What does it mean to be British?

It’s a tough question, and one that’s been on the news agenda for a while now. Before the attacks that took place on 7/7, I had never thought about this question. Recently though, with a stream of programs designed to challenge the idea of ‘Britishness’, the question is in the public arena.

I’ve always referred to myself as a British Muslim, there’s nothing else I can be. I was born in England, my country defines me just the way my faith does. My ethnicity is Pakistani, so of course this influences a lot of the more trivial things, like types of clothes, cooking, music etc.
The way I think, the way I speak is all because I’ve been brought up in this country but within the framework of Islam. My faith has grounded me with a strong moral compass and what I’ve realised is in the last few years is that being British is very close to Islam. When Damon said this in ‘Make Bradford British’ last night on channel 4, it was even more apparent. Being British is not about getting drunk and going out on the pull on a Friday night. Being British to me means family, community, charity, etiquettes and manners. Damon, who is your typical English lad from Bradford, said Islam is very similar to the British values his grandparents used to tell him about. Like in every society there are negatives, and unfortunately the fact that the culture of binge drinking and promiscuity is normal shouldn’t cast a shadow on all the good things in British society.

When I first met my husband I thought he was a ‘coconut’. This is a word used by Asians to describe people who aren’t in touch with their Asian roots-brown on the outside, white on the inside. As I got to know him I realised that he may not be very ‘Pakistani’ but he has all the traits that a good Muslim should have, and these are also very English traits. Being generous, charitable, honest and compassionate are more important in Islam than having a beard or the length of your trousers or how many times you go to the mosque. Something that a lot of Muslims seem to forget, sadly.

A lot of Muslims have felt distant and segregated from the rest of society, since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The concept of brotherhood and unity is a strong one in Islam. Every Muslim is your brother and sister, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity. When my country Britain invades Muslim countries on a false premise, it hurts. When civilians die, it really hurts, regardless of them being Muslim or not. Nick Clegg said this week, being in Afghanistan is safer for us and is safer for the Afghans. But not for those six soldiers who were killed. We still don’t know what they died for, what any of the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis have died for. Wasn’t the war initially to find Osama? It then turned into a mission to liberate the Afghan people. The same happened in Iraq, went in for one reason, and then the agenda changed to suit political needs. All this makes a lot of people angry, not just Muslims. But it’s things like this that have created barriers between Muslims and non-Muslims. I’m not saying that barriers didn’t exist before but I feel it more now, and that’s a sad thing.
A Muslim criticising foreign policy does not make them any less British than anyone else who disagrees with it. I love Islam and I love Britain, and it’s completely possible to do this, as they ARE both fully compatible.

What is integration?

After watching channel 4’s documentary ‘Proud and Prejudiced’, I’m forced to think about this question yet again. The documentary started off light heartedly but got increasingly painful to watch as it went along. Tommy Robinson (leader of the English Defence League) showed his true colours when slightly drunk, mouthing off and displaying what a thug he really is.

The 9/11 anniversary demonstration by Muslims Against Crusades was cringe worthy. Even though his message wasn’t too fanatical his timing was appalling. Obviously intentional, but going on about how he’s not going to cry at 9/11 victims because of the thousands of Muslims dead in subsequent wars is not productive and is just going to generate anger and more hate towards him and all Muslims. I agree that every time 9/11 is remembered so should all the innocent civilians killed in Iraq and Afganistan consequently, as these wars were in retaliation for 9/11. I don’t think my view is extreme but if I stood shouting it in public on the anniversary then it would be deemed so. He also said ‘we love death not life’. Well actually as Muslims we are not told to love death but we are told not to fear death, only fear God. We are definitely not told to want or prefer death to living in this world. It’s small things like this that groups like the Muslims Against Crusades (who are now banned) misinterpret and use in their rhetoric. All they want is attention, and most of the media are happy to give it to them. As for Shariah law, it can only be enforced in Muslim states or majority Muslim states and only then should Muslims advocate it and fight for it. 2 million out of 57 million is by no means legitimate ground to evoke Shariah law.

¬†However some of Tommy Robinson’s sentiments, I can understand to a degree, as he bases his opinion of Muslims on what he sees in Luton. I’ve not spent much time in Luton but it’s obvious to see that in areas like Bury Park, the Muslim community do behave in a very insular manner. But why does that annoy him? He says integration is not about working together or hanging out together it’s about ‘making babies’. Does he really want Muslims in his family? He claims Muslims don’t have babies with Muslims unless they convert. Although this isn’t really true, as lots of interfaith marriages take place, Muslims do prefer to marry within the faith. The main reason for this is pretty obvious. Islam is a way of life, to be a practicing Muslim you have to pray every day, you have to fast for 30 days a year, there are a number of sunnats (things the Prophet Muhammad used to do) that you should adhere to. For a non-Muslim, it’s very hard to live a Muslim lifestyle if you don’t belong to the faith. But despite this many Muslims do marry non-Muslims.

Tommy Robinson claims integration is not about working and socialising together. I completely disagree. Muslims across the country work peacefully and happily with non-Muslims, in all kinds of jobs – of course this is integration. Socialising can be harder, not because Muslims don’t want to speak to white people but because of cultural reasons. Pub, bars and clubs are generally off limits for Muslims as we are not permitted to drink. Those who drink or are ok with drinking 5 glasses of orange juice, freely go to these places and mix. If you don’t drink in this country the options left are limited. Non-Muslims who are tee total are generally viewed as strange. When I was growing up it wasn’t too bad, everyone was very understanding and accepting towards the fact that I chose not to drink. Nowadays with the culture of binge drinking it may be more ‘abnormal’ than when I was growing up. My point is, most British past times involve alcohol and¬† this is one reason why some Muslims prefer to spend their time with other non-drinkers.

Family life plays a heavy role in Muslim culture and young Muslims are encouraged to maintain ties with all family members, however distant the relative. This doesn’t mean we don’t want to integrate with the rest of society, it just means family comes first, and that’s hardly an alien concept.

To summarise, most Muslims integrate as much they can. I accept there are many communities like the one in Luton that are apparently completely isolated from the rest of society. Things like learning and speaking English should be encouraged within all ethnic minorities who live here. Speaking to non-Muslims should be a priority, as it’s because of this isolation that groups like the EDL exist. Effort needs to made from all communities to talk to each other and understand each other. I love this country and all it’s different colours, it’s something to celebrate, not something to be frightened of.