top of page

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 in this country, the issues that motivated and framed them as well as those that inhibited and hindered them.

What issues did you hope to bring through the forefront in this book?

Muslim political activism is often painted in mainstream narratives in one of two ways. Either it is separatist and self-absorbed. Or it is subversive, and threat to ‘our way of life’.

By separatist, I mean that it is infused with a superiority complex, seeking domination or at the least to secure privileged treatment for Muslims, in some way or other seeing themselves as above the law or its processes. By self-absorbed, I refer to the notion that Muslims are obsessed and consumed with grievance or victimhood. Both of these tropes feed into one another and when repeated often enough, become mythologised in dangerous ways. Consider how long-time equalities chief and broadcaster, Trevor Phillips, was able to declare to the nation that ‘Muslims are not like us’ and that we should just ‘accept that they will never integrate’.

The other depiction, as a subversive threat, relies on the inaccurate notion that ‘we’ (the nation) have a cohesive, shared ‘way of life’. It relies on a blinkered perspective of history, and of the present. One in which the UK has bravely followed a trajectory towards progress and development, without considering or problematising the oftentimes oppressive and hypocritical stances taken by the state and establishment.

It also reifies the Muslim activist ‘other’ as one dimensional, monolithic and a menacing figure towards which we should always remain guarded and suspicious.

One thing I tried to address with this book was the diversity, the disagreement, the complexity of the British Muslim activist landscape, and of British Muslims more generally. I wanted to paint a picture that was honest, and authentically critical of these groups and tendencies. One that did not respond to dishonest and lazy depictions by offering up equally lazy apologetics.

I wanted to bring to the fore the long story of Muslim activism in our islands, and demonstrate how it is inextricably linked with the colonial adventures and exploits of Britain in Muslim lands – lands from which many of today’s British Muslims derive their heritage and histories. I wanted to make connections between the many threads that intertwine and converge in the Muslim activist space, and crucially, to give a voice to activists who are so often spoken for or spoken over.

Do you believe Muslim identity politics will continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future?

Identity politics has become something of a hobbyhorse for pundits and politicians alike. It is particularly used by the right wing as a slur with which to brand their opponents and to distract from the structural injustices and inequalities that their critics seek to highlight. But if we stop and think about it, the systems within which we exist are all reflections of an identity politics. White supremacy is as insidious and oppressive an identity politics as you can get. It is only due to its hegemony, which is so often unquestioned, that we may not see it from this perspective.

So yes, I think Muslims will continue to organise in the public space as Muslims for as long as they experience otherisation, discrimination and prejudice on the basis of their Muslimness. I would also add that beyond that, Muslims do not need to justify their bringing their whole selves into their politics, including and especially their faith.

Why are we even asking this question? Do we ask this same question, in the same way, of people identifying with or advocating for other faith communities in the public space? One of the things I write about is how the state holds Muslim individuals and institutions in the political space to a different standard than it does those from other faiths and other identities. The rest of society takes its cue from this differentiation and in this way, the term ‘identity politics is weaponised to stifle and discredit Muslim activist voices when they question or dissent from issues ranging from government policy to structural inequalities.

You touch on the struggle of minority groups more widely, and the idea of integration. Why do you think many minority groups see themselves as 'guests' in 'host' communities?

I think throughout history it has been in the interest of governments to perpetuate this notion of ‘host community’. It cements the otherisation of minority groups – as perpetual ‘immigrants’ and it lays the burden of integration, or some would argue, of assimilation, on their shoulders, absolving the nation of any remotely proportionate role in this process. This also enables an avoidance of accepting the historic and continued role of the UK in the upheavals and dangers that have prompted the displacement and movement of peoples across the globe.

A telling illustration of this was when in March 2019, the then Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, suggested in parliament that a debate on defining Islamophobia should most appropriately be referred to the Foreign Office. The suggestion here being that British Muslims and their experiences of Islamophobia was an international, rather than a domestic affair.

Another important issue where this is played out is the continual expansion over recent years of the government’s power to deprive individuals of their British citizenship, and the sharp rise in the frequency with which this power is used. This power is only used against individuals with dual nationality (or whom the state argues are potentially eligible for another nationality) – effectively meaning those of migrant heritage. Successive home secretaries defend this tool by repeating a mantra that ‘British citizenship is a privilege, not a right’. Since this phrase, and the tool that it defends is addressed squarely to people of colour - those who have their heritage elsewhere – it cements and underlines the notion of their citizenship being contingent on their ‘good behaviour’ (as defined by the state) – so their citizenship and belonging is conditional, whereas for white Britons, the same conditionality will not apply.

What all of this throws up is the need to consider and ask searching questions about what is at the centre in our society and what is on the margins. By accepting the framing of ourselves as ‘guests’, we enable our characterisation as ‘foreign’ and the conditionality of our citizenship. There may have been an understandable tendency among first generation migrants to consider themselves as guests – perhaps because they didn’t intend to settle in the longer term. However, it is abundantly clear now that this framing is an exercise in power and control, and minoritised and disenfranchised groups should push back against it, for the sake of a fairer and more equal society for everyone.

Do you think the arts can be used as a tool for social change? If so, how?

Yes I absolutely do. The arts are a crucial site for interrogating society and culture – for questioning narratives and canonised versions of events and indeed of faith and culture. I think one of the most exciting sites of Muslim activism today is the boldness and creativity that young Muslims engaged in cultural production are gifting us with. In many ways, cultural production now sets a tone and agenda which traditional Muslim representative organisations have to look to and follow, and it is really wonderful and heartening to witness this as a form of regeneration in the area of Muslim public life as well as the spaces it opens up for rich and rewarding intra-communal conversations.

For more information follow Khadijah Elshayyal on Twitter: @DrKElshayyal

The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


bottom of page