Writing and identity

People have expectations about what you can and should write about on the basis of your identity. As a Muslim man, I am supposed only to tell Muslim stories, and male Muslim stories at that. Ah, but as a convert, they must be convert tales. And white convert tales. And English white convert tales too. What a narrow world our identity provides us in the end. And who wants to read such tales? Few, if any.

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The Semitic Way

In British politics today, there is so much talk of identity, of what it means to belong, of shared values. Sometimes it is assumed that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots, as if this were the foundation of civilisation. Yet my heart has always felt comfort in the Semitic pathway. As a child, the Parables spoke to me, but Paul’s Epistles did not. As an agnostic it was the Letter of James. And now: well you know the journey I am walking, the road I am taking.

My burgundy-bound Bible from those days before faith is filled with scribbles in pencil, with scruffy underlining and highlighter ink: the etchings of a searching soul. But one book stands out. On the title page of the Letter of James there is a handwritten note which reads, ‘The most beautiful book in the Bible.’ I was yet to learn of Islam—yet to tread this path—but looking back now it seems clear to me that the author was a Muslim. A Muslim of the era before Muhammad, peace be upon him.

I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion though. James’ address of the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years. Hans Küng et al point out in their work on the World Religions, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ Meanwhile, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes in Theology and History of Jewish Christianity:

Though it may not be possible to establish exact proof of the connection, the indirect dependence of Mohammed on sectarian Jewish Christianity is beyond any reasonable doubt. This leaves us with a paradox of truly world-historical dimensions: the fact that while Jewish Christianity in the Church came to grief, it was preserved in Islam and, with regard to some of its driving impulses at least, it has lasted till our own time.’

When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. About six years ago I began work on a small text that would do just that, for I felt that the parallel presentation conveyed meanings that have sadly escaped many. Much is made of difference when we encounter the Other, but there is a great deal to be gained from highlighting the common ground.

The reality of the focus on identity, on what it means to belong, on shared values, is that what defines our present is a hugely diverse past. While the phrase ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’ has emerged over recent years, that old focus on Hellenic and Grecian ancestry remains dominant. I have seen it in the current debates on multi-culturalism. That is wrong: Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. What is more, where would Britain be had the no one translated those ancient works held up so high?

So talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but don’t give me a hard time when I say I am proud of who I am: a devotee to the Semitic way.

The erosion of British identity

I found this article interesting:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/5012300.stm

Much is being made these days about British Identity – or the erosion of it. Predicatably the finger is being pointed at “Multi-culturalism”, but I don’t believe this is correct. Much more pervasive is the influence of advertising, marketing, publishing and broadcasting. The times, they are a changing.

Also interesting:

http://islameetsworld.blogspot.com/2006/02/punch-drunk-on-british-islamic.html

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

Another tangent

I appear to be going off on tangents a lot these days and here I go again.

In an opinion piece on a US website last week, a British Muslim journalist lamented the growth of pop culture within the Muslim community. She was commenting on the response of female audiences to the nasheed performances in a central London concert hall which in her opinion resembled a boy-band fan club. “Eminent scholars throughout history have often opined that music is haram,” she wrote, “and I don’t recall reading anything about the Sahaba whooping it up to the sound of music.” It was a passionate piece, arguing that we Muslims would be better expending our engery listening to the cries of our brutalised brothers than listening to “what is haram”.

While she was undoubtedly correct about the state of the ummah and our need to do much more than we are, her article became something of a rant against one particularly performer in places. I am not intending to rally to his defence, for I am neither familiar with him nor qualified to contribute to the music debate. I just feel like responding to a couple points.

She complained that the British-born performer asked his audience to cheer if they were proud to be British. “How can anyone be proud to be British?” asked the author, a convert to Islam, “The Union Jack is drenched in the blood of our brothers and sisters across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine.” Now I have studied political geography with particular reference to the Middle East, so I am well aware of this nation’s shameful engagement in those lands and others. But is this all that can be said about Britain?

Pride is not the word I would use to describe my relationship with my homeland, but hatred is not the alternative. The British can be happy to know that we have a national health service which is free at the point of access, providing healthcare to all. We can commend the British for being generous to those in need: whenever there is a disaster anywhere in the world, we will dig deep and give to charitable causes. We can be enthusiastic about British tolerance which – although it has been eroded over recent years – has granted us freedoms unparalleled in many other parts of Europe. I agree that Britain is a contradictory place in which to live, but I disagree with those who say it is all bad.

The author does not seem to like the idea that Muslims should serve this nation of ours. Our minds should always be on the lives of others elsewhere, while we ghettoise ourselves. I feel like inviting her to engage with the UK charities I am familiar with, to see the affect of our over-there mentality. Social depravation, abuse and mental health problems in our own communities are left untackled, the response under-funded precisely because of this attitude which sees only overseas recipients as worthy causes. Responding to the performer’s alleged plea that Muslims should join the Metropolitan Police Force, that author roared:

“Astafur’Allah! Dude, these are the same cops who have a shoot-to-kill policy and would have gunned down a Muslim last year if they could tell the difference between a Bangladeshi and a Brazilian. This is the same police force that has raided more than 3000 Muslim homes in Britain since 9/11.”

It is also the same force that is working to investigate the fire bombings of Asian businesses over the past week in South London. It is the same force that does its best to fight violent crime, street robbery and social disintegration. In light of the growing culture of criminality amongst our youth (the four drunk Pakistanis who kicked another to death in Leicester Square and the Somali gang who beat up a Pakistani imam in Hayes are sadly not queer aberrations), I should have thought the idea that Muslims should join the Police would be considered commendable. Are we witnesses to this society or mere spectators?

The writer concluded thus: “Quite frankly, I really don’t know how anyone in the Ummah can really let go and scream and shout with joy at pleasure domes when there is so much brutality and suffering going on in the world today.” With great fervour she demands: “Oh, Muslims, wake up! The Ummah is not bleeding; it is hemorrhaging. Listen not to what is haram. Listen to the pain of your global family.”

I cannot argue with that. I just wonder whether she is using too broad a brush. There are many, many people doing the little things in their communities. They recognise where their power to implement change lies; the bigger picture just makes us impotent. So they teach in our schools, nurse in our hospitals, care in fractured homes and police our communities. I have seen my own soul and those thoughts that emerge in the face of despair, and they scare me. The middle ground is better. Surely.