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Islam and identity politics among British-Bangladeshis: A leap of faith

Islam and identity politics among British-Bangladeshis: A leap of faith

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Islam and identity politics among British-Bangladeshis: A leap of faith

411 pagine
5 ore
May 16, 2016


This book probes the causes of and conditions for the preference of the members of the British-Bangladeshi community for a religion-based identity vis-à-vis ethnicity-based identity, and the influence of Islamists in shaping the discourse. The first book-length study to examine identity politics among the Bangladeshi diaspora delves into the micro-level dynamics, the internal and external factors and the role of the state and locates these within the broad framework of Muslim identity and Islamism, citizenship and the future of multiculturalism in Europe. Empirically grounded but enriched with in-depth analysis, and written in an accessible language this study is an invaluable reference for academics, policy makers and community activists. Students and researchers of British politics, ethnic/migration/diaspora studies, cultural studies, and political Islam will find the book extremely useful.
May 16, 2016

Informazioni sull'autore

Ali Riaz is Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA

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Islam and identity politics among British-Bangladeshis - Ali Riaz


7May 2010 marked a significant milestone in the history of the British-Bangladeshi community, as Rushanara Ali, the first politician of Bangladeshi descent, was elected to the British House of Commons by the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency of London. The results of the general elections, held on 6 May, began to be announced the previous evening, but British-Bangladeshis of London’s East End had to wait until the next morning because of the overwhelming number of votes cast. Although the Labour Party lost the general election, Labour candidate Ms Ali secured a comfortable victory – a swing of 14 per cent in favour of the party.¹ Interestingly, the parliamentary seat was a gain for the Labour Party at a time when it lost a staggering 91 seats throughout the country; the incumbent MP George Galloway of the Respect Party stood in another constituency and thus it was an open seat. Ms Rushanara Ali, an Oxford graduate, was born in Bangladesh and immigrated with her parents in 1982 at the age of seven. Her election is historic on many counts, not only because the community had long been waiting for a politician of Bangladeshi descent to represent them; but also because of its symbolic significance. Her election represented the stemming of a trend, evident from voting patterns in 2005, which indicated that a religion-infused identity as opposed to an ethnicity-informed identity was on the rise among the British-Bangladeshi community. While the result was a reversal of the previous election, it is too early to conclude that it represents a turnaround of the recent tendency within the British-Bangladeshi community to privilege a religious over an ethnic identity.

In the summer of 2006 two events riveted the British-Bangladeshi community; beginning as local issues in London, both captured national and international media attention within a short span of time. These two apparently unrelated events revealed a disturbing trend within a small minority community who otherwise receive little attention and have been on the margin of British society for decades. Barring a few exceptions British-Bangladeshis remained invisible in the mainstream media and political discourses.² The two events of summer 2006 that captivated the Bangladeshi community were the protests against the filming of Brick Lane in the East End of London, and the visit from Bangladesh of Delwar Hossain Saidee, an Islamist leader. These two events came a year after the surprise and highly publicized victory of George Galloway, leader of the Respect Party, representing a constituency in East London inhabited by a large British-Bangladeshi population.

Brick Lane is an adaptation of a best-selling novel by an author of Bangladeshi origin and is about the life of migrant Bangladeshis. As soon as the film production company announced their plan to film in the East End, a group of local residents voiced their opposition and threatened to stop the filming at any cost. Many wondered why the residents of the East End, where almost a quarter of the population of Bangladeshi origin in the UK live, opposed the filming. Was it a sign of intolerance on the part of the Bangladeshi community?

Delwar Hossain Saidee, a leader of the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh – the Jamaat-i-Islami – and a well-known preacher, visited the UK regularly from 1978. Saidee not only opposed the Bangladesh movement in 1971, but also actively supported the Pakistani occupation forces. During his previous visits, Saidee spoke at gatherings described as religious congregations and raised funds for unspecified activities. These congregations, called waz mahfils were attended by hundreds of Bengalis. Although many expressed concern that his messages were provocative, there was no public outcry to bar him from public speaking in Britain until the summer of 2006. As the protest from within the Bangladeshi community grew louder, the question was raised as to who exactly approved of the messages of Saidee and the Islamists. While the primary focus remained on the individual, the question of the appeal of Islamists to the British-Bangladeshi community loomed large.

A further significant event for the community was the decision of George Galloway to stand as a parliamentary candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow. George Galloway, first elected from Glasgow as a Labour Party candidate in 1987, was known for his vocal opposition to the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Gulf War (1991). An ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause since his youth, Galloway had defended Hezbollah and Hamas on many occasions. He led War On Want, a British charity that campaigns against poverty worldwide, between 1983 and 1987 and became the Vice President of the Stop the War Coalition in 2001. He opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and alleged that Prime Minister Tony Blair lied to lead the country into war. His controversial comments, such as calling on British troops ‘to refuse to obey illegal orders’³ led to his expulsion from the party in October 2003. In early 2004, Galloway announced his intention to form a coalition called Respect – the Unity Coalition (referred to as Respect) with members of the Socialist Alliance. Some of the Socialist Alliance objected to forming a coalition with Galloway. However, Respect came into existence in January 2004. Galloway stood as the Respect candidate in London in the 2004 European Parliament elections, but failed to win a seat. In 2005, he declared that he would run for parliament, not from his constituency in Glasgow, but from Bethnal Green and Bow, a safe Labour Party seat with a large Bangladeshi-British population. The incumbent MP, Oona King, a mixed-race British woman, had been a vocal supporter of the Iraq War. On declaring his candidacy, Galloway highlighted not only his anti-war credentials but also his insistence that Islam and Muslims had been unfairly targeted by Western countries. Galloway organized his election campaign around this platform and secured support from the Islamists. Galloway won the seat in the election held on 5 May 2005.

At one level these three events were unrelated as they involved three different issues and (perhaps) three different sets of people of the same community. But at another level, I argue, they are closely linked as they demonstrate two different facets of the same phenomenon: a rapidly growing, or already-present schism within the British-Bangladeshi community based on their perceived identity and their relationship with British society at large. These events reveal that new socio-political forces are making headway within the British-Bangladeshi community the appeal of which is based on exclusivity and religion.

As these events were unfolding, larger questions, such as the genesis and trajectories of these newly defined identities, implications for the future, and socio-political dynamics within the Bangladeshi community, were coming to the fore. One dimension of these questions was directly related to government policy. The issue of the visit of Saidee brought the British government into the arena. The immediate concern was how the government should deal with the individual in question, but the central question was: what role was the British government playing in addressing these issues, particularly in stemming the appeal of the Islamists to younger British-born Bangladeshis? Or conversely, should the government play any role? Did state policies have any bearing on the growing appeal of Islamists for the British-Bangladeshis? At this critical moment of the debate a wealth of Foreign Office documents in regard to British policy towards the Islamists at home and abroad became available to the public.⁴ These documents addressed wider issues, but provided enough food for thought to those who had been following the slow but steady changes within the British-Bangladeshi community and the growing appeal of the Islamists to them.

The debate on Brick Lane and Delwar Hossain Saidee, we must note, emerged exactly a year after the transport bombing in London which killed 52 people and injured hundreds. The well-orchestrated attacks by four youths (three of British-born Pakistani descent and another Jamaican born but long settled in Britain) of Muslim faith on 7 July 2005 sent a shockwave through British society. The incidents also provided enough excuses to the right-wing anti-immigration lobbies to launch verbal assaults on the Muslim community at large. In the environment of legitimate heightened security, a state of shock and incredulity that these bombers came from within the country and the fear among Britons of all persuasions and classes of further terrorist attacks, some groups attempted to tint all events, including those involving British-Bangladeshis, as matters of security concern.

Those who refused to see the above-mentioned three events as disparate and unrelated identified a common thread among them: the growing salience of religion as a marker of identity within a community which previously took pride in its secular ethnic heritage. Additionally, the change within the community was linked to high-profile Islamist organizations connected to the international Islamist movement and religio-political parties in Bangladesh.

Against this backdrop this study attempts to examine the causes of and conditions for the appeal of Islam as a marker of identity, and the influence of Islamists, among the Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK. The central questions are: Are we witnessing a decisive shift in the British-Bangladeshi identity? Why is the Bangladeshi diaspora embracing the vision of religio-political forces? How do the British-Bangladeshis relate and contribute to Islamist politics? What are the future trajectories? These issues are far more complex than they appear at first sight, and therefore it would be impossible to provide definitive answers to these questions in a single study. Neither do I intend to provide a decisive answer. However, raising these questions helps to identify issues deserving our attention, opens a debate on various aspects of an emerging phenomenon and furthers our understanding of the complexities of the phenomenon due to the admixture of the socio-economic environment of the Bangladeshi community in Britain, politics in Bangladesh, and British domestic and foreign policies, to name but a few.

These developments within the British-Bangladeshi community must also be situated alongside the ongoing debate on the interactions of Islam and Europe, globalization and the identity politics of diaspora. They constitute pieces of the puzzle of an intriguing picture that has been emerging over recent decades. The British-Bangladeshi community is not an island unto itself; hence there should be no doubt that the mindset and actions of its members are influenced by the world around them – both local and global. I must also caution against searching for primacy. A combination of both these local and global worlds and their interplay which creates different dynamics must be identified and appreciated.

The primary objective of this book, therefore, is two-fold: first to underscore the fact that identity politics among the British-Bangladeshi community has undergone a dramatic shift in the past decade, to map these changes, identify the actors and events, and explore the challenges, opportunities and dilemmas for members of the community and the British state; second, to address a lacuna in the extant literature. It is my contention that the extant literature on the interplay of Islam and Europe, which has grown in volume and has attained significant sophistication in recent years, has not paid due attention to the intricate and complex dynamics at the micro-level. The actors and events that have shaped and continue to shape the identities of members of the community are not simply general trends and tendencies, but also particular to the community itself. Comprehension of the phenomenon demands that the general and the particular be seen as part of a whole; that they be appreciated and analysed simultaneously. Therefore, this study is on the one hand about the British-Bangladeshi community, while on the other hand it is about the interplay of identity and Islam in Europe in the era of globalization and the future of multiculturalism in Britain. I hope that it will serve to improve our understanding of the issues at hand; and contribute to a meaningful, mature and nuanced debate on identity politics among ethnic minorities in Britain.

Conceptual issues

One of the key concepts employed in this study is that of ‘diaspora’. The term has gained currency in recent decades and has been utilized by a number of academic disciplines with a variety of meanings attached to it. Thus, it is important to lay out the meaning implied in this study. As the term has attracted the attention of various disciplines, a plethora of studies have been conducted; at times these studies have presented conflicting conceptual frameworks. In its most rudimentary understanding the term refers to a community which is located outside its home; there is an implicit assertion that the members of the community have been displaced. The element of displacement is ingrained in the understanding because of the epistemology of the term (i.e., its common dictionary meaning: ‘The dispersion of Jews outside of Israel from the sixth century B.C., when they were exiled to Babylonia, until the present time.’) Thus some argue that ‘the notion of diaspora rests on three co-ordinates: homeland, displacement and settlement. In other words, a diaspora is constituted when communities of settlers articulate themselves in terms of displacement from a homeland.’⁵ The connotative meaning of the displacement includes ‘forced displacement, victimization, alienation and loss’.⁶ But as migration has increasingly becoming a norm, for a variety of reasons including voluntary movement, displacement cannot any longer be considered an essential element of the construction of a diaspora, although for some migrant communities it could still be true. The forces of globalization, including global market forces, have created a web of movement and various forms of migration. Thus, it is justifiable to raise the question: ‘Must these migratory communities be called diaspora?’⁷ Migration, therefore, doesn’t necessarily create a diaspora community. It is a necessary condition, but not sufficient to call a community a diaspora. My point here is that the formation of diaspora should not be conceived as a natural/ incontrovertible consequence of migration; instead, for a diaspora to emerge, specific processes of mobilization have to take place.

Deterritorialization remains the indispensable condition for the construction of diaspora in the common understanding of the concept. Both physical space and the psychological state of the community are vital elements in understanding the concept of diaspora. The extant conceptualizations have underscored these twin elements. Take, for example, definitions provided by Robert Cohen and William Safran. Robert Cohen suggests the following criteria for diasporas:

(1) a forced or voluntary movement from an original homeland to a new region or regions; (2) a shared memory about the original homeland, a commitment to its preservation and belief in the possibility of eventual return; (3) a strong ethnic identity sustained over time and distance; (4) a sense of solidarity with members of the same ethnic group also living in areas of Diaspora; (5) a degree of tension in relation to the host societies; (6) the potential for valuable and creative contributions to pluralistic host societies.

Safran, in very similar language, identifies the following as the defining characteristics:

1) They, or their ancestors, have been dispersed from a specific original ‘centre’ to two or more ‘peripheral’, or foreign, regions; 2) they retain a collective memory, vision, or myth about their original homeland – its physical location, history, and achievements; 3) they believe that they are not – and perhaps cannot be – fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it; 4) they regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return – when conditions are appropriate; 5) they believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration of their original homeland and to its safety and prosperity; and 6) they continue to relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethno-communal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship.

It is also notable that in typical definitions and standard discussions on diaspora, settlement or the eventual return to the ‘homeland’ features prominently. But increasingly this element has become problematic because for many migrant communities, the return to their homeland in the physical sense is neither a practical option nor even a dream. This is due partly to the expansion of families, but partly also to the realization that the homeland has changed. A key factor in this regard is connected with one aspect of globalization: communication. Thanks to new communication technologies such as the internet and satellite television, the homeland has arrived to those who live away from it.

Inherent in these definitions is the primacy of space and reified notions of belonging and the ‘roots’ of migrants in places of origin. The relationship between these two (homeland and diaspora) are projected and understood as inseparable and simplistic. Levy has criticized this uncomplicated pairing calling it the ‘solar system model’:

By this term I refer to the literature that depicts diasporic communities as constructing and cultivating longings for their symbolic centre, which is often perceived as the cradle of their innermost being … These communities thus perceive themselves as structured symbolically like satellites circulating around their cherished ‘mother/father-sun’ throughout history.¹⁰

In this study my conceptualization of diaspora is cognizant of this inadequacy of the accepted way of thinking about diaspora. When I have spoken about the Bengali/Bangladeshi community in Britain, in no way do I intend to imply that they are engaged in such a simplistic unidirectional relationship with the ‘homeland’. Instead, I employ Stuart Hall’s framework that, ‘Diaspora does not refer to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must return at all costs.’¹¹ In my understanding the Bangladeshi diaspora is in the making as they continuously negotiate their current location (space) and their relationship with the host society and their ‘homeland’. As the community no longer subscribes to ‘the myth of return’/an ideology of return, the homeland has now taken on a new meaning, akin to what Levy and Weingrod described as ‘centre’: ‘[Centers] are places where immigrants and their descendents formerly lived, or a purported place of identification … and towards which they develop positive memories and a personal attachment … What mainly differentiates between [Homelands and Centers] is the moral requirement to Return: Centers are places where one might visit and enjoy, but they are not conceived of as the Ancient Home where one should Return and where one truly belongs.’¹² This process allows migrants, in the words of Hall, to constantly produce and reproduce themselves anew through transformation and differences.

Cognizant of the debates on identity politics, particularly of the diaspora community, I have throughout the study considered identity formation as a dynamic process and that ‘the fully, unified, completed, secure, and coherent identity is a fantasy’.¹³ In agreement with Amartya Sen, I am also of the opinion that in our daily lives we live with multiple identities. Sen argues:

In our normal lives we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups – we belong to all of them. The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal [etc.] Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them can be taken to be the person’s only identity or singular membership category. Given our inescapably plural identities, we have to decide on the relative importance of our different associations and affiliations in any particular context.¹⁴

Thus in discussions about identity and group, we must be forthright about the context. In this study of the British-Bangladeshis the particular context I am concerned with is their engagement with the society at large, privileging one identity in determining their mode of interactions and engagements with other members of the society and community, specifically their behaviour in regard to political activism.

A note of caution must be sounded here. The presentation of the Bangladeshi community as a single, cohesive entity is problematic. This is equally true for representation of any other group, whether we speak of black, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean etc. Thus we must be mindful of the internal differentiation; for example in terms of gender and class, although they are not completely free from similar shortcomings either.

Identities are socially constructed. It is well to bear in mind that construction and reconstruction of social identities are influenced, if not entirely shaped, by the material and social constraints imposed on the communities in question. Therefore, any expression of social identity is historically contingent and influenced by the continuous interplay of history, culture and power. We are well aware that none of them are static; history is always open to new interpretation and continuously shaped by contemporary global and local events. Particular reference to the ‘global’ must be made here. In the era of globalization, however we define globalization, one can hardly remain oblivious to events around the globe. Identities are responses of individuals and groups to these changes. This means that the individual/group has the agency; they are not passive recipients of all that is happening around them. Having said that, I would like to go back to the point of social construction. The act of construction is carried out through various means, and through formal and informal institutions such as family, school, associations, etc.

The identity, however defined, is bound to be contested within and outside the community. Both material life circumstances and intangible cultural traits are essential elements of the identity of a group. Group identity is not only about defining one’s own group but also defining the ‘other’; thus it is not only who they are, but also how they are different from others. In some measure, this binary division is intrinsic to the group identity and any group identity sets boundaries and parameters of affiliation.

The group identity is not entirely a voluntary process; a group does not decide exclusively of its own volition how it (and its members) wants to be identified. In this regard Mandeville’s point is worth emphasizing: ‘the construction of group identity is inherently a sociopolitical process, involving as it does dialogue, negotiation and debate as to who we are and, moreover, what it means to be who we are’.¹⁵ The latter point is important, because the meanings are constructed in two ways – how ‘we’ want be seen and how others perceive ‘us’. Therefore, identity is always an expression of the struggle for the meaning.

It is worth recalling that the spatial dimension of the diaspora, their locations of lived life, and their relationships with the host community, add multiple layers of complexity to the issue of identity. For the diaspora community, the lived and imagined lives both shape their identity as much as their media consumption and appropriations of communication technologies. The individuals are open to re-imagine themselves, and to adopt multiple affiliations along with altering existing ones. This also allows individuals to identify with those who fall within the same boundaries at the same time as they identify with those who are located outside of their borders. This dynamic process continues without an end point.

Throughout the book, I have used the term British-Bangladeshis to identify individuals of Bangladeshi origin living in the UK. I am aware that the use of this term is problematic at both empirical and ideological levels, particularly given that this study is addressing the very question of why and how the members of the community describe their affiliation with a group. At the empirical level, the use of the term to identify all Bangladeshis living in the UK irrespective of their immigration status can be questioned. While all of them are people of Bangladeshi heritage, many have yet to embrace British citizenship. Yet I have used it in its most expansive meaning: their physical location in Britain. The question of how to label the ‘immigrant’ Asian community has never been resolved. Popular discourse and public policy documents have referred to it in various ways. For people of Bangladeshi heritage, the census documents have opted for ‘Bangladeshi’ (similarly, people of Pakistani heritage are called Pakistani and people of Indian heritage are labelled Indian). The community is referred to as part of the Black and Ethnic Minority Community and placed vis-à-vis the white population in a comparative data set. Identification of the community as ‘Bangladeshi’ creates a category which may not be acceptable to a new generation which has little or no contact with the country, its language and culture. In similar vein they may object to my use of the term British-Bangladeshi as an identifier. I have used the term Bangladeshis and Bengalis interchangeably to identify the same community, particularly when the ethnic dimensions of their identities and/or their spatial origins are emphasized.

At the ideological level, one critical question is whether the use of British as a prefix or a suffix implies the existence of an identifiable British identity; and similarly, one can ask: can ‘British’ be a simple civic constitutional identity devoid of any race, colour and history of colonial experience? Answers to questions like these call for a debate about the defining characteristics of Britishness. But some have also argued that a fixed notion of Britishness and British values is counterproductive. The British government in 2002 set the parameters of British citizenship through the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act. Perhaps this addresses the civic-constitutional element of Britishness. The act requires UK residents seeking British citizenship to be tested to show ‘a sufficient knowledge of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic’, to have ‘a sufficient knowledge about life in the UK’ and to take a citizenship oath and a pledge at a civic ceremony. These can be seen both as rituals and substantive at once. Many European countries, and the United States, have been making use of rituals like citizenship ceremonies for a considerable time, but the British language test underscores the primacy of the languages and cultures of the UK over the cultures of the individuals. In fact, the report on the 2001 riots which led to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 had linked the notion of ‘citizenship’ with the need for ‘a clear primary loyalty to this Nation’.¹⁶ Thus an essential characteristic of citizenship is already defined: acceptance of and loyalty to the nation as delineated by the state discourse. Whether that is an acceptable proposition in a multicultural society is debatable. We must also note that there is recognition among the policy-makers that a shared future, which I will call the basis of citizenship, can only be built on the basis of key principles including upholding ‘rights and responsibilities [and] visible social justice.’¹⁷ These issues loom large in our discussion throughout the book, even when they are not addressed directly. (I return to these issues in the final chapter of the book.)

In the discussion of identity of the British-Bangladeshis I have referred to the salience of a ‘Muslim’ identity in recent years. Numerically a substantial majority of British-Bangladeshis are Muslims. This feature remained unchanged from the very beginning of the migration of the members of the community and for most constitutes ethno-historical roots. They can be categorized as cultural Muslims, who often describe themselves as ‘non-practising believers’. ‘Many such believers, who do not really practise, do not reject the ethnic Islam inherited from their parents, which provides them with a festive and traditional relationship to Islam.’¹⁸ Many, perhaps the majority of British-Bangladeshis, would probably consider themselves as ‘good’, i.e. observant, Muslims (as opposed to cultural Muslims who are presumably non-practising). This implies that for them (i.e. both cultural Muslims and observant Muslims) the Muslim identity remained a component of multiple identities without according any primacy to the religious identity.

By salience, on the other hand, I mean the increase in the number of ‘individuals whose self-descriptions and identities do involve Islam (however defined) as a key (and often primary) component’¹⁹ and that their actions at a socio-political level are guided by certain precepts of Islam (as they understand and interpret them). This group

is defined … by a strict demand for the respect of Islamic prescriptions. Religion in this case is invested as orthopraxis – that is, as concern for respecting religious prescriptions to the letter and embodying them in one’s daily life. Identification with Islam offers the individual direct access to daily reality and provides a framework so that he or she can structure the life; the world can be sectioned off into ‘pure’ and ‘impure’; all acts can be categorized according to the degree to which they are lawful or unlawful. All available evidence describes this behavioural conformity as a function of Islamic prescriptions (whether on the topic of food, clothing or ritual acts).²⁰

Simply stated, the key difference between these two groups (cultural and observant Muslims on the one hand and the Islamicist on the other) is the

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