A splendid comment by Jonathan Freedland on 'The identity vacuum' that lingers London Post-Bombing. A reaslistic assertion that cuts into the morass of terror and loyailty.
Britain should follow the US approach to citizenship, which emphasises not only diversity but the ties that bind
Wednesday August 3, 2005
This has been the summer of fear, the season in which our worst nightmares have come true. Take those devoted to bringing racial harmony to this country. Every argument they spent years beating back has suddenly gained new life.
It was long a racist trope that Muslims, even those born here, could not be trusted, that they represented a potentially lethal fifth column. On July 7 that viewpoint was handed lurid "proof": four British-born Muslims ready to kill as many British civilians as they could.
The racists had long argued that immigrants were a menace. As if to vindicate every scaremongering anti-refugee headline of the last 10 years, along came the suspected cell behind the July 21 strikes. It included at least two men who, as children, had fled Africa and found safe haven in Britain. British tabloids had once had to make up "Asylum seekers ate my donkey"; now they write "The asylum seekers who want us dead" - and this time it seems to be true.
This setback for the cause of racial harmony is not abstract. Just listen to the phone-ins, as people admit they are scanning carriages and buses looking for dark, Muslim faces. Suspicion and racial tension that many Britons hoped they had banished 25 years ago are back.
It means those dry, often tedious debates about Britishness suddenly have a new urgency. For how is it possible that Britons could seek the deaths of their fellow citizens? Maybe it's a strange question to ask. After all, it's surely baffling that anyone would want to kill civilians anywhere, of whatever nationality. But because we still imagine a tacit solidarity, an unseen web binding those who live on the same streets and ride the same buses, it shocks all the more to contemplate a man delighting in the death of his neighbours. The July 21 case is even harder to fathom. If Britain had saved your life as a child, would not a pang of obligation hold you back from killing that country's civilians, no matter how great your rage?
The problem was visible on Monday's Newsnight when two members of a fringe Islamist group declared those behind July 7 "praiseworthy" - and did so with British accents. Did they have any loyalty to Britain? Of course not, they answered; only to their fellow Muslims. They may be on the fringe but not, apparently, alone. A YouGov survey for the Daily Telegraph last month found that a clear majority of British Muslims felt loyal to Britain - but 18%, nearly one in five, did not.
This is not, despite Home Office minister Hazel Blears's Muslim-dialogue roadshow yesterday, a question chiefly for Muslims. This is a question for British society as a whole. For July stands as proof that our model of integration, the way we absorb difference, has somehow failed.
Not completely: some of Britain's ethnic minorities testify to an integration which may still be bumpy but which is gradually working out. Not exclusively: the Madrid bombers were Moroccans who had lived among Spaniards for years, yet were ready to murder them. Nevertheless, it can't be avoided: something has gone wrong.
The best explanation might be the one provided by Aatish Taseer, who recently interviewed a series of second-generation Pakistanis in the north of England for Prospect magazine. He found people who took little pride in their Pakistani background, but who struggled to make any connection with their Britishness. When they grew up, "Britons themselves were having a hard time believing in Britishness", he writes. "If you denigrate your own culture you face the risk of newer arrivals looking for one elsewhere." In this case, says Taseer, an Islamic identity, a sense of kinship not with Britain or Pakistan but with the global brotherhood of Muslims, the Ummah.
Is he right? The experience of one country suggests he might be. The United States has not - yet - had a brush with home-grown Islamist terrorism; 9/11 was the work of Egyptian and Saudi outsiders. Why might that be? Islamist radicals certainly find it harder to enter the US. It's also true that American Muslims tend not to live in the segregated urban enclaves that exist in Britain. It might even be relevant that, in contrast with Britain and France, the US has no former colonial populations - no equivalent of French Algerians or British Pakistanis.
But surely the chief reason is the way America approaches newcomers. It does not allow a vacuum where national identity should be, but fills the void with Americanness. Loyalty is instilled constantly - not only at one-off ceremonies - whether it be saluting the flag at school or singing the national anthem at a ballgame.
"What, you don't do all that in Britain?" asks Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations when I put the contrast to him yesterday. His members have "a definite sense of being American", he told me, and clear loyalty. Yes, they feel "concern" over events in Iraq or the Middle East, but not "anger or rage" - and it's voiced by lobbying a congressman or writing a letter to the editor. Of course, there is an identification with Muslims around the world, but that sits alongside loyalty to America. Which exerts the greater hold? "It's like asking me who I love more, my mother or my father?" The answer is, he loves them both.
It seems there are two ways to fill the identity vacuum. The French model of citizenship, which asks people to shed their differences to become French. Or the American, which allows people to keep their differences - and become American. Hooper points out that while the French government banned the wearing of Muslim headscarves in school, the US justice department recently backed an Oklahoma girl's fight for the right to wear one in class.
Britons' instincts would probably lean towards the American approach. Britain, like the US, is built on difference. Our crypto-federal structure, welding Scots, English and Welsh, allows for that; successive waves of immigrants have added to the mix.
But here's the difference. America works because it emphasises not only diversity but the ties that bind, too. It encourages a hyphenated identity - think Italian-American - but insists on both sides of the hyphen. In Britain, liberals especially have striven so hard to accept that people are Scottish or Jewish or Asian, they may have forgotten that they are also British. For bothness to work, you have to have both.
In other words, we let the Britishness part of the equation lapse. We were frightened of it, fearing that it reeked of compulsion or white-only exclusivity. But Britishness, like Americanness, need not be like that. It should, by its nature, be open to all. And yet it does entail some common glue: rule of law and tolerance, for a start.
This, then, is the challenge. To forge a Britishness which welcomes difference - but which is not so loose, so nebulous, that it leaves a hole where national identity should be.
We need that sense of kinship if we are to see each other as members of a shared society - not representatives of a faceless enemy.