The second part of the article “Fighting for “Justice”, engaging the other” focuses on the difficulties students from Shia community in British universities come across when they want Shiism to be seen more. The first part of this article was discussed in the previous post.
For practicing Shiism in Britain, there are a number of reasons why individuals might not feel part of a wider community of “British Islam” (and not merely due to the pathologisation of Islam in public discourse). Firstly, the vast majority of Muslims in Britain tend to be Sunni and come from South Asian backgrounds (mostly from India or Pakistan). Demographically speaking, there are qualitative differences between the majority working-class, South Asian, Sunni Muslims in Britain and the mostly middle-class, predominantly Arab, Iranian, or East-African Indian, Shia Muslims (notwithstanding the political and ideological divisions between different schools of Sunni and Shia Islam). Moreover, against the background of what one interviewee called “anti-Muslim propaganda”, many Shias feel both misrepresented and misunderstood by conceptions of “Islam” propagated by the British media and wider society. As Zainab, an Iraqi Shia woman who came to Britain as a child, put it: “The Shias are all silent. You always hear about ‘Muslims’, but they’re inevitably [South] Asian and Sunni; you never hear about Shias . . . we don’t have a voice. We need to show people that it’s not us that do all these crazy things.”
This desire for Shias to distance themselves from the wider (Sunni) Muslim community was something E.D.E repeatedly came across during her research—there was an enduring sense that “we’re not that kind of Muslim” While the growing influence of extremist interpretations of Sunni Islam within Britain have certainly contributed to an enduring sense of Shia difference, there is also an important respect in which geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East and wider Islamic world have also fostered intra-communal Sunni-Shia antagonism within the British context. The media accusing universities of being “complacent” regarding the alleged prevalence of Islamist radicalization on campus. While there is currently no reliable evidence that a student has ever been radicalized on campus to commit acts of violence, the belief that university campuses are “hotbeds of extremism” plays into populist perceptions of the threatening Muslim other, and is thus encouraged by politicians and adopted by the media and the general public.
The findings from the 2015–18 AHRC Representing Islam on Campus project show that Muslim students are engaging in forms of self-censorship in an attempt to avoid attracting unwanted critical attention.
Practicing Shiism students at British university thus find themselves in the difficult position of wanting to increase the visibility of Islam—and Shia Islam in particular—while being acutely aware of the social and political pitfalls of doing so. Nevertheless, members of the Shia community in British universities are finding innovative ways to mobilize within the university environment. As detailed above, on the one hand, there is a tendency for Shias to attempt to distance themselves from “negative” perceptions of Islam (especially those related to Sunni Islamism), while emphasizing the elements of their religion that are perceived to be more relatable to a non-Muslim audience. In particular, Shia students have drawn on liberal humanitarian discourses of freedom, equality, justice, and minority rights, to present a version of Shia Islam that is arguably well-suited to the liberal, secular environment of the university campus. In framing Shiism as a “fight for justice”, Shia students have thus contributed to the discursive construction of Shia Islam as a force for social good within the context of a secularized public sphere, at the same time as this discourse strives to distance Shiism from certain forms of (Sunni) Islam that are negatively viewed within the British social context.
By: Emanuelle Degli Esposti and Alison Scott-Baumann, 2019