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Shia Community in Britain: Religious Identity

The third part of the article “Fighting for “Justice”, Engaging the Other” focuses on the positive Shia religious identity. The first two parts were discussed in the previous two posts of our blog.
On the one hand, such attempts by Shia students to engage the wider non-Muslim student body should be understood as contributing to positive articulation of Shia religious identity within the contemporary context, and especially against the backdrop of widespread public antagonism towards Islam. In this sense, the discursive framing of Shiism through the secularized, humanist language of equality, justice, and human rights, can be seen as a strategic choice by young members of the Shia community of Britain who wish to promote a version of Shiism that resonates with the secular liberal values of wider society, and particularly with the ethics of activism characterized by contemporary grassroots movements such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and the Occupy protests.
The Shia subject constructed by such narratives is one that is embedded in the political and social climate in which it is articulated, while simultaneously harboring a deep attachment to a Shia-specific ethics of self-betterment through the Karbala paradigm and the figure of Imam Hussain. Young members of the Shia community of Britain are thus actively engaged in re-negotiating and re-imagining their religious commitments and identity for the turbulent politics of the twenty-first century. On the other hand, this re-imagining of the Shia subject for the contemporary age is also potentially complicit in the sectarianisation of Shia politico-religious identity as a result of the prioritization of Shia-specific identity categories over and above a wider sense of Muslim-ness that may be shared with co-religionists. In particular, the antagonistic political and social climate in Britain—whereby Islam and Muslims have been pathologised and securitized as presenting an existential threat to the wider British public—as well as the growing international profile of Salafist and Wahhabist Islamist groups such as ISIS, has arguably fostered articulations of the Shia subject that either explicitly or implicitly seek to distance Shiism from such negative perceptions of (Sunni) Islam.
This move towards a sense of Shia particularism and exceptionalism—often predicated on a historical sense of victimhood dating back to the Battle of Karbala—has also been compounded by the very real experiences of marginalization, misunderstanding, and even active discrimination encountered by Shia students at the hands of Sunni Muslims (not to mention the persecution of Shias in the Islamic world by Islamist and terrorist groups). For this reason, while the promotion of a distinctive Shia identity as qualitatively different from broader perceptions of (Sunni) Islam can be understood partly as a strategic choice within the context in which it is articulated, there is an important sense in which it also actively contributes to the sectarianisation of Shia identity through the act of discursively bracketing off Shiism as an identity category in its own right. Again, it is worth stressing that our use of the term sectarianism functions here as a purely descriptive category and does not imply any kind of normative judgement about the content and resonance of the identity in question. The British case discussed in the previous posts, serves as a microcosm for the kinds of political, social, and religious discourses currently operating on Shia communities across Europe. Ultimately, the experience of students in the Shia community in Britain should not be understood as being limited to the British university context, but is reflective of the ways in which Shia minorities are engaging with non-Muslim populations both in Europe and elsewhere in the West. For this reason, the writers propose that the discursive contours underpinning the forms of student activism documented in this paper ultimately transcend such national and cultural boundaries and contribute to an ongoing reinterpretation and reimagining of Shia sectarian identity for the modern age.
Taken from “Fighting for “Justice”, Engaging the Other: Shi’a Muslim Activism on the British University Campus
By: Emanuelle Degli Esposti and Alison Scott-Baumann, 2019


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