Muslim identity politics in the UK, 1960-2010: Development, challenges, and the future as illustrated by the fate of freedom of expression

Khadijah Elshayyal

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The past four decades have witnessed a tremendous amount of change and development in the area of British Muslim identity politics. From the establishment and growth of local and regional community groups, to international Islamic movements taking root in the UK and making an impact on the attitudes and aspirations Muslim communities. From the Rushdie affair and its legacy, through to the impact of international terrorism (9/11), and terrorism on home soil (7/7), all of these events have left their unmistakeable mark on Britain’s Muslim communities. While there has been much recent academic study on British Muslims, there has been a lack of in-depth focus given to critically charting the development of a formal identity politics through official representative organisations, in the context of the rationale for claims that have been put forward towards government, their evolution and refinement over time and the impact of factors such as multiculturalism, Islamophobia and securitisation.

With this thesis, I aim to contribute towards filling this gap in the literature. I first examine how formal Muslim identity politics ‘scene’ developed into the current familiar form. I look at some of the theory that has been used both to explain and to justify it. This includes examining aspects of British culture, and that of immigrant Muslim communities, which have informed and complicated approaches to engagement and dialogue at one and the same time. It also involves looking at notions of equality as recognition, and the idea of misrecognition. I propose that ever since the Rushdie affair of 1989, political claims put forward by Muslim organisations have been driven by the existence of an ‘equality gap’, and a keen desire to close this gap has informed and motivated their identity politics.

Freedom of expression is a theme of particular interest. In the form of the Rushdie affair, it was a major trigger for the coming together of disparate Muslim groups to collectively engage with the government. Since then it has consistently been a site of much sensitivity, contention and debate. Deploying examples relating to freedom of expression, I illustrate how Muslim identity politics has evolved over the years and how priorities as well as tactics for Muslim groups and successive governments with whom they have engaged have both shifted and changed.

Comparing and contrasting Muslim identity politics with the experiences of Britain’s Jewish communities, I draw out salient points of commonality and difference in their respective communal organisations. By pointing out how similar Muslim claims towards government have been to those made by Jews in the past, I show not only how Muslim identity politics has consciously benefited from the prior experiences of British Jewry, but, importantly, that Muslim political claims are not as exceptional or unreasonable as critics might suggest.

Finally, I take stock of how British Muslim identity politics has progressed over this period, assessing the extent to which the ‘equality gap’ has been closed. I argue that while it has been considerably narrow, the events of recent decades have led to a change in its focus. I present projections and recommendations on the future of Muslim identity politics in the UK. I argue that whereas in the past period, Muslim organisations were overwhelmingly preoccupied with lobbying of the state, the future of identity politics lies in harnessing the potential of civic partnerships based on shared interests between diverse communities. This approach, when supplemented with the traditional lobbying role played by representative groups, can more effectively address the ‘equality gap’.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Ansari, Humayun, Supervisor
Award date1 Jan 2014
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • British Muslims
  • Identity politics
  • freedom of expression
  • Multiculturalism
  • Islamophobia
  • equality

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