Many of us when abroad have some experience of facing the question ‘where are you from?’ Normally, we shrug off such questions with some banter or a straightforward reply with ‘UK’ or ‘Britain.’ Though, quite often we then find ourselves with the slightly awkward question: ‘where originally?’ In other words, our looks can be perceived by others to have a different origin to the country we claim to be from. Such passing conversations, while usually it is nothing more than curiosity or being friendly, do raise some interesting questions about our identity and belonging. For many of us these questions will have been recently brought to the fore watching The Chronicles of Nadiya.
Back in the UK, ‘Muslimness’ is fashionably questioned by some sections of the media – and in the process misrepresented, not to understand the nature and value of faith, but for crass suspicion of ‘otherness.’ What comes out in the wash are all kinds of prejudices, lack of familiarity with diverse cultures and traditions, as well as in some cases healthy tensions to be expected in any pluralistic society too. In turn, this antagonises others, resulting in a two-way process of hate, ridicule and feelings of persecution/siege mentality.
Nationalistic chauvinism is frowned upon not just in Islam, but, rightly, it seems, whenever we learn about the history of wars when men capitulated to the excesses of their egos. ‘Patriots could display over the centuries many memorable and useful virtues, but gentleness and sympathy towards outsiders are not prominent among them,’ says the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
Chauvinistic nationalism, however, is altogether quite different, I think, to expressing one’s identity and belonging to a group of people who are geographically closer to home. Our basic human instinct is to form greater communion with others. It’s also necessary for practical and psychological reasons. We achieve through collective effort and shared experiences – as spouses, families, friends, communities, clubs, business partners, political groups, trading blocks, nations etc. Naturally, they give us identity and solidarity with some more than others. Different levels of empathy and concern may follow as a result, too.
At the same time, this kind of communion doesn’t imply that we automatically ignore or deny the rights of others who fall outside of these communions. Being born into different families, for instance, doesn’t make us spontaneously dislike others or arbitrarily exclude them from things. Such prejudice, if it grows, does so for other reasons. Instead, there are social norms, laws, Prophetic guidance and indeed inherent human goodness, that helps us to form mutual friendships with others, to uphold fairness and justice etc.
Questions about identity and belonging get yet more interesting when, for example, we visit the home of our ancestors in Pakistan or Bangladesh etc. The chances are (particularly if we’ve not been for a while) we’ll be met with curiosity and stares, confirming us as desi outsiders.
It seems our sense of ‘who we are’ has actually moved on in the eyes of those whom our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generation would have called ‘our folk’ or apna in Urdu and amrar manush in Bengali. The apna or amrar manush for us are in our ‘back home’ in the UK, which has widened to include people of white, black, faith, non-faith backgrounds etc. Some proof of this can be found in our response to randomly meeting a fellow Brit (of a different background to us) while on holiday abroad.
Mind you, the old sentiment is not completely irrelevant. As second/third generation, some of us still have family and assets in ancestral countries. And of course the heritage of our roots is in one sense forever etched into our DNA. So too the folkloric tales, languages, stories, cultural idioms and songs that have been passed down to us.
But, where this sentiment can get a little overbearing is when it’s overtaken by seemingly unresolved post-colonial attitudes that unnecessarily skew thinking and attitudes towards pessimism and cynicism here at home in Britain. For those hungover in this way, criticism of the West and efforts by Muslims to express an indigenised ‘British’ or ‘English’ Muslim culture can be all too quick and automatic. At the sharp end, it’s a kind of isolationist, culturally predatory view that questions overt loyalty to the British establishment and institutions, and often feels devoid of core qualities of faith (iman) – being a source of ease (ihsan) and showing gratitude (shukr) to others. Similarly, the sharp ends of the left- and right-media and politics, too, have vested interests of their own when it comes to the diverse strands of Muslim identity of Britain. For whom on the question of assimilation, ‘resistance is futile’ and we must look, speak and behave in a certain way to be accepted in Britain.
It is at this juncture that we ought to study and reflect on how Muslims historically absorbed themselves into the diverse cultures they lived in. There is in Islam an accommodating spirit that directs believers to mesh in, to establish warm relations, to be of real value and service (khidmah) to others. Sadly, the self-reflective focus on ‘being Muslim’ and the responsibility that it entails is often the least worry for far too many Muslims.
Human beings have been created not as a monolithic race devoid of different nations, colours and languages. The Madinan society – formed on the Prophetic motto ‘spread peace amongst you’ was as good an example as any. For the Muhajir (Muslims of Makkah who emigrated to Madina during the Hijra) the diverse Ansar (helpers of Madina) became the new apna, and vice versa. God interchanges the way He addresses the reader, in some cases as ‘children of Adam’ (banu Adam) whilst in other cases as ‘mankind’ (an-naas) or ‘all that exists’ (‘alameen). How terms like Qawm and Millat used in the Qur’an and hadith literature can be applied to our times are worth exploring, too. In fact, interestingly, in Islamic scholarship it was customary to classify human beings as al-hayawan al-natiq – ‘the rational animal’ (in works of logic/mantiq for example). In other words, human presence went beyond nations, colours and languages, to a relation with the animal kingdom, contemplating, if you like, the fuller sunan (God’s way) of creation.
Finally, the deeper question of our identity and belonging is much closer to us than we perhaps think. Our lack of knowledge and conformity to self-claims of being ‘British’ or ‘English’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘Nigerian’ or ‘Arab’ or ‘Indian’ and their various combinations etc. is quite telling of ‘who we think we are’ from ‘who we want to be’ from ‘who we’re perceived to be’ from ‘who we actually are.’ Not being true to what we claim creates, perhaps, a far deeper spiritual problem. And with that comes yet more questions about identity and belonging than perhaps we realise.