Ethnocentrism is no way out

Back in November, Ali Eteraz criticised the ‘coming out’ of a more assertive religious identity by people of Muslim origin in Western societies. Ali’s major concern was that the linguisic and ethnic differences amongst Muslim peoples are marginalised or ignored for the catch-all “Muslim” label — that Muslims were engaged in promoting the same monolithic view of themselves which their critics hold of them.

I am sure there are really interesting avenues to pursue here (for example, universalism, romanticism, and cultural protectionism amongst Muslim peoples). However, I don’t see why promotion of ethnocentric identities (Pakistani, Indian, Lebanese, Afghan, Turk, etc) is any better than the ‘Muslim’ label. Ali’s concern that the “Muslim” label ties a British or American Muslim in with what Muslims elsewhere do, can be mirrored (much more strongly in a world of nation-states I would argue) with the hyphenated identities he wants to promote. And, contrary to what Ali implies, “Muslims” were identified by their ethnic origins for many years: we have Pakistanis in Britain, Turks in Germany, Algerians in France and Moroccans in Holland for many years — none of this has necessarily helped overcome racism and bigotry they face. Indeed, I don’t see how being “African American” or “Roma” has helped these peoples, even though they have been around for a lot longer than Muslims in US or Europe, respectively.

I do agree with him that some cultural identities (e.g. Iranian, Turkish) seem a bit more ‘secure’ and well-rounded than others — I am sure this will have something to do with the relative age of how the nations imagine themselves too, given that history appears to be as important (if not more important) to human societies than blood and biology. For example, it is a little harder for Pakistanis to call upon ancient histories (this hasn’t stopped some strained attempts) than Iranians — the latter can call upon a heritage that predates the advent of Islam, and even with the rise of Islam the influences of Iranian pre-Islamic heritage are clearly with us today.

I suspect that most of the impetus behind being “British Muslim” rather than “British Pakistani” has to do with a desire to distance oneself from cultural origins that are seen as a restraint in a way religion might not be. For example, I would not all be surprised if the rise of “British Muslim” over, say, “British Pakistani” is in many cases an attempt to overcome cultural conservatism (“Islam gives women rights” is an oft-cited phrase in the face of conservative attitudes towards family and women in Indo-Pak communities).

Just as importantly, religious groups, sects and schisms form part of the histories of America and Britain (Quakers, Jews, Non Conformists, Puritans, Methodists, Evangelicals and so on); seen form this perspective “Muslims” are just another addition to these groups.

Whilst I understand Ali’s desire is to oppose unnecessary ‘theocentrism’ in the public sphere, and even identify with it in some cases, you cannot stop people coalescing around whatever label they wish to identify themselves with. In my view it is better to get people to work together whatever they wish to call themselves.

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1 Response to “Ethnocentrism is no way out”


  1. 1 Aasem Bakhshi December 21, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    I agree with you . Presenting Ethnocentrism as an alternative to theocentrism is a complex proposition in itself. While I don’t belong to a religiously plural society I can foresee that ethnocentrism might present greater difficulties than religious partisanship in multicultural societies.


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