The importance of religious over ethnic solidarity

Last week, the New Statesman printed a letter from Randhir Singh Bains of Essex, whose letters commonly appear in the centre-left press in the UK, about the history of inter-Asian solidarity in the UK:

Contrary to Ziauddin Sardar’s claim (“Who are the British Asians?”, 29 September), Asians did once have a composite identity, which was a powerful constituent of Britain’s anti-racist movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Two events broke it asunder: the invasion of the Golden Temple at Amritsar by the Indian army in 1984, and the disturbances after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988. These events alienated Asians, not only from the indigenous population, but also from each other, leading them to seek their identities in religion rather than ethnicity.

New Labour’s flirtation with religious groups, its state funding of faith schools and provision of generous grants for the opening of religious institutions merely accelerated the process of deracination. No wonder that today, young Asians in Britain see themselves not as members of one racial group, but merely as Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus.

I am sure there are more than just two incidents which drove a wedge between the different Asian religious communities in the UK. It should not be news to anyone that the different Asian ethnic and religious communities in India are not altogether at peace with each other: there are Hindu and Tamil nationalists today and there were Sikh nationalists, who boarded trains and massacred people, and blew up planes in the sky. The destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, and the accompanying campaign of mob actions, would have driven a bigger wedge between Muslims and Hindus than the Amritsar massacre would between Sikhs and Hindus; the action was by the Indian state, under secularist control.

“India” is a product of the British colonial era; it did not exist as an independent state until the 1940s. Before the British period, there had been the Moghul empire, which did not control the Dravidian south of India; there were also various other states including Muslim kingdoms independent of the Moghul north. Although the Hindu religious traditions and Sanskrit-based culture and influence on language are found throughout, they are also found in Indonesia and elsewhere in south-east Asia, where the languages are as divergent from Hindi or Gujarati as Tamil is - that is to say, more divergent than English language and culture is from German, and the British and Germans were at war with each other twice in the last century.

As for Asian solidarity, it is a product of the racism of the 1960s and 1970s; as it weakened as Asians became settled in the UK, the need for it lessened and the differences between the various religious and ethnic communities came nearer to the surface. However, there are still those who want to go back to the “good old days”, which in fact were not very good at all if you were being beaten up in the streets for being a “Paki” or having your private parts inspected at the airport to see if you were a virgin, when the National Front were looking at a 15% share of the vote. What was different was that the ethnic minorities’ agenda was dictated by the leaders of the anti-racist movement, who tended to be secular leftists. This is not to say that they did not do a good job at the time, but times have moved on.

Of course, things have happened in the Subcontinent that drive wedges into religious communities, sometimes along ethnic lines, as well as the other way round - the Bangladesh war of independence being a typical example, which still breeds resentment between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to this day. However, that was an exception, and it demonstrates the danger of nationalism: a group of Muslims believed that they had the right to dominate over another in their own country, imposing their language even though it was entirely foreign to the region, in much the same way as they had experienced at the hands of the British, and were resisted by those natives.

Racial solidarity, when it is not driven by necessity, is a tool of racism and oppression. The athletes who gave “black power” salutes at the 1968 Olympics are hailed as heroes, but when Robert Mugabe denounces British imperialism today, he receives no such sympathy, because he is using it to hold on to power after he has ruined his country, for blacks as well as whites. In the past, it was necessary because the Asians (and blacks) were facing an effort by white racists, and even mainstream politicians, to drive them out of the country. That is not happening to anything like the same extent today; the chief target of hatred by the same people who used to lead attacks on blacks and Asians is now Muslims, mainly (but not only) Asian Muslims, and these people also sometimes embrace elements in the Hindu and Sikh populations. These are the “good” Asians (or Indians, as they sometimes call them, reserving “Asian” for use on Muslims). If you try telling this to some people whose conditioning was in the 1970s or 1980s, they will not believe you.

The other day, I was having an online conversation with a Somali woman who, on a previous occasion, had told me that she supports the likes of “Ed” Husain and Maajid Nawaz. This time, we were talking about interracial marriages, and why a number of those I had spoken to about this subject were Somali. The truth is that physical attraction has a lot to do with it, but I also said that they were not stuck-up like a lot of Asians are (as you will find a lot of Asians unwilling to marry their daughters to converts, especially black converts). She replied that Asians were not stuck-up, but that they preserved their culture, which is a good thing. I do not object to immigrant-descended communities preserving some aspects of their culture such as their cuisine and clothing, but I do believe that Muslims should not let culture be a source of division because, to paraphrase John Major, such disunity is “a luxury we cannot afford” as a small and threatened minority. She told me that she did not believe there was such a thing as the Muslim community, nor was she part of it; she was a Somali.

Perhaps such attitudes are understandable coming from a member of an ethnic group which is almost entirely Muslim; this is not true for Asians, who are not united by language, cuisine, clothing, religion, or anything else except a common British colonial heritage. It is even less true for converts. If, as is the case for some converts, your own family turn against you and kick you out of your home when you convert, what use is a mere “ethnic” commonality, particularly when it is as amorphous as what supposedly unites “Asians”, when twenty years of “Asian” anti-racist solidarity did not much lessen the hold of the castes and biraderies? Besides, Muslim da’wah (propagation) literature plays up the importance in Islam of religious solidarity, the lack of importance for nation or tribe and the sinfulness of holding to family, tribe or nation when they are in the wrong, all of which is supported by the Qur’an and various hadeeths. This is what converts often expect when they come into the deen, and yet they soon find examples of chauvinism and cliqueishness which had died out in their own communities some time ago.

We know that religious solidarity does not exist in other religious communities, particularly Christians. We know about white Protestant Americans terrorising black Protestant Americans, about Catholic and Protestant Germans terrorising Catholic Poles, and about Greek Orthodox Christians blockading their fellow believers in Macedonia in the 1990s, in order to force them to give up the name they had chosen for their country in the 1990s, which they believed rightfully belonged to them alone. While I do not dispute that Muslims have common interests with non-believers of similar ethnic background, this is no substitute for shared beliefs and values and we should not let secularists nostalgic for the 1970s divide us by stuffing us into the same ethnic pigeon-hole as those who might be our enemies; rather we should break down barriers and open up to each other, speak the same language if we can, and live up to the image given in the da’wah material.

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