Photo: Khalil C. Mitchell for Visual Aurum

The other 22 per cent – 400 million Muslims worldwide live as minorities

As a recent report by the London-based think tank Ayaan Institute documents, Muslim minorities not only make up about a quarter of all Muslims. They also play an important role in the future development of the Islamic world.

On 10 October, the independent London-based Ayaan Institute published a comprehensive paper on Muslim minorities around the world. Ummah at the Margins covers almost a quarter of global Muslims (about 400 million people), filling an important gap in global intra-Muslim discourse. The author is the English social and cultural anthropologist Yahya Birt, described in 2014 by The Economist magazine as an “influential British Muslim.” The writer, community historian and researcher has worked for institutions including Georgetown University and the University of Leeds.

The aim of the paper, says Institute Director Jahangir Mohammed, is to shed light on the role of minority Islamic communities in creating unity, prosperity, and connectedness with the majority. For them to do this constructively, he said, they need independent organisations as well as greater resilience to external hostilities. Birt uses his extensive expertise of communities in Britain and global movements to discuss fundamental issues facing us today. Dangers and opportunities facing these minorities would force them to think ahead.

Those Muslim populations matter, according to the Ayaan Institute, because they make up 22 per cent (as of 2022) of all Muslims worldwide. This is another reason why ways must be found for their survival and success. The report focuses on 31 groups with more than one million members each. India, for example, is home to the second largest Islamic group in the world with 213 million members. For historical and demographic reasons, these communities are more significant than the term Ummah at the Margins conveys.

In Ummah at the Margins, three geographical zones are identified for consideration. First come the “Big 3” (India, China and Russia). Here live historically substantial minorities whose deteriorating situation should be of global concern. Next come 14 African states, some of which have poor economic conditions but are exemplary in terms of religious freedom. And finally, Muslims in nine Western countries enjoy greater freedom and prosperity than Muslims elsewhere. According to Yahya, this three-way division is intended to lay a foundation for strategic research on minorities as a whole.

Among the key findings is that there is little or no correlation between personal, civil, and economic freedoms and religious freedom in the 31 countries. This, according to the author, necessitates further research to determine the causes of hostility and necessary countermeasures to protect such minorities. The issues facing these communities are by no means separate from the rest of the Ummah. Overall, the notion of a global ethical community competes with the current diaspora policy of at least five influential states. In the latter, ethnic affiliation to a country of origin dominates and is subject to respective national interests. At the same time, these minorities do not have a lost homeland, “but rather a shared orientation (Qibla) towards Mecca, a common faith, scripture and a prophet for the whole world”.

Muslims, according to Birt, have become an integral part of the dominant nation-state system that has spread across the globe over the last two centuries. Unlike others, this nationalism is cloaked in religious terms in majority Islamic societies. Their national elites created “a curated religion“ to promote their interests at home and abroad. Among the key factors of these often-overlooked communities: India has the second largest community in the world within them, with an estimated 213 million members as of 2020. Estimates are that it will overtake Indonesia in terms of size in the next 50 years.

On our continent, the demographic centre of gravity is slowly shifting westwards. Today, France, Germany, the UK and Italy have more Muslims than the only Muslim countries in Europe, Albania and Kosovo. If one applies the geographical definition of the last century and a half, our peninsula stretches north of the African coast to a line from the Urals to the Caspian Sea. This area is still dominated by Muslims in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe; especially if you include the majority areas of Turkey (Istanbul and Thrace, 12.55 million in 2020), Azerbaijan (9.79 million in 2020) and the large minority in Russia (16 million in 2020). In 2015, the Pew Forum projected Europe’s Muslim population to grow from 5.9 per cent (2010) to 10.2.

The oldest community outside Mecca, that in Ethiopia, accounts for 36 per cent of all residents in that African country. Other leading, and in some cases historic, minorities include those of China (28 million), Tanzania (21 million), Russia (16 million), Ivory Coast (9 million) and the Philippines (6 million).

What many people are not aware of is that some of the listed populations in a minority situation are larger than those of OIC states. For example, there are more Muslims living in India than in Nigeria and Egypt combined. There are more Muslims in Ethiopia than in Saudi Arabia, more in China than in Syria, more in Tanzania than in Somalia and more in Russia than in Tunisia.

The nine examples mentioned in the Euro-American region accounted for around 29 million members in 2020. This is a comparatively recent development, as most communities emerged after 1945, although there are important pioneering achievements dating back to the 19th century. A notable exception is Bosnia, where the indigenisation of Islam began in the 15th century.

For the most part, these communities enjoy relatively high degrees of religious freedom and personal prosperity – compared to most OIC states. “They have become increasingly assertive in terms of Ummah solidarity over the past thirty years,” writes Birt. However, they face greater political and legal constraints, especially since 9/11. Some estimates say that there will be a total of 45 million Muslims in the “western nine” countries.

It would have been beyond the scope of Ummah at the Margins for Birt to add an analysis for each of these thirty-plus minorities. In the last quarter of the report, Britain is presented as a case study. In it, many parallels to the “Western 9” can be found. The similarities, on the other hand, hardly apply to the group from India, China and Russia, or to the Muslim minorities of Africa, who operate under very different conditions.

The phenomenon of these communities illuminates “the great challenge of Islamic nationalism,” which for the author is the greatest task of the Ummah. For him, the explanation lies in the instrumentalisation to which Islam was subjected during the state-building of the post-colonial period. It was pressed into national identities and institutions. According to Birt, this manifested itself in these three processes: Religious institutions and authorities (such as awqaf or qadis) were nationalised according to the trend of the day.

Shari’a was transformed from an independent and cross-border process of legal reflection into a public, territorial, and positive law. According to Wael bin Hallaq, this meant that it was impossible for a modern state to be “Islamic.”

Education for children was moved from private madrasas to state schools. Its content mutated into a doctrine in which Islam was used as a reference point for national history and civic indoctrination. The last point, according to Birt, depends on the respective conditions of decolonisation, the re-emergence of public schools thanks to neoliberalism, and the way modern Islamic schools as institutions overcome the Eurocentric separation of public and state schools.

The report “Ummah at the Margins” can be downloaded here:

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