Migrants and strangers, anthropologists warn us, do not come with labels; instead they are often created as a minority by a majority that lays claim to the social or national ‘we.’ Journalist Sarfraz Manzoor writes that many Asians in Britain have recently defined themselves less by ethnic and national culture, and more by religion:
The term Asian was coined in 1948 by British administrators working in colonial Kenya to describe citizens of newly independent India and Pakistan. It was brought into this country 20 years later with the arrival of Kenyan Asians. . . .
Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis realised that it was an expedient phrase but Asian continued to gain mainstream currency with the success of films such as East is East and programmes like Goodness Gracious Me.
It became cool to be Asian. Despite its fragile origins, Asian seemed to be solidifying into something that was clear, distinct, and tangible.
It took a catastrophe to remind us that the word obscured as much as it illuminated, and to expose just how much it hid. The impact of 9/11 on the US and international security is well known. Less noticed has been its impact on Britain’s Asian communities. Among the first victims of violence after the attacks on New York and Washington were not Muslims but Sikhs, targeted for their prominent beards and turbans. September 11 changed the type and nature of racial abuse— instead of ‘Paki’ the new term of abuse became ‘Bin Laden’ and ‘al-Qaida’, and the abuse was motivated not by race, but by religion. Hindus and Sikhs, frustrated at being mistaken for Muslims, resolved to assert their own religious identity. In doing so they were sending a message to the rest of the country: we had nothing to do with terrorism and riots—that’s the work of those trouble-making Muslims.
For the Muslims, September 11 prompted a resurgence of interest in Islam with many choosing to embrace their religion as a response to seeing their community vilified and demonised.…
If Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs are defining themselves by their religion, does it matter to anyone outside these communities?
And this is the critical question. Is this new religious identity part of an overarching plural identity, or is it exclusive and separate? Put more bluntly, it is a choice between either wanting religion to be a part of an identity or only being defined by religion and arguing that it is more important than any national identity.1
Like Manzoor, Yasmin Hai is a Pakistani Muslim who writes about religion and belonging. She and many Asians of her generation were encouraged to assimilate, but many struggled to fit in. Hai writes about her friend Nazia who used religion as a way to define herself against a British society that would not accept her:
When my friend Nazia started flirting with Islam, I felt betrayed. Over the years, we had been clubbing together and got up to all sorts of mischief. Now she was abandoning me.
I wasn’t bothered that she’d started praying five times a day. . . . But when she started denigrating Western culture, I felt that she’d betrayed me, herself and our entire Asian community.
I’d grown up in suburban Wembley in a strongly Asian area. My father, who had come to Britain from Pakistan as a political refugee in 1964, was ambitious for his family. So he encouraged my younger brother and sister and me to adopt the ways of the English.
We were banned, for example, from speaking Urdu to our mother: she could speak to us in our mother tongue, but we had to answer in English. Nor were we encouraged to practise Islam. In fact, my father bought me the Book of Common Prayer so I wouldn’t feel excluded during school assemblies.
Most of my friends were brought up in similar culturally ambiguous households. So when my friend Nazia started using racist terminology, stereotyping white people as cultureless drunks who don’t know how to look after their children, I was furious.
We had both gone to university; but while I flourished at Manchester and threw myself into the club scene, she was finding the normal excesses of university life unsettling. It was then that she started to feel that she would never be able to participate fully in English life. After graduating, she agreed to an arranged marriage—her way of reconnecting with the Asian community. But when the marriage failed, the community ostracised her.
This rejection was devastating. At that point, she started to take an interest in the more politicised version of Islam that had begun to filter through in the early 1990s.
Becoming a strict Muslim was her way of exacting revenge on the community that had deserted her when she needed it most.
She wasn’t the only one I knew to take that path. For so many of my Asian friends, radical Islam was not so much a matter of being anti-West as a way of wresting back some form of identity. In the early 1990s, many of them had thrown themselves into the club and drug scene. Most, though, eventually started to suffer from a creeping form of cultural guilt.
Becoming a committed Muslim was a way of being born again, of wiping the slate clean. You could use your new identity to define yourself against the Western way of life—and against your parents.
As many of us weren’t fluent in our mother tongue, and often discouraged from talking about our problems, we hadn’t ever had a meaningful dialogue with our parents. My own relationship with my mother suffered immeasurably as a result of this....
At the heart of the disillusionment that many of my friends felt was not knowing how they fitted into British society. I wasn’t immune, either. At 19, I found myself becoming increasingly drawn to Islam. I was struck, when I visited Pakistan, by the confidence of the people, who seemed comfortable in their own skins in a way that my friends and I were not.
Here, the chasm that now exists between Asian generations has created a generation of vulnerable young people seeking direction and a sense of belonging. And that makes them more likely to turn to a fundamentalist ideology that professes to offer answers.
...In my own case, I realised eventually that I didn’t have to force my life into a narrative that had been imposed on it by either British—or radical…conventional wisdoms. There was nothing wrong with being me. 2
Hai, like most of her peers was able to find a comfortable balance between religion and national identity. Manzoor explains:
How you define yourself tells others a lot about you and who you think you are. Britain’s Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were long defined by others in terms of what they were not: not white, not black, not British. Now, for the first time, identities are being forged from inside the communities and with confidence. These identities emphasize religion but do not necessarily imply disloyalty to being British.
The great danger, however, is that an identity that emboldens the individual can also threaten the wider society. The challenge to ensure that does not happen is one that affects all Britons—be they Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim. 3
- 1 : Sarfraz Manzoor, ‘We’ve ditched race for religion’, The Guardian, 11 January, 2005. ;(accessed 15 April 2009).
- assimilate : to conform or adjust to the customs, attitudes, etc., of a host group or nation and give up a former national identity.
- fundamentalist : strict adherence to the literal words of an ancient text that is believed to be true (the Bible or the Quran, for example). While some fundamentalists seek to impose the principles and laws found in such texts on everybody (and sometimes even resort to violence), most fundamentalists live peacefully among their neighbors and respect the separation of state and church.
- 2 : Yasmin Hai, ‘Revenge of young Muslims’, The Sunday Times, 6 April 2008.
- 3 : Manzoor, Ibid.