To what extent should people explain their culture to outsiders?
JK Rowling periodically releases short pieces of writing on her Pottermore site that build upon the Harry Potter world. She has recently published information on wizarding schools around the world, such as Uagadou in Uganda or Mahoutokoro in Japan. Its a clever way to engage fans from all over the world, bringing a little bit of the magic to those who might not readily see themselves reflected in Ron, Hermione and Harry.
I say that if you’re not prepared to look an animal in the eye and then stab it to death, you’re living in a state of denial and should not be eating meat at all.
The latest multicultural controversy feels entirely manufactured, but I’ll bite anyway. Apparently, Pizza Express is serving Halal chicken to its customers, but not announcing this fact on its menus. The Sun is outraged, and the story was on the front page yesterday.
[The research] shows a continuing pattern of “white flight” from areas where indigenous Britons find themselves surrounded by new minority communities.
Where they say ‘indigenous’ they mean ‘white’, and when they say ‘minority communities’ they mean not-white (Aisha Phoenix called this out in The LIP Magazine, a decaded ago). The posh language dresses a racial issue as a cultural one.
And the research in question is questionable. I found the Telegraph editorial via a blog post by Jonanthan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Portes was taking on the grand claims for “white flight” by David Goodhart in his book The British Dream. If people in the ‘White British’ group are leaving London, they are doing so in relatively small numbers.
The EDL posted details about a demonstration they were going to host at our mosque on Sunday on their Facebook page. My first reaction was to let the police know, which I did, but when I really started thinking about it I remembered George Bernard Shaw saying, “If the world’s problems were brought to the Prophet Muhammad, he would solve them over a cup of tea..” I knew we had a sunny forecast for Sunday, and it’s very English to have tea and biscuits in the afternoon, so I thought it would be a kind gesture to invite the EDL in to tell us about their grievances.
I have a couple of comments to make about this story. First, this story represents an alternative vision of multiculturalism, the one put forward by the Dalai Lama when I asked him about the concept, a few years ago: Multiculturalism is about stressing similarities between different cultures.
Second, is it me, or have the British public become savvier at dealing with extremism? I think people have ‘wised-up’ to the power of counter-intuitive gestures. As well as this Muslim take on ‘make tea not war’, I am thinking of things like the London #RiotCleanup that arose in response to the 2011 riots. I also recall gestures of solidarity and defiance, like We Are Not Afraid and the Iranian/Israel Facebook Love-in.
I’ve made othernotes on this blog about counter-intutive, unexpected, turn-the-other-cheek style thinking. I think the savviness, such as it is, comes from the way in which ordinary people recognise the value not just in doing something unexpected and open, but in publicising that fact! I note this not as a criticism, just an observation about the way in which people can spread their actions, and therefore their ideologies, through social media. I do not know for sure, my I have an inkling that Mohamed El-Gomati’s idea to invite the EDL to tea was inspired as much by the recent precedent set by the sort of social media campaigns I mentioned above, as by anyhting said by the Prophet Mohammed.
I will try to log more examples of public savviness when they arise in future.
Re-reading this, I think it needs another paragraph. What is noteworthy about year gestures is that they do not come from politicians. Remember when Boris Johnson tried to piggy-back onto the #RiotCleanup goodwill. The examples I mentioned are also examples of leadership, progress, bold action that politicians do not seem capable of initiating. Is that because they lack imagination, or because we are so cynical that we would scoff at the same acts, if a politician tried to initiate them?
So yesterday, Granta announced their once-a-decade list of the Best British novelists under 40. I’m pleased for English PEN deputy president Kamila Shamsie, who was featured on the list.
But I’m also delighted to the inclusion of Taiye Selasi, whose novel Ghana Must Go has recently been published. Taiye is the author of my favourite piece of prose published in the LIP magazine, a magazine project I worked on from 2003-07.
When I was at University and introducing myself to ideas of multiculturalism, orientalism and Samuel Huntington’s (at that time, relatively new) Clash of Civilisations thesis, I distinctly remember being surprised by the attire of a fellow student in the canteen. She wore a black hijab with a huge sequined YSL logo down the back. I remember being surprised that someone who wore such a conservative piece of clothing should also be concerned with such Western concepts as fashion labels.
Of course, that was me just being casually prejudiced on a number of different levels, and I learnt a lot from that short encounter with the back of that woman’s head. No culture or sub-culture has the monopoly on the chic, the fashionable, the well made, the comfortable; Fashion concerns are not the preserve of urban, anti-religious, counter-cultural types. And most importantly, it is possible that the hijab is more than a conservative, patriarchal garb. It can be a means for self-expression just like any other type of clothing.
Artist Sara Shamsavari’s photographs explore this last lesson. Her street photography, exhibited from tomorrow at the Royal Festival Hall, explores the myriad fashion decisions that follow a woman’s choice to wear a hijab or headscarf.
Looking at the photos, I am reminded of an article entitled ‘The Muslim Sartorialist‘ on the MENA focused blog, Aqoul:
Ever heard of the Sartorialist? It’s basically a photo blog done by a guy with a keen eye for fashion. He photographs people in trendy European and North American cities and adds little blurbs about why he thinks the outfits are interesting.
Now, I’ve always taken note of fashionable Muslim girls around me. They are masters of layering, texture and coordination. Whether it’s at the mall, a pretentious cafe or even my gym (where one stylish muhajabat routinely schools me on the treadmill), these ladies are not held back by their headscarves. Unfortunately, most of the photos you find on news sites are of women wearing frumpy hijabs, dowdy overcoats and ominous-looking ninja getups (as Lounsbury likes to call them). Western media is inundated with photos of shapeless baby-blue Afghan burkas and Saudi niqabs, so it’s hardly surprising that most non-Muslims think this style of dress is ubiquitous.
Sara Shamsavari is Iranian, which reminds me of Andrew Sullivan’s ‘Outing Iran‘ series from around the time of the 2009 elections and protests. No, not an assertion that everyone in Iran is gay. Just a recognition of the diversity of opinion and the radical art that is produced inside societies a d cultures we lazily consider to be monolithic.
There has been a lot of this kind of art in the UK in recent years. The London Olympics was a catalyst for this Kind of commissioning. One might even say that in 2013, this exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall is not particularly radical! I wonder whether London is the most appropriate place for this kind of exhibition. Perhaps it should tour to, oh, I don’t know… Bradford? Or Hampshire?
Here’s my speech at the British Future event on what makes Britain great. I was arguing for Literature as the greatest influence on British life.
There is feedback on this and the other pitches over at the British Future website. I was pleased that broadcaster Mark Easton and author Natasha Walter voted for my pitch, but it was actually Migration that got the most votes.
Acknowledging our discomfort over migrants is the start of a conversation about ourselves, not an argument for immigration control.
Having complained earlier this week about The Times reposting wire copy behind their paywall, its now time to point out that some writing is worth paying for. Despite his Toryness, I think Matthew Parris is one of the most honest and eloquent columnists writing today.
Last Saturday he returned to the subject of burkas, and other religious and cultural uniforms, making an attempt to articulate why he and other British people might find such uniforms uncomfortable:
I wonder whether it really is only the burka’s particular capacity to hide the face that nettles us. I believe there’s something more: that we see the decision to wear a burka as an insult, however passive, to ourselves; that we take the wearing of this veil as an expression of rejection by the wearer, or her husband, of the culture and society in which they live. We think that they are trying symbolically to shut us out, to define themselves against us. We think we see the uniform of an alien grouping: a passive-aggressive shunning of the host country.
Now this isn’t fair. Many burka wearers would be wearing burkas too in the countries from which their families come. But it is a fact I cannot deny that when I walk the pavements of Whitechapel in East London and pass women in the full black veil whom I sense do not want to acknowledge or speak to me, I feel very slightly affronted. I can’t help this. To any Muslim reader who may protest that I ought not to feel like that, I must, in all sincerity, give this reply: however you think non-Muslims ought to react to the full veil, this is how we always will. You’ll have to take it as a given.
An accepted wisdom of modern sociology is that racial insult is to some degree in the eye of the individual offended, rather than the intention of the offender. If this argument cuts one way, it must cut the other too. On this page yesterday Hugo Rifkind argued that race and culture are sideshows, and it’s all about jobs and economic competition: a powerful argument that I flatly reject. Poles are taking our jobs; burka wearers aren’t. But Poles are quite popular in Britain.
If I’m right about the wearing of religious or cultural uniforms that define the adherent against — as it were — the world in which he finds himself, then this would explain the slight hostility I feel (and must immediately combat in myself) on encountering groups of Hassidim with ringleted hair, in black hats, thick spectacles and heavy black coats. What is wrong with the rest of us (I hear myself mutter) that you want to separate yourselves from us in this aggressive-looking way? I feel it a bit with nuns, too. I feel it with stud-pierced youths with spikes on their lips: “Why do you hate our world so much?” I sense myself silently asking.
Then there are the shouty crucifixes that seem to announce that the rest of us are on the wrong side of a sheep- versus-goats divide. I’ve not the slightest doubt that those orange- swathed Hare Krishna people you see on the London pavement are the most harmless creatures alive, but their uniform is telling me that they’re special, and I’m not; and I don’t react well to that. I’ve even felt this with the wearing of the Jewish skullcap in a secular, mixed and workaday environment: “Ok, but why do you need to wear that thing?” a voice within me says — to which another, fairer, one replies: “And why shouldn’t he? Must he justify to you what he puts on his head?”
Its also possible to feel the opposite. When I walk between the saris and sarwar kamises on Tooting High Street or Ealing Broadway, it makes me feel cosmopolitian, international, and worldly (although I would be lying if I said I was not similarly puzzled by Burkas). Regardless of my personal feelings, I appreciate Parris’s article because he acknowledges that we are intelligent animals, capable of introspection. We may have certain inate fears about ‘The Other’ (be they Muslims, Jews, or Hare Krishnas) but we are equally capable of some rudimentary self-psychoanalysis. We are not slaves to our fears or our gut instincts – we can transcend them in favour of a shared humanity.
Acknowledging our discomfort over migrants is the start of a conversation about ourselves, our country, and our species. Contra to what both David Cameron and Ed Miliband seem to be saying, such feeling are not a legitimate reason to criticise immigration policy. Portraying white Britons as uniformly panicked and distrubed by the changing face of our community is patronising and simplistic, and may even legitimise the reactionary views of the Far Right.