Don’t fetishise religious identity

'The NHS was far more important to my practising Muslim father him than any religious institution. T

Tony Blair seems to be in thrall to the idea of a global Ummah, albeit one that includes the other Abrahamic faiths. From his article inaugurating the NS’s new occasional faith column, it sounds as though, after years of having to keep quiet about his faith and his leanings towards Catholicism, he now longs for membership of a worldwide in-crowd himself. He suggests that “failure to understand the power of religion [means] failure to understand the modern world”.

“In western Europe,” he then notes, “this may sound counter-intuitive.” Or plain wrong. His framing of organised religion as the new grand narrative with the potential to imbue the financial system with “values”, and which could help navigate the confusingly fluid boundaries of race, culture and identity, just doesn’t make sense to a 21st-century British (cultural) Muslim like me.

My father, a first-generation Pakistani immigrant, was a practising Muslim. His faith, like Blair’s, underpinned his passionate, almost fanatical, commitment to a public service ethos. Unlike Blair, however, his religion was a very private relationship between himself and Allah, and he guarded that privacy jealously. The National Health Service was far more important to him than any religious institution. The only time I remember seeing him in a mosque, he was in a coffin. He was always careful to remind me that there is no pope in Islam, and that maulanas, the sometimes self-appointed religious “scholars”, are generally not to be trusted. Self-interrogation and inquiry were crucial elements of his faith, as I understood, and it was never an excuse to conform.

If anything the freedom from a stifling sense of conformity in an Islamic state (and the frequent instances of hypocrisy and corruption that often accompanied it) was one of the reasons he left Pakistan for Britain, and preferred it here throughout his lifetime.

Ubi deliberately chose not to settle in a predominantly Muslim community in Britain. Although it meant he ran a greater risk of his own children straying from the flock (as I did), he considered it a price worth paying because he knew the cost of that kind of narrow belonging. This was a brave and self-examining way to live as a devout Muslim in Britain, and although one consequence of this light touch was that I grew up not to believe in God – which must have been painful for him – it left me with an abiding respect for the progressive, secular Islam he embodied, and is the reason why I still identify as culturally Muslim – because most of my values (including what the LSE social theorist Paul Gilroy calls Britain’s “convivial multiculturalism”) are rooted in that upbringing.

Blair’s call for religion to have a higher profile in public life probably makes sense for him, as a Catholic operating in the aggressively secular political classes. But most British Muslims have experienced the fetishisation of our religious identity over our citizenship – and are exhausted by it. A lower profile would be great. In fact, a return to the closet would be a blessed relief. I miss the relative anonymity of being British Asian.

A few years ago I interviewed the postmodern French philosopher Julia Kristeva. I was very sceptical of the French position on public displays of religious identity, which seem like unreconstructed racism from my British perspective. When I said many young Muslim women wear the hijab not because of parental pressure but out of pride and desire to assert their religious identity, she said: “It is a reaction against colonialism and a symbol of pride, but maybe we could explain to them why they locate pride in this symbol and not in another. We are at a particular moment in human history when human beings are not asking the question ‘who am I?’, but ‘to what do I belong?’. Identity is confused with belonging. But this is a dead end, because belonging is not about questioning.”

Once again, I thought of Ubi and how stubbornly he refused the easy belonging of his religious identity for a more ambitious postmodern one (though he would never have called it that: just being a good Muslim, he would have said). He struggled hard to represent both parts of that construct, “British Pakistani”. At times, it conflicted with the brand of Islam he had been weaned on in 1950s Pakistan. But then he usually rose to the occasion and took on the complicated ideological challenge entailed in living in multicultural Britain, such as at my civil wedding to an agnostic Englishman of Jewish heritage. He stood up proudly in front of his many conservative Pakistani peers and told them he couldn’t have found a better match for me had he looked himself. This is the kind of everyday convivial multiculturalism we need in our private lives, not top-down interfaith initiatives. So when I come across rampant hostility to religious culture, such as that generated by Tony Blair’s article, I’m gutted on Ubi’s behalf.

Blair is right to object to the secular fundamentalist lobby’s knee-jerk opposition to religious people. The language employed often appears to be more high-minded, but the sentiments it expresses seem remarkably similar to old-fashioned racism. Living in modern multicultural Britain is an existential adventure, and we should all, devout secularists and believers included, rise to the challenge of a self-interrogating life and give up on illusory grand narratives once and for all.

Sara Wajid is a critic and journalist

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue