Wednesday 18 March 2009

Britain, Pakistan, Identity and Faith

Something I have always struggled with is my sense of identity. More amd more I recognise how strongly this affects the way I have lived my life and some of the decisions I have made. I got to thinking about it today during one of my marathon e-mail navel-gazing sessions with my bestest (who is also great at this).

My grandfather came to England in the 60’s from Jhelum in Pakistani Punjab and returned in the 80’s, my parents came here as teenagers and realise now that they could never go back despite their generation dreaming of and saving for the mansion in Pakistan. I was born here, but married a wonderful husband from Lahore in Pakistan; my three children were also born here. I wonder what that makes me? British? English? British-Pakistani? Pakistani? As a teenager I always wanted to be able to say I am British, but I was brought up by my family with much affection for Pakistan. At the same time, I have never, ever felt accepted as British. I have always viewed Anglo-Saxon or Celtic as an ethnicity, not English which pertains to a place not a race. Yet on monitoring forms for jobs or services the options given are British Asian or Pakistani with English automatically assumed to be for anyone that is white.

As a child and teenager I felt that it was my colour, clothing and strict home-life that would always set me apart and prevent me from being British, now I feel like it is my faith and hijab. I can assert that I am English through and through until I am blue in the face, but I find it impossible to ignore the vitriol that I find across the web (1, 2), the media (1, 2) and in life which tells me that I am NOT English, I don’t look English, I don’t even look like I can speak English. Continuous talk of British Muslims wanting special treatment, turning Britain into a shariah state, destroying the English way of life, being terrorists, being sympathetic to terrorists, being a fifth column within Britain.

At the same time, when I visit Pakistan, it’s so easy to go out without the slightest self-consciousness, without any awareness of your difference at all. On top of that there is the sweet assumption that you may have been born in Britain, but of course you are still Pakistani (after all your parents were, and you are Muslim and you speak the lingo…). It’s such an easy, uncomplicated, unquestioned acceptance that I have craved all my life and have never got here. Here I feel I have to prove myself all the time, when I am out with my children I catch myself speaking like a prim schoolmarm – “No darling, don’t touch, come here, hold it till we get to a bin” just to show that I am civilised and can speak English (and it has to better than the nice English lady yelling at her kids to “f***ing cam ‘ere ya li’le tinker – I just love Essex)

Truth be told, I have immense sympathy for Pakistan, much of my family is there, I love the place and it’s people and I am very aware of the immense sacrifice (and the realisation that the Muslim’s can never rely on another nation to act for their benefit) that went into it’s creation. At the same time I was born in East London. My childhood memories are of long rainy summers, Essex markets, fruit-picking in Kent and Saturday morning TV. I feel like I owe so much to this country: my education, my work, my freedom to practise Islam and wear hijab and a safe place to raise my children. I want to put something back insh’Allah through service to those around me, yet that desire is tempered by a strong feeling of rejection.

This is one thing I admire about America, once you are in that country you are American regardless of where you came from or your ethnicity – you are American through and through and are expected to be loyal to your country. I have picked this up again and again through news and the stories of immigrants, most recently in Donna Gherke-White’s book “The Face Behind the Veil” where a number of American Muslim women speak about how America has given them a chance at a new life and how they have been accepted as American’s and view themselves as American Muslimah’s without question.

One thing I love about Islam is that although it doesn’t expect you to deny your culture or nation, it makes them secondary to your faith. You become first and foremost Muslim, a part of one beautiful, diverse and global community of brothers and sisters. This thinking is something that people here seem to be taking a step further to create not a British-Asian or British-Arab identity, but a British Muslim one. I admire the efforts of wonderful sisters like Shelina Janmohamed, Sarah Joseph and Salma Yaqoob in attempting to forge a strong British Muslim identity through their writing, analysis and political action. Sometimes it feels though, as if you have to prove again and again that you are loyal to this country, that you are civilised, that you are sane even (and not a murderous fanatic deep down).

So many of the people who came here, came because they had strong links to this country, their country was once part of the British empire; their goods and labour serving the British, or their grandparents fought on front lines across the world being sent into battle first as canon fodder to spare the lives of English soldiers. I yearly watch the annual Remembrance Day service with tears in my eyes, but with a wish that the role of our elders had been acknowledged so that perhaps we might have been better accepted today.

The wonderful sister Sarah Joseph has this to say which heartens me:

I think British Muslims, and Muslims in the west, have to find answers. I also feel we have a responsibility to act as a bridge between two worlds. Those of us who were born here, or raised in British society, have a responsibility to explain Islam to the west and the west to the Muslim world.

I'm a person of faith and I believe a person of faith must be optimistic. I see young people who are involved at every level of British society - articulate, clever, inspirational individuals who feel strongly that they have to benefit this society and be part of Muslim society. I think that Muslims have the capacity to give a lot. As long as people start seeing Islam as part of the solution and not part of the problem they will go a long way.

Anglo-Saxon golden coin from time of King Offa of Mercia (757-796 AD). Issued in perfect Arabic Kufic script bearing Quranic verses referring to the fundamentals of the Islamic faith. Offa's coin is the first and the only dated coinage of the Anglo-Saxon period, bearing only the Islamic date 157 AH (774 AD), along with the name of King Offa. The next English dated coinage appeared 400 years later in the post-Norman period.


  1. Anonymous09 June, 2009

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  2. Every post I read, I feel like I have had similar experiences. And if I haven't, then my children will.

    I am American, born and raised in the center of my country. Blonde hair, blue eyes, very fair skin, freckled as a child. When I was growing up, there were few minorities around, though my city had more than neighboring towns, due to the large university in town. But there was never any doubt that we were Americans.

    I married a Peruvian man in 1997. We met in Utah, both drawn there because of our faith (Latter-day Saint, or Mormon). My husband has very dark skin, beautiful black, shiny hair, and dark eyes. Many people in my country confused him for Pakistani or Indian. He is a very handsome man, and I wanted my children to look like him.

    And they do. They all look like him. Only they are not dark. My oldest boy has almost black hair and dark eyes, but his coloring is Mediterranean "white". My other three boys have reddish brown hair and light skin. All have brown eyes. Number 3 son has almost caramel colored eyes, but the darkest skin.

    When asked to check boxes for race in my country, there is never one that says "American." It may say Latino/Hispanic, Native American, Caucasian, African American, or other. And it is not a required box.

    But all of my boys consider themselves white Americans. They don't consider themselves Hispanic. They were all born in Utah, in the middle of white, Mormon culture (no, not all Mormons are white, but Utah culture is like that).

    In my country also, if you ask someone what they are, they will tell you their background. For example, when I was a teen, they would ask "What are you?" And I would say German, Danish, and Native American. That is the kind of blood running through my veins. But it does not refer, in this case, to culture or language. Just where did your ancestors came from.

    A year and a half ago we came to live in Peru as a family. My boys were not learning Spanish the way they should, and could not communicate with their grandparents. We wanted them to connect with their Peruvian heritage also. And surprisingly, we have actually found racism here. Not so much against us. People are more curious, or think we are rich. But racism amongst the Peruvian races. You can tell the region someone is from by their appearance. And the mountain people are terribly looked down upon and abused. The people from the rain forest are also marginalized. The black people (left over from slave days) are made fun of. And they equate white with beautiful, and dark with ugly. People have told my maid that I am way too pretty for my husband. I think I am all right, but my husband is a very handsome man, and being dark skinned doesn't make him less so.

    I enjoy reading your blogs. They are well-written, and show that many of us have the same concerns and struggles, no matter where we come from.