Sunday, December 19, 2004

Trip to UK part I


Recently, I had my first opportunity to visit the UK. The major part of my stay was in London, and most of my interaction was with Muslims. Since I've lived in the U.S. for most of my life, I was able to make some rudimentary observations and comparisons. Two aspects of my visit really struck me, one of which I'll address here and the other one I'll address later.

Muslims in the UK seemed much more open and confident about their Islamic identity than Muslims in the U.S. Perhaps more than that, Muslims, along with others, seemed to take pride in their "non-gora" status ("gora" is a South Asian term describing the "white man"; it can be used condescendingly, but need not be). Riding on the tube in London, seeing the "subjects" of all nationalities of the old British Empire all gathered in London, and realizing that they were re-claiming their space as equals, was a beautiful experience.

Of course, the point is not to present the UK is the modern paragon of racial equality. What seemed more important to me was the facility with which Muslims have entered all areas of social life, but have at the same time maintained a very strong Islamic identity, a lasting affinity with the culture and language of their parents or grandparents, and a commitment to never let off the hook any abuses or discrimination they suffer due to the system. Of these qualities, the language element was most surprising, although I'd heard anecdotal stories about it from other family members earlier in my life. Second and third generation South Asian Muslims were speaking fluent Urdu, or Punjabi or even dialects of Punjabi! It was a contrast with my experience in the U.S., where it's neither encouraged nor is it too fashionable to be too fluent in these languages of the Orient. In addition, the dividing line that separates American-born desis (a term for South Asians) from desis who come from Pakistan or India as students or workers in the US (who are condescendingly characterized as "FOB"-fresh off the boat) is to a great extent blurred in the UK.

My cousin Saleem and I chatted about this in London. He said something which seemed quite profound. He said, "In the UK, Muslims don't take crap from either their parents OR from the system (or from the "gora"). In the US, it seems like Muslims only do the former." We had also come to realize how much class background played a role in this. A majority of the South Asian Muslims who migrated to the UK peformed working class jobs. This is in contrast to a majority of South Asian Muslims who came to the US in the 1960s and 1970s as middle class professionals. Many of the South Asian migrants in the UK experienced racist and class oppression, and organized and fought back. Their children organized and fought back even harder, to the level where Saleem's point comes home ("they will not take crap from the system now"). The middle class hang-ups of many Muslim families in the U.S., associated with how we can present ourselves as "one of them" (them being White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans), never afflicted UK Muslims, thankfully.

I was told to be very careful at the airport in London because I fit the "profile." So it was a relief that BOTH at immigration as well as at customs, I was being profiled by two young women in hijab, respectively! Many Muslims in the U.S. like to talk about where else do Muslims have as much freedom as they do in the U.S. This claim was held well before 9/11. After 9/11 and the curtailment of civil liberties, one would think only the most foolish would persist with this line of argument. But judging from how much one STILL hears this mantra from American Muslim "intellectuals" . . . well, I'll let you be the judge! I think Muslim professionals in the US accumulating mucho dinero all their lives need to take a trip away from the "homeland" before they make such presumptuous remarks. The UK and South Africa would be good destinations for starters.

4 comment(s):

  • Abu Dharr,

    Good observations.

    Could it be that the migrants to the UK have suffered far greater abuse and discrimination than those in the US. And thus they are more cohesive as a community and knowlegeable about their rights. Their American counterparts are really finding out what discrimination is after 9-11.

    By Blogger Jafar, at 12/20/2004 12:40:00 PM  

  • Thank you Abu Dharr for these comments - it is heartening for us Muslims in the US to hear about our sisters and brothers accross that big blue pond.

    I think some of this also has to do with the streak of nationalism that is "Americanism" - thus there is a pressure to identify with America - with it's policies, culture etc. ... or else! It is really a form of a coercive threat...

    There are these ideas of "America is the best in the world" and the corresponding sense of superiority. And from these ideas we get notions such as "Muslims in the US are the freeest in the world" etc.

    The impact on Muslims is then one of instilling fear - to give your allegience or you'll be in trouble (you'll be labled "anti-American." Unfortunately, some "intellectuals" have bought into this kind of thinking...

    Here is a quote from Chomsky on this:

    "If you identify the country, the people, the culture with the rulers, accept the totalitarian doctrine, then yeah, it's anti-Semitic to criticize the Israeli policy, and anti-American to criticize the American policy, and it was anti-Soviet when the dissidents criticized Russian policy. You have to accept deeply totalitarian assumptions not to laugh at this. If an Italian criticized Berlusconi and he was called anti-Italian, the people would crack up with laughter, because there’s some kind of democratic culture. The fact we don't crack up with ridicule, that notion is anti-American or anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, it tells us something about ourselves. "

    I'd also be interested in more thoughts from Abu Dharr on what other reasons might there be for these differences...?


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/20/2004 02:09:00 PM  

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    By Blogger Abu Dharr, at 12/20/2004 04:01:00 PM  

  • Salaams:

    Jafar, I agree that the South Asian Muslim migrants to the UK have been experiencing racism for a longer period than their counterparts in the US. But my feeling is that the general class character of the two communities has shaped the type of response that was put forth against racism. So, for example, my friend (a second-generation UK Muslim) talks about how his elder brothers and other Pakistani Muslims in the UK formed gangs, sometimes with Africans, against white supremacist groups. Muslims were involved in militant fightback. Of course, I'm not saying that gangs are the answer! But it is something to reflect on and contrast with the type of responses by American Muslims. Something about the middle class "American dream" and earning lots of cash in the US makes middle class folks think twice before openly fighting racism.

    Altaf, you're right to point out the nationalism point. But I think the US needs this nationalist culture much more than any other country, since it is The Empire. I think this partially explains why there is an allowance of such a vibrant media in places like Europe and Canada, but NOT in the US. The US simply cannot allow it. The consent the US elite must manufacture at home must be total, whereas other Western national elites can allow some degree of domestic freedom of thought since they aren't running empires (anymore, at least).

    Abu Dharr

    By Blogger Abu Dharr, at 12/20/2004 04:04:00 PM  

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