Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Cultural integration is a two-way street

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As you know, I think the bombers and plotters wrecking the spirit of London are scum - men without hearts or heads who, after they have been properly tried, should be put away for life. I think most Muslims in Europe have heard the call to attend to the pestilence of violent hatred which has spread among some of their own around the world.

We may be at an extraordinary, momentous turning point, as Muslims feel a surge of emotional loyalty for our violated capital and the country which has been home to so many over so many decades. The bombs were an electric shock to the confused brain of the Muslim collective, which has led to saner, wiser counsel and a recognition that our British identity defines us profoundly; that we want to belong and must belong to this complex, multiracial nation with dreams that stirred the Olympic committee and inspire the world - in spite of racism, nationalism and the battles between traditionalism and modernity.

We must make this mix work; the prophets of doom will be buried, including the ghost of Enoch Powell - who today haunts the nation again, holding up his spectral arms in grim victory. But it won't be easy nor fast. Not when the public is in such a state of dread and rage and leaders are proving to be unreliable masters of our destiny.

I am revolted by the political sanctimony and the casual demonisation of all Muslims, all Asians and blacks, all immigrants, all asylum-seekers - all under the false pretext of national interest. Leading white commentators, left and right, are exploiting this moment to push retro-jingoism, as if the bombers will vanish as soon as Muslim Britons are forced to kiss the Union flag and sing God Save the Queen in Urdu.

Blood did run down the streets in London - more probably will - but our citizenry must grow closer in joint cause to beat the murderers who would divide us. The protests against the war in Iraq brought us together; this crisis must deepen the bonds. We Britons of colour, Muslims in particular, understand our responsibilities. Do white Britons understand theirs?

Sir Max Hastings, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard is one the few prepared to ask that question and to answer it truthfully: "I acknowledge an embarrassing truth. In the course of my life I have entertained only perhaps a dozen black guests at parties and never had a Muslim to dinner in my house. The same must be true for many British middle-class people. Until interracial experience finds a path into our own lives, it remains hard to boast that we are contributing much to the assimilation we deem vital to our future. This is a two way street."

Amen I say. And yes, Sir Max, do ask me to that next shooting party. I like pheasant.

Research by the Commission for Racial Equality bears this out. Mixed race and mixed faith love is blooming; much less so is friendship between the tribes of Britons. Without socialising, real and virtual ghettoes soon form blotting out the common humanity we all share.

The reason so many young Muslim and black men feel and behave like outsiders in the UK is because they have been made to feel outsiders from the time they were children. This does not make criminality inevitable, but it does make their integration impossibly difficult. This Friday, a young black man's life was brutally ended. He was 18 year old Anthony Walker, a black A-level student walking with his white girlfriend. Police believe the killing was racist - and racism is, in itself, a rejection of integration.

These days, some of the most vile, racist emails arrive when I describe myself as British. You can never be one of us, they say, you "Paki", "Black Bitch" and so on. How integrated do I need to be to be accepted? Some middle-class acquaintances are getting bolder about confessing their distance from people like me. I can talk like them, think like them, dress like them, but this Muslim thing makes them uneasy they say. I return the compliment by telling them I worry about them too and don't trust them not to turn treacherous.

Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister whose hard certainties scare me, is about to start a nationwide tour to meet Muslims. I understand the need for this. Only with wide-scale Muslim co-operation can the bombers be discovered and stopped. But is she also going to meet with Muslim professionals outside the "representative" circuit - the doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, artists, journalists and others not part of the bearded and hijabi great and good, but people who have ease and modern, multiple identities?

This outreach work is of no use if the government doggedly refuses to take seriously the anxieties and anger of Muslims who detest the war in Iraq and our blind loyalty to the neo-cons in the US. How dare Tony Blair lecture Muslims on the dangers of fundamentalism while remaining blindly insistent of the special relationship with the US? If integration means having to consent to that fundamentalist foreign policy, I'll have none of it. If it requires of me acquiescence in human rights violations, you can count me out.

Public unity is built on narratives. Successive British governments have done little to upgrade the national stories so that all Britons feel like equal stakeholders. Sadly, Muslim leaders have done nothing either to tell their young about the deep and long historical and contemporary engagement between Islam and the West.

We have been friends and allies as well as honourable and dishonourable enemies. Neither side would be what it is today without the other. Muslims brought coffee and geometric art to Britain; Britain sent liposuction and Shakespeare to Arabia.

In the 50s, the men from these families were lured here by factories which needed good workers without attitude. They worked well and more were welcomed. For some years, the profits kept rolling in. When the factories went, both white and non-white workers were left for dead. The neglect led to the rot we now see. British industrialists and politicians hold some responsibility for what has followed.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims volunteered to join the allies to defeat Nazism. Jews and Muslims who loathe each other today forget this fact. Yemeni and Bangladeshi lascars, Indian Muslim royal servants, brilliant Muslim lawyers and businessmen - they are as much a part of the story of Britain as American soldiers in the Second World War, Jewish writers and musicians and Italian cooks.

Integration is a team sport. Our nation will fall apart; the centre will not hold, the bombers will win, unless we all play our part.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

Comments