UK Politics

On feeling British

Sunny from Pickled Politics was (I think) a panelist in the discussion following the showing of Young British and Muslim at the National Film Theatre last week and has some interesting thoughts on the experience:

“I would say there are two main aspects to being British – the cultural and the political. One may not have to adopt every aspect of British culture (however defined), but they should at least feel part of the country.
Rather than complaining about the government’s foreign policy or pop culture, I told one, why not strive to get involved and change it? Why not take ownership of the country that he had grown up in, schooled in, and would probably work in for the rest of his life?

Yet, it seems, some of the students did not feel British because no one told them they were.

Part of the problem are our own so-called community or faith leaders who are more obsessed with events back in the sub-continent than here in the UK.
The Sikh Federation is too busy worrying about an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab or what the Indian government is doing to provide any adequate direction for the Sikh community here.
The Muslim Council of Britain is more concerned with renaming the Holocaust Memorial Day, trying to explain London’s terror attacks or getting involved in stupid campaigns than stressing the importance of being Muslim and British. Maybe their recent support for Hizb ut-Tahrir has made it more difficult.

To a certain extent this is understandable. These organisations are run by middle-aged men whose world-view has been shaped by events decades ago.

The problem is that they are not only out of touch with the cosmopolitan youth, but they also claim to represent everyone who belongs to their religion.

If the government is serious about ensuring that ethnic minorities integrate, instead of setting up the umpteenth commission just involving faith groups it should work on making them feel part of this country.
Neither Trevor Phillips’ constant headline-grabbing comments, nor a committee of middle-aged faith leaders is going to convince a young student at school that he or she is an integral part of this country.
That can only happen when schools and other government institutions treat everyone the same and stress their similarities rather than cultural or religious differences.

Our community leaders have been so terrible at stressing even inter-Asian harmony that I hold no hope in them pushing interracial or inter-religious understanding.

Isn’t the problem this. Most people have better things to do with their lives than organise along religious lines. Those who do spend their time involved in religious cultural and political organisations are therefore not typical members of that “faith community”. Yet, those “community leaders” are generally the only people providing a coherent account of that identity. “Community leaders” are also the natural partners for any Government department which seeks to engage with a section of society which is defined by faith or culture. They may not be representative: but at least they’re organised and easy to find. Bringing them into the process of policy making legitimises them and bolsters their authority.

I agree with much of Sunny’s analysis. It would certainly be nice if, when making policy, the Government ignored completely matters of religion and culture. However, given that individuals do very often regard themselves as members of cultural and religious communities, it is difficult as a practical matter for Government to be wholly blind to real and existing cultural identities and affiliations. That being so, “community leaders” will continue to have an irresistable draw for government ministers and civil servants alike.

What follows is this. First, we should insist that Government policy be made on the basis that citizens are entitled, as individuals, to equal concern and respect, and the equal protection of the law, and without regard to communal identity. This should be a wholly unobjectionable demand: but it is one which is in danger of being ignored.

Secondly, and more importantly, the position of community leaders needs to be challenged, fundamentally. As things stand, community leaders will continue to bend the ear of Government until members of faith communities insist that they do not represent them. That challenge to the authority of community leaders will certainly come from the disorientated ideologues of the “we rock the boat” fringe. But it also needs to come from the majority, who are generally preoccupied with their careers, their friends, and their lives, who also cherish some form of religious or cultural identity: but refuse to be represented either by the “middle-aged men” or the wild eyed radicals.

Two things have prevented that necessary challenge from emerging. The first is the natural inertia which comes with a comfortable, hard working, and mostly satisfactory life. The second is the religious authority which the most devout are able to exercise over those individuals who identify with a particular faith, but who have neither the knowledge, the ability or indeed the inclination to challenge religious orthodoxy.

Unless religious authority is challenged by people who refuse to be defined only by the most devout, the power to define identity will always remain in the hands of the zealots.