The next London subway train was in 10 minutes so I settled down on the windy platform and began to read “The Jews of Islam” by Bernard Lewis, which promised to be riveting. I had managed to read only a few pages when a man walking by said, “Who, may I ask, are the Jews of Islam?” And so began a fascinating conversation. The parents of my new acquaintance were Austro-Hungarian Jews who had fled Nazi persecution and taken refuge in Chile. We discussed various issues, including violence in the name of religion and the role of women in society, all very loudly over the rattling of the Central Line.
This, for me – a Muslim woman living in U.K. – is multiculturalism at its best. Countless numbers of people, on a daily basis, meeting, smiling, doing business with and communicating with perfect strangers. Whether they wear a headscarf or a yarmulke, a sari or a skirt is immaterial. Our children learn about the words of Guru Nanak, Jesus and Buddha in school, and I hope they come away with a better understanding of the world than did their grandparents.
To show its confidence with multiculturalism, the English language has embraced new words with ease, including those of Indian and Pakistani cuisine: chicken tikka, rogan josh and saag paneer. During the summer months we see increasing numbers of white British women wearing Pakistani embroidered tunics with long flowing sleeves and linen trousers, a beautiful testament to the absorption of other cultures into the British landscape.
Multiculturalism is not dead but is a living, organic entity affecting us on a daily basis. And this is why I found Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech at the security conference in Munich so surprising. The timing of it was offensive – the day of the far-right English Defense League’s biggest ever march through Luton, to protest at the so-called “Islamization” of Britain – and not a mention of white fascism in his speech. And no mention yet of British politician Baroness Sayeeda Warsi’s comments on the rise in the acceptability of Islamophobia either. Instead, the speech contained criticism of Muslims who live segregated lives, behave in ways that run counter to British values and hold extremist ideas.
In 1994, Roger Ballard, director of the Centre for Applied South Asian Studies in the U.K., described young, second-generation British Asians, as “cultural navigators.” He compared them to bilinguists, where the speaker can switch languages with ease, depending on the context and audience. In the same way, the new generation of British Asians were able to switch between Asian and English cultures, between different religious and cultural codes, with fluidity.
Today’s British Asians are just as comfortable in jeans and skirts as they are in shalwar kameez, traditional South Asian clothing; in eating chips with a fork or biryani with their fingers. They can swear equally well in Punjabi as they can in English, and can dance to pop as well as to bhangra music.
Clearly there are issues of extremism and radicalization that we need to discuss. But Cameron mistakenly confused two completely separate issues and treated them as one. Self-segregation is a clear problem due to a number of factors, including the migration of long-term residents out of neighborhoods as they become racially and ethnically mixed, poverty, racism, high unemployment and so forth.
Extremist rhetoric and the radicalization of young Muslims is an entirely different issue; it is often not due to a dislike of British values per se or to a lack of a clear British identity, but to British foreign policies throughout history which have resulted in innocent civilians being killed in certain Muslim-majority countries as collateral damage. Radical Muslim speakers put emphasis not on integration or a British way of life, but on illegal wars and the death of civilians in the Muslim world. These issues need to be brought out in the open instead of being ignored and shifting the blame elsewhere.
Muslims in Britain enjoy and contribute to the wealth and success of this country. They pay their taxes, are active in the medical and legal professions, dream of playing cricket for England’s team, worry about their children’s education, and generally live happy and productive lives. Fascists and extremists rely on a fear of the other to promote hatred. This is why we need more multiculturalism, not less, to fight stereotypes. Perhaps more loud conversations on the train with strangers will help combat this fear of the other.
Khola Hasan is a writer and broadcaster specializing in human rights and women’s rights in Islam, and the director of Albatross Consultancy Ltd. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).