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The Politics of Identity, Khadijah Elshayyal

Khadijah Elshayyal s passionate about activism and reclaiming narratives.

A specialist on Muslims in Britain at the University of Edinburgh, she is the author of Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, activism and equality in Britain, and Scottish Muslims in Numbers: understanding Scotland’s Muslims through the 2011 Census.

We talk to Khadijah about her experiences as a visibly Muslim woman in academia, if identity politics are here to stay and using the arts as a tool for social change.

You have written and published extensively on Muslim identity, what interested you in this subject area?

I don’t feel that I had any real option but to become deeply interested in this subject. Muslimness is the aspect of my identity that is always outwardly visible, and in the public space, it speaks louder than anything I could ever say or do. As anyone who is visibly Muslim knows – our Muslimness is the subject of myriad assumptions, preconceptions and prejudices. It’s a trigger for discrimination. More often than not, it means that when stepping into any new context or space, you will have a whole lot of explaining to do.

- Are you that kind of Muslim?

- What do you think about this or that ‘contentious’ topic?

And of course,

- Do you choose to dress like that?

Sometimes these are expressed explicitly as questions. Sometimes as behaviours indicating tentative (or outright) unease, and a search for active reassurance from you. Reassurance that you are not a threat, perhaps as you might otherwise have been assumed to be. Sometimes they manifest as micro-aggressions (or indeed, macro ones).

This ever-present burden on visible Muslims to explain themselves and reassure others is perhaps manifested most subtly when we find ourselves objects of curiosity. I think all hijab-wearing women will have stories about strangers subjecting them to a curious fascination that is at once tinged with both objectification and dehumanisation. Well-meaning examples of this I have personally experienced include:

- That’s a lovely he-jab you’re wearing, you’re so brave, good on you!

- I love the colours, what do the different colours signify? (accompanied with a stroke of my headscarf)

- You’re very well spoken! You know, I often see another woman dressed like that, but always in black, I don’t know how much freedom she has.

I mention these really to give some idea of what it means to have had my Muslim identity precede me for much of my life. The natural implication of this reality – a lived reality for so many of us – is that I have pondered on it both often and deeply. Notwithstanding, or perhaps because of this, I have had a fraught relationship with the question of ‘Muslim identity’ – what it means and how I situate myself in relation to it. But I have found I have always come back to it, and maybe this is because I have found that whatever my own choices or interests or how I choose to situate myself, society will always bring me back to it.

Have you always been involved in activism?

My relationship with activism has fluctuated over the years. I grew up with proximity to activism of a range of different stripes and tendencies. Although ‘activism’ wasn’t necessarily a word that was always used to describe what I was observing, I was always intrigued by the different causes that motivated people to act, to campaign and to seek change within communities and society.

I have been stimulated by the various ways in which people expressed themselves, their strategies, the challenges and hurdles that they had to contend with. I’ve also been a keen observer of the dynamics of relationships that are forged by activists with the establishment or seats of power – be they conciliatory or adversarial in their nature – and everything in between of course.

I came of age in Britain’s Muslim community during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This was a period during the long history of Muslim activism and advocacy in the UK when Muslim representation was becoming formalised and recognised by the state in new, challenging and, in many respects, in ground-breaking ways. I found this fascinating, but also could see how it threw up serious existential hurdles, even as it opened up possibilities for Muslim voices in politics. This was of course the period when the fall-out from 9/11 and the ramping up of securitisation became rationalised as an imperative, that essentially the gradual curtailment of our freedoms was a necessary price to pay for the safety of our ‘nation’ and our ‘way of life’. This dovetailing of securitisation with nativism manifested in ways that interrogated and contained the public (and private) lives of Muslims, in very particular ways. The pervasiveness of policy buzzwords such as community cohesion, integration, and ‘moderate Islam’ in conversations relating to Muslims in Britain and their communities made specific and exceptional demands of individuals and institutions that they actively demonstrate and consistently reiterate (voluntarily and on demand) their loyalty and ‘acceptability’ to the state and to their fellow citizens. I found that the influence this was all having on Muslim activism and public life drew me in as something that was essential to study, to document and to unpack.

As a visibly Muslim woman, how have you navigated through academia and developed a career?

I don’t think I have done either of those things, if I am truly honest! I have found academia as a sector – in its institutions, conventions, in many ways unnavigable. So many of our institutions were founded on elitism and privilege, and so their culture and processes are also steeped in these features. There remains a conventional career trajectory within academia which is shaped around the prototype academic who is a white middle aged man, of comfortable means, with a wife at home to support him and his family, perhaps also to conduct research and writing/editing for him, as he dedicates endless hours in solitude to reading and writing.

Those who’s circumstances depart from this prototype are often at some disadvantage from the outset. I find that ubiquitous equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) schemes in the academe, though often staffed by many very wonderful, dedicated people, can easily become a foil for maintaining a structurally unequal status quo whilst making only very limited adjustments or superficial gestures.

Saying this, there are some extremely powerful and energising aspects of my work that have kept me motivated and grounded. I have been privileged to work in classrooms with students who bring life, curiosity, criticality and creativity to knowledge production. Teaching and learning are often devalued and portrayed as burdensome by the corporatist, narrowly defined research output driven university sector. However, I believe that they are absolutely its heart and soul – and they are so, almost in defiance of these many other imperatives. I think this is something to celebrate and to nurture, and I honestly owe a great debt to the students in my classes over the years.

You are interested in reclaiming narratives and telling our own stories. Why is this important?

Our stories are being told for us all the time – by politicians, by the media class and commentariat, by ‘objective’ and ‘impartial’ voices that nonetheless speak from a standpoint that uncritically considers whiteness as normative, and the foregrounding by Muslims of Islam as faith, culture and identity as quaint, exotic or foreign.

In this context, reclaiming narratives and telling our own stories is one of the most powerful things we can do. Minoritised voices and communities can often internalise an idea that their stories are mundane, that they are not worth labouring over. There is also the added constraint that is placed on us by traumatic experiences – past or present, or indeed intergenerational. For many of us, a way of coping with trauma is to put our stories to one side, and to avoid talking about them. While this may give us a way forward in the short term, it can impoverish our communal sense of self and interconnectedness – across generations and cultures. If we do not document our stories and perspectives in our own words, on our own terms, then it is only left for others to do it for us, in their words, or for our stories to be lost altogether.

Reclaiming our narratives and putting them out there on our own terms, though often fraught with pain and difficulty, is an act of resistance. It is testimony, it is growth, nurture and empowerment.

Congratulations on your critically acclaimed book Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, Activism and Equality in Britain. Why did you want to write this book?

Thank you so much. This book was many years in gestation and there were a number of different factors which fed into my desire and motivation to write it. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I think the writing of this book was for me as much as it was for my readership. The process of research gave me the space to dissect dilemmas and issues that I was witnessing first hand and pondering over, to ground them and analyse them in frameworks that could be useful to us as well as, importantly, to facilitate the space for voices who formed part of the events I cover to speak, explain, discuss and disagree. Such spaces were and continue to be limited, not least because of the continued precarity and tension under which Muslim voices exist. So, I could see the value of dedicating extensive research to understanding the journey/s of Muslim activism and advocacy i