November 2, 2012 § 4 Comments
The Canadian government is in the process of setting up an Office of Religious Freedom. Religious freedom is about the right of people to hold certain beliefs, and to act upon them, so long as in so doing they do not harm others or discriminate against them in the public sphere. It is the right to be free from interference from other faiths and from the state. For a government to set up an official body to oversee religious freedom is precisely to interfere in matters of faith. The state setting up an Office of Religious Freedom is a bit like a fox setting itself up as protector of the hen coop.
The state promotion of religious freedom, the political scientist Elizabeth Hurd has pointed out, ‘may add fuel to the fire of the very sectarian conflict that religious freedom claims to be so uniquely equipped to transcend’:
The top-down promotion of religious freedom creates a world in which religious difference becomes more real and more politicized. It draws lines between communities, horizontally and hierarchically. It presses dissenters, doubters and families with multiple religious affiliations to choose a side. It compels them to define their identities in religious terms: “Are you this or that?”
This is unhealthy for democracy, and for religion… Religious freedom needs to be reimagined as a site of resistance against powerful authorities, rather than a form of discipline imposed by them, funneling people into predefined religious boxes and politicizing their differences. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 4, 2012 § 7 Comments
My essay on ‘The Myths of Muslim Rage’ sparked a debate about the relationship between religion and politics. Many challenged the idea that the conflicts over The Satanic Verses two decades ago, and over the Innocence of Muslims now, find their roots as much in political conflict as in religious belief. ‘Regardless of who may have been “pulling the strings” and for what reasons’, as one critic put it in commenting on the essay, ‘the fact that those strings can even be pulled in the first place has become a tragically predictable aspect of modern Islam. I would contend that religious sensibilities are firmly at the center of this situation.’
There are, I think, two problems with the insistence that these are primarily religious confrontations. The first is what I see as a literal reading of the clashes: that because religion is the language in which a particular conflict takes place, so that conflict must necessarily be religious in content as well as in form. I have observed before how those who are most hostile to religion often ‘take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists themselves’.
The second problem is the failure of many to recognise that the very character of religion has changed in recent decades. There is a tendency to view the contemporary resurgence of religion as a throwback to the past, as simply the return of old-fashioned faith. In fact contemporary forms of religion are often very different from, and hostile to, traditional varieties. What we are witnessing is not so much the return of religion as its remaking. This was the theme of a talk I gave three years ago at a conference provocatively titled ‘The Return of Religion and Other Myths’ organized in the Netherlands by the Utrecht art centre BAK , as a part of an ongoing project on ‘post-secularism’. So, I am publishing here an edited version of the first part of that talk.
August 10, 2012 § 5 Comments
How times change. There I was sitting in the Olympic stadium with my daughter. She had red, white and blue braids in her hair and was enthusiastically waving a Union Jack. When I was her age I would far rather have burned the flag than waved it. The Union Jack was then the property of jingoists and Empire loyalists, on the one hand, and of neo-fascists on the other. If I saw a pub or a housing estate with Union Jacks flying, it signaled to me ‘enemy territory’.
Not only would I not wave the flag, I would not, in those days, have passed Norman Tebbitt’s ‘cricket test’ either. Growing up in a Britain that was viciously racist, and tried to deny me the right to belong, I refused to support any British team, still less any English one. Whether in cricket, football, rugby or tiddlywinks it was a case of ‘anyone but England’.
Thirty years on, it is very different. Racism has not disappeared, but the kind of vicious, in-your-face racism that defined Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. The nature of Britishness has changed too, no longer rooted in race and Empire, but seemingly defined as much by its diversity as by its jingoism, as exuberantly expressed in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympic Games. And as for me, I have long since dropped my ‘anyone but England’ attitude. I now, too, feel the pain of penalty shoot-out defeats and the joy of Ashes victories. And on that magical first Saturday night in the Olympic stadium, when Britain won three golds in under an hour, I like everyone else cheered on Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford, and Mo Farah. From the velodrome to the Serpentine, from Eton Dorney to Greenwich Park, I have enjoyed the flourish of British medals. And yet I have not, and will not, wrap myself in the flag. I am tribal about sport but I am not patriotic about Britain. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 21, 2012 § 12 Comments
This is a transcript of the first part of the talk I gave last week as part of the Criticise This! seminar in Ulcinj, Montenegro on ‘Rethinking the Question of Difference’. (The second part of the talk overlaps with the Milton K Wong lecture that I am giving in Vancouver next week; I will publish that in full.) The audience comprised mainly of artists, writers and critics, and the aim was to explore more deeply the philosophical and political underpinnings and consequences of contemporary ideas of social difference.
There is a certain irony in being invited to Montenegro to give a lecture on questions of identity, difference and multiculturalism. Not only has the English language appropriated the name of this region of Europe for its description of an intractably fragmented society – ‘balkanized’ – but few events have more shaped our perception of these issues than the conflict that led to the break up of Yugoslavia two decades ago. The messy, bloody, monstrous events that marked that break-up have helped entrench the sense of the contrast between racism and ethnic chauvinism, on the one side, and cultural diversity and multiculturalism, on the other. They have helped entrench the idea that the best, indeed only, antidote to the evils of ethnic nationalism is the embrace of diversity, of multiculturalism. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies. We’re All Multiculturalists Now as the American sociologist Nathan Glazer, and former critic of pluralism, observed, almost wearily, in the title of a book published in 1998.
What I want to do is challenge this received wisdom about difference, diversity and multiculturalism. I want to question what we mean by diversity, why we should value it, and how should we value it. I want to dispute what I regard as the lazy conflation of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ and to suggest that to defend diversity is not the same as promoting multiculturalism. Most of all, I want to contest the claim that racism and multiculturalism are concepts at opposite ends of a pole, and show, rather, that they are two sides of the same coin. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
Earlier this week I published an extract from my book From Fatwa to Jihad, that told the story of how the Asian Youth Movements were created in Britain in the 1970s. This second extract explains how the British state and religious conservatives joined forces to marginalise secular radicals in the name of multiculturalism. This is the story of how Bradford came to be painted green. The same story could be told about towns all over Britain.
In the summer of 1981 Bradford’s Asian communities were flush with rumours of an impending attack by neo-fascists. A group of young Asians, including Tariq Mehmood, made and stashed away petrol bombs to be used in the event of any such attacks. They were all members of the United Black Youth League, a group that had broken away from the Asian Youth Movement which they felt was not sufficiently radical. Police discovered the petrol bombs on some waste ground and twelve members of the UBYL were arrested and charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion and endanger lives. The trial of the ‘Bradford 12’ the following year created a national sensation. The defendants put up an audacious defence. They openly admitted making the petrol bombs – but argued that they were acting legitimately to protect their communities. Astonishingly, the jury agreed and acquitted all twelve.
The sheer bravado of the Bradford 12 and their bold, confident self-assertion won them respect and support from communities across the country that similarly felt under siege from racists. It also unnerved both local politicians and Muslim religious leaders. ‘Our children were growing up hating our culture’, observed Sher Azam of the Bradford Council for Mosques. ‘They were being drawn to Western values and Western lifestyles. We knew such values and ways of doing things could only harm them. Without Islam they no foundations, no home. They were angry, withdrawn, we could not reach them.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
March 28, 2012 Comments Off
BBC Radio 4 broadcast a documentary this week by Zaiba Malik on the history of the Asian Youth Movements. For many of us who grew up in 1970s and 1980s, the AYMs were a central feature of our lives. Radical and secular, the movements challenged both the vicious racism that defined Britain in that era and many traditional values too, helping to establish an alternative leadership in Asian communities that confronted the conservatives on issues such as the role of women and the dominance of the mosque.Today, in an age in which communities are defined in terms almost solely of faith and culture, when identity politics has ripped apart any sense of radical unity, and when the idea of a ‘secular Muslim’ seems to most people an oxymoron, a movement and a tradition that thirty years ago was highly influential is barely remembered. Zaiba Malik’s documentary was enjoyable, good on the struggle against racism, less sure about the struggle within the communities.
I have written of the AYMs in my book From Fatwa to Jihad. Here is an extract that delves into the roots of the AYMs and how they came to be formed. I will publish a second extract later this week which will look at how the British state and religious conservatives within Asian communities joined forces to marginalise secular radicals. For more details about the AYM, the Tandana archive set up by Anandi Ramamurthy is a good place to start.
On 17 April 1976 the far-right National Front organised a march through the centre of Manningham, the main Asian area in Bradford. It was to end with a rally at a local school. The National Front was in the late 1970s a minor force in British politics, but more than a bit unpleasant. In 1974 it took 44 per cent of the vote in a parliamentary by-election in Deptford in South London; three years later more than 120,000 voters supported it in London-wide elections. It was on the streets, however, rather that at the ballot box, that the NF preferred to strut its stuff. It had a cadre of thugs often involved in racial assaults and was fond of organising provocative marches through predominantly black and Asian areas. And it was on the streets that a new generation of blacks and Asians decided to take on the NF. This brought them into conflict not just with the fascists but often with their own community leaders, too. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 26, 2012 § 8 Comments
Another video (or rather audio) that I had not realised was online. I had been invited to Nihal’s show on the BBC’s Asian Network for a two-minute spot to promote the Festival of South Asian Literature, at which I was speaking. I ended up staying an hour debating free speech, multiculturalism and the giving of offence.