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Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West

(Excerpted from Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West by Justin Gest. Copyright 2010. Used by arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.)


By Justin Gest


The Montréal Review, June 2011


Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West by Justin Gest (Hurst & Co./Columbia University Press, 2010) 


"Justin Gest gives us a window into the diversity and complexity of European Muslim communities in a way few works have. His book delves deep into the demands of modern citizenship, engagement and layered identities. His conclusions are at once intuitive and profound. The themes of this book will help define how a thriving democracy functions in the twenty-first century."

-- Dr Dalia Mogahed, former advisor to President Obama for Faith-Based Partnerships,
Executive Director, Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, Washington, DC




For social scientists, it remains unclear why similar people, in similar circumstances, behave as political actors in such divergent ways.

Zak is the poster image for diversity and difference in the West today.

Indeed, he is the young man portrayed on the cover of this book.

He perches on three cinder blocks-the foundation of an unfinished public housing project in Mile End, East London. His face in the shadows of a neighboring project, he extends his legs to absorb the mild April sunlight through his Nike sweatpants. He wears a pair of loosely strapped, white Velcro sneakers and a charcoal grey Puma hoody. Even in the shade, he covers his head as he peers out toward the sun-drenched empty lot where he played football after school as a child, emulating Manchester United's Roy Keane. The older boys would lean along the metal poles that line the weeded front yards of the estates, just like boys of the same age do today. They would sit back and chat, commenting on funny stories, passers-by, and grand plans for the weekend that would probably not come to fruition. The kids would disperse when police officers neared. For a thrill, they often ventured into nearby Bow Cemetery, where there are hundreds of 170-year-old graves to inspire eerie tales, rumors of possession, and adolescent dares. His reverie is interrupted by the piercing treble of his mobile phone ringtone, a hip hop song by Tupac entitled 'Bury Me a G.'

'You get my text?' he asks, pulling the phone away to check the time on the screen.

'Well we was at the chicken and chips shop, in'it.'

'I can't. My mum needs me to stay with my little brother.'

'A'ight, safe,' he says, pocketing the phone.

Fried chicken and French fries to snack. Soccer after school. Hip hop music. Nike threads. Family obligations. Difference has rarely been so strikingly familiar.

And yet Zak is treated differently. He hears and reads that he actually is quite different. And Zak says, indeed, he feels different. 'No I don't feel British,' he asserts forcefully, almost to himself as much as to anyone else. 'Their values have nothing to do with mine.'

'The way we've grown up here in the big country of the UK,' he says, as he gestures back toward the empty lot, 'we've only ever really seen Mile End.'

He goes quiet, and nods in the direction of a neighbor in a flowing white prayer gown, passing by on the uneven pavement.

Lowering his voice, he says, 'You know, yeah, I would love to change the world, but when you think about it, it's not going to happen. I can't worry about them, because I got other things. I gotta feed my family...'

He pauses pensively.

'Besides, you're just a pawn in their game. They just want your vote. They don't give a [damn] about you.'

And so Zak is apart-alienated from the democratic government and society of the only country he has ever known. This book seeks to find out why.

Since the rapid growth and expanding influence of European Muslim minority groups in the late 1980s, a vast variety of studies have examined different communities' political and social relations. These studies were significantly concerned with Muslim individuals' integration and participation in local democratic institutions. They observed individual struggles to belong, to make claims, to occupy public space, and develop identity forms. But since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, March 11th 2004, and July 7th 2005, a large amount of research has focused on destructive political behavior-the causes of the extremism or 'radicalization' that is currently said to threaten Western democracies. Discursively, much of the language about Islamic extremism has objectified the individual as a subject of indoctrination or circumstances beyond his or her control. The individual is cast as an empty vessel, 'vulnerable' to others' persuasion and the effects of socio-economic, discursive, or religious forces.

This study represents a departure in two key ways. First, it is based on the premise that Muslim individuals-like all others-approach the political sphere with disparate perceptions and interpretations of an otherwise shared reality. It is based on the understanding that individuals are never empty vessels, and that each of us makes political choices according to instilled paradigms of morality, felt sentiment, and principal understandings about the structure of our society. In other words, the way agents reflectively monitor and constitute their personal realities is to some extent sui generis. In the light of this argument, there is no such thing as abstract vulnerability, only conditioning. Human agency is pivotal. Second, this study contends that the greatest threat within Western democracies is not terrorism, but the sustained marginalization of citizens from their political system. In this way, violent extremism is understood as a manifestation of the same outlook that informs individuals who choose to withdraw from the public sphere, rather than attack it. Both the withdrawn and the destructive defect from the political system and its capacity to facilitate change. Like Zak-or Zakaria-the former reacts by living outside of it; the latter chooses to disrupt it. Neither reproduces the democratic political system or contributes to the process of responsive claims making.

We will journey into neighborhoods like Zakaria's and attempt to understand better the spectrum of political engagement and disengagement among other young Muslim men. Because political behavior, like all behavior, is connected and contextualized by the surrounding factors and environments, this study focuses closely on the nature of daily life for modern Western Muslims. We shall examine constructions and projections of individual identity and its conflicts. And we shall use these observations to construct a new way of explaining the withdrawn and destructive anti-system behavior addressed above-apartism.


Justin Gest is a Harvard College Fellow in the Department of Government at Harvard University. He is the Co-Founder and Deputy Director of the Migration Studies Unit at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he is also a research associate at LSE Global Governance. Over the past ten years, he has reported and written commentaries for a variety of American and British newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Times, The Guardian and CNN.com.


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