“Muslim gangsters” and secular ironies
Finding religion does not always mean being reformed, and secularisation does not always mean being enlightened
There are better adverts for Islam than Mohammed Hijab, but he is one of the biggest in contemporary Britain. A “debater and public speaker” with enough self-awareness to call himself “Instigator-in-Chief” on his Twitter account, he is a very 21st Century Islamic evangelist. Charismatic and quick-witted, he also enjoys being at the centre of a fuss.
Mr Hijab led demonstrations amid the communal discontent between Muslims and Hindus in Leicester last year. He has become a regular on Piers Morgan Uncensored — which is, one must admit, a good way not to be the most obnoxious man in the room. Now, a clip has emerged in which Hijab warns people who “attack the sacred symbols of Islam” that “we have Muslim gangsters … we can’t stop Muslim gangsters from dealing with you”.
Now, to be fair, we have to assume that saying “we can’t stop” implies that Mr Hijab doesn’t endorse the actions of these “Muslim gangsters”. Still, it is not something I would be proud to admit about my co-religionists.
He isn’t wrong though. As much as the conflict between Israel and Hamas has revived noughties-era rhetoric about the clash of civilisations — that conflict between Western liberalism and totalistic Islam — an intriguing phenomenon that has marched into the spotlight is the fusion of Islam and gang culture.
This is not a new phenomenon. Almost two decades ago, Theodore Dalrymple wrote about young Muslim men who wanted to have their cake and eat it, with “wives at home to cook and clean for them, concubines elsewhere, and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll”. It can have a Christian equivalent as well, as anyone who has read about the mafia will know. (“I’m Catholic,” Tony barks in The Sopranos, after his wife has grown sick of his incessant cheating, “I don’t believe in divorce.”)
But the mingling of features from Islam and organised crime are more common now. Sometimes, in extreme cases, the most violent manifestations of faith and gangsterism interact. There was the young gang member in London whose acid attack on a rival ended up killing a 47-year-old woman, and who went on to attempt a terror attack against prison officials. More recently, the drill rapper Official TS was convicted of possessing chemicals for terrorist purposes.
For people with a strong inclination towards violence, the concept of jihad can ennoble thuggish leanings
For people with a strong inclination towards violence, the concept of jihad can ennoble thuggish leanings. In 2016, the Washington Post reported that ISIS were “finding a fruitful recruiting ground among Europe’s street gangs and petty criminals, drawing to itself legions of troubled young men and women from predominantly poor Muslim neighbourhoods.” That is not to claim that religion was a non-factor. But it shaped the raw materials of underlying cultural and psychological dysfunction.
Last year, an independent report into the state of British prisons found that groups of prisoners had “adopted an anti-State Islamist stance that condones or encourages violence towards non-Muslim prisoners, prison officers and the general public”. Granted, I’m sure that other prisoners find healthy purpose and structure in their faith. But for some it justifies hostile behaviour.
In more common cases, the religion is less extreme — to the extent that it exists at all — and the gangsterism is more of a pose. Here, it is hard to discern what lies beneath the religious and underworld aesthetics. Take the case of Andrew “Top G” Tate. Mr Tate built his wealth through online pornography, and his fame through bragging about his sexual escapades (he is now facing charges of sex trafficking, though it is unclear when his trial will take place).
Later, Mr Tate converted to Islam. Now, it is not my place to judge a man’s religious convictions. I can’t see into his soul. Still, it is convenient that a man who enjoyed having multiple girlfriends and ordering women around has embraced a religion that encompasses mainstream advocacy for polygamous and patriarchal ways of life.
Tate fans, roaming the Internet posting photographs of themselves leaning on other people’s cars in fake designer jackets, often emphasise the macho and tribal elements of Islam without showing a particular interest in the less fun and self-absorbed aspects of religious practice. Islam is an identity — offering the chance to illustrate one’s manhood and position oneself against the mainstream — but it is hard to gauge the extent to which it is actually embraced as a religion.
To be painfully clear, this describes a subset of young Muslim men in Britain. There are hundreds of thousands of others who are very much devout practising Muslims and who have nothing to do with criminality in its literal or aesthetic forms. We might have separate debates about some of their beliefs but they will indeed be separate debates.
Still, it should concern devout Muslims if people can be so opportunistic with their faith. It should concern nice liberals, meanwhile, if secularisation can lead not to a more enlightened state of consciousness but to the fusion of the more base aspects of religious and materialistic life. A more secular Islam, to a large extent, looks less like Paris in the mid-1700s than Dubai in the 2020s.
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