Journey into Britain?

The distinguished academic and ambassador, Professor Akbar S. Ahmed has been in Britain recently to promote his new film, Journey into America. It sees him take a trip across the United States, accompanied by five young helpers (including the film's director, Craig Considine) into the homes, mosques and businesses of US Muslims, exploring their lifestyles and values. An itinerary taking in New York, Salt Lake City, Dearborn, Las Vegas and many points in between, allows Ahmed and his team to explore the continuities and conflicts that characterise the relationship between the approximately seven million strong US Muslim community and the wider population.

Made to accompany the recent book of the same title, (Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam) the film comes at an opportune moment. In a recent survey 47% of respondents agreed with the proposition that 'Muslim values are at odds with American values'. Ahmed's team interrogate such attitudes as they find them, as well as arguing that the core values of Muslims - hard work, family and faith - are also those of America. The film ends by arguing that these shared beliefs can reinvigorate America now, putting it in touch with the central values of its Founding Fathers as it looks towards an uncertain future in the twenty-first century.

This lively, modern intercultural picaresque set me thinking about whether such a project could be undertaken in Britain. Could there be a 'Journey into Britain' in the same way? What would it mean? What similarities in attitude and orientation might we expect to find? And what historical and contemporary factors might mark out Britain's relationship with its Muslim communities as different from the American model?

One factor worth considering is Britain's imperial legacy that has given it a longer historical experience of contact with Muslims, including those it went on to rule over and administer in various parts of the world. Of course, this was a fraught process, involving exploitation and oppression. Yet, in India for example, it made for a deeper historical understanding of the core beliefs of Muslims. Even when these were not, in themselves, respected they were allowed to help shape imperial practices and were reflected in administrative structures and an (albeit expedient) desire to involve Muslims in their own limited self-government. If the hasty British exit from India made for the catastrophe of Partition, among the legacies of Empire were political traditions and attitudes that still survive intact to this day in the Subcontinent.

This specific history of close contact is further reflected in the nature of Britain's Muslim diaspora population. Whereas in the US, South and East Asian Muslims rub along beside Arabs, Hispanic converts and the Nation of Islam - the latter a particular blossoming of the early Civil Rights spirit - Britain's Muslim communities have traditionally been identified as mainly Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Gujarati and so on. In fact, the first group to organise a mosque in the UK were Yemeni sailors in the mid-nineteenth century. In recent years, Muslims from the Horn of Africa have risen to prominence, both as a group, and through the successes of individuals such as the Somali-born British Olympic gold medal winning athlete, Mo Farah. The construction of a 'Muslim identity' in the UK for many years had a South Asian flavour, but this is slowly changing as a more diverse demographic takes root.

In both countries, of course, there are huge regional and class variations in the status of Muslims. In terms of popular images, whereas emphasis in the US is often placed on 'successful' Muslims who have integrated themselves through those perennial American virtues of hard work, thrift and building up their own business - in other words, who can be made to correspond to the requirements of that powerful ideological talisman, the 'American Dream' - British political discourse tends often still to lump Muslims together with other so-called 'ethnic minority' groups as an economic and political challenge. While there is a widespread perception among American onlookers that the Muslim community in Britain is likewise 'middle class' - that catchall American shorthand term for a number of civic virtues - in fact many Muslim migrants belonged to the rural and labouring classes and came to Britain to undertake similar poorly remunerated work. Journey into America is perhaps most potent when it visits the oldest large scale Muslim community at Dearborn, Michigan, whose fate is tied to the industrial and manufacturing work that the first migrants arrived to pursue. That corresponding communities in Britain - in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, for example - have been at the centre of concerns about radicalisation says something important about limited educational opportunities and the twin blights of economic and cultural disadvantage that ought not to be ignored.

So what would a 'Journey into Britain' look like? Well, it would need to have regional and class awareness built into it: a large family existing near the breadline in Burnley is unlikely to have the same immediate priorities as an aspirational couple in South East Essex. It would, therefore, need to avoid the tendency to homogenise and instead recognise that local communities have a range of interests and affiliations, and that Muslim groups and individuals often ally with non-Muslims in order to get local concerns and grievances heard. Most of all, any journey into Muslim Britain would need to recognise that problems of integration have not to do with self-segregation, but with the continuing spectre of racism and prejudice, coupled with pressing and immediate economic disenfranchisement.

At one point in Journey into America, Noam Chomsky remarks on the persistence of the pervasive myth of the nation. It would not, I think, be too much to claim that, for all its colonial history, some of the main myths of Britain have to do with the idea of immigration as a recent phenomenon: as opposed to the inherently more absorbent American idea of the US as a nation of immigrants. Akbar Ahmed sees potential in this keystone of Americanness. It put me in mind of the passage at the end of Tariq Modood's recent book on multiculturalism where the author argues for the creation of a new set of symbols of Britishness, reflecting a more open and flexible idea of the nation, of the kind to which Muslims could perhaps subscribe. (

Akbar Ahmed's analysis seems to point in the same direction. His film culminates in a visit to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts and an invocation of Washington and Jefferson, taken to personify the foundational tenets of Americanness. While symbolic identifications are important, it is perhaps more vital not to lose sight of those larger structural inequalities of poverty and alienation exacerbated by government policies. A 'Journey into Britain' at this moment in time would, by necessity, be a journey across a land marked by austerity, where economic pain is not shared equally and where we ought not, therefore, automatically to conclude that the call of patriotism will be felt in the same way by all. In both domestic and foreign affairs, the perceived interests of 'the West' and those of Muslims still make very uncomfortable bedfellows. Until they are brought more into alignment - and Muslims recognised as full citizens with a stake in shaping (rather then merely submitting to) national self-fashioning - the prevailing atmosphere of suspicion that prompted Akbar Ahmed's project, is likely to persist on both sides of the Atlantic.

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