The frequency with which American preacher-scholars come over to the UK would have you think that British scholars, advocates of the Islamic faith, or community workers were few and far between. There was of course a time when the likes of sh Hamza Yusuf, imam Siraj Wahaj, and others, came over not so frequently and, quite rightly, commanded our awe. You could argue in those days there weren’t many British scholars or activists who could articulate faith or reason well in the English language. But times have changed, and this is no longer the case. Thus, the proliferation of American preacher-scholars visiting the UK risks becoming an unhealthy intrusion in the making of British Muslim identity. There are, as I argue here, compelling reasons for a corrective change in course.
For a start, the American preacher-scholar phenomenon, unlike in the UK, is significantly dependent on social media. With that comes all the good and bad related to wider processes of fragmentation and homogenisation of religious learning, as well as, of course unnecessary scandalising and self-righteous frenzy. I remember seeing many preacher-scholars thanking their followers having reached a huge milestone in the number of followers. What they didn’t publicise so much is the responsibility, need for training and care required of them when communicating with such broad audiences.
As we have seen, the gluttony for numbers led to a self-satisfying drive of supplying visually-stimulating content crafted to keep people glued to the screen. Fuelling what has now become the ubiquitous and modern-day spiritual malady of infotainment religiosity. Where the teaching of religion is: (1) for a very broad audience kept fixated onto the screen; (2) there is little to no checking if audiences have correctly understood and applied the content; (3) the audience’s learning and interacting with local teachers, mosques and educational institutes is abandoned in favour of those whom they may never meet nor meaningfully interact with in person; and (4) the focus on deeper study is substituted by what one teacher described, ‘tidbits of information and divergent perspectives of an incoherent patchwork of learning.’
This is not at all surprising. In fact, as Neil Postman mentions, the problem is not that the blue screen presents us ‘with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.’[i] One commentator retorted how they have actually become ‘a fly-zapper for exhibitionists – they see that blue glow and they just can’t help flying towards it.’[ii] Societies driven by what goes on television and mobile phone screens seem set to follow the American way, as Postman describes, of not talking but entertaining each other, exchanging images instead of ideas, and arguing ‘with good looks, celebrities and commercials’ instead of ‘with propositions.’
My question is, if preacher-scholars feel satiated with such big audiences, are we seeing the kind of faith-based change in the ‘Islamic being’ of British Muslims that warrants celebration? Of course, ‘guidance and success is only from God,’ but that doesn’t stop us from being critical and seeking the necessary and better means.
This also raises some serious questions about the tendency of British Muslim organisations that fly-in American preacher-scholars for fundraising campaigns. It clearly doesn’t help to develop the many graduates of our own, despite bemoaning them. Nor does it, qualitatively speaking, help us to overcome sectarianism, unresolved ethno-cultural baggage, groupie mentality, and religious illiteracy closer to home, all of which hinders the formation of a confident British Muslim identity.
When American preacher-scholars talk about issues to do with feminism, racism, liberalism, scientism, capitalism, political engagement or some other issue that happens to take their fancy, it’s usually way off the British experience of those conditions. The fact that the British experience is vastly more subtle and nuanced, it’s not surprising why. More than a thousand year history of interaction and deep fascination between the people of the British Isles with Muslims – whether it’s King Offa of Mercia minting coins in Abbasid Baghdad, or Queen Elizabeth I meeting the Saadian ambassador-cum Shakespeare’s Othello caricature, or one of the great 20th century Muslim philosopher’s, Muhammad Iqbal, studying at Trinity College (Cambridge), are just a few examples of the varied and rich shared histories that create, for us now, a different environment in the UK compared to America, in which interactions between people of the Islamic faith and others can take place. Given this, my question is: can American preacher-scholars appreciate the lived subtleties of this if they haven’t been to our schools, colleges, employers, engaged civic bodies and so on?
In fact, the truth is that few preacher-scholars stay in the UK long enough to have meaningful interactions or to deliver structured courses over a period of time, the kind of time true cultivation requires. The marketing machinery around a flying visit exhibits all the showiness of American branding culture. While branding might be necessary, the sincere believer’s seeking decorum (tawadu’) is arguably much more in keeping with the good aspects of British sentiments and where celebrity-style endorsement is much subtler and nowhere near as rampant.
Interestingly, many American preacher-scholars argue against the personality cult, yet seem all too happy to be paraded in promotional videos. And, talk of how to do community work by American preacher-scholars can be condescending to many British eyes, particularly given that it is those very preacher-scholars who seek mileage out of Facebook rants about not just Muslims being under siege in America by the KKK, Trump, liberals and so on, but also of personal politics between themselves. No doubt we have our own expressions of this in the UK too, but its scale is limited in comparison, and has separate historical roots in sectarianism, religious illiteracy and ethno-culture.
The making of British Islam is an ongoing exploration for British Muslims. Both British organisations and American preacher-scholars who come over to the UK would do well to recognise this. After all, as Professor Christopher Bigsby (Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts), who, having studied American culture concluded that it is built on contradictions. It seems the American phenomenon of preacher-scholars is no different, and is better suited to America, not the UK.
[i] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin, 2005.
[ii] Thomas Sutcliffe, When fifteen minutes of fame drags by, The Independent, 9 June 2008, http://www.independent.co.uk.