Whenever the far right BNP splinter group “Britain First” march, as they did in Luton on 27th June, it reignites the focus on their misguided views. The name “Britain First” was coined by its closed- minded founders to suggest that so-called “newcomers” to Britain, particularly Muslims, aren’t willing to integrate and have no interest in putting Britain first. As if in one single sweep everything about British Muslims—including their love for their home, which they call Britain, and their aspirations and hard work to help build a thriving society—can be quite simply reduced to nothing. Used in this way, the term itself is consciously dishonest.
Zealot suspicion of “otherness” is of course nothing new whether in Britain or elsewhere for that matter. In the diaries of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) we find, for instance, that the Great Fire of London was blamed on French immigrants. Similarly, the history of persecution of Catholics is another terrible memory. In all cases, for a small group of bigots, anger and a lack of recourse to address simmering socio-political grievances or self-righteousness, was expressed in ill-treatment or intolerant attitudes towards immigrants – known otherwise as xenophobia.
Similarly, today Britain First is a phenomenon of narrowed worldview where the hate-filled surround themselves in social media swarms of clickbait of completely inaccurate and dishonest information about people whom they know little about. Unsuspectingly, people are lured to its Facebook page by, as one observer noted, political “honey trap” images, memes and infographics.[i] And once there, they often passively consume its hyperbolic scaremongering infotainment. Whilst much of this reflects a rather unedifying aspect of social media culture, it also reveals ignorance and an unwillingness to make meaningful contact with Muslims to learn about the Islamic faith, inasmuch as Muslims have not done enough to convey their religion.
But the fears of Britain First are indeed quite irrational. British Muslims make up only 5% of the UK population – that’s around 1 Muslim for every 20 or so people. There are less than 2000 mosques in Britain amidst over 37,000 churches in England alone.[ii] These are hardly reasons for banners saying “No more mosques” or scaremongering.
Britain First’s crude understanding of “otherness” is not any better either. Indigenisation of “otherness” has always been an ongoing process. For example, whether one likes them or not, cultural expressions that only a few years ago would have been considered alien—ethnic foods, music and dance routines are good examples—have become absorbed into British popular culture today. Equally, to put it mildly, it is perhaps impossible to expect people to delete the memory of their forefathers and places of ancestral origin. Quite naturally then, one should expect the characteristics of second and third generation immigrant communities to still reflect, to varying degrees of course, “their country of origin, their pre-migration status, period of migration, settlement histories and legal, language, educational and employment issues that they face.”[iii]
Besides, cultural self-assertion has always been an important part of human societies. The encounter of new ideas, peoples and ways—the process of cultural evolution—creates, as to be expected, transitive periods where cultures meet and coalesce. In fact, if it wasn’t for “mutually- assured diversity”[iv] human societies could not have evolved over time from the level of “semi- permanent peasant village” some 5000 years ago to the global communities today.
In response to cultural self-assertion, the British have quite rightly grown to appreciate and adopt such diversity. Not merely because it makes economic sense – that people are more productive if they feel at home, but the quintessentially British attitude that, “immigration has happened, that
we have new neighbours, and that it is our absolute duty to get on with them as best we can.”[v] Pragmatism, tolerance and conviviality have long been core to Britishness, much more so than Britain First may care to recognise.
It works the other way too. It would have been unheard of among British Muslim communities in the villages and towns of their ancestors to celebrate birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Mother’s Day, Bonfire Night, and a whole host of other British cultural expressions that, whether one agrees with them or not, have comfortably found a place in the hybrid British Muslim experience. Islam allows local styles to evolve whilst maintaining the broad bounds of Islam – it’s always been like that in every part of the world. The British influence on Islamic culture is still in the making; it is, “For British Muslims to explore and publicise.”[vi]
The religion that Britain First so despise itself commands Muslims to “come to a common word”[vii] with others by uniting in mutual harmony on what is agreed between them – and there is so much to agree and share in order to “know one another.”[viii] In spite of their hatred of Muslims, Muslims are still commanded to care for those who abuse others out of ignorance, to look after their poor and orphans, to give neighbourly assistance, and to protect them against wrongdoing.[ix]
British Muslims can only therefore extend the hand of friendship to Britain First and call upon them to abandon hate for mutual affection and respect. Surely, to put the interests of all British people first is to put Britain first?
[ii] http://www.eauk.org/church/research-and-statistics/english-church-census.cfm. Retrieved 28th June 2015.
[iii] Understanding Muslim Ethnic Communities, Change Institute, 2009, p5.
[iv] Zia Uddin Sardar, Beyond Difference: Cultural Relations in the Twenty First Century, British Council, 2004.
[v] Peter Hitchins, It’s not a Muslim issue. In our modern nation you’re an extremist, too, 15 June 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk.
[vi] Tim Winter, British Muslim Identity, Muslim Academic Trust, 2003, p24.
[vii] Qur’an, 13:64.
[viii] Qur’an, 49:13.
[ix] Abu Aaliyah, The Basic Rules of Religious Activism, http://www.thehumblei.com, 25 September 2012.