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The Association For British Muslims

Islam:Why the Inferiority Complex?

(Edited and extracted from a speech by Daoud Rosser-Owen to the Cambridge University Islamic Society, February 1996)

[© Daoud Rosser-Owen 1996, 1999. All Rights Reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means electronic or otherwise without the prior written permission of the author available through the ABM and must be with this entire notice attached (both headers and footers)]

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There is a sort of "Music Hall" style anecdote one could bring into this business about an inferiority complex, which was quoted to me by a psychologist friend of mine the other day. When she was younger, her brother used to say to her, "You don't have an inferiority complex, you're just inferior!".

In a way this is a legitimate point to make. It could bethat Islam, or some Muslims, are inferior. As Muslims, we wouldn't agree to this, because, of course, there is a Quranic verse which says that, "Today, I have perfected for you your religion". And, therefore, a Muslim couldn't accept the proposition that Islam is in any way inferior. If there are some Muslims who have an inferiority complex, then, we have to investigate 'why?'.

There are, to me, a number of possible explanations for this. One is that when one says that these people - undefined - have an inferiority complex, one is presuming that this is a subjective judgement of an observer; that is, some person who considers himself, or herself, to be an extremely good Muslim and who sees somebody else, whom they consider to be somewhat lacking in the 'goodness' of their Islam, and charitably judges their behaviour to be the result of an 'inferiority complex'. But this is, let's make no mistake, a subjective comment from a committed observer.

It seems to me that this can lead to two further possibilities: one is that we're in reality dealing with an apparent, but not necessarily an actual, inferiority complex that demonstrates a certain pattern of behaviour, a certain way of conducting oneself in one's daily life so that the observer considers one to be deficient. And the other possibility is that we do actually see an inferiority complex!

The same psychologist friend of mine, whose brain and knowledge I was shamelessly tapping to try and prepare this speech, said that there is a well-known psychological phenomenon among people (many of whom consider that their beliefs or their attitudes are not in any way inferior - in fact, sometimes they even have a sort of superiority complex), where they have been the target of consistent and irrational persecution, demonisation, and discrimination, that they begin to behave in a conciliatory and submissive manner, in order to attempt to mitigate the effects of what is being directed at them. They behave in this way, and they eventually arrive at a point where they actually conduct themselves in such a way that they are inferior to their persecutors and detractors.

This is a well-known phenomenon and it has been particularly well-documented amongst Central European Jews in the period up to and including the Nazi Holocaust. A corollary of this, interestingly, is that this can have a long-lasting and trans-generational effect, so that it's now well-known that many of the descendants of people who were concentration camp victims during the Holocaust themselves display an excessive and ultra-conciliatory pose towards the persecutors of their parents. This is not simply a phenomenon of the Jewish victims; it's just that it has been better documented by them. I imagine that a similar state of affairs exists with 'Gypsies', 'communists', and members of the various 'resistances'.

This attempt to conciliate your persecutor usually doesn't work - look what happened in Germany - but nevertheless people still tend to try it to take the pressure off them, and especially off their families, and one is seeing it in the Muslim World at the moment. It was particularly noticeable in the attitude of certain people up until about 1993-4 in Bosnia. This is a matter of survival and, having seen it fairly close-to myself, I feel personally that we don't really have the right to judge people who are just trying to survive.

But, we should be warned. We are actually, in this country, coming very close to the beginnings of just such a situation. It's a sort of overflow from what's going on in France, Germany, and other parts of the 'European Union' and the authorities here seem to be playing up to it. Let us not overlook the many recent statements of EU officials and enthusiasts, that the EU is a recreation of Charlemagne's Empire (not noteworthy for its religious tolerance), and is a 'Christian union'. The amount of casual and wilful targeting of Muslims is actually mounting, and you see displayed amongst some Muslims an attempt to second-guess this and actually suck up to the host society; which brings us back to our inferiority complex, perhaps.

Another interesting thing to some people is that these same persecutions happen even in Muslim countries, and one can adduce several examples: Egypt is one that immediately leaps to mind, Saudi Arabia is another, Bahrain, and the list goes on and on and on. The subjective observer from earlier would say, "Well, these aren't properly Muslim countries". Right, this is true, these aren't 'properly Muslim countries' (this is a very personal and subjective phrase, and what I understand by it may not be what you do; so, be cautious!), in fact there isn't a 'properly Muslim country' in this World at the moment - so let's not live our lives in a fantasy, but in reality; and deal with the world we've actually got, and not one that we would like it to be (but which, I emphasise again, it isn't).

What one is dealing with are countries that may well have Muslims as inhabitants, and peoples who may or may not have Muslims as rulers; but the fact is that we're dealing more or less with countries that do not actually fit into any particular definition of what might traditionally constitute a 'Muslim country', let alone the much written about 'Islamic State'.

There is a hadith,which is often quoted by people, some of them very tiresome and opinionated people, that states in effect that after the State ruled by the Prophet, peace be upon him, it would continue more or less as it was under the early generations of Muslims who were the rightly-guided Caliphs. And then, following on from them, but deteriorating all the time, it would be ruled by various categories of people. However, one of the variant transmissions of this particular hadithgoes on to conclude (after the statement that the Caliphs will be followed by kings) with wa ba'da-l mulouki, jabaabeerah,"and after the kings, tyrants". Now, this is very illuminating; for that's where we are now, or very nearly. It's certainly something for the 'Putney Debaters', 'Diggers', 'Levellers', 'Fifth Monarchy Men' (and women), would-be regicides, and general 'Islamic Republicans' among our contemporary Muslims to reflect about. Get rid of your king, and what did the Messenger, peace be upon him, say you'll get? No need to answer that, folks...

To leap back to the group I called the "apparent" inferiority complex victims; these "apparent" people seem to be Muslims who have acquired their life-style values from somewhere other than Islam - for them, Islam is not necessarily the sole or main driving force in their lives. They may be quite happy being accountants, or whatever, and Islam to them is something that is a sort of colourful appendage to their sub-culture; in the same way that their Jewish colleague of the same genre,who is sitting at his desk across the passage, might go to his nephew's Bar Mitzvah, and the synagogue maybe on a Saturday, and so on, but tries to avoid having to have too much to do with enthusiasts who support Kach, Gush Emunim, or the 'Settler' movement, so too this Muslim might go to the mosque on a Friday (but try to avoid having much to do with the generality of the 'Muslims' there), and enjoy his cousin's shadi.

This pattern is quite well-established amongst religious groups in this country and many Muslims are falling into it. It seemed to me that this is actually quite interesting, because there may be something that this is telling us about what these Muslims are not seeing in Islam. This raises the fundamental question for all Muslims, and especially for would-be du'ah: "Through what sort of picture is Islam being presented to these people, and to the non-Muslim host society in which they're living?"

It seems to me that there are two types of general broad-brush categories for this picture: a cultural survival from 'back home', and a revolutionary movement for dealing with the post-colonial and post-imperial worlds.

To many of these people Islam is a cultural manifestation of something that their grandparents had back in Egypt, Pakistan (when it was still British India), and was brought with them when they came to the United Kingdom, or America, or France in the case of Algerians, and so on. But it's something that is very much, to them, identified with village culture in the Punjab or Upper Egypt, or wherever, and has village manifestations. It's the Islam of the village pir;the Islam that has nothing much deeper in it than the normal things that you find in villages all over the world - and it doesn't have to be 'Muslim villages', for village life basically tends to be village life wherever it be located, from Idaho to Cheshire to Johore, and doesn't translate very well into a dynamic urban society.

To a great degree for many of those people who see this picture, Islam is quaint, out-of-date, and anachronistic; and basically does not offer them anything as a solution to the stresses and emotional and metaphysical difficulties of the day-to-day environment they find themselves in. They would feel as embarrassed to be seen as a 'good Muslim', if this is what active Islam is, as they would be if it got out that they keep chickens in the garage and graze a nanny goat on the lawn at the back of the house. Leaping into your BMW and hammering down the M1 to go to your office in the City to work as an accountant or solicitor is one world, and then going along to your cousin's shadiis another world, and they don't meet except as a colourful and fun cultural embellishment to the mundane round of daily life. There is no other level at which they apparently connect.

This comes under the "Sociology of Migration" and it's been well-documented by the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin. You see it in Polish communities, and in Russian communities, and in Jewish communities, all over the world, where they hang onto something that they brought with them from "back there", and that to them in their diaspora is the essence of what they were. And then they find, distressingly, when they, in their generation, finally get to visit "back home" that not only is it no longer done, but dismissed out-of-hand as something quaint and ancient: "Oh my grand-parents stopped doing that, ages ago! That must have been 50-60 years ago; nobody does that in Warsaw (or Krakow, or Lodz) now!". And it's the same in Pakistan, or the Sudan, or Malaysia. This is a phenomenon of migrations. It's quite understandable that your accountant or solicitor doesn't find this particular style of Islam exactly fulfilling in some sort of meaningful or dynamic way. But he's quite as willing to have a "Church of England" sort of Islam as another colleague, who comes from Canon Pyon, is to be devout and follow the same "Church of England" sort of Christianity that he does in his home village.

If he's a pious Muslim - and many of them are - he (or she) will pray at home, read some Quran, go to the mosque, attend the occasional dhikr,but that'll be about it, really. They feel that there may be something more, somewhere, but they can't quite find it there in the 'village Islam' from "back home"; then what's the alternative that's presented to them? And this is a serious matter, for at least two reasons.

Firstly, to think of the Punjab, or Upper Egypt, or Bahr al Ghazal, or Eastern Anatolia as "home" becomes increasingly meaningless as time passes, even for that First Generation who migrated. For their grand-children and the subsequent generations it is verging on the absurd. "Home" for them, except on some esoteric sentimental plane, tends to be Manchester, Gary, Lyons, Glasgow, or Munich. Eventually the settlers realise that "home" is 'here', not 'there'; and start to see themselves differently. At this point they break with 'there'. It happens to all 'colonists' and 'migrants'; and only those who feel a grievance towards 'here' hark constantly back to some golden picture of 'there' to sustain it.

We have seen how powerful a sentiment this can be in the support given by Irish-Americans to the IRA, mostly based on a wholly false notion of Ireland and Irish history. As one Irishman commented about his American cousins, "to them it was all peace, light, and leprecauns, until Henry II and the coming of the English - or perhaps it was Cromwell - but, anyway, it was all the fault of the Brits... and it's all 'stuff and utter nonsense'. Unless you were a priest or a bard, you couldn't move out of your tribal area without getting killed except during the great quarter-day fairs. Only 'freemen' could get their honour-price in compensation, and most people weren't freemen, but effectively serfs. Our own people treated us much worse than ever did the English. But it's much easier to blame the Brits, and much more fun than having to deal with reality. Every dissident needs his bogeyman; and we had to be dissidents, otherwise we might have become too comfortable with the English".

And there are plenty of dissidents, frequently from abroad, feeding the grievances that abound among the Muslims here. Many of these grievances are only failures of perception, and, apart from an unconscionably high level of unemployment among Muslim youth, come about largely through an inability to see what one's identity is. This confusion is helped in no small way by a whole industry that is built on the perpetuation of racial divisions in society, and so many people are unable to answer the question 'who am I?'. To their elders, and to the race relations industry, the answer is simple: 'you are a Pakistani (or a Bangladeshi, or whatever)'. But he doesn't feel Pakistani, he actually feelsBritish, but then they keep telling him he can't be British, he's got to be a Pakistani; but he does have a British passport, but he's told that's only for convenience... but he is to call himself a 'British Muslim'. So how long is this 'British Muslim' to be a Pakistani, then? Forever? And then this is all made even more complicated when the people calling to the 'Real' Islam arrive. And for some of them, they begin to find comfort in the simplistic nostrums offered by these 'revivalists'. And this isn't just the case in Tower Hamlets or Sparkbrook; you find it too among people in Selly Oak or Hounslow, and in the universities.

And, secondly, the only alternative picture that's being presented, or is allowed to be presented, is that of these 'revivalists'. This unattractive and worrisome picture is what we're constantly having thrown back at us by the non-Muslims, and this is the picture you see on the television, or read about in the newspapers or magazines, or have in criticisms from your colleagues at work, or in university. And although we may say, "But this is a distortion! RealIslam isn't like that", we don't have anything to point to to back up what we're trying to say. And the trouble is that although what they're pointing to may be a distortion, there is, nevertheless, a reality to it. This is a very sad thing, that the picture of Islam for many people, Muslim and non-Muslim, is one of wild beasts or vultures harrying a dying man. This is the Islam that people identify us with nowadays. Car bombs in bus queues; bombs in a Paris Metro; people being gunned down in the street; schoolgirls having their throats cut; women being doused with petrol and set alight; tourists being murdered in Egypt; people being shot down in a mosque in Karachi; ignoramuses claiming that it is lawful to murder British or American or Israeli civilians, Christian or Jewish women and children. This is Islam!

The Messenger, peace be upon him, said, "Surely people, when they see something reprehensible and do not change it, are on the verge of all-embracing punishment by Allah". He, peace be upon him, also said, "When you see my community too intimidated by an oppressor to say 'You are an Oppressor', then say goodbye to them". And,"Command the fitting and forbid the reprehensible or Allah will give the worst of you power over the best of you; and the best of you will supplicate, and it will be left unanswered". Well, what these people are saying and doing is wrong; they are tyrants, and they are perverting Islam. But, as far as I can see (and hear), we are being deafened by the sound of connivance coming from the Muslim world and the leaders of the Muslim communities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. To aid an evil is to become a participant in it, and to receive a portion of its recompense. As Edmund Burke is said to have said, "For evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing".

For your accountant, in his BMW hammering down the M1 to work, what does that sort of Islam of the wild beasts and vultures have to offer him? It's not so much that he has an inferiority complex, it's just that the picture of Islam that he is being presented with is of something that he doesn't want, and doesn't want any part of! And this is in common with all those non-Muslims that the 'movement people' say they are "doing da'wah" among. Surely, he thinks (in his BMW, as he avoids the traffic cones), there's got to be another picture. He thinks this, because he's heard about it from a non-Muslim friend; probably from his Jewish colleague who sits across the way, and who is proud that his Sephardi ancestors got to Britain by the scenic route - escaping from Toledo to Cordoba to Granada, fleeing to North Africa from the Inquisition, then to Egypt and Ottoman Istanbul, and maybe Sarajevo for a while (many Spanish Jews were settled in Bosnia by the Ottomans). But where is this picture now?

This is a serious matter, because this other picture is almost wholly missing. Yet Islam, when it went to South-East Asia in the 14th-15th Centuries, came as such an attractive, beautiful thing for people to see that now you have 240 million Malay Muslims. The same thing happened in Central Asia. Two dervishes went to the Court of Khulagu Khan, the Mongol Emperor, and within 10 years, the whole of Central Asia became Muslim. So, now you have another 200 million or so Turkic Muslims. The same happened in Africa, so that in a big swathe across Africa on both sides of the Sahara are millions of Muslims because of the picture of Islam they had. The Islam that they were all seeing was something attractive, something beautiful, something "perfect", in the words of the Qur'an. Now, what has happened to thatpicture?

Those people certainly didn't have any inferiority complex. But it is, I think, quite understandable that our contemporaries should have an inferiority complex at what we are presenting ourselves as to the non-Muslims, and to our own brothers and sisters who live here. This is their country,... this is your country,... just as much as it is mine. It doesn't really matter, we're all here,... this is ourcountry!

Islam in this country is evolving. It is becoming a 'British Islam' that is significantly different from any other cultural manifestation of Islam around the World. It is a cocktail. Somebody's put it in the shaker and it will come out an amalgam of everything. A bit of "British", a bit of Sudanese, a lot of Pakistani maybe, and so on! It'll be different, but it'll be a "British Islam". You may end up actually finding British Muslim women, who may have been of Sudanese, Pakistani, Malaysian, or English origin, going around like 19th Century women from the Western Isles of Scotland. Why there? Because they wore long dresses, and a headscarf with a shawl over the top, and to all intents and purposes they were wearing hijabwith a British style and suitable for a cold climate. Whatever. It will evolve, it is evolving, and there's nothing we can do either to stop it or accelerate it. It will happen. It's an organic social process; nothing to be inferior about, to feel hang-dog about. It's goingto happen.

Nevertheless, it does matter to us what the non-Muslim community thinks about Islam, and what picture they're getting to see of Islam, because they are the people who are either going to accept us - accept us as British - or they're going to do to us what they've been doing in France and Germany. I have little sympathy with the French Government on this; this situation is almost entirely of their own creation. I don't know whether you know the history of France in Algeria in the 1950s and 60s but it's worth reading about, or going to see the film The Battle of Algiers(or, if you prefer French, La Bataille d'Algers) You'll see exactly why they're having the trouble they are now.

To return to this picture of our man travelling down the M1 in his BMW; what reaction does he have if he's gone out to audit the books of some company down in Shepherd's Bush and it's a Friday, so he nips into the local mosque in order to go to the Friday Prayer. What does he experience? He sees a nice, personable, presentable, and English-speaking imam, yet the wa'iz is given in Urdu and the congregation is made up of approximately 50:50 Palestinians and Sudanese! And, when he comes out what does he see? People handing out leaflets about some sort Islamic nostrum... fearsome, fearsome-looking people, no nourin their faces, long unkempt beards, trousers rolled half-way up their calves, nothing on their close-cropped heads except a dark, brooding scowl. And this is the picture he sees of Islam! If he were to go to Regent's Park Mosque, he'd find similar people waiting outside; and this is repeated up and down the country.

Somebody arranged, a couple of years ago, for Shaikh Noah Ha Mim Keller (who is an academic, who now teaches at Amman in Jordan, and is a scholar in the traditional sense in Islam), to come and give a lecture tour here, in the United Kingdom. I think he gave two, maybe three, lectures and then cancelled the tour because each meeting was being disrupted by people who followed him around the country just in order to do this.

Considering lectures and such like; I had the misfortune of starting out on my academic life in 1968, the year of the student revolution in Paris, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutschke, and the rest of them, and the student disruptions on the campuses in the UK. It was also the year that Enoch Powell gave his famous "Rivers of Blood" speech. My tutor wanted to invite him to our university to give a talk (he's a brilliant man - Professor of Greek in an Australian university whilst still in his 20s, youngest brigadier in the British Army during the Second World War, and speaks Urdu - when he was standing for election in Wolverhampton South he used to give talks, electoral meetings, in Urdu impromptu to the people who came, he hoped, to vote for him, they probably didn't,... but anyway). One of the students in the tutorial said, "No! We'll close the university down!". He genuinely shocked my tutor, who said, "Why?". "Because he's a Fascist, we won't have him here on the campus!". He said, "If you can't have free speech in a university, where can you have it?"; "Sorry, we'll close the university down". That was the student revolution in politics in 1968: they were mostly Trotskyists, or somehow impressed by Lev Bronshtain's works. Anyway they saw everything in absolutes with no compromises: everything was either black or white, no shades of grey.

Well, it seems to me that these people outside the mosques - and the similar people who dogged Shaikh Noah - these people are 'Muslim' Trotskyists. They behave exactly as though they'd taken a leaf out of Lev Bronshtain's revolutionary sketchbook, and have painted a picture of Islam that we don't recognise: an Islam suitable for Trotskyists. The Messenger, peace be upon him, said - I'm paraphrasing - that at the end of time there would be people who would call themselves Muslims but would follow a Sunnahother than his. Well, I think for our time, that we've found them. We have a right to have an inferiority complex if these are the people who are supposed to represent us! But the question remains, apart from the one which asks what we're going to do about them, why is it this picture that is being promoted and hyped by the various media of mass communication? What possible gain is there in demonising Islam and the Muslims like this; and who benefits thereby? There used to be a question asked by lawyers and policemen when dealing with a criminal case that carries the Latin tag: Cui Bono?"to whom is the benefit?". Well?

[Daoud Rosser-Owen is a professional journalist, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, and has been the Managing Editor of the Muslim weekly newspaper Q-News. He is a former regular officer in the British Army. He converted to Islam in November 1964. He is Amir of the Association for British Muslims.]
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