For God and country?

Although Lesley White’s article focusing on the social life of the British Muslim community in this weekend’s Sunday Times was not particularly negative, it has irritated me. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the United Kingdom is defined by a monoculture, outside which lie the Muslims. It is not.

I am a native of these isles: my lineage on my father’s side is English through and through, while I am quarter Irish on my mother’s side, with roots tracing back to County Wexford in the south. Growing up, long before I embraced Islam, it was patently clear that there is no such thing as British culture. Our society has always been split along multi cultural lines – cultures of class, creed, political affiliation, dialect, region, social mobility, employment and so on.

My paternal grandfather was a strict Methodist who never drank alcohol, smoked or gambled. When he entered the army in the 1940s the Anglican chaplaincy looked down upon him as the follower of an inferior and erroneous creed. He often said he regretted not staying in the army, but my grandmother thought he might not have been happy in the long term. In the war years the other soldiers tolerated his abstention from mess culture – he would wander off on walks or go away to read as the card games, smoking and drinking commenced – but they may not have been as accommodating as the years passed by.

But these diverse cultures of creed have long existed within British society. My good neighbours belong to the Free Church and their culture too has its own particular mores – they are lovely people, extremely kind, very generous, living a good life, attending church twice every Sunday and once every Wednesday night. This little country town of mine has several Baptist churches, a number of Free churches, a Catholic church, a couple of Anglican churches, a Spiritualist church, a Quaker meeting house and several others of denominations I do not even know. The faithful of each of those churches are marked out by the nuances of their particular culture.

I am sure of this. I was brought up as an Anglican in the Church of England. Unlike my late grandfather, my parents and siblings all drink alcohol, but our culture was still distinct from that of many of my peers at school. Beyond our disinterest in football or regularly going to the pub – those musts of the mono-culturalists – there were the social links maintained predominantly on the basis of affiliation to a common denomination, the home group study circles held in each others’ homes, the regular attendance of church, Sunday school and the Christian youth group.

I was brought up in Hull in the north of England, which was traditionally a fishing economy and thus the culture of the town had its own flavour, dissimilar to that of the mill towns inland around Leeds and Bradford, and so people from Leeds used to look down on people from Hull, and vice versa. I think too of the strong cultural identities of members of the Conservative Party, The Salvation Army and the Socialist Workers.

I could go on, but I think you get my point. The idea that there is such a thing as a unitary British identity is a myth at best and an outright lie at worst. It is being used today as a weapon against the Muslim community – which itself is not clearly defined – by social commentators with other agendas. Lesley White writes:

“The unseen corners of British Muslim life have little to do with militant Islam, but they force an acknowledgment of how intrinsically different, how apart, this community is, and how doomed any demand for assimilation. Religion is not what they do on Sundays – easy to dismiss in our search for comforting common ground. It is a complete identity and a filter through which every relationship, every item of news, every bite of food, is mediated.”

My upbringing as an Englishman and an Anglican taught me that every sub-category of British society provides an identity – sometimes complete, sometime partial – that filters the very same things. My Methodist grandfather who was mocked at work for not drinking. My Anglican mother whose life revolves around her parish. My vegan friends. My football obsessed colleague. Still, the journalist ends:

“If we want to reach them, as Khalid Sharif suggests, we have to address them as a faith group rather than a recalcitrant ethnic subcategory.’ And if you don’t talk to them,’ he had added ominously, ‘someone else will.’ But I think we are allowed to request that they talk our language too.”

They? I invite Lesley White to Amersham, to climb this hill wee hill above my place of work. At the top there is a memorial to the Protestant martyrs, the inscription of which reads:

“In the shallow of depression at a spot 100 yards left of this monument seven Protestants, six men and one woman were burned to death at the stake. They died for the principles of religious liberty, for the right to read and interpret the Holy Scriptures and to worship God according to their consciences as revealed through God’s Holy Word. Their names shall live for ever.”

I remind you, Lesley, of The Toleration Act of 1689. I remind you that we are not living in those days when men and women were burned at the stake because they were non-conformists. We are where we are today because the British gradually learnt to accept that ours is a diverse society. We are Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Adventists, Witnesses, Muslims, Jews, Humanists, agnostics… and this list goes on, and on.

We speak the British language. We are teachers, doctors, administrators, software developers, lawyers, factory workers, shop owners, street cleaners, social workers and students. We speak the British language, but like the Methodists and the Protestants before us we consider our faith a precious gem. It is you, Lesley, who must speak the language: assimilation is not the British way.

You can read her article here:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2099-2155558.html

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