By Eric Walberg
Immigration is like a tornado. It begins far away and grows till it touches down, disordering lives and rearranging hopes, depositing the detritus of new identities, writes Ziauddin Sardar in Balti Britain: A provocative journey through Asian Britain (2008). Learning to cope with multiple selves became the quest of Sardar’s adult life.
Asian Britons are all the direct product of the British empire, which steamrolled around the world, razing whatever got in its way, leaving a lot of detritus, creating new identities (for better or worse) for hundreds of millions, with a legacy that keeps giving today (for better or worse).
As a Muslim Canadian, I enjoyed Sardar’s dissection of the British Muslim experience, which has some parallels with US-Canada, but a big difference.
US-Canada were settler colonies, unlike the Asian subcontinent, which was merely raped and pillaged, with no real intent for Britons to settle and replace the natives. So while colonial Muslims began appearing in the ‘mother’ country as sailors, servants, students, soldiers as early as the 17th century, there were few Muslims crossing the Atlantic.
It was not till the 19th century that a few brave souls popped up in Canada. Once the native Canadians were pushed aside, ‘Canadians’ were de facto British (white) immigrants. The flow of Muslim immigrants into Canada was almost nonexistent till after WWII.
Sardar, a Pakistani immigrant to Britain in the 1950s, argues that immigrants are a natural part of the organic empire after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which adventurer Robert Clive won through deception, a battle that is brushed over in British history books, but still bleeds for all Indians. The other time of special infamy was the aftermath of the 1857 ‘mutiny’ (6,000 Europeans killed. 800,000 Indians and possibly more, both in the rebellion and in famines and epidemics of disease in its wake).
The idea that Britain gave up any responsibility for what the Raj (Hindu ‘reign’) has become today is disingenuous. Britain arrived in warships to a rich, relatively peaceful continent in the 17th century and left a poor, anguished, divided continent in 1948, that has never remotely recovered from the experience. But Britain was transformed too, and ‘Britishness’ has a deep colonial legacy to deal with, both good and bad.
The ‘flood’ of Asian immigrants to Britain since 1948 is really just a trickle, and is a vital element in making Britain a healthy, responsible post-colonial society. As for Canada, the arrival of Muslims, mostly from the shambles left behind by British (or French, Dutch, Portuguese), and since WWII, the US, makes them natural allies of Canadian natives, who suffered even more than Indians at Plassey or in 1857 (if that is possible).
Muslims carry with them this legacy of subjection and humiliation, for better or worse. To understand this, we must rediscover the real history of the colonial experience, the same everywhere, but different.
As for the problems of immigrants, race, they are really just more of the same old story: class-based poverty where government is uninterested in broad social problems, or in the case of Thatcher, intent on creating government that serves only the capitalist ruling elite. The 1930s and 1980s–2010s, the worst of times.
Arab mass emigration recapitulates the process of expansion of Islam from the 9th century, when traders came to Africa and southeast Asia, assimilating and converting locals who were attracted to Islam as both a moral and social system. Much of Africa and Asia were Muslim before the rise of modern day imperialism.
But the new immigrants have faced a much different order. Capitalism took over the world from the 16th century, making this open, enlightening process of dawa (invitation) fraught. As we realize today, capitalism is in the end nonviable as a social system, destroying customs, morality, with war and environmental decay endemic.
Racism became the new norm, white supremacy, and eventually a rejection of all religion, as antiquated, unscientific, so immigration has never been easy for Muslims, who are mostly brown or black.
The first recorded Muslim immigrant to Canada was a slave escaping Brazil, Baquaqua, who arrived via the Underground Railway from the US, arriving in Ontario in 1854, and who published the only memoir from a Brazilian slave. Ali Abouchadi arrived from Lebanon with his uncle in 1905, and along with Bedouin Ferran (aka Peter Baker), who arrived in 1910, became a fur trader in the Northwest Territories as a fur trader. Ferran authored Memoirs of an Arctic Arab: The Story of a Free-Trader in Northern Canada (1976). Husain Rahim, an Indian Muslim, published The Hindustanee in Vancouver, and in 1914 was put on trial once for migrating to Canada and the second time for allegedly voting in an election, fighting the discriminatory laws against Asians.
Muslim expats were traditionally merchants or sufi teachers. In precapitalist times, there was no large-scale movement to Christian-dominant countries. The Muslim world was richer than the West which was hostile to Islam. But that changed as the Muslim world was occupied and despoiled, pushing the new casualties to seek a better life somewhere.
Now there are large muslim ‘colonies’ in centres of world capitalism, German Turkish gastarbeiter the largest. Muslim nations themselves are captive to world capitalism in our post-colonial global soup. Can Islam survive in this global dar al-harb (house of war)?
The wave of immigrants started in Britain even as the Raj gained independence. Post-WWII Britain was itself a shambles, and from the late 1940s on, labour shortages loosened the immigration quotas. Immigrants also came from British West Indies, on the iconic HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, to do jobs Brits did not want.
It is Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have fared the poorest. By 1997, new Labour had some Asian MPs, even Lord Bhikhu Parekh (dubbed Lord of Multiculturalism). There was even sharia-compliant banking. But 1/3 lived in deprived areas, unemployment was 3x the average. Competition (by definition unfair under the circumstances) and Thatcherism bred animosity.
Sardar argues that patriotism should not mean ‘pro-British’ (i.e., white). You can cheer for Pakistan; after all, it was for 3 centuries connected to Britain via a societal umbilical cord, an extension of Britain. Cricket was created in an age of empire to ‘civilize’ natives. It is not who wins, but how the game is played. The race card is merely used to deflect from social problems (poverty, endemic racism of government and police).
Oldham was built from nothing into a prosperous city overnight, as the 19th century textile producer, using Indian cotton (which Indians formerly used to make textiles for themselves and export). Having stolen jobs from 19th century India, it in turn is now deindustrialized, suffering from (unfair) competition for cheaper textiles from Bangladeshi sweat shops. But our ideology is one of the ‘undeserving poor’ (Shaw’s ironic quip in Pygmalion), a perennial underclass, a problem. Biden’s 10–15% of Americans, who ‘are just not very good.’
Now Oldham is seething, very poor, a city from hell –1/3 Bangladeshi, 1/3 Pakistan/ 1/3 poor white. The whites terrorize the browns, making sure the Indians keep out of their turf; racist police only jail Indians. A fitting metaphor for Britain-Raj, alive and ‘well’ today in the heart of the ‘empire’.
Compare to US-Canada. As settler colonies, both used ‘infant industries’ and high tariffs to promote industrialization, soon surpassing the ‘mother’ Britain in living standards, avoiding the Raj’s descent into poverty. But Canadians were always the ‘hewers of wood, drawers of water’ as exporter of lumber, raw materials, which has returned with a vengeance today under ‘free trade’. Both US-Canada have seen a rapid economic decline in the 21st century, ceding dominance to China, the last of the countries to successfully fight off the western imperialists.
Sardar argues that it is class that determines success, not cultural background. He was heartened by the flourishing Bangladeshi Tower Hamlets in east London, where urban renewal happened with the active support of the recipients, good public service input, a youth centre. The proactive East London Mosque allowed teens to take over Friday after prayers and use the mosque for outreach, inviting them to reach out to street kids, addicts and pushers, as well as members of local gangs. The sheikh started visiting parents of truants, setting up a drug rehab program, a model which has been used elsewhere.
1 + 1 > 2
Lord Bhikhtu Parekh, who chaired the commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, publishing the Parekh Report (2000), takes on the shibboleths of modernism in defense of a robust, truly open society. Unlike a culturally homogeneous society, a multicultural one does not share a common substantive vision of the good life. There are disagreements about the value assigned to different human activities and relationships.
The liberal paradigm emphasizes individualism, personal freedom, critical thought, equality, assuming all this is universal. In fact, it is just an ‘extrapolation of the particularities of western identity’. It’s hardly surprising that the Mills (father James and son J.S.) articulated liberalism in terms of western supremacy, both finding a comfortable niche in British India, the better to spout their utilitarianism as the way to happiness.
Liberalism ignores community, solidarity, a sense of rootedness, selflessness, humility and contentment. But both cultures can learn from each other, understand themselves better through interaction. One plus one really is more than just two.
Bhikhtu criticizes feminism for abstracting gender relations from other social relations, for defining rights according to liberalism, ignoring the complex social definition of rights inherent in Islam.
Is an arranged marriage oppressive?
Sardar asked a still single Farzana if an arranged marriage was oppressive. She replied: it is if you think marriage itself is a form of female bondage. I don’t want to humiliate myself by dancing to the tune of the dating game. What kind of a liberation is it, if you are expected to parade around in a disco to be propositioned by any man who fancies his chances? Women are supposed to be free, but are everywhere in chains: fads, dye your hair, make-up, perfume, be sexy. Feminism has not change this dynamic. I am too busy to waste my time on that sort of thing.
Sardar found that most Muslims are happy with parents being part of the solution, that these days, the partners mostly find each other and get the parents on board to arrange the marriage, ensuring there is a harmonious beginning, with both sides committed to make the relationship work.
Imperial symbols sitting ducks
Imperial thinking runs deep. To give minorities a sense of belonging, we must be prepared to subvert, dismantle British history/ identity. This is not easy or even popular. The backlash against multiculturalism has been underway since 2000. There were riots in Oldham and Bradford in 2001.
Here in Canada, the statue of Cornwallis, who founded Halifax in 1749, was removed in 2018. This is grudgingly/ enthusiastically accepted by Canadians. There is a huge controversy now in the US over statues and placenames of slaveowners and civil war generals. The George Floyd-inspired marches in May-June 2020 spread from Minneapolis across the country and around the world, giving new impetus to this process.
Lord Scarman takes this a step further. Far from being redundant in modern law, blasphemous libel should be extended to protect religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians. Not to be settled by courts but by the legislature. And we must replace the scoundrels in our history books with real heroes (e.g., Annie Besant organized match worker girls then went to fight for Indian independence).
Immediately following the outpouring of grief over the murder of George Floyd and a crowd tearing down a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, London Mayor Sadiq Khan set up a commission to review the capital’s landmarks, targeting statues and street names with links to slavery. Khan has commission new symbols, including ones for the Windrush generation, a National Slavery Museum, and a National Sikh War Memorial.
Could this be the clarion call of a frontal attack on imperialism? Could calls to defund the police turn into calls to defund the war machine? More likely, a skirmish in a long, tough battle. The scars of imperialism are deep, everywhere, and the Deep Pockets continue to benefit.
Ultimately, all Britons/ Canadians need a commitment to a common political community. But this will only happen where the community in turn is committed to all citizens, ethnic and religious groups, and accepts them, finds a place for them as part of the whole.
This means equal rights of citizenship, a decent standard of living, the opportunity for all to develop themselves and participate in the collective life. I.e., Tower Hamlets vs Oldham or the troubled Kashmiris in Bradford. That means public servants, especially police, need to know colonial history, tribal dynamics, and respect Islam.
I found myself asking: how valid is it for Muslims to emigrate in large numbers to a heathen world, dar al-harb? My own understanding is that the entire world is now dar al-harb, capitalist, where competition and war reign supreme, including all but a handful of countries (Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea), which are attacked for their temerity.
Just as in the 9th century, muhajireen (emigre) Muslims have to persist in their faith and by example encourage people to at least be friendly to Islam. I.e., Dawa. I’ve seen that happening in Canada with our attempt at multiculturalism. Muslims are prominent in their Ramadan fasting and celebration of charity through obligatory zakat. Muslims are mostly respected. It certainly is a risk trying to bring up your children here. Will Islam survive the corrosive effects of in-your-face capitalism?
The situation in Canada is tense after the mass shooting in 2017 in Quebec City and the anti-hijab law now in Quebec. On the other hand, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and others allowed mosques to play the azan during Ramadan in 2020 for the first time. There were a few noisy denunciations, but also solidarity.
Imperial Britain encouraged divisions between Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, the better to rule, and left a broken continent at war with itself, chunks of the Raj dismembered into Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, countries precariously uprooted in time. But Britain is still bound to the Raj (tea, cotton, riches stolen and incorporated into the seams of Britishness). Its Asian Brits just an incarnation of modern ‘greater Britain’.