Global Britons, Muslim Futures

It is now a commonplace to observe that “Britishness” and “Muslimness” have become polarised: by seeking definitions against “the Muslim threat”, “true” Britishness, it is felt, can be retrieved.

Yet the evidence shows the opposite: most of Britain’s ethnic groups emphasize both religious and national identities together, a trend most noticeable among Muslim Britons. Polling usually confirms that Muslims are comfortable in being Muslim and British, antagonism only arising when slanted questioning asks respondents to choose one over the other.

What is remarkable about the strength of religious-national identities among Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus and Afro-Caribbean Christians is that it comes at a moment when formal Christian allegiance is in decline, i.e., believing in God without belonging to a Church, alongside a receding sense of Britishness. Church attendances are in decline, and alternatives for the major rites of passage at birth, marriage and death can be found outside the Church. Likewise the National Centre for Social Research showed that only 44 per cent of all Britons described themselves as “British” in in 2007 compared with 52 per cent in 1997. [1] Compare that with post-9/11 polling of British Muslims and the figures range between 75 and 85 per cent. [2] So the question arises: why is patriotism in general in such decline?

A bit of history might give us more purchase on an answer. Britishness was always a political, civic identity that contrasted with one’s ethnic or cultural background, and it was a marriage of four nations – Welsh, Scots, English and Irish – that came into its own from the early eighteenth century. It was Protestantism, the Industrial Revolution and the building of the British Empire that forged the modern British nation, tied together by a titanic struggle with Napoleonic France and later on by two world wars against Germany in the last century. [3] But today, formal Christianity is in decline, we work in a post-industrial information economy, formal decolonisation is over and the French and Germans are Britain’s partners in the EU, a tightening confederation of formerly warring nation-states.

So in the age of globalisation – one of mass communication, travel, migration and trade – sharp identification with the nation-state is less meaningful than before, even if it would be premature to speak of its demise. Global elites now champion open borders, are less interested in nationalism, and argue for new sorts of regional and global reordering. The expansion of the EU alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales is rewriting our unwritten constitution. More important perhaps is the fact that popular culture now owes more to the market than to the state: so how much more significant are identities of consumption, for instance, than civic or nationalist ones? Even if ideas, trade and money flow more freely, we find that elsewhere, burgeoning security controls, the poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the whole immigration and integration debate betray strong anxieties about porous cultural boundaries.

In the late nineties, a “Cool Britannia” that embraced multiculturalism, creativity, openness and globalisation was advocated. But after 9/11, multiculturalism (if not neoliberalism) came under attack along with a public debate on Britishness. Some point to shared institutions like the NHS and the BBC as repositories of British values and culture, but are institutions alone really enough to hang a national identity upon? And to list certain democratic values that could just as easily be Japanese or Canadian, like the rule of law, or freedom of speech, seems inadequate too, as these relate to the formal rights of citizenship, but not to a sense of duty, or emotional attachment, to fellow citizens.

A better approach, perhaps, is to commit to an open-ended conversation about how to define what we Britons have in common, as well as seeing in cultural diversity a source of wisdom, and an opportunity to expand the wellsprings of our collective imaginations. The distinctive contribution of Muslims to national self-understanding will be but one strand among many. With all the suspicion levelled at Muslims today, it takes intellectual and moral courage to remain creative and self-aware enough to ponder our shared future while retaining a sense of faithful integrity.

Yet, in our interconnected world, this will not merely be a parochial endeavour, but will be intimately concerned with making sense of our public identities on a fragile, wired-up planet. To be cosmopolitan is to name our current challenge, to recognise that while we might aspire to universal values, they are variously negotiated across real and legitimate cultural diversity. [4] A new Britishness in our global age would therefore arise, and be informed by “rooted cosmopolitanism”, a principled looking out at the challenges and opportunities of the world from our home, while never losing a sense of who or where we are.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com. This, the last of twelve comment pieces for Emel Magazine, will appear in Issue 48, September 2008.

Notes

[1] Chris Rojek, Brit-Myth: Who do the British think they are? (London: Reaktion, 2007).

[2] Ian Bradley, Believing in Britain: the spiritual identity of Britishness (London: Monarch, 2008).

[3] Linda Coley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).

[4] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).

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1 Comment

Filed under History, UK Politics

One response to “Global Britons, Muslim Futures

  1. I have seen many blogs and have don research on many but most of them lack of good substance but I would say that you are doing a great job and keep the good work on

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