The evolution of British Islamic activism

Sadek HamidSadek Hamid

This article is one of a series on Muslim civil society in Britain.

Islamic activism in Britain has gone through several different stages over the last three decades, corresponding to the demographic growth, maturation and indigenisation of Islam in Britain. This article sketches the development of paradigmatic religious trends that emerged among Muslim youth during the 1990s, explaining the various movements that were active and showing how their legacies continue to influence the landscape of British Muslim faith-based activism.

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The recent report, Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance, illustrates how British Muslims lobbied for state recognition of Muslim distinctiveness and inclusion within governance structures.[1] It clearly presented the diverse ways Muslims have engaged the state and influenced policy circles through representative umbrella organisations and via electoral politics both at a local and national level. Whilst these organisations addressed Muslim claims in secular space, other Muslim organisations styled themselves as part of a religious vanguard that would lead faith-based social transformation using religious reform models that travelled with the 1960s generation of immigrant settlers.

Transnational Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood[2] and Jamaati-Islami[3] established infrastructures in the 1960s and 1970s that led to the creation of some of the most visible faith-based Muslim organisations in Britain such as the UK Islamic Mission (UKIM), the Islamic Foundation and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). These institutions contributed to the creation of a number of Islamic youth movements that would be founded in the 1980s and gain prominence in the 1990s. Many former members of these movements now hold senior positions in influential Muslim civil society organisations, mainstream politics, the civil service, academia and the media.

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“In Britain in the 1980s there was a widespread feeling that most mosques were failing to engage young people.”

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In the social milieu of Britain in the 1980s, there was a widespread feeling that most mosques were failing to engage young people, and the resulting search for identities that harmonised ethnicity, religion and British culture were among the main factors that enabled the emergence of religious revival groups. The iconic ‘Rushdie Affair’ was also instrumental in provoking significant numbers of second generation British Muslims to begin to consider what their faith meant to them. Furthermore, international crises throughout the 1990s awakened religious consciousness and a sense of transnational solidarity with other Muslims in conflicts such as the first Gulf war, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and frustration over unresolved political disputes in Palestine and Kashmir.

In the 1990s, young British Muslims who wanted to take their faith seriously and participate in collective religious activism could choose between four dominant religious orientations. The significant actors in the field of Islamic activism at the time were the reformist Young Muslims UK (YM), the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT),[4] the Salafi[5] oriented JIMAS and the neo-Sufi, ‘Traditional Islam’ (TI) network.[6] As national trends, they created alternative ‘moral communities’ and most were indigenised adaptations of religious currents rooted in the Middle East or Indian sub-continent. Their influence had a national impact among young people compared to the more privatised piety of trends such as the Deobandis[7] and Barelwis[8] or more localised work of organisations such as the London-based Young Muslim Organisation (YMO).

Hizb_ut-Tahrir_demo_kbh
A demonstration organised by members of the radical revivalist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir

Reformist youth activism in Britain is best exemplified by the Jamaati-Islami inspired work of YM, YMO and the youth wing of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). Reformist activism with young people was based on the aim of reconnecting Muslim youth with their religious heritage and creating an elite leadership. This type of youth reformism is predicated on the view that Muslim young people were failing to retain their parents’ religious values, becoming secularised and required role models and environments that would provide ‘halal’ ways of meeting their intellectual, social and spiritual needs.

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“Between 1995 and 2001 the largest Islamic activist groups all suffered internal organisational problems due to conflicts within their leaderships.”

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The revolutionary message of HT in Britain has remained consistent with its project of establishment of a modern Caliphate, as the solution to all the problems facing contemporary Muslim societies. In contrast, JIMAS represented a scripturalist approach to Muslim beliefs and practices; they wanted to purge what they believed were religious innovations (bid‘a) that occurred historically after the first three generations of Muslims. The TI network on the other hand, is a diffuse, overlapping set of Sufi Muslim scholars and institutions which subscribe to set of historical normative understandings of Islam and pursue positive individual and community change. To periodise their development in Britain, I suggest that British Islamic activism has passed through six phases:

1. Arrival: Correlates with the arrival of the settler generation in the 1960s and 1970s. In this era, reformist organisations such as UKIM and FOSIS were created. Activists in this era were a combination of overseas students and those that choose to become British citizens.

2. Inception: Refers to the mid-1980s where three of the main trends created their organisations to focus on Muslim youth – in particular YM and JIMAS in 1984, while HT emerged in Britain around 1986.

3. Establishment: Covers the early 1990s when YM, HT and JIMAS all acquired a national following and were influential outside of their own activist circles. All of them had strong representation in most cities and towns with large Muslim communities and were able to attract young people into their activities, until their membership peaked around 1995. During this time HT, YM and JIMAS were very active in most university campuses and crafted a visible public image. However, this period was the inception stage for the TI network from 1995 onwards.

4. Fragmentation: Occurred during the period between 1995-2001, when YM, JIMAS and HT all suffered internal organisational problems due to conflicts within their respective leaderships, causing senior members to resign and go on and, in the case of JIMAS and HT, create successor organisations. This left the organisations in a state of uncertainty and crisis. For YM, the departure of two of its national presidents left the group in a state of limbo and encouraged some members to defect to other trends such as the MAB and the TI network.

5. Renewal: Overlaps with the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s in that YM and HT, in particular, spent time trying to salvage their organisations and re-launch their work. HT in Britain had to reassess its position and recalibrate its message and methods. YM during this time struggled to maintain itself as many of the 1990s generation left for other groups, developed their own localised work or withdrew from activism altogether. JIMAS had to compete with various alternative Salafi trends as well as the increasing popularity of ultra-radical Jihadi figures.

6. Current: Began in the early 2000s and was deeply impacted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 7/7 and subsequent changes in political climate. This marked a point where the Islamic activist scene saw a significant displacement of the three ideological trends (YM, HT and JIMAS), and witnessed the increasing popularity and the establishment stage of the TI network. It also marks the appearance of new forms of activism that either grew from the work of former organisation members, people who had decided to become activists during this period or through a new generation of activists that became involved in Islamic activism in the post-7/7 era.

Proud_to_be_Queer_&_Muslim_(4760275339)
The existence of LGBT Muslim groups is reflective of the more diverse Muslim activist landscape that has emerged since the new millennium

Each phase corresponded with the demographic growth, maturation and indigenisation of Islam in Britain. The movements most influential in the mid-1990s transformed dramatically towards the end of that decade by a complex combination of changing intra-community dynamics and shifting external socio-political realities. During the 1990s, the various Islamic trends worked in a highly competitive climate, each purporting to represent ‘true Islam’. The highly competitive Islamic scene of the 1990s, and the fragmentation that occurred during the middle of it, caused a number of people at both leadership and follower level to broaden their horizons and reconsider their loyalties.

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“The latest phase of Islamic activism is characterised by a new cultural confidence that emphasizes Britishness and presents Islamic activism less of a minority interest.”

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People who became impatient with the narrow rigidities of religious conservatism or ideological versions of Islam, but were still committed to their faith, began searching outside of these dominant trends for inspiration. While some people made long term commitments and stayed loyal to one particular trend into their adult lives, others sampled various trends after first encountering them at college, university or through their community activities. Some that had negative experiences with a group left the trend or even ceased practicing the religion. For others, disillusionment with a trend motivated them to develop their own localised activist project, in some cases developing new initiatives that have since gained a national profile.

Islamic activist organisations post 9/11 and particularly 7/7 have willingly or otherwise had to modify their missions and modi operandi in the light of internal fragmentation, social and generational change, a different political environment and the advent of new forms of communication technology. A major development within the Islamic activist scene has been the different ways in which they experimented with expressing their religious identities. This latest phase is characterised by a new cultural confidence that emphasizes Britishness and presents Islamic activism as fashionable, exciting and less of a minority interest than in the preceding three decades. There is a now vibrant British Muslim cultural scene manifested in forms of pious art, music, fashion, humour and new media technologies.

Today, the most popular forms of activism are eclectic as people choose to participate strategically in what they get involved with and will alternate and ‘consume’ Islamic activities, according to their interests and needs. At the same time, Islamic activists in the current period are perhaps facing greater challenges than their predecessors given the greater range of challenges in dealing with public anxieties around the threat of terrorism, questioning of Multiculturalism, mainstreaming of Islamophobia and harsh economic climate. As a result, most of these groups are now keen to be seen as relevant to wider societal concerns and make a point of demonstrating their contributions to broader society: for instance, YM organises fundraisers for Cancer Research UK, JIMAS has reinvented itself as a voluntary organisation that actively promotes participation in civil society, and even HT has attempted to address the use of drugs in some Muslim communities.

Sadek Hamid is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at Liverpool Hope University. His work has focused in the areas of British Muslim young people and religious activism. He is currently researching British and American Muslim attitudes towards the concept of Jihad. He is co-editor of Youth Work and Islam: A Leap of Faith for Young People (Sense, 2011) and author of the forthcoming Sufis, Salafis & Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism (I.B Tauris, 2014).


[1] Therese O’Toole et al., Taking Part: Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance (Bristol: University of Bristol, 2013).

[2] Otherwise known in arabic as the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, an influential religio-political reform movement founded in Egypt, 1928.  For further background see Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West (Columbia University Press: New York, 2010).

[3] Another influential religio-political reform movement created in India, 1941.  For further background see Syed Vali Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: Jama’at-i Islami of Pakistan (I.B Tauris, London, 2002).

[4] This transnational Islamic movement was established in Palestine in 1952, for more information about their current work see: http://www.hizb.org.uk/

[5] Salafis subscribe to an austere textually based interpretation of Islam and are known for their insistence on matters of correct doctrine and ritual worship. For more information see Roel Meijer (ed) Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (Hurst & Co Publishing Ltd: London, 2009).

[6] Sufis tend to focus on the spiritual dimensions Islamic faith and practice. For further information see Ron Geaves and Theodore Gabriel (eds) Sufism in Britain: Trends and Transformations (Bloomsbury, 2013).

[7] Followers of the Islamic revivalist school initiated in 1866, Deoband, India. Deobandis regarded themselves as both intellectual and spiritual teachers combining the law and Sufism, although they advocated a responsible Sufism shorn of its ‘esoteric’ excesses.

[8] Barelwis make up perhaps the greatest number of South Asian British Muslims and are distinguished by their particular understanding of the nature of the Prophet Muhammad and adherence to popular Sufi devotional practices.

The image of Hizb ut-Tahrir is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. The image of LGBT Muslims is also included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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