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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Being British

Recent comments by a senior MP in Britain have stirred up a great deal of debate over Islamic dress, and with it has come a lot of talk about integration and Muslims becoming “more British”. But what exactly does that mean?

Over the past year or so the government has attempted to define (in order to encourage) a greater sense of “Britishness” amongst the population – yet, no matter how many lists of values and attributes they come up with, no real satisfactory definition of our national identity has been found. Too vague and it’s too weak to create a sense of community. Too specific and it proves too divisive, leaving out large sections of the country.

Part of the problem is that there often seem to be two separate concepts melded together…

1) Relationship with the state: obeying British law, using British services, voting in elections, standing for public office, etc.

2) Relationship with society: engaging in social affairs, sharing in cultural trends, etc.

It’s hard to see something like the veil as a real barrier to No 1. as extreme clothing doesn’t really affect your legal status. With one or two exceptions (passport photos for example) women can comply with the law, use public transport, and vote or stand for office while veiled.

This is the reason why the state has no business regulating something like clothing. (Unless it’s somehow dangerous to others).

However, it’s the second relationship which sees a number of problems arise.

The main reason for a lot of the unease about Muslims (and other minorities) is the perceived lack of a common frame of reference. No matter which part of the country a “native Brit” comes from, I have a fair idea of what their life is like, and what their views could be. This sense of understanding is lacking when it comes to “alien” cultures - which could explain the ease with which distrust and suspicion spring up. We’re constantly told that a clear barrier exists between the majority of this country’s Muslims and those committing terrorist atrocities in their name, but how many of us have a clear enough understanding of Islam and the Islamic world to judge that assertion properly? How many of us are in a position to judge whether the veil is oppressive or not?

(In the same way: does a lack of understanding of mainstream western culture feed the sense of a general war on Islam among Muslims?)

A sense of “solidarity” across the various religious/ethnic communities in Britain can only come through increased interaction – we need to learn more about them as they learn more about us. This has to be done in a genuine spirit of co-operation. Attempt by one group to force their ideas and values onto another will only increase the sense of separateness.


Ewout said...

Same thing is happening in The Netherlands.It has come so far that to become a dutch citizen you have to do a citizentest.This test is about the common goods of the Netherland aswell as basic language.Some questions about the common goods I could not even answer.I don't even think there is so much Dutch culture left and its al through the speeding globalisation.Also The Netherlands is a small language area and for that its to expensive to translate for instance movies played on TV, they are subtitled, in Germany its synchronised in German.So i can say The Netherlands are very much outward focussed and for that loosing some identity.Don't get me wrong, i like it because it makes my world bigger and also nearer by.

A neo-Jacobin said...

My parents came from Jamaica to Britain in the late 50's - I've been born, raised and lived in London all my life. I'm British, whether I like it or not. It's a joke I use when ever I'm leaving a party, I sometime say 'see ya, I'm going back to my roots'. The usual reply is 'where are your roots from, Africa? Caribbean?' I say 'no, Lewisham in south-east London.

Well, I laughed, I usually get stares of bewilderment for a few seconds, were the reply would be 'no seriously, where are your real roots from? But how can you answer such a question after you've just told someone where you roots are? Many people find it difficult to even comprehend that my roots might actually be in Forest Hill, London.

For me, it demonstrates perfectly how the new force of political multiculturalism makes even the possibility of a more inclusive 'Britishness' more difficult by the day. The idea that all cultures are equal seems to be the driving force behind much of the division we see around us today.

The British identity, seems to be historically and intrinsically bound up with the idea of the West, with a capital W - largely from the endevours of Lord Nelson. The ideas that built an empire where the Sun never set, have been in decline ever since the end of WW2.

Multiculturalism obsession with the project of inclusion and cultural relativism only seems to foster reactionary forms of identity politics. With more use of authoritarian measures to clamp down on free speech (all across Europe) only compounds the problems around British identity further.

"(In the same way: does a lack of understanding of mainstream western culture feed the sense of a general war on Islam among Muslims?)"

In terms of ideas, I think Islamists understand full well what western culture is all about, they understand it, but they also seemingly hate it.

That gap cannot be overcome by the managerial application of multiculturalism. In fact, I'd argue that political multiculturalism is making that gap wider.

Edda said...

I guess this has to do with the immigration laws and regulations. European countries have immigration laws but interestingl, there is not adaptation laws. Most of the immigriants I've been seeing live in suburbs in the zones reserved for them with no touch with locals. They live in their own world, separated. How can they adapt themselves to a country that is different than their own while constantly being kept away from it?

A neo-Jacobin said...

Your right edda - immigration laws actually ends up making migrants into second-class citizens.

In a lot of cases it's benefical for migrants to live close to each other for help and support while they adapt to a new life in a strange country.

London has many areas that are highly populated with new and old migrants. Jews in north London, Asians in east London, Carribeans in south and west London, and so on.

"How can they adapt themselves to a country that is different than their own while constantly being kept away from it?"

That just take time I think - when my parents first came to this country they had British passports even though they were Jamaican by birth. They saw themselves as British first and Jamaican second. Whereas, I don't see myself as Jamaican at all - I'm British first and English second.

But the outlook I have takes years to develop - during those years many other second-generation Carribeans have had to do battle with the idea of British identity - many rejected British identity and became Rastafarians, others went the opposite way and joined the armed forces as a powerful reminder that they were British, whether the British liked them or not.

Me personally, I kept my hair short and went to University.

Stran_ger said...

Being born in a country which was influenced by many cultures, and in a neighbourhood with a long record of immigrants (legal and illegal) I hold this question very dear to me. For me, people are afraid of differences and of what they don’t understand. This is equal for local citizens and immigrants. While is easy for people to cluster themselves in likewise neighbourhoods, this fact builds barriers for intercultural trades.

In my neighbourhood it was quite easy to assimilate so many cultures (Africans, Brazilians and eastern country people) but the economic level is still the main barrier. So, more then laws, here the economic level builds the main barrier that is almost impossible to pass over. Most immigrants have jobs that are less paid (not to say poorly paid) then the average, so the only place that they can live is in suburbs.

But what defines a citizen? Not an exam of course, so I think there are two main definitions (note: I didn’t look up in any dictionary): definition of place of birth, which I don’t agree, and the sharing of common social and culture values. I think that the second definition is tougher to express, since it is not static, but more accurately.
As for me, like someone already said I am a citizen of the world.

Matt M said...

Citizenship is a strange thing - I identify myself as English, but struggle to explain (even to myself) what that actually means.

It's really just a matter of location, I suppose. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who regards themselves as English (assuming they live in this country, and intend to do so for a while) is welcome to the term.

My concept of being English sits quite happily alongside my concept of being British, European and human.

The government should really have no concerns beyond whether someone is law-abiding or not.