The enigma of arrival
Balti Britain: A Journey Through the British Asian Experience
Granta Books Dh170
Anyone living in London in the late Nineties couldn't fail to notice that the city's British Asian population was basking in its own Britpop moment. On Brick Lane, in the city's traditionally poor East End, new restaurants and bars opened their doors to an influx of young artists attracted to cheap rents and good transport links in the borough of Tower Hamlets. Bangladeshi teenagers in Union Jack T-shirts patrolled the area with their pet boxer dogs, the status symbols du jour of national pride. Musicians like Talvin Singh, Asian Dub Foundation and Nitin Sawhney graduated from the ethnic press to the glossy pages of style magazines like The Face, Dazed & Confused and iD. Fans of those artists could even subscribe to a new magazine called Second Generasion - the title probably seemed clever at the time, but has aged with the same grace as Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, a Prince album from the era. Around the same time, Eastern Eye, the BBC's weekend magazine show, began broadcasting Bollywood news and Asian current affairs, and the cast of Goodness Gracious Me dredged all humour from every available British Asian stereotype. Even cinema audiences weren't immune to the delights of the Asian subcontinent: both East is East and Bend it Like Beckham played to packed screens for weeks.
We had been here before. Many times, in fact. In the early Eighties, bhangra groups like Alaap and Heera, having obtained loyal audiences through performing at Sikh and Hindu weddings, threatened to trouble the lower regions of the British charts (due to curfews enforced by parents on youngsters, the groups were also in demand on the daytime disco scene). In 1993, Apache Indian brought his commercial brand of ragga to the Top 10 with the infuriatingly catchy Boom Shack-a-Lack single. Three years later, Babylon Zoo, the brainchild of the second generation Sikh Jas Mann, took the Levis-endorsed single Spaceman to Number One.
But neither banghra nor Babylon Zoo's politically correct anthem totally ushered in the late-Nineties British Asian boom. The true watershed was the boarding of the mainstream press by a generation of black and Asian journalists who graduated from alternative newspapers like The Voice to mainstream publications, diversifying the media. This British Asian boom arrived at a celebratory time in British history. Many Londoners were enjoying a post-election cigarette after Labour's systematic destruction of the Conservative party at the polls. In Tony Blair, Child of the Sixties, the country had its first post-war prime minister. His predecessor, John Major, had extolled the virtues of cricket; Blair idolised football. Honest John listened to classical music and jazz. Blair's musical taste was a typically contemporary pastiche: punk (Sham 69), faux-soul (Simply Red) and American rock (Bruce Springsteen). London was feeling good.
Elsewhere in the country, however, "Cool Britannia" was a mirage increasingly failing to address festering differences between communities. In Britain's northern inner cities, the spectre of drugs, crime and prostitution (allegedly controlled by Asian gangs) was taking hold. These inequalities were violently exposed in May, June and July of 2001, an election year, when riots ignited in the major Northern cities of Leeds, Bradford, Burnley and Oldham. In Bradford alone, 300 police officers were injured and nearly as many rioters arrested. Damage to the city was estimated at around £7 million (Dh47.5m).
The following year marked more dire milestones for both the Labour Party and race relations in the UK. The British National Party, campaigning on a platform alleging widespread reverse racism in favour of swarms of asylum seekers, won three seats on the Burnley council. It was the party's biggest electoral victory in more than 20 years. During election week, one resident of Burnley, when asked why he'd voted for the BNP, succinctly put it to this writer when he said, "Cos they wanna get rid of Paki scum like you."
In his new history of the British Asian experience, Ziauddan Sardar, author of Why do People Hate America? and Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, forcefully outlines the challenges facing second generation communities. The book takes its name from a Birmingham fast-food creation involving a variety of fiery spices, vegetables and meats. Sardar takes balti to be a symbol of the British Asian diaspora: a fusion of nationalities and sects who, due to economic hardships, resettled in the UK. The book wonderfully describes Sardar's own journey from Pakistan to the British Isles after the breakdown of the British Empire, as well as the challenges faced by those brave souls who migrated to the UK throughout the 1950s and 1960s. But he is at his most incisive when he moves away from his family history and trains his analytical sights on present-day Britain.
Contemporary British Muslims deserve a definitive book-length treatment of their own. In the absence of such a book, Sardar's examination of British Asian life during the War on Terror is an admirable first step. He chronicles how an increase in the number of attacks (both physical and psychological) on British Asians in the years since September 11, 2001 and July 7, 2005, has left large swathes of the Muslim population feeling besieged. Last year's foiled car bombings in Haymarket in London and at the Glasgow airport have only exacerbated Britain's siege mentality. For a while, the country was overcome with dread, constantly speculating about the next attack. Travelling to work a few mornings after the London bombings, a young woman gasped in horror when I opened my bag - she quickly apologised when I took out my iPod and smiled reassuringly.
The terror incidents have a distinct pathology, one Sardar diagnoses well. In the years since September 11, a handful of British Muslims, most noticeably young Pakistanis living in poor towns far from London, have radicalised in response to British and US foreign policies. Mostly unemployed and living on state benefits, they feel frustrated and misunderstood by the law-abiding Muslim institutions of their parents, and seek comfort in fringe groups like Hizb ut Tahrir that advocate a global Shari'ah state.
Covering the aftermath of September 11 in Britain led me to meet frequently with members of London-based organisations like Hizb ut Tahrir and al Muhajiroun. Both cults, correctly isolated by Sardar, were in the orbit of three spiritual leaders: the cartoonishly menacing Omar Bakri Mohammad, a Syrian who came to Britain seeking political asylum; the Egyptian Abu Hamza al Masri, an imposing former nightclub bouncer who preached at a mosque in Finsbury Park; and the six foot, 20 stone Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada.
All three openly preached a perverted version of Islam that glorified Osama bin Laden and al Qa'eda. They preyed upon the frustration of poor Muslim youth first to win followers, then to encourage terrorist violence. They spoke stridently of Islamic victimhood, of blaming the West for all the ills of the Arab world. Tapes of their speeches were circulated in Islamic bookshops and over the internet, where they were picked up by the faithful - and curious reporters. For the press, the trio confirmed every possible Islamophobic stereotype. In particular, Abu Hamza was a bogeyman who seemed to have walked off the set of a James Bond film. The preacher wore an eye patch and a menacing silver hook hand, both the result of injuries suffered in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Over the course of a decade, these three men did untold damage to the efforts of liberal Muslims trying to hold an educated conversation with the mass media.
Sardar is unflinching in his dismissal of their one-dimensional version of Islam, a religion stripped to its bare bones and reduced to a call to militancy. He argues that militant Islam, with its brutal denunciation of complexity, opposes all who stand against its specific puritanical vision: "To define Islam in total opposition to all others - not just Christian, Jews, Hindus, secularists and the West, but all other interpretations of Islam as well - is to place Islam in an enclave". Sardar has previous form here. After September 11, he declared a fatwa on fanatics in a brave op-ed for The Observer.
The reductive logic of men like Bakri, Hamza and Qatada is infuriating. In 2002, Bakri told me that he was out to establish an Islamic Republic of Great Britain. I told him that this was a patently absurd idea that most British Muslims would resent. "If they don't like it, they can leave," responded the former political refugee. At the same meeting, one of his followers asked me if The Observer, my employer at the time, had a Shari'ah-compliant code for dealing with homosexuality.
In the decade since the lethal cool of Brick Lane and bhangra, a small number of jihadists have managed to hijack debates over race relations, the role of religion and multiculturalism throughout the UK. They cast an ominous shadow over the lives of many everyday British Asians. The result has been to marginalise the contributions of Britain's Muslim minority within the spheres of business, science, sport and entertainment over the last half century. The British Asian community at large must share the blame for this - elderly leaders of the town hall variety, unschooled in debating thorny issues, have sought to downplay the dangers of militancy. But there is room for optimism. As Sardar documents, an increasing critical base of theologians, scholars and young activists is starting to lead a backlash. The hope and confidence which marked the late-Nineties journey of British Asian self-discovery is resurfacing as young Muslims embrace a more liberal and secular version of Islam. Festivals celebrating Arab culture and Islamic arts are now all the rage up and down the country. Those advocating chaos, it seems, cannot be argued with - but they might be intellectually silenced by those who insist on living otherwise.
Burhan Wazir is the Arts & Life editor of The National. @email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: August 29, 2008 04:00 AM