Trending Takfir

Illegitimate Muslims. Mumbai, 2008.

The hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv has been trending since a knife attack that shut down the London Underground last night. It refers to a bystander who yelled the insult at a person who yelled “This is for Syria!” before attacking three passengers with a knife. 

It has won praise on social media, however I am skeptical. After all, for all the relief that we may feel at someone taking care not to automatically associate Islam with terrorism, I am deeply alarmed at the fact that we feel this comfortable engaging in takfir.

Takfir is a term that essentially describes situations where a Muslim’s legitimacy is being questioned. It refers to a practice of exclusion, whereby a Muslim is declared to be somehow impure, and an illegitimate member of the religious community. These days, it is used to refer to salafi and militaristic strains of Islamic practice, which rely on moralist fervour about legitimate and illegitimate Muslims.

The issue is that the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv serves much the same purpose. It is arguably a form of takfir in and of itself, except that it remixes the specifics.

Takfiris are people who engage in takfir, and the term is most often used for militants like those in the Islamic State, or anti-modernist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb. These figures’ infamy is obvious. The essential point is that they frame their ideas of the “legitimate Muslim” based on normative precepts: that is, a checklist of what is and isn’t acceptable conduct, in their narrow vision of legitimate Islam.

My impression of social media today has been that “moderate Muslims,” who are eager to condemn militaristic violence out of their own desires for safety and security in spaces of immense privilege (especially in London), are more than willing to become takfiris. Muslims who engage in physical violence, and frame their actions within a religiously-tinged anti-imperialist project, are rejected outright, and condemned as impure. Except what authority do we have to determine that, and what are we ignoring in the process of takfiri behaviour?

The problem has apparently become bad enough that a bystander instinctively feels like he has the right to say “you ain’t no Muslim, bruv.”

We need to question this construct of the “legitimate Muslim,” born in reaction to the terrorism we have experienced over the past fifteen years. How should we gauge religious impurity in the context of the War on Terror? The quote implies that violence is the real problem, but that doesn’t take into account that this rhetoric is rarely used to such popular approval for authoritarian figures like Erdogan in Turkey, and Raheel Sharif in Pakistan.

Instead, and especially among nationalistic Muslims in their own political contexts, these figures are praised for their moves against terrorism. It appears that we are living through a redefinition of religious impurity that separates those of us who are non-violent and “moderate” from fellow Muslims who take alternate steps out of their inescapable sense of anger, frustration, and despair.

This gesture of exclusion is a form of takfir, and redefines our communities in a manner that prioritises our own desires to not answer for violent tactics. Naturally, I am sympathetic to this, as someone who has suffered through it. However, it frequently comes at the expense of a critical understanding of the political situations that breed this sort of violence.

When we simply say that a terrorist is a non-Muslim, because their violence has made them impure and illegitimate representatives of the religious community, we neglect the myriad dynamics of power that produce these futile gestures in the first place. We are also enabling a discourse of “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” that is frequently used to justify exclusion based on problematic rationale: illegitimate Muslims as atheists, queers, women with skinny jeans, and the like.

There is little to no reflection on how militaristic anger is framed (in Britain and elsewhere) by aggressive foreign policies, severe austerity, mass surveillance, and dynamics of racism that date back to the Empire.

I find this completely irresponsible. Violence doesn’t just happen. It is the result of circumstances that beg to be understood, if only to unravel the despair that leads to it, and push for a comprehensive program that tackles the so-called “roots of radicalisation.” Those are seen in everything from warfare in the Middle East, to a severe reduction in public spending, to deep failures in representative democracy, and a huge list of other dysfunctions.

Unless we are able to push against this trend, we will all become takfiris. What pains me most is that privileged cosmopolitan Muslims in European cities like London will be able to dominate the discussion, with little reflection on why predominantly disenfranchised people would lash out in this manner.

At best, this is cowardly, and at worst, it amounts to unintentional collaboration, as seemingly innocuous positions like #YouAintNoMuslimBruv wipe out serious interrogations of why Muslims would take up arms in modern Europe.

Photograph courtesy of Prashant dotcompals. Published under a Creative Commons License.