Finding a ‘Shi’a voice’ in Europe: minority representation and the unsettling of secular humanitarianism in the discourse of ‘Shi’a rights’
In contemporary Europe, where the hegemony of modern secular governance remains largely uncontested, how do minority religious communities – especially Muslims – negotiate the tension between religious duty and forms of secularised civic belonging? This contribution takes Twelver Shi’a Muslim activism in Europe as a starting place to interrogate the encounter between Islamic and secular values. In particular I examine the emergence of what I call the discourse of ‘Shi’a rights’, through which Shi’a Muslims are seeking to gain minority recognition within the European context. Combining elements of Shi’a Islamic ethics with the language of secular humanitarianism, the discourse of ‘Shi'a rights’ is emancipatory and outward-facing while simultaneously being exclusionary and particularistic in the way it promotes specific understandings of what it means to be ‘Shi’a’. Crucially, I argue that this ambivalent nature of ‘Shi’a rights’ is a product of the encounter with secular liberal governance, especially the secular ideal of religious equality. Rather than representing a natural division between religion and society, contemporary secularism cultivates particular ethical attachments that ultimately serve to problematise the status of religious minorities. A focus on ‘Shi’a rights’ in Europe thus serves to illuminate the fractures and fissures that contemporary secular discourse seeks to hide.