Muslim Youths in the West: Carving Out a ‘Third Space’

Council for Research in Values and Philosophy
Chapter X in the 2008 publication entitled: ‘Communication across Cultures: The Hermeneutics of Cultures and Religions in a Global Age’

Chapter X
Islam’s Emerging ‘Third Space’ in the West

Whether a full-blown “clash of civilization” is inevitable between Islam and the West, a culture clash in the West between Muslim and local communities has been simmering for a while. It began with the influx of large numbers of Muslim refugees in North America and Western Europe in the mid-twentieth century. And it has deepened after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on American targets, carried out by a group of Muslims riled by U.S. “hegemonic” policies in the Muslim world.

Hundreds of Muslims in the West have been interrogated, detained, kept under surveillance, thrown off aircraft and harassed in many other ways. The Muslim countries of Afghanistan and Iraq have been invaded. Governments suppressing Muslim struggles for independence, political autonomy and human rights have been co-opted into a U.S. “war on terror,” which many Muslims around the world view as a new “crusade” against
Islam. This Western-Islamic clash has heightened Western Muslims’ awareness of their special role as a cultural category whose identity and loyalty straddle the civilizational divide.

In this paper I posit that Western Muslims have been carving out a unique cultural space for themselves, which is facilitated by the “crisis of liberalism” and the consequent erosion of the sovereignty of the nation-states. The new Muslim space, I argue, reflects the evolving meaning of citizenship in the modern state system.

First, I focus on the societal malaise spawned in liberal Western societies by Cartesian rationalism. Secondly, I review the evolution of traditional Islamic cultural patterns and the apparent incongruity of Muslim values and idiom in the Western societies. Finally, I examine the hybridization of new generations of Western Muslims, which appears to endow them with a social role accommodating their dual identities as citizens of Western states and members of the global Muslim community, or the umma.

“Islam and the West” usually point to two different value systems and worldviews that are reflected in the social and political structures of the West and the Muslim world. Freedom of the “rational” individual is the seminal value that supposedly underpins the whole liberal capitalist edifice of the West. The affirmation of the creed reverberated around the world when President George W. Bush characterized 9/11 as an attack on “our freedom” in an effort to rally America and the West behind his war against Afghanistan
and Iraq.

Aristotle advised Alexander to distinguish the Greeks from the barbarians,1 and Montesquieu attributed the glory of Rome to the Romans’ defense of their faith and, among other things, maintenance of a distinction between the plebeians and patricians.2
Maintaining racial and cultural purity has historically been a major concern of many Westerners. Today Samuel Huntington and his ilk have been arguing for the preservation of Western cultural “exceptionalism,” which has been an underlying reason Western governments have tightened their immigration laws.

Actually, though, the liberal political culture is based on what Kant called a “rotten dogmatism,” namely that rationality is the only authentic source of man’s knowledge, and hence freedom and happiness. Philosophers and thinkers have since all but demolished the rationalist argument, which was initiated by Rene Descartes. They point out that belief, intuition and experience are also vital sources of knowledge, happiness and meaning. “The abrasive [Cartesian] processes of human reason,” George McLean has put it succinctly, “omitted existence, person, freedom, culture and creativity.”3

Liberal Western societies could ignore its philosophers and sociologists as long as its sovereign states could guard its capitalist enterprises and quarantine its national cultures from alternative lifestyles and sources of meaning that belie the rationalist myth. But capitalism outgrew the Western state system, and Western business people, professionals, media operatives and everyday citizens began to traverse the globe, confronting non-Western people and lifestyles. Simultaneously, the need for economic expansion brought in non-Western culture groups – many of them Muslim – exposing the rest of Westerners to contrasting values and cultures.

As Hellenistic and Roman civilizations reached their maturity, their citizens also traveled to widely and interacted with diverse cultures. The result in each case was what Peter Berger calls “cognitive contamination” of creeds and beliefs, relativization of values and Weltanschauung and growth of pluralism.4 The Roman creed was relativized by Christianity, which in turn was transformed by its exposure to Enlightenment ideas. In the same way Enlightenment liberalism has been coming unglued from its encounter with other cultures, betraying its flaws and perniciousness.

Gone are the days when American Protestants scorned Catholics and Jews and lynched blacks, and the British treated the Irish as second class citizens and immigrants from their colonies as little better than slaves. Both the United States and Britain today flaunt “multiculturalism,” having conceded equal legal rights to citizens of non-Western racial origins.

Cross-cultural interaction is making the Westerner appreciate the humanity of the cultural “Other” as well as alternative sources of happiness, and meaningful freedom. To the rationalist, individual freedom means absence of barriers to the pursuit of one’s desires. But what does it mean for a high school dropout working two jobs to keep ends meeting, and having no kin or close friends, a condition typical of vast numbers of people in the liberal industrial societies?

The absence of barriers to the pursuit happiness gives man what anthropologists call “negative freedom,” which seldom produces true happiness. “The negative sense of freedom,” explains Richard Khuri, “is that in which we emphasize our freedom to choose, whether among trivial or serious matters, and the opportunity we are given to do so through lack of interference from authorities. The positive sense of freedom is that in which we emphasize the quality of our choice and what we do with the opportunity we are given, the transcendent root of freedom, and freedom itself as meaningful expansiveness in a boundless world.”5

“Positive freedom,” which brings real happiness, comes from man’s relationships with family, community and the spiritual realm. But the industrial society, created by tool-making rationality, has all but destroyed those sources of freedom.

Negative freedom is what we are used to and aspire for in modern industrial democracies. What this kind of freedom amounts to comes through to me when I see a hardworking cashier at my neighborhood Giant department store splurging her meager savings Friday nights at smoke-filled bars looking for dates, most of whom disappoint her. She does not have family or friends around.

She said to me wistfully one day that she enjoyed her Pakistani neighbors who complain of never having a “free moment” as their weekends and evenings are used up in entertaining and visiting relatives and friends and participating in events at the Laurel, Md., mosque.

The automobiles, computers and facilities for good health have failed to enrich Western life with real meaning or fulfillment, which positive freedom could bring. Western modernity, fueled by Cartesian rationalism, has corroded most of the sources of man’s fulfillment, his pursuit of “subjective” values, which, as Kierkegaard would say, enables man to realize his true self.6


Islam is the last of the three great Abrahamic faiths, and in a spirit of “reforming” the Judeo-Christian tradition, it prescribed values and norms that would provide the children of Abraham a fulfilling life.

Islam views man as God’s “vice-regent on Earth,” for whom living a good life is a main part of worship. Islam declared that man is individually and directly accountable to God for his deeds 900 years before Martin Luther put out his 95 theses echoing the same message. And it proclaimed equality among all believers regardless of their race or ethnicity 1,400 years before Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed about it on the Washington Mall. The faith preached by the Prophet Muhammad sought to liberate man from the ecclesiastical domination that was being resented in Byzantine and Zoroastrian societies.

Islam sought to diminish tribalism and ethnic strife by setting up the egalitarian social structure of the umma. Initially, the umma was conceived as a pluralist society, a confederation of Muslim and non-Muslim groups in Medina. But eventually it emerged as the colorblind, interethnic community of believers. Muhammad described the umma as “one body, if one part is ill, the whole body feels it.”7 The fundamental value that underpins the umma and its mission is “justice,” which in Islamic parlance means fairness and charity.

The social structure laid out by the Prophet and the values introduced by the new faith began to give way after his death, and umma unity was shattered by a civil war and power struggle. The dispute pitted those who believed that the community should be ruled by whomever it may chose against those who espoused the rule of Muhammad’s descendents. The former account for nearly 90 percent of the world Muslim population and are known as the Sunnis. The latter are called the Shia, and they make up the majority of the populations in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. As Islam spread across the globe, it was further divided into myriad national, ethnic, doctrinal and ideological groups. The umma today is a quilt of countless cultural patches groups draping the globe.

Although Islam calls for the solidarity of all believers, it does recognize Muslim ethnic and cultural diversity. In fact, the Qura’n suggests that Muslims’ attachment to “nations and tribes” endow them with the insight to “know one another” better.8 What Muslim scripture strongly forbids is intergroup feuding.

As the faith spread, its cultural pattern was modified by new social environments even though its basic doctrines and values endured. The umma provides an interesting study of institutional diversity. In some Muslim countries government offices and many businesses shut down during prayer times, and Friday, the Muslim sabbath, is a closed holiday. Most of these societies maintain the segregation of the sexes in public and have proscribed the consumption of alcohol, banned by Islamic scripture.

Other Muslim societies, while observing Friday as the weekly holiday, do not mandate the closing of offices or businesses for prayer. Some of these societies do not tolerate the public consumption of alcohol, others do. Some of them bar women from outdoor activities, others do not. In some other Muslim countries Sunday is observed as the weekly holiday, and consumption of alcohol in public is permitted. The Islamic dress code for men and women, too, varies from region to region.

The genius of Islam lies in its adaptability to the environment, which has enabled it to flourish through history. When the faith was born in Arabia, it adopted the Arabs’ dress code, language, main shrine, and many other institutions. Some of those institutions the Arabs had borrowed from other faiths and cultures. Muslim women’s head covering is a case in point.

According to one theory, the custom was introduced in Persia in the sixth century B.C. by the Achamenian Emperor Cyrus the Great in order to protect the chastity of women. It passed on to the Byzantines from whom the Arabs copied it and eventually gave it religious sanction.9

As Islam began to travel, its original institutions began to change to adapt to local cultures. Again, women’s head covering is a good example. Typically, a Saudi or Afghan woman would cover up her whole head (and often the entire body) to keep any hair from showing. A typical Pakistani woman would throw a thin piece of cloth known as dupatta over her head, which leaves the front one-third of the head exposed. A Bangladeshi Muslim would simply draw the tail end of her saree, originally a Hindu costume, to cover as much of the head as the situation requires her to hide.

Baroness Pola Uddin, a Bangladeshi native who is a member of the British House of Lords, covers her head only on certain social occasions, which include visiting a mosque. “I’d cover my head,” she said, “when I meet my father-in-law and my husband’s older male cousins as a mark of respect.”10 Many educated and working class Muslim women in many countries do not cover their heads at all. Of course Islam’s cultural adaptability has sometimes proved costly. Islamic principles of intra-ethnic brotherhood, for example,
gave way during the post-Prophetic succession struggle, and ethnic and national strife has bedeviled Muslim history. In many societies, especially where Muslims are minorities, many Muslims appear to be culturally assimilated to non-Muslims, and one would wonder if Islam means anything to them. Yet an Islamic worldview, fostered by the concepts of umma and justice, hold them together as communities and nations. Bosnian Muslims, for example, have been among the most secularized in the world. Their forebears used to be Christian Serbs and Croats. Yet in the 1990s tens of thousands of them gave their lives fighting Christian Serbs and Croats to preserve their Muslim identity. The same has been the case with Kosovar Muslims.

The movement for the independence of Bangladesh from the “Islamic republic” of Pakistan was led by a thoroughly secular Muslim elite, who enlisted the support of Hindu-majority India in their struggle against their fellow-believers in Pakistan. But soon after their independence, Bangladeshis overthrew their pro-Indian government, the country’s foreign policy took on an anti-Indian stance and more and more Bangladeshis began to practice the faith or flaunt Islamic cultural symbols. They were alarmed, a well-known
Bangladeshi writer told me, by the twin threat of Indian cultural infiltration and later the U.S. “hegemony” over the Muslim world and began “coming home to Islam.”11

The umma spirit and the search for justice, two of the seminal Islamic concepts, have been continually reinforced by Muslim encounters with other cultures and civilizations, especially the West. The Muslim world has not gone through the type of secularizing revolution as did the post-Enlightenment Europe, and Islam remains the main cultural resource of just about all Muslim societies, regardless of their level of modernization. Hence political and cultural clashes with the “Other” have also reinforced other Islamic values.

Whenever Muslims have faced a political challenge, they have reached for their religious roots — i.e. Islamic symbols and ethical standards — to reinforce their sense of dignity and identity and resist the threat. This is why Muslim anti-colonial struggles fueled Islamic revivalist movements, rejuvenated by the subsequent resistance to U.S. hegemonism in the Muslim world. The political and cultural challenge posed by the West has, to quote Ernest Gellner, “impelled [Muslim] populations in the direction of the formally (theologically) more ‘correct’ Islam.”12 As a result, Gellner adds, “Islam is as strong now as it was a century ago. In some ways it is probably stronger.”13


The Islamic revival has so far occurred in premodern or modernizing Muslim societies outside the West. The resurgence is also being felt among many immigrant Muslim communities in the West, nurturing versions of Islamic culture “imported” from non-Western countries. What becomes of Western Islam when Western-born generations of Muslims progressively lose the memories of their forebears’ values and norms incubated in the premodern Muslims societies?

We have noted that Islam has historically proved highly adaptable to local cultural idiom while retaining its basic beliefs and values. But the challenge of adaptation in contemporary West is qualitatively different from those that the faith encountered in the premodern societies.

In premodern or modernizing societies, religion underpins culture, and people – whatever their religious affiliation – identify with religious meanings that they believe are nobler than material goods. Muslims in those societies usually lived separate lives from other faith groups, nurturing their religious institutions and social ties sanctified by Islam.

Muslims’ lifestyles and values in premodern societies they shared with non-Muslims have been different from those of non-Muslims, and interfaith conflicts have been a feature of some such societies. But usually faith groups in those societies have respected each other’s values and customs and left one another alone. Usually, Muslims in mixed premodern societies coexisted with non-Muslims in autonomous communities in relative peace.

Living in modern liberal societies is, however, a different ballgame for most Muslims. Modernity challenges not only their social and cultural norms but their whole Weltanschauung. A Pakistani or Algerian Muslim immigrant to Western Europe or North America is disoriented to find not only his native Islamic attire and etiquette at odds in his host society, but his umma ties with the Iraqis, Palestinians and Kashmiris an aberration, and sometimes treasonous. He, too, has a hard time reconciling with the liberal Western concept of his religious praxis being treated as his personal matter, unrecognized by the state.

The West challenges their cultural identity and outlook, while nonMuslim Eastern societies require just the adaptation of some of their mores and customs. And while Islam can indeed adapt to the West as it has to the East, it is paying more dearly for its Western sojourn than it ever has for crosscultural expansion. Muslims in the West are secularizing fast. I have written elsewhere that the percentage of Western-born Muslims attending the Friday jumua prayer regularly is comparable to West European Christians attending
weekly church services.14

Nevertheless, unlike the earlier major waves of immigrants to Western Europe and North America, Muslims are unlikely to assimilate into the Western Judeo-Christian mainstreams. A host of factors, mostly stemming from the inherent malaise of rationalism, are cushioning them against the assimilationist pull. They include the erosion of national cultures and sovereignty, the need for non-Western labor, expansion and integration of the European Union, globalization of the American political and economic interests, and so on. Assimilation of the cultural Other has, in fact, ceased to be demand
of Western societies where multiculturalism and pluralism are increasingly gaining ground.

Secondly, while European and Hispanic Catholics and Ashkenazi Jews, who made up the bulk of earlier immigrants to the Western countries, have had racial and religious affinity with host societies, Muslims belong to, not only a non-Western faith, but non-white racial stocks. And historically, the pace of assimilation of non-whites into the white Western national mainstreams remains by far the slowest.15

The all-important question remains: On what terms are Muslims likely to live in the West? In other words, what would the Western Muslim cultural pattern look like?

As we have noted the umma was born of migration, and a pluralist collectivity. The saga of migration and pluralist streak endure in the collective Muslim memory, despite the many intolerant stands of the faith. This is why Muslims have been able to adapt to the cultural patterns of all kinds of societies in which they have settled. Notable exceptions were Moorish Iberia and Ottoman Balkans, from where Islam was expunged by resurgent Christianity and nationalism. The West today is more hospitable to the faith, notwithstanding the idiosyncrasies of liberalism.

The rational methods and “cognitive contamination” from interaction with the Other, which are pluralizing Western societies, are also reinforcing pluralism among Western Muslims. Recent research, my own and that of others’, has shown that the second and third generation Western Muslims are increasingly living a “hybrid” lifestyle. Sociologists Steven Vertovec and Alisdair Rogers say “hybrid Islam is sweeping Europe” and is exemplified by young men “wearing sunglasses, baggy trousers, large trainers loosely laced, and a black T-shirt depicting the photo of the earth from space under which appear the words ‘dar al-Islam,’” or the land of Islam.16

When I read their description of the Muslim youth, I wondered if he was describing my son, Jamal! I see this “hybridized” Muslim breed in American malls, campuses and even mosques. These youths participate in the “It’s Academic” contests at schools, play on local football teams, organize seminars on Islam and join rallies protesting the Anglo-U.S. war against Iraq.

The second- and third-generation Western Muslims, notes British sociologist Tariq Modood, “define themselves in terms of multiple national attachments and are comfortable with fluid and plural identities.”17

Their hybridity claims a cultural space that differs from that of social syncretism, as characterized the lifestyles of the offspring of Judeo-Christian immigrants of earlier times. The scions of Catholic and Jewish immigrants to America and different West European countries also participated in their discreet religious and ethnic events and displayed their ancestors’ ethnic symbols. But they also joined local Christian youths at Christmas parties, church events, Saint Patrick’s Day parades and Bastille Day celebrations. This latter set of events is integral to Western national cultures, or “public religion,” to borrow Robert Bellah’s expression. The syncretizing offspring of Western immigrants felt at home with this national creed, which gradually cemented their bonds with the national mainstreams. Syncretism was a prelude to assimilation.

Muslim youths, while participating in many mainstream social events, keep away from those associated with the Jewish or Christian faiths, and often from the “public religion” events specific to the Western civilization. A son or daughter of a Levantine or Maghrebi Muslim immigrant to the United States, for example, would not get excited over the Columbus Day celebration as Christopher Columbus would remind him or her of Western colonization of Muslim lands. A Muslim youth of Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshi descent may have little interest in a documentary or seminar on Winston Churchill or World War II. The memory of imperial Britain is painful for the offspring of Muslims (and Hindus) of the Indian subcontinent, a former British colony.

The Muslim youths in the West, while participating in Western social, political and economic life, are far from willing to assimilate into Western social mainstreams. Their hybridity signals their preference for a differentiated space in Western societies. The need for such a space is underscored by their unique status as citizens of Western nation-states who are also members of the global umma. Their cultural niche is identical to what Homi Bhaba calls the “third space” in which citizens share their allegiance to their nation-state with their affiliation with one or more international entities.18

Modern nation-states need a new concept of citizenship, not just because of the Muslim affiliation with the umma. As globalization speeds up, a whole web of economic and social relationships are increasingly linking up citizens of nation-states with myriad transnational groups, interests and issues. It all is making, according to Benedict Anderson, our passports “counterfeit.” The passports of Portuguese or Bangladeshi citizens, he says, “tell us little about the loyalty or habitus, but they tell us a great deal about the relative likelihood of their holders being permitted to seek jobs in Milan or

The same thing can be said of the passport of the executives of American corporations such as MCI, General Electric, AT&T and IBM, whose business outlets and network of employees span the globe. And how authentic is the passport of a British, French or Dutch citizen today? How much of his loyalty stays with his nation state and how much of it has been transferred to the European Union? What does the Serbian citizenship mean to Slobodan Milosevic, who is being tried for war crimes at the European Court of Justice
in The Hague? They are all a hybrid bunch, but their hybridity borders on syncretism because of their common liberal creed and Eurocentric culture.

The hybridity of Muslim youths in the West, more visible as it is because of their creedal and racial distinctiveness, reflects a new concept of citizenship that I believe is evolving from the “crisis of liberalism” in the post-Westphalian Western states.


  1. Barker, Ernest (ed), The Politics of Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. lix.
  2. Almond, Gabriel A., “The Intellectual History of Civic Culture Concept,” in Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba (eds), The Civic Culture Revisited (London: Sage Publications, 1989), p. 5.
  3. McLean, George F., Ways to God: Personal and Social at the Turn of the Millennia (Washington, D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1999), p. 266.
  4. Berger, Peter L., A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), pp. 38-39.
  5. Khuri, Richard K., Freedom, Modernity and Islam: Toward a Creative Synthesis (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998), p.81.
  6. Stumpf, Samuel Enoch, Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1975), p. 467.
  7. Ramadan, Tariq, To Be a European Muslim (Leicester, England: The Islamic Foundation, 1999), p. 158.
  8. The Qura’n, XLIX: 13.
  9. MacKey, Sandra, The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation (New York: Dutton, 1996), p. 94.
  10. Author’s interview with Baroness Pola Uddin, the House of Lords, London, November 13, 2000.
  11. Author’s interview with Professor Mahbub Ullah, Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 25, 2003.
  12. Gellner, Ernest, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 15.
  13. Ibid, p. 5.
  14. Malik, Mustafa, The Umma in the West, to be published.
  15. Alba, Richard D., Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 12-13.
  16. Vertovec, Steven and Alisdair Rogers, “Introduction,” in Vertovec, Steven and Alisdair Rogers (eds), Muslim European Youth: Reproducing Ethnicity, Religion, Culture (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1998), p. 1.
  17. Modood, Tariq, “Introduction: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Europe,” in Modood, Tariq and Pnina Werbner (eds), The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Europe: Racism, Identity and Community (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1997), p. 10.
  18. Rutherford, Jonathan, “The Third Space: Interview With Homi Bhaba,” in Jonathan Rutherford (ed), Identity, Community, Culture, Difference (London: Laurence and Wishart, 1990), p. 211.
  19. Anderson, Benedict, “Exodus,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20 (Winter 1994), pp. 323-4.
Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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