The Magazine

A Muslim Identity Crisis

Rotherham and the failure of multiculturalism

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Islam conveys a powerful sense of group identity. As all monotheisms do, Islam divides the world between “us” and “them.” Unlike Christianity, the other universal faith, which has been fundamentally transformed—compartmentalized and miniaturized—by Europe’s wars of religion and the Enlightenment, Islam retains a greater attachment to the idea of a borderless religious community, the umma. Even when the faith is attenuated or gone, most often by the unrelenting secularization that comes with Westernization, the collective identity can remain. This shared identity has a greater pull on men: Islam is a profoundly fraternal religion. Even when the traditional faith has evanesced, this sense of brotherhood can remain. It can be easily politicized. This is one reason why Westernized Muslims who have rarely if ever gone to mosques, have little idea of the Koran and the Prophetic Traditions, and have never lived by the Holy Law can quickly—maddeningly fast in the eyes of Western counterterrorist officers trying to find, follow, and neutralize them—mutate into holy warriors who could turn on their former, non-Muslim compatriots. This same sense of fraternity, perversely twisted and Westernized, can lead Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Afghan men to band together in wolf packs to hunt girls in Rotherham. These girls existed outside of their moral universe where the predators’ wives, sisters, and daughters live.

Western criminals—the Mafia most famously—often similarly segregate their souls and families. But it is an undeniable fact that within Islam this ethical stratification is easier to do since historically, legally, the world was sharply bifurcated between believer and unbeliever. Classical Islamic legal scholars, who’d fortunately advanced beyond the Arab tribal practices that viewed the killing of foreigners as more a question of etiquette than moral deliberation, resolutely defended the sanctity of non-Muslim life and property within Muslim realms. But even in the best of circumstances, there remained a moral division between Muslim and non-Muslim, superior versus inferior. This separation can allow for considerable hubris and abuse. In modern times, in the hands of poorly educated young men, in the West and in the Middle East, it can aid unspeakable crimes.

Muslim immigrants to the West, and their descendants, can have a very difficult time losing the sense of “otherness” that all immigrants have. My Pakistani-English roommate at university in Great Britain, a bright, curious, fun-loving fellow who was studying medicine, had the damndest time self-identifying as an Englishman even though he was born and raised in England, had no real knowledge of Pakistan, couldn’t read the Koran in Arabic, and really had no idea of what it meant when he read it in English. Khalid was an Englishman, almost as thoroughly English as my classmate from Kent, John Smith. But for Khalid to call himself an Englishman was in some sense an act of betrayal to his parents’ homeland, which he’d never seen, and, most importantly, his beloved, devout parents, who’d risked all so that their children could have better lives even if—as Khalid’s father once put it to me—it meant that their children lost their faith. 

All European identities—even the Albanian and Bosnian Muslim ones—have been forged through a Christian experience. Secular Britons may no longer see the crosses of Europe’s most beautiful flag; Muslims do. When the English and Pakistani worlds collided in Khalid’s home, there was a sadness amidst the bountiful love that nourished and launched five clever children into educational and professional success. That sadness—the inevitable friction of incompatible ideas and sentiments living side-by-side—when not enveloped by love and humor and a tangible sense of progress can easily drown youths desperately in search of an identity. The West, with its unrelenting individualism, can be a harsh, cold place for third-world immigrants and their children. Add on the bigotry that comes so easily in Europe, where, unlike America, there are deeply rooted national cultures of which the natives are justifiably proud and protective, and European police and counterterrorist officers face a Molotov cocktail of deviancies.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers