London Brawling: Another Round in the British Identity Debate

sun-british.jpgIf you get your news mainly from US outlets, you’ve probably heard by now about the alleged plot foiled yesterday in Birmingham, England, in which extremists planned to kidnap a British Muslim soldier whilst on leave and execute him as a collaborator. There are some reports today that the plotters had as many as 25 targets identified.

But you may not have heard about the big debate that has erupted in Britain, also this week, about the results of a survey and report called “Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism,” by Policy Exchange, which most reports describe as a right-of-center think-tank. The results of the survey that have garnered the most attention suggest, among other findings, that a surprisingly large proportion of British Muslims would like to live under Sharia. There are of course major debates about how the question was phrased and what the responses imply in practice. It is also clear that the British Muslim community is no monolith, and all commentators are zooming in on the fact that more “extremist” or “separatist” stances are much more common among the youngest respondents (18-24) and progressively less so in the older groups. Again, what this means is being hotly discussed.

I don’t have time right now to do the topic justice, but hopefully commenters here, especially from the UK, will give us some perspectives. My man Sunny Hundal is already on the case along with the commenters at Pickled Politics. There are many other views online at the Guardian’s op-ed site, including this one from Dave Hill and this from Timothy Garton-Ash; you can root around the main UK papers for more. Be prepared for fatuous pieces too, such as this one that says folks shouldn’t worry about youth Islamic radicalism in the UK as it’s just the same kind of temporary rebellion that hippie kids displayed in the 1960s. Talk about adding nothing to the debate. Finally, if you have the time and inclination you can read the full report and crunch the numbers; let us know what you find.

However I found the most valuable summation of the discussion in this article at the website Spiked, by the lead author of the report, Munira Mirza (the report co-authors are Abi Senthilkumaran and Zein Ja’far). Here the sister responds to the first wave of discussion and makes some useful points:

The headlines affirmed what many people already suspected: that some younger Muslims in Britain are more likely to express ‘radical’ views than older Muslims; that is, they’re likely to be attracted to political forms of Islam or have a more politicized approach to their religion. However, the research itself revealed a more complex and contradictory picture of British Muslims than these first impressions suggest, and that headlines such as ‘Young Muslims more militant’ allow. Behind the headlines, there’s a broad diversity of opinions and experiences within what is surely the most intensely scrutinised group in Britain. One of our aims was to get past the sensationalist tendency to portray Muslims as ‘the problem’ – either as potential terrorists or as victims of Islamophobia – in order to get at a bigger picture.

It’s worth quoting at length:

Firstly, the majority of Muslims are well integrated into British society – they want to live under British law and they prefer to send their children to mixed state schools. They do not live in bleak ghettoes cut off from society. Their religion is not a barrier to integration and is very often perfectly reconciled with being – and feeling – British. Most of them are comfortable supporting the national football team and having strong relationships with non-Muslims. And while some younger Muslims are more interested in learning about their religion, many others feel it plays little role in their lives – they indulge in rather secular habits such as drinking and having pre-marital relationships. Although there is a definite increase in support for sharia amongst younger Muslims, we should be wary of seeing this as an automatic qualification for being labelled ‘Islamist’ or ‘extremist’. There will be complex reasons for why individuals responded to this question in the way they did, and there was little evidence in our research to suggest that most want it imposed in the UK, as some newspapers wrongly interpreted.

As Sunny and others have done, Munira offers this observation about youth disaffection and search for identity in general:

The collapse of older collective political and national identities has meant that younger people in general are searching for meaning in their lives. Some of them are turning to Islam as a kind of politicised identity in the absence of much else. A similar impulse lies behind the resurgence of regional identities, such as Scottishness, or even Englishness.

It’s right after this however that many American readers are likely to first feel taken aback:

Moreover, the political philosophy of multiculturalism, with its stress on institutionalising difference, has encouraged younger people from ethnic groups to believe that theyÂ’re different from each other, and that they need special recognition and protection. Paradoxically, by insisting on engaging with Muslims as a distinct group, the authorities make many of them feel even more excluded from the mainstream, which leads in turn to an intensification of the search for identity.

This moves the discussion into the realm of public policy, which is the whole point of course, but does so with an off-hand definition of “multiculturalism,” a term that is bandied about a great deal in the UK political conversation but has nothing close to an agreed meaning, either as a political philosophy let alone as a program of policy action. (Timothy Garton-Ash makes this point.) As a result much of the debate involves defenses or indictments of “multiculturalism” that end up talking past one another. Clearly there are issues at hand in Britain about the allocation of government funds in education and other areas, about the flexibility of the legal system, about who participates in policy-making and on what basis, and so forth, that all interrogate Britain’s approach to ethnic, cultural and religious diversity.

I want to leave this subject relatively open, but at the same time I want to share an interesting observation by a commenter named Neil at the New York Times blog The Lede (which is sort of the hangar where they put stories that are deemed interesting but not big enough to make the front page of the site). This comment is interesting to me in part because the writer announces himself as an American desi, and in part for the comparison he draws:

What is missed in this discussion is a focus on the accuracy of the term “embracing of multiculturalism”. That glowing description is certainly not how I perceive Britons to be treating people of color within their society. I am a proud American who happens to be of Indian (from India) descent. I know many “Britons” of Indian descent but none of them are even remotely “proud to be British”. The reasons underlying that discrepancy is the inability by Europeans to accept people from other cultures as truly one of their own. This in turn stems from societal racism and xenophobia that has not been confronted the same way we Americans have over the past several decades and even centuries. It is also explained by the historical foundations of most European states (usually ethnic and racial, unlike the USA).

Those factors are a far cry from “embracing multiculturalism”, which is a meaningless term that I don’t comprehend to begin with. The US supposedly embraces “assimilation” rather than multiculturalism. But what does this mean in concrete terms? For me personally, “assimilation” has not prevented me from speaking the native language of my parents (which I do), practicing their religious tradition (which I do), being in touch with my ancestral roots (which I am), and associating with other people of the same ethnic background (which I do). Britain experiences these problems because Britons are not ready to accept people of color into their society for racist reasons, and that is the bottom line.

I’m not inclined to make the same sweeping generalization this brother makes in his last sentence, and I’d also note that he clearly has his own definitions of assimilation and multiculturalism. But beyond the terminology, his testimonial and the underlying point he makes remind us of the difference between the nation-of-immigrant narratives of the US and some other countries, and the unified-national-identity narratives now being questioned in European nation-states.

I need to leave it at that for now but look forward to people’s comments, from the UK, US and anywhere else. I’m also asking the SM Intern and Rajni the Monkey to remove any sectarian or abusive comments — this topic is too serious and much too interesting.

58 thoughts on “London Brawling: Another Round in the British Identity Debate

  1. If a minority group finds itself “forced” to learn a new language, whatever that language be, I say all the more better.

    Personally I think Spanish should be mandatory in all American public schools, especially in the Mexican border states.

    Knowing more than one language can only help us, not harm us. Many Europeans and Asians know more than one language, oftentimes several. That can only be a factor of enrichment in their lives and open up many more oppurtunities for them – both personal and professional.

    As far as Surinami Indians being “different” from Indians from India, I would say that in general the born and raised in Carribbean areas, though keeping much of Indian culture in tact, also have the added advantage of being born and raised in countries with alot of afro-carib culture around them, which results in a much more laid back, relaxed, non-anal-retentive vibe. Like George Clinton said, “free your mind and your ass will follow”.

    Rigidity cannot survive amongst black people. When you are with them, you have to keep it real.

  2. Fear gave way to relief when the authors of the report explained that the 37% of youth that prefers sharia does not constitute a majority. Whew ! I fault my public schooling (that’s govt. school for you Brits) for making me susceptible to cynical right wingers who might exploit my lack of numeracy.

    Fight or flight G.I. tract clenching subsiding…gullet opening to receive 4th Hostess coffee cake of the day

  3. I think race and national identity are huge red herrings, as the internet has expanded more rapidly, more deeply into Global Culture the boundaries that identify national identity have slipped, blended and evaporated into a kind of a global mismash, the same way that racial and religious identity evaporates in the countries that accept immigrants from other nations, races and religions.

    I myself am of mixed race, at least three of the many colors and hues of my ancestors from various places, ancestors who had myriad different religions, cultural identities and places of national origin. In the first few generations of new immigration the old folks try to fit in and the second generation try to reach back to their roots in the romantized old country but by
    the third and fourth generations intermariage and other forms of integration occur that befuddle all predictions and expectations of previous generations.

  4. One question I have after reading the paper is whether or not the Muslims who were polled understood Shariat to be the same thing. I know how Anjem Chaudhry defines it…but could it be that this 37% is looking for shariat law for civil matters within their community (ala India)? I don’t think we are doing enough to accomodate these youth. Why not complement hundreds of years of accumulated English case law with “nerf shariat”. Here’s how it works: a) Get caught “nicking” bling at Argos ? Nerf scimitar to the hand in front of the whole housing estate. Perp walks away intact with bruised ego and lesson learned b) Tarting it up for “school dress” night at the pub ? Nerf stoning..

    Amitav Kumar writes openly about his nominal conversion and seems to be thriving. What this shows is that nods to tradition go a long way to healing the rift.

  5. namitabh bachchan

    BNP is most certainly a white trash party, you may find the exceptions, but it is never the less nothing but a party for white peopel that feel they are worse off than the immigrants. My point was basically that racism in continental Europe is much more prevalent in the establisment than it is in UK or US.

  6. In England the debate has really heated up, i am 15 and go to school in london and tensions between groups couldnt be higher. The lady who made the poll it is interesting to know was a muslim and she is leading the way in the fight against multi-culturalism which clearly isnt working in Britain. Every culture lives in its own place and things couldnt be more segregated. I really thing multi-culturalism will collapse soon as it is too dangerous for us Britons to have people in our borders who are willingly blowing themselves up. It is a shame but multi-culturalism isnt practical, no culture wants to interact with any other. Sure, there are people like me that would like to see a sucessful multi-culturalism but like economic communism-its a beautiful theory but and ugly reality…

  7. exceptionally , this whole issue of racism has blown out of proportion. i have never seen the word paki used as much as i have never seen such dedicated discussion on racism(indians, indian-muslims, hmm, paki ( rnt they muslims 2? jus not indians heh?))..all in the heat of actress making it big in a non-2-realistic show. if racism was so obvious and evident in western countries, i wonder if it the same in south east asia countries where there are quite a huge number of indians/indian-muslims/paki’s?

  8. We should be able to have a globally connected society surly racism should be benath eithical people.