Identity is a significant issue for Muslims in the UK. If you are born in the UK of South Asian heritage, do you identify primarily as Muslim, British or Asian (or Bengali, Kashmiri, Gujarati)? Or do you adopt some form of hyphenated identity – British-Asian, British-Muslim etc? For a decade I lived in north-west China, studying ethnic identity of a Chinese minority people called the Hui. I was interested in how the Hui people viewed their identity – did they identify primarily as Hui, as Chinese or as Muslims? This made me consider how the Hui ethnic identity had been historically constructed, how it had been influenced both by the Chinese State, and by their Islamic heritage. Such identity construction can be seen as a negotiation between two strong centres of influence: the first, the Chinese Party State, in a nation-building project beginning from the Communist Revolution in 1949 (and continuing to the present day – the current situation with the Uighurs is a current brutal extrapolation of this), sought to establish a common national Chinese identity that all the minority people groups could share. Such shared identity is essential for national unity and stability. The second, Islamic identity, was something that had been inherited over generations of Hui people whose culture, language and religious practice was shaped by being Muslims. Different Islamic influences over the centuries had left behind at least four major sects of Islam, each demonstrating a different attitude to the question of identity.
Muslims in China are Chinese citizens, and are members of officially designated ethnic minorities, with their minority group stamped on their Identity Card. Unlike other Muslim ethnic minorities in China, who originated as Central Asians but were incorporated into China’s polity through territorial expansion (like Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz etc), Hui Chinese have a 1400-year history of belonging, of intermarriage with Han Chinese, and are largely perceived as patriotic Chinese citizens, loyal to the Party, yet free to practice Islam under Chinese law. But Islamic awareness has been growing. The reconstruction of mosques, tomb complexes and madrassas in NW China progressed at a pace in the years 2000-2015, as the country got richer, and as Islamic awareness and influence in China likewise grew. Although members of some sectarian groups self-identified as ‘Muslim’ as a primary identity, others either chose ‘Hui’ or ‘Chinese’ as their preferred primary identifier. Government suspicion of those that preferred to prioritise a Muslim identity to a Chinese or ethnic identity led to State-imposed restrictions on some sectarian groups. Opposition to Muslim practices that highlighted the segregation of Hui from the majority Han was frequently remarked on by Han observers.
Now living in West Yorkshire, I reflect on the parallels I see in identity politics here; in the tensions between British Muslims and the White majority. Positive examples of excellent community cohesion and acceptance of ethnically diverse communities are perhaps being undermined from two directions. The first is from those White majority British who are concerned at the rising proportion of Muslims in Britain, fear the imposition of Sharia law, the rapid change in our society, and the presence of so-called ‘no-go’ areas for White people in some of our cities. Whilst not wanting to appear racist, and sensitive to the accusation of Islamophobia, they have grave concerns over perceived threats to free-speech, to women’s rights, to LGBT rights and to ‘our British way of life’. The second is from those Muslims belonging to the more conservative, Scriptural-literalist, some say ‘fundamentalist’, groups who may actively support segregation in defence of true Islam. ‘Muslim’ is their preferred identity above either their ethnic identity, or their British national identity – of which they may well be proud. As the nation’s demographics continue to shift toward an increasingly larger Muslim minority, we all need to become more conversant with Islam, and better equipped to participate in addressing the issues that perpetuate segregation.