyse the “enemies of Islam”. Roland George Allanson-Winn, an Anglo-Irish peer, remained a stolid Empire loyalist after his conversion in 1913. His campaign to preserve British India, where he had worked in Kashmir as an imperial civil engineer in the 1890s, was forceful compared with his tepid involvement in protesting the break-up of the Ottoman domains after the First World War. The neo-traditionalists note but seem to pass over the implications of Aguéli’s radicalism to focus on his role in Rene Guenon’s initiation into Sufism, which over time led to the development of a distinctive Western-Islamicate theosophy of Perennialism, predicated on the essential validity of all religions, with its own syncretic order, the Maryamiyya, which descended into chaos. But I would argue it is the marriage of principled radical politics and mysticism in Aguéli that is worth reflecting on today, rather than rehashing Headley’s unreflective loyalism through a twenty-first-century makeover.
The fourth is that we seek to build a dignified presence for Muslims of the West in which we don’t merely survive but thrive. In concrete terms, such dignity is predicated for me on (i) the protection of religious liberties and right to difference (ii) economic, social and political equity, and (iii) recognition of our religious and cultural distinctiveness. But what is this agenda called today by the political establishment? It is called extremism and Islamism. It used to be called multiculturalism but that has been strangled first by securitisation and now by populism.
But attempting to ride the tiger of white ethno-nationalism, convert neo-traditionalists, or any others who try to do the same, fixate on nostalgia for a pre-secular West, bypassing its colonial legacy and racial violence. To do so is to betray the possibilities that Muslims of the West can articulate and defend a three-tone community that is committed to anti-racism and cosmopolitan inclusion of the diverse communities that constitute its lived reality.
Yahya Birt is a research director at the Ayaan Institute in London, and is a community historian who has taught at the University of Leeds. He has published over a dozen peer-reviewed articles on Islam in Britain and co-edited British Secularism and Religion (2016), Islam in Victorian Liverpool (2021) and The Collected Poems of Abdullah Quilliam (2021). In 2022, he published his first poetry collection, Pandemic Pilgrimage. He lives in West Yorkshire with his family and cat. He likes walking and being grumpy about the state of the world. He can be reached on Twitter @ybirt.