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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Home is where the heart is, isn't it? Well, the answer is more complicated than that

Who defines what home is, and who decides who belongs in it, asks Shelina Janmohamed

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he is “committed” to working together with other parts of the UK to use the capital's popularity to spur tourism across the country. Jack Taylor / Getty Images
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he is “committed” to working together with other parts of the UK to use the capital's popularity to spur tourism across the country. Jack Taylor / Getty Images

At the beginning of 1966, the hit record Homeward Bound by global pop duo Simon and Garfunkel went into the top ten of the charts. “Home where my thought’s escaping … Home where my love lies waiting”, they crooned. Fast forward more than half a century and you would have forgiven Mayor of London Sadiq Khan responding to a journalist with the same words.

Mr Khan became the first western politician of his generation to cross the border between India and Pakistan. His parents, also of Indian origin, migrated to Pakistan during Partition. Mr Khan’s response went viral. The reporter asked him: "Does it feel like coming home?" With the kind of speed that comes only when an emotion is buried deep in your bones, he responded "Nah! Home is south London, mate". It was delivered, of course, in the broadest south London accent possible.

His comments resonated with many around the world, and a global conversation is happening right now about what we call "home", who gets to call it "home" and how countries should deal with changing and diverse populations in trying to create a sense of belonging.

I personally relate hugely with Mr Khan and his feeling of belonging to London. Home is, after all, where the heart is. And in so many ways I'm the epitome of a Londoner. But many wouldn't see it that way. The rise in racial tensions around the world means that those who are different attract hatred.

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This hatred is couched in the language of "home", and who has a right to be here and, by extension, who apparently does not. It is a deeply political terminology, determining who gets to belong and who does not.

The implications of whose home it is are heated and often fatal. Just ask the Rohingya of Myanmar. They are the world’s most persecuted people according to the UN. The leaders of their home country claim they do not belong there and are turning a blind eye to their rape, murder and genocide.

The very concept of home as a social and emotional construct is limitless, with the ability to encompass many peoples, languages, cultures and religions. Yet the competition over who gets to decide if it’s home, and its definition, is always fierce. US white supremacists claim the land is theirs, happily forgetting those who inhabited it before them, those upon whose backs it was built, and those who continue to build it today.

It’s no surprise to find countries suffer when trying to build inclusive respectful societies when their founding myths already make judgements about how a place came to be home, who populates it and how it is defined.

This isn’t just about countries where people "arrived", like the US or Australia, although try describing them in that way to the many people who had already called it home. A kind of revisionist history and shifting of goal posts to fit a narrow idea of home are also tools that are being used. A new narrative in India of Hindu nationalism is being cultivated in order to exclude Muslims. The story of Israel is also built on revisionist ideas which say it was a land without a people. (Tell that to Palestinians.)

Perhaps Mr Khan’s most powerful contribution with his razor sharp answer is to challenge us to rethink how we define home. Who gets to belong to home and how we characterise those relationships need rethinking for a globalised world in which migration, culture, and interconnectedness shape more of our ideas and experiences than ever before.

Perhaps it is no surprise that with the fluidity we face today, people feel scared and insecure, turning to tribalistic ideas to draw up the bridges and assert superiority, claiming home for themselves and seeking to evict others.

It’s not just wrong - it's self-defeating. A place feels hollow and stagnant if it rejects its inhabitants. And its inhabitants feel empty and restless if there is no rootedness. It becomes toxic.

Human beings have a natural instinct for belonging. As Simon and Garfunkel express, home is where love lies waiting. Home has to pull us in, and if it does, like Mr Khan, we share our love and belonging and fly its flag wherever we go.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World