On my travels, I recently had an eye-opening conversation. It was honest, concise and most importantly factual. I was questioned whether I classified myself as identifying with a British or Arab identity. I was taken aback by this question as I have never truly felt I exclusively belong to one specific identity. Always placing myself in an identity limbo. Neither one or the other. This conversation raised conflicting issues concerning the embodiment of identity within myself and other individuals who share these same internal issues.
The Oxford dictionary defines identity as “the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.” This generation of young Muslims living in London identifies their culture with their religion; Islam, as opposed to their place of birth or residence. This article will discuss and attempt to establish the issue. First, a quick history lesson.
Between the 1950’s - 1980’s Britain received tens of thousands of migrant’s post-WWII. Nationals from Ukraine and Poland migrated to the U.K from Soviet-controlled areas, Indians migrated during the 1950’s as a result of receiving independence from Britain and later went on to work as bus drivers, opened corner shops, post offices, and textile factories. Pakistani’s migrated as a result of the controversy surrounding the partition of India and later the independence of Pakistan. Some went on to secure employment in textile industries based in Lancashire and Yorkshire alongside the food processing industries of Luton & Slough. A few decades later, the civil war in Somalia led to a large number of Somali immigrants which reflects the current Somali population in the U.K. Regardless of the intricacies involved, the migrants who travelled to the U.K shared one primary motivation. The desire for employment opportunities.
The U.K opened its borders to the respective nations mentioned above to fill labour shortages post WWII. This migrant work became an integral cog in the British economic engine. However, the primary issue lies not with the government's open borders approach, rather the general population's perception of the migrants as a threat to their employment and potential housing development thus led to a growing sense of discontent. Integration, which is a vital element to societal progress for ethnic minorities became a burdensome task and thus easier to abandon. As a result, the creation of clusters around the U.K, especially around south-west England gained momentum. Slough became a Pakistani dominated area. Southall and Birmingham are regarded as Indian dominated areas. and West and South-London areas are closely associated with African and South-East Asian minorities.
The creation of clusters formed not only because the ethnic minorities found it difficult to integrate because of the unwelcoming nature of some British nationals. But also, because they found it difficult to re-create the cultural and societal norms they abode in their respective homelands. What happens when the country you migrated to was never fully prepared to welcome you and your homeland becomes a no return zone? You lose a sense of identity and essentially become a citizen of nowhere. A phrase which has gained currency in the last 12 months. One becomes incensed and regretful for leaving their homeland. These negative feelings, as an extension of nurture, extended to the offspring of 1950 – 80’s migrants.
The offspring of the early 21st century migrants or – the current Muslim generation – grew up with this atmospheric pessimism. As a result, the migrant’s parents, after forming their respective clusters, began to identify with one common aspect shared among the migrants: their faith. Religion is an option, not an identity.
Proclaiming faith as ones’ identity is not only short-sighted but desolate. One must research and understand their culture, regardless of which one chooses to adopt: their inherited culture or geographical base. When one achieves this, a fusion of cultural and religious identity will mould an enhanced sense of self-perception and solidarity.
Author: Ahmed Issam