I remember, growing up in London, feeling uncomfortable about mixing with white people. White British culture in my head represented everything I was taught to stay away from; namely: boys, alcohol, sex. So a part of me always felt that I could never have a deep friendship with a white girl because she undoubtedly would have a very different lifestyle to me and want to do things that I don't or can't do. Then there was another frightened part of me that believed that a white person would never genuinely like me, and every time I encountered racist remarks by white people, this feeling became stronger. These emotions only began to dissipate once I made a very close white friend at uni who, in a very short period of time, completely destroyed every stereotype I had of how British white people think and act.
But as a community, Muslims, especially conservative Arab Muslims, still hold onto similar fears and stereotypes; and this misrepresentation makes it difficult for them to form deep connections with white communities. When we equate British culture with white British culture and then define white culture as: partying, drinking and fornication we start to dig a dangerous hole for ourselves. If this is the image we continually perpetuate about what it means to be British, then of course we're going to have many young people wondering whether it is possible to be both British and Muslim.
I've been away from home for four years now. I've traveled round the Middle East and even here people drink, party and have sex. So how has this become the defining feature of British culture or even white culture? Now I'm sure I'm going to hear some of you say:
'But Alwia, this sort of 'loose' lifestyle' isn't part of our Middle Eastern cultures. It has come to us from the West. It's their bad influence.'
This my friend is complete and absolute rubbish.
When I studied classic, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry during my MA, some of the content was so dirty, my German professor would skip past sections. I mention this because literature is an excellent cultural mirror. And guess what? Arabic poetry, even during the Islamic eras is full of drinking, women and even homo-eroticism. I challenge anyone to find me a community in history that doesn't like to drink, dance and have sex. It's not white culture.
It's human culture.
The West didn't teach Arabs how to drink, dance and seduce each other. History will tell you we are experts in this field and it's very much part of our culture.
So it would be simply ignorant of us to define British culture as 'clubbing and drinking' and then place that in opposition to our own presumed moral superiority.
This is one thing. But there's also another question we need to pull apart, which is:
Seeing as Britain is a multi-cultural country, why is it when we think about British culture, we automatically think of white culture? Why do we view our own British sub-cultures as less valid than white culture? Why do we, as Arab/Muslim British nationals, exclude ourselves from what makes Britain, British? Is there a part of us that always views ourselves as outsiders and white people as the originals? This is a dangerous barrier to integration and an idea perpetuated by white supremacists: They're the real Brits and we're the outsiders. We shouldn't think of ourselves in this way. We ARE part of British culture and without us British culture wouldn't be what it is.
For me, British culture is going to school with Ali, Emily and Vivek, and learning about everyone's cultures and religions. It's hearing the fireworks for Diwali, soaking in the festive lights and smells during Christmas, visiting your local halal Nando's then watching the Lion King musical at the theater. It's getting weirdly annoyed when people don't queue properly, trying not to stare at someone acting odd on the tube, being crazy apologetic about everything, even almost bumping into someone. British culture is that cold formality people have that masks a tolerance for others that you wouldn't expect. And our different cultural and religious backgrounds are part of this melting pot.
Now of course, integration works both ways. Misrepresentation is a barrier that also stops host communities from engaging with immigrant/ethnic communities. The media has played a huge role in continuing this cycle of fear and suspicion. Immigrant/ethnic communities feel unwelcome and so huddle together. This in turn makes host communities feel suspicious and resentful towards them. Sometimes, misrepresentation isn't even the issue but general 'character' clashes. Let's be real now: The British, we're not the most warm or perky people in the world. We like to keep to ourselves. Like, you can see the same person on the bus for months and never say hi to them. This kind of cold formality can translate to hostility to someone who comes from a very warm cultural background. It's another barrier that some ethnic communities may feel like they can't overcome. They don't put an effort with us, so why should we?
What all of this comes down to in the end is ignorance. You fear what you don't know and stay away from it. If more people allowed themselves to engage with communities that are outside their comfort zone, integration would become a natural consequence of people's interactions. I didn't make a life-long white friend at uni simply because I was willing to look past my stereotypes and give her a chance but because she also knew enough about Muslims through her other Muslim friends to be able to give me the kind of reassurance that I needed. That I would be respected, understood and I wouldn't need to compromise my lifestyle and beliefs by being with her. We both had to take steps towards each other and because of that friendship, my general outlook on white people and my interactions with people from different communities has now completely changed. Ignorance breeds ignorance and hate breeds hate. But love also breeds love.
I think the message I want to leave everyone with is: Integration is impossible if we don't learn about each other and put an effort to connect. If we don't do basic things like say hello to our neighbors, invite them over. When we ignore familiar faces and live within the boundaries of our stereotypes.
Food for thought in this week's post!
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