Yahya Birt is a PhD Researcher in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
I’ve had a long and circuitous journey between the academy, British Muslim community activism and publishing; it has had its advantages, but it certainly wasn’t planned and I’m not sure I would readily recommend it to others! I left a D.Phil. in Anthropology at Oxford after getting drawn into the community response to 9/11; my D.Phil. was looking at the impact of transnationalism on religious formation among young British Muslims. Thinking at the time that I would not return to academia (but instead embarking on a career in publishing), I published several articles in journals and in edited collections based on that research. On our relocating to Yorkshire, I was persuaded to return to academia but decided to take a different direction. After a decade or more at the coal-face of the War on Terror as a community activist, and considering its skewing impact on academic research on British Muslims, I decided to take a more historical approach.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
The broad area that I decided to look at is the “invisible” prehistory of Muslim political activism in post-war Britain, prior to the visibilisation of Muslims qua Muslims in the public sphere in the late 1980s through the Honeyford Affair and, preeminently, the Satanic Verses Affair. My reasons for so doing were threefold. Firstly, a lot of this history has been neglected and needs basic mapping; this includes the essential work of collating and curating written and oral archives for future posterity while some of the key actors are still with us. Secondly, I am concerned to debunk the notion of the Rushdie Affair as the ground zero of Muslim political agency in Britain when clearly it hasn’t been. Thirdly, I want to develop a decolonial approach to the thoughts and lives of these intellectuals and activists whose lives straddle the period between the ending of European colonialism and the ending of the Cold War, but who have often been dismissed through reductionist labels such as “Islamists” or “fundamentalists”. “Decoloniality” fits well here because these actors were often explicitly concerned with identifying and articulating an Islamic third way, often highly modernist in ethos, between Cold War communism and capitalism in the period after formal decolonisation. The dynamics of this process, as these intellectuals and activists built transnational Islamic revivalist networks from the former colonial metropole, are not well understood.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
Presently, I am (too slowly) writing up. The chapter I’m working on concerns transformations in notions of da‘wa in the context of postwar Britain. Da‘wa is a polysemic term that during this period developed inflections such as preaching, missionising to convert to Islam, reviving Islam among Muslims, civilisational renewal in a postcolonial context, and even state-building and modernisation. During this period, the concept of da’wa underwent a form of semantic inflation, by which I mean its range of possible meanings expanded under rapidly changing conditions.
These conditions included the postcolonial context of nation-state building after formal decolonization. During the Islamic revival from the 1960s onwards this meant that certain key states, for example, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, as well as some Islamic revivalist movements seeking to expand transnationally, all competed to articulate Islam in a new globalised idiom. The new minority Muslim diaspora in Britain, as a former colonial metropole, formed an important space for these new articulations of transnational Islam during the Cold War. However, I want to move away from an approach that overly emphasises patron-client relationships, or that works largely within the framework of transnational religious movements, in order to focus on the individual agency of these Muslim intellectuals and activists in what was, for them, the new context of Britain. Firstly, due to their relative invisibility – even marginal status – in Britain, these actors were free to speak and act in ways that appear to be unimaginable to us now; in many instances, they were thinking out loud about the future of the Muslim world, and of Islam itself, in bold and ambitious ways. Secondly, I would contend that these intellectuals did so decolonially by articulating what Muslim post-colonial independence ought to look like; in other words, they retained their agency and so, as a result, their relationships with so-called state-patrons or within the revivalist movements could at times be complicated and fraught. Given these circumstances, the UK provided a largely amenable place for these Muslim intellectuals to think radically and freely at a time when there was still an ethos of optimism and of possibility amongst them (that is at least until the early 1980s when it became clear that the Islamic Revolution in Iran was not going to be seen as a new political alternative, except by a minority). In short, this meant that Muslim intellectuals in Britain could attempt to dream of Islamic futures that were comparatively speaking “non-aligned” and that stood outside a capitalism–communism binary in the context of the Cold War.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
There are at least two ways in which my research intersects with the question of the role of religion in public life. Firstly, the intellectuals I look at here – such as Kalim Siddiqui (1931–1996) or Khurshid Ahmed (b. 1932) – explore this question at the level of metanarrative. They frequently questioned hegemonic (or Eurocentric) assumptions about what the proper limitations of the role of religion in public life should look like. Over time, they came to articulate quite different approaches to what this would mean for Muslim minorities in the West, and, in particular, for British Muslims. For instance, Siddiqui developed an approach analogous to postcolonial Black Power movements in advocating transnational solidarities and the development of independent autochthonous institutions, most notable of which was the Muslim Parliament of the 1990s that explicitly challenged ideas about minority status and territorial sovereignty. Secondly, following Pnina Werbner and Alberto Melucci, I think this period offers a good case study of the necessary conditions that precede the visibilisation of a multi-ethnic religious community in the national public sphere. This may allow us to ask why the role of subaltern public spheres, or as Michael Warner puts it “counterpublics”, remain relatively unaccounted for and underexamined when in fact they may be crucial in helping us to understand how transnationalism, in this case religious, disrupts the hegemony of secular national public spheres.
More generally, I am energised by the prospect of linking the academic study of religions to its various publics. In my case, I am practically involved in initiatives to help British Muslims archive their histories professionally, and I regularly present my historical research at a grassroots community level. Alongside enjoying teaching at university, it is always wonderful and enriching to interact with communities outside the academic context as well.