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Welcome to the Britslam Partnership Website

Emerging Issues

Obama's Challenge



Britslam has launched Volume 1 of Shi'a Affairs:

There are many books and journals that address themes within the broad study of Islam and Muslims but to date there has been no journal or other concentrated effort to assemble information upon Shi’ism as an identity, distinct politically, religiously and culturally from other forms of Islam. Literature that does focus upon Shi’ism is disproportionately the product of propaganda and counter-propaganda rooted in Islamic sectarian polemics or a neo-orientalism developed from Christian and Muslim encounter (polemic).

This lack of a resource for balanced, defined, peer reviewed, authoritative literature has reinforced stereotypes of heterodoxy, minority and exclusiveness applied to both religious and political Shi’ism which has led to cultural misrepresentations and impeded the development of contemporary understanding and knowledge of 15 to 20% of the world’s Muslim population. The term Shi’ism is often associated solely with the 12 Imam confession, however the definition supplied by professor Montgomery Watt in ‘Islamic Creeds’ (1994) includes Isma’ilism and Zaydism and this seems to be an academically acceptable limit for the scope of the anthology’s primary typological criterion. Shi’ism with its distinctive structures, theological interpretations and political influence in the Middle East, South Asia, South West Asia and an increasingly influential diaspora in Africa and the ‘West’ is a subject of international and academic importance that demands an independent literature.

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Brave New Words

As President Obama was speaking in Cairo, I was returning from Damascus, where the epically titled ‘The Message of Peace in Islam’ international conference was just ending. Whilst to its credit the British Foreign Office had, in partnership with the Syrian Ministry of Awqaf, brought together hundreds of British and Arab interlocutors, a subject as large and vague as ‘peace’ within Islam was inevitably going to be a little contrived and unfocused. The eminent Muftis talked the talk but lacked the ability to go beyond petty defensive posturing and actually engage. The “great tension” that Obama was speaking about in Cairo was palpable in Damascus – this was a different audience. We endured the usual, predictable rants by angry old men who raved about the evil of the Crusades, the evil of American hegemony, the evil of Zionist conspiracies, and negative reporting by an evil Western media. There was precious little mention of evil Muslims. The incapability of internalization, even to some minor degree, the approach of ‘the other’ was starkly apparent as cleric after cleric began to sing from some tattered hymn sheet of victimhood and despair. It is an attitude, a demeanour, that many Muslims are themselves tired of. Talking up the extremism of the West conveniently carpets over the extremism in parts of ‘Dar al-Islam’, and if there is one thing that Obama’s speech, not many miles away, ought to have highlighted, it is the complacency of Muslim societies themselves to recognize and deal with the elephants in their room. Obama, unintentionally perhaps, spoke of America and Islam in terms of an enduring dichotomy which in and of itself presupposes a relationship that has to be understood in terms of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. Yet, as I learned in Damascus, there is no America just as there is no Islam;  there are merely ‘little americas’ and ‘little islams’, where shared ideals and a sense of common purpose often emerge not between governments but among civil societies. President Obama’s achievement in Cairo, and perhaps the potential achievement of Damascus also, was the creation of a connection between two ideological divides. In an ideal scenario, this should now lead to a new understanding of Islam and Muslims among the wider American public, as well as a new understanding of America and Americans among a Muslim public too. In a perfect world, these brave new words ought now to manifest themselves into a brave new world.

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