Thursday 14 June 2012

Identity, Ownership…and Litter?

I recently worked on a project where I had to do some research around litter and initiatives around the country to tackle the amount of litter people throw in the streets. It was an interesting project and I learned a lot, but one thing stood out – people throw litter in the streets but not in their homes (I hope anyway). They have a sense of ownership regarding their home, but not the street outside of their home, or their neighbourhood or their city.

It struck me that this is very much the case with Muslims. I remember going to the first Islam Channel Global Peace and Unity event (in 2009?) and one of the things I remember from that event is the ridiculous piles of rubbish left everywhere around the venue. The second time I attended, I went with my husband who was making deliveries for the event caterer, so I got to see the venue at the end of the day and the souk area looked like a sea of rubbish.

I felt disappointed, after all Muslims are supposed to exhibit the best manners right? Often in places I have visited where there are large Muslim communities; there have also been large amounts of litter dumped in the street. I don’t think this is necessarily a result of there being a lot of Muslims there, there are multiple factors (like some Muslim communities having greater levels of deprivations and living in areas that are already run down and dirty). But it is saddening that we don’t seem to care.

One thing that might contribute to this is the culture some Muslim communities have brought to this country. I have seen people in Pakistan just lob their rubbish into the street once they are done with it, my relatives included. Perhaps people in other cultures around the world don’t have the same bugbear about litter that many of the English do – although I can’t imagine any culture that encourages people to make the place they live in dirty.

I think another factor is that many Muslims don’t have enough of a sense of ownership over the neighbourhoods and communities they live in. The first generations of South Asians certainly came here with the intention to earn money and then return and many of them did. Subsequent generations have lived with confusion over where they belong – Britain? England? Scotland? Pakistan? Bangladesh? India? Where was home? Here or “back home”? They mostly didn’t want to go back to where their parents or grandparents came from, they didn’t always feel fully accepted here and there was also a strange logic in the background, that if you said you were English or British, you were betraying your roots in some way. Perhaps because of this, we never developed the sense of belonging we should have.

I think that this is happening now, with the younger generations starting to affirm their Britishness, and with a British Islam emerging that allows us to claim Britain as home without feeling we are being disloyal to our faith (by showing loyalty to a Christian country?)

The litter is still there though. I would love to see Muslims with a reputation for being the cleanest, more responsible people in the country. I would love to see areas where there are concentrations of Muslims to be clean and safe, with a positive reputation, so that people are happy to walk through such places. This might sound like a pipe dream, but a lady I once met in Birmingham told me, she liked living in a “Muslim area” because she felt safer.

I rather like the example of the Japanese, who have a reputation for leaving a place cleaner than they found it – on attending concert and sports venues, not only will they take their own rubbish away with them, but any they find there (I vaguely recall a television commentator mentioning this about their attendance at an international sports event – but can’t remember which).

I have taken this quite seriously with my children since they were very small. I either ask them to hold onto rubbish such as food packaging until they pass a bin or give it to me. They now do this as second nature, especially with the messages about littering and the environment that they get from school. I like how shocked they always are when they see an adult dropping litter.

As part of my research I came across the Litter Project, which basically encourages us all to resolve to pick up just one piece of litter a day. My children love this and I have to stop them from picking up more than one piece of litter or picking up something inappropriate (wet, sticky, dangerous).

I was impressed by how many communities had taken ownership of the areas they live in and undertaken litter picks and clean up days. I liked also that there were a number of Muslim environmental groups (WIN, IFEES, Muslim Green Team, Green Muslims, AMEN, RITE, SHINE, etc) that champion the care of our environment.

So it seems we are taking a role in tackling this problem, but I would love to see more people stepping up, showing they care for the places they live in and making a difference. As Sheikh Tawfique Chowdhrey put it at the Twins of Faith conference earlier this year – If all of the Muslims left the UK, who would it make a difference to, would anyone even care? I think it’s our job to make enough of a difference that people are glad to have Muslims amongst them.


  1. I've had a similar experience: While my hubby and I were looking for a house to rent, we found one but the owner flatly refused to rent out to Muslims. We were shocked and then she explained that the previous family that lived there was Muslim and they messed up the place real bad, the owners had to spend a lot of money redoing it. I know, blaming an entire community for one irresponsible family's actions isn't fair, but well, this is how bad press builds up.

  2. Anonymous15 June, 2012

    Interesting, yet really sad. In certain Far East Asian countries, there are certain hotels that have a separate floor for the Muslims (dining) and it isn't for dietary restrictions - its because they're such slobs that other guests become annoyed. It's quite embarrassing, really.

    1. OMG I had no idea this was the case. What lets Muslims think this is okay behaviour? I am honestly amazed at this.

  3. In Utah, Latinos have the same reputation. And after living in Peru, I can see why. The streets are filthy. We had a little tree outside our house, and I would find little plates and wrappers stuffed into it, because the people were too lazy to take them home and throw them away in their houses...around the corner. Kids and adults alike throw sticks, plastic, papers, bus tickets, everything, on the ground. I remember one day seeing a young man throw his bus ticket on the ground as he unlocked the door to his house and entered. I said something to him, and he looked at me like I was crazy.

    This all goes back to culture and education. My boys one day asked if they could throw a wrapper on the ground, and I told them no. They asked why not, if the Peruvian kids did it. I told them they needed to set an example. I think the value of not throwing little is very Northern European. The U.S. was settled by northern Europeans, and we are taught from very young to not litter. I was in Portugal (southern Europe) for a year, and I remember watching a girl walk by a garbage bin, and throw her sandwich wrapper on the ground next to it (it was not full). My husband went to Europe about 6 years ago, and he noted the cleanest, most efficient place he visited was Germany (northern Europe). Peru (and all of South America) was settled by people from southern Europe.

    These are just observations, not racist statements. I know there are people in Peru who take their wrappers with them and throw them away at home. But it is because they have been taught, or exposed to other cultures. My mother-in-law was raised in the Amazon rain forest, yet she doesn't litter. Why? Because she was exposed to other cultures.

    I think the best we can do is to teach our kids to not throw things on the ground, and hopefully they learn. I am pretty outspoken, and I have actually said things to people. I remember one day talking to another mother in Peru, and I shared a candy with her boy. My boy ate his and put the wrapper in his pocket. Her boy ate the candy and threw it on the street. I told her that my mother would have severely chastised me for throwing my wrapper on the ground. The mother said, "Well, I tell him, but he doesn't listen." As we continued talking, my boy chased down the wrapper (without being told) and stuck it in his pocket. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Teach your children young, and they will (hopefully) remember the lessons and apply them in their lives.