Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.


Claiming a Space in the Larger Community: Mosques, Processions, Contestations

Even in the intimate spaces of domestic and ritual life, behavior and meaning are shaped by the context of the larger society. When, in turn, we focus on public expressions of Muslim life, such as the creation of mosques and organization of processions, we again encounter the enduring focus on worship and sanctioned practice coupled with “newness” both in meaning and in modes of institutional organization. What happens depends a great deal on the size and composition of the Muslim community. It also depends on the legal status of immigrant Muslims: whether they are treated as permanent settlers, as has been the case for most in Britain and North America, or are present in some different role, most extreme in the case of German “guest workers,” where it has long been assumed that no permanent immigration takes place (Kastoriano 1987: 149–51).

Everywhere, moreover, religious life is shaped by the nature of the majority society, above all, by its assumptions about the relationship of state and religion. In each national context, Muslims may try or be encouraged to produce institutional and symbolic equivalences to non-Muslim forms; they may also strain at being thus constrained. Further, as Muslims make claims on public space, they encounter resistance to Islam, often defined by racism, that in turn shapes their behavior. Muslim institutional life in the diaspora, like Muslim ritual and practice, cannot be understood as mere continuity with an “Old World” past.

Converts, even if proportionately few, may play an important role in shaping Muslim institutional expressions. Kemal Ali, for example, described the anomaly of a New England mosque including Pakistanis, Middle Easterners, and African-Americans, implicitly ranked in that order in terms of social status and prestige. Yet it has been African-Americans like Ali, with his local knowledge of American society, who push for the kinds of mosque-based activities—basketball teams, for example—that conform to American expectations of the activities of religious congregations (oral comments, September 18, 1988). Khalid Duran (1990) has described the unusually active role taken by women converts in Germany in serving as political intermediaries to state institutions. In Britain, the rock star Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) has been at the forefront in seeking state support of denominational schools in order to benefit Muslims (Kureishi 1986: 156–59).

A widespread transformation in most communities has been the creation of “Islamic Centers” offering a variety of educational programs, bookshops, and sites for community gatherings, as well as places for prayer. They may be democratically organized. Or, equally novel, they may have a quasi-diplomatic status. The national flags flanking the Washington Islamic Center, for example, are a reminder of its foundation by diplomatic missions; the Islamic Center in London is served by an imam accredited to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia (Ruthven 1990: 54–55). The role of mosques in many cases has also been changed as they take on new functions. Imams may well serve in capacities beyond that of prayer leader, taking on pastoral, administrative, and ecumenical representational functions they would not do in areas of old Muslim settlement (Haddad and Lummis 1987: 59). In so doing, they replicate local non-Muslim religious organizations.

Beyond these local organizations, the British are particularly notable for their expectation that every religious community will evolve a single hierarchy and leadership: if there is an archbishop of Canterbury, there has, for example, to be a chief rabbi. One university center for the study of Christian-Muslim relations pairs the director-general of the London Islamic Centre with the archbishop as “patrons.”[12] A Muslim activist and educator has called on the government to elevate a Muslim leader (presumably parallel to the Anglican bishops) to the House of Lords (Badawi 1981: 30). Nothing more astonishes continental European visitors to Britain than the official encouragement given to Muslim organizations.[13] Thus the Council of Mosques in Bradford was established in 1980 partly on the initiative of the city council, which wanted a single body representing mosques and other Muslim organizations to deal with (Ruthven 1990: 81). The Council of Mosques honed its political skills on issues related to the “Honeyford affair” (leading to the resignation of an allegedly racist headmaster), and it took a leading role in the book-burning and other actions of protest against The Satanic Verses.[14] A range of other issues, especially involving schools (costume, halal meat, objectionable classes, co-education), have proven to be the sites at which “leaders” and “spokesmen” emerge. In this context, the efforts of Dr. Kalim Siddiqi (d. 1995), with Iranian support, to create a Muslim parliament within Britain took the current institutional logic to an extreme—whatever the disapproval of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike (The Independent, May 5, July 1, 1992).

The British expectation that religious institutions will play a role in public life and that religious education will be part of schooling stands in marked contrast to French secularism. Gilles Kepel has argued the merits of the French system, insisting that the state relate only to individuals and not to communities, and that all evidence of religious affiliation or teaching be kept from schools. The objection (both in France and Belgium) to Muslim girls’ wearing scarves to school typifies this concern (Bloul, this volume). Despite their different positions on government secularism, Kepel lumps together the United States and Britain as Anglo-Saxon, arguing that both have given rise to politicized ethnic communities, breeding black ghettoes on the one hand and crises like the Rushdie affair on the other (Le Monde, November 30, 1989).

Almost inevitably, it is assumed that the content of Islam as a religion parallels that of non-Muslim religions, especially Christianity. While particularly encouraged as part of British “multiculturalism,” the pattern is common. Heidi Larson (1990) in her conversations with schoolchildren in London was continuously educated in Islam in terms of equivalences: for example, ‘Id becomes “our Christmas.” Children are encouraged to visit religious centers of other faiths and to become familiar with other religions. Notwithstanding the concern of some parents, Muslim children in Britain learn to recount Sikh legends, act out the Hindu Ramayana epic, and play roles in the Nativity story (Durham 1992). Likewise, in elite schools in India, the same little boy who is a Shiva devotee in a production of the Ramayana may turn up as a shepherd in a Christmas nativity play.[15]

Some Muslims at least have protested what is implicit in all this: namely, that all religions are, fundamentally, the same and ultimately of equal value. This implication of “multiculturalism” has been explicitly denounced in Britain. Ali Kettani, who has served as a Saudi representative to guide diaspora communities, argues that Muslims in the diaspora must not accept “the belief that all religions are equally valid in the sight of the Creator…[this is] the first sign of religious assimilation” (Kettani 1980: 103).

Muslims have both entered into and strained against the institutional templates of their new societies. In Britain, of course, the Rushdie affair made evident different expectations of what was and what was not the role of government in relation to individuals’ rights and in relation to the demands of specific groups. At root the crisis had as much to do with the colonial past as anything intrinsic to Islam. In British India, put simply, the government had little use for law at the cost of public order. Following communal disturbances in 1924 over the publication of a book called Rangila Rasul (The Merry Prophet), an article was added to the Penal Code allowing books likely to stir up religious sentiment to be banned. That law, like many others, was continued in the successor states and indeed used by Rajiv Gandhi to ban The Satanic Verses itself. Little wonder that British Muslims expected the government in Britain to act as it had in the colonies—but it never had and did not now (Ruthven 1990: 87, 102).

Taken up for political reasons locally and around the world, the actions of the British Muslims, which must be seen as a response on the part of those already assaulted by racism and insults to their culture, were to be the basis and pretext from right and left for even more insults. Muslim assumptions about the superiority of Islam, and the respect and boundaries appropriate to its discussion, continue to sit uneasily in a context of secularism and cultural relativity.

In France, the strains against the allocated slot for religion have come with the desire to have religious practice in what is regarded as public space. The pressure for mosques within the foyers and factories was regarded as regressive by labor movements whose triumph had been to keep Church authority at bay. The issue of scarves for Muslim schoolgirls similarly seemed to undermine the hard-won French principles of secular liberty in public space. The French have heard challenges such as, “You think you are in France, but the earth belongs only to Allah! It is our mission to ‘Koranize’ the region,” however rare, with great concern (The Times [London], November 27, 1989).

As in the British case, the most cherished values of the culture seemed to be threatened: freedom of speech, secularism, the rights of women to equality (if the scarf was interpreted, as it was, as a symbol of restriction of women). Thus, on the scarf: “Ce fantastique retour en arrière: la légitimation, au nom de ‘la tolérance’ de l’inégalité entre les garçons et les filles” (Gaspard 1989).

In the end, both opponents of the veil, citing regression and women’s rights, and the defenders, citing tolerance and pluralism, can be seen to converge in positing a fundamental Muslim difference. Beyond freedom of expression and women’s rights, Muslims have been charged with flaunting yet more principles, those of architectural and landscape conservation, as described below by John Eade, and of animal rights, as noted in relation to animal sacrifice by Moustapha Diop. That at least some of these anxieties masked a “displaced discourse” of fear of difference and racism is indisputable. That very difference, constituted in part in the colonial relationship, had now come home. It had come home, moreover, at a time when the whole project of the nation-state as master of its own autonomous fate—whether economic or military—was clearly at stake. And in the case of Europeans, with the accomplishment of the European Community, political autonomy and cultural identity seemed threatened as well.

Observers have watched with astonishment as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France has moved up to gain some 15 percent of the vote. Taking scant pleasure in the fact that “John Bull racists have made less headway over the past decade than their likes elsewhere in Europe,” the Economist (December 7, 1991) expressed fear that hard economic times would be coupled with new kinds of nationalistic politics concomitant with the European union. Stanley Hoffman (1992) attributes recent protest votes in Germany, France, and Italy in large part to the issue of immigration (noting, however, that in France that protest vote was equally divided between Le Pen and the ecologists). Issues of “clandestine immigration” (Miller 1991) and the scientifically specious “threshold of tolerance” target all nonwhites as a problem (Silverman 1991). Attacks on Turks in Germany in the early 1990s were linked to expressions of defensive German nationalism.

Ironically, it has been precisely in such divisive issues as the Rushdie affair in Britain and the affair of the scarves in France that Muslims have shown themselves most clearly as participants in their states of residence. In Britain, as Werbner has perceptively observed, spokesmen for the banning deployed arguments of democracy, equal rights (for example, in application of the blasphemy law), and multiculturalism (Werbner, forthcoming). Similarly, as Bloul shows below, Maghrebi defenders of the right to wear scarves in public, just like opponents, invoked what they saw as normative French values. In part, then, the conflicts represented arguments of emphasis and interpretation in a shared democratic or republican discursive tradition, a point largely missed both by those fearful of the Muslim presence and by those who invoked cultural relativity and tolerance in the name of liberalism.

Yet crises have, in fact, also seen Muslims assert the difference between “Islam” and “the West,” linking the plight of diaspora Muslims to that of Muslims in Palestine, Bosnia, Kashmir, and so forth. African-Americans stress their links to Muslim societies elsewhere, evident in home decoration (McCloud, this volume), the names of mosques such as Sankore recalling the great centers of learning of Timbuktu (Dannin, this volume), and educational and Sufi exchanges with Muslims in places like Senegal (Kemal Ali, oral comments). This stance of Muslim minorities has provoked fears of foreign funding and political conspiracy, but must be seen as only one strand in Muslim political orientations and imagination. Muslims who have taken on a politicized public identity may question the totalizing culture of the nation-state and assert that they are, in fact, distinct (Asad 1990). In this, they participate in the new solidarities that contribute to the changed context of the state today and to the creation of transnational networks of every kind. The “claims” on space are thus complex and not exhausted by ties to the homeland or participation, on whatever terms, in the new state, however important both may be.

The essays on communal religious expressions in mosques and processions must be seen against this context. Gulzar Haider’s architectural career (chapter 1) moved from the creation of mosques meant to obscure a Muslim presence to mosques meant to proclaim it. This change mirrors major shifts in architectural styles quite apart from Islam and is as true in old Muslim areas as new. Meanwhile, as Susan Slyomovics documents in the case of a movie theater (chapter 11), some of the old “Orientalist” buildings can now be “reclaimed.” Mosques now announce a Muslim presence.

The new mosque in Bradford is, for example, to be built on a hill and is meant to be observed; it is a symbol of vigor, surrounded by run-down houses and an abandoned church. Figure 3 shows the groundbreaking being immortalized by a photographer from the mosque, who is himself being photographed by a reporter (presumably) from the local Telegraph and Argus, while a British ethnographer photographs them both in the act of taking photographs. What Muslims in Europe and North America do is watched. “We expect [the mosque] to stand here long after we are gone. People are observing us and in a sense we are representing Islam in France,” the Algerian imam of a Turkish–North African mosque in Lorraine explained to a reporter (New York Times, November 20, 1990).

Figure 3. Laying a mosque foundation, under the gaze of receding photographers, Fairfield Road, Bradford, England, 1986. Bradford Libraries and Information Services, Bradford Historical Research Unit, Oral Histories Project.

The emphasis on architectural expressions in recent decades has been criticized as an undue accommodation to non-Muslim ideas of “sacred space” (Eade, this volume). Thus Hajji Taslim Ali, a participant in the Tablighi Jama‘t (Metcalf, this volume), insists that the only importance of a mosque is its function: “You can pray anywhere so long as it is neat and clean. In the Western world we need a mosque because in the winter you can’t pray outside. This country is cold and draughty” (The Independent, October 17, 1990). The noted architect Abdel Wahed el-Wakil argues, however, that “sacred architecture” is in fact inherent in Islam (ibid.). For many Muslims in the diaspora the importance of the mosque has, moreover, come to rest in its symbolic role as a mark of their presence (Poston 1992: 94–95). Sacred or not, mosques increasingly represent Islam in the West to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Muslim processions, like mosques, address a non-Muslim audience. The meaning of Muhurram is different if the participants are concerned to demonstrate that “Islam is Peace” to non-Muslims and to show civic goodwill by transmuting self-flagellation into a blood drive (Schubel, this volume). Muslim processions, as Susan Slyomovics notes of the nonritual procession of Muslim World Day in New York, are also walking texts, emphasizing the sacred Word. Although the signboards may be directed at other Muslims, as Werbner notes, they may also address outsiders.

Self-presentation and contestation with the larger community, within the context of the nation-state, contribute to the formation of an ethnic identity defined as Muslim. At the same time, differences among Muslims may, in some contexts, also be salient. In the essays presented here, Islamic practice and behavior take place largely in milieux defined by language, ethnicity, and sect. Indo-Pakistanis meet in one another’s homes to sing, recite, and pray;[16] African-Americans form neighborhoods and worship together in prisons; North African and West African workers in France tend to interact separately; mosques are often ethnically defined. A metaphor for such difference is the design of the mosque in Lorraine mentioned above, which explicitly joins North African and Turkish motifs (New York Times, November 29, 1990). This at once underlines the fact that there are two distinctive communities involved, but that, in this context, they unite as “Muslim.”


Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.