Muslims Across the Brown Atlantic

England, Whose England?

Back in the summer of 2001 the Pakistan cricket team toured England in a less than spectacular display of the sport. What was missing on the pitch was made up for in the drama unfolding in the stands and out on the streets. Amidst the race riots that began in Oldham and then spread to other northern industrial towns, the fable of multicultural England was unraveling. Race was the talk on the streets; riots the focus of the media. In a strange mix of timing and anxiety, Nasser Hussain the captain of England's cricket team wrote an unusual op-ed expressing bewilderment about this talk of race, nation, and identity. Written for a British newspaper, Hussain argued that he was proud to play for England, evoking the age-old English cricket test that declares allegiance and patriotism. Like many others from England's migrant communities, he too wanted to see greater diversity on the English side. At the crux of his thinking was a "blame the victim" mentality: a traditional form of nationalism where you are either from here or there. He could understand the divided loyalties of first generation migrants, but for those born and raised in England there was no excuse. For the second generation to adhere to nationalisms from their homelands was merely confusion. What raised Hussain's ire the most is the phenomenal support the Pakistani and Indian teams receive in England. As he walked out to the first test against Pakistan at Lord's that summer he regretted "to see a sea of green shirts instead of ours" in the stands. For Hussain, the struggle for the rights of Asians in Britain is a moot point. On par with right-wing thinking, Hussain's logic argues that it is high time Asians in Britain assimilated, or rather conformed, to a vision of the traditional national polity. Simply put, British Asians are British, not Asian. In other words, multiculturalism is dead.

The cricket grounds that summer were full of "pitch invasions," fireworks and the perceived threat to players from tossed objects by zealous supporters of the Pakistani side. Sports analysts were uniform in their condemnation of this sort of behavior. The response in the Pakistani papers was intriguing. The old idea of the English cricket test is well-known throughout the commonwealth. On the one hand there was sympathy for what Hussain was saying. In Pakistan commentators were consistent in examining this as an issue of migration, racism and the history of colonialism. Their arguments explored the complex issue of identity. In some cases the excitement of the fans and the violence on the streets was read simplistically as cultural confusion. The more forceful analysis was of the racism missing in Hussain's arguments. Pakistani commentators knew full well these problems of exclusion and racism. This sort of solidarity with desis on the other side of the world is not surprising. As the Pakistani journalists argued, British Asians support teams from the subcontinent as a matter of pride. The support of teams from the subcontinent and race riots in the streets reflects deficiencies in British society. The dilemma is of a nationalism slow to accept migrants as equal members of society because of a long history of colonial bigotry come home to roost. This is the problem of nationalism and the supposed solution of multiculturalism. A racist society is an alienating society. And the comfort of identity can come in solidarities both real and imagined.

That summer things were also brewing off the cricket pitch. From April to July riots had broken out between Asians and whites initially in the town of Oldham and by summers end would spread to Burnley and Bradford. Most of these Asians were of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. The riots were the culmination of attacks by racist gangs against Asian communities and the failure of the police to protect them. This tension was part of what was in the air on the cricket grounds. For someone like Nasser Hussain it was easy to argue things would be better for British Asians if they would only become more British. The racial violence of the riots made clear that Britain was far from the multicultural paragon that it thought it was. In fact, scanning through the media reactions to the riots it was surprising to see the degree to which the racial context of this conflict was rejected in favor of viewing it as a case of economic conflict. Too often multiculturalism translates into a relativism that makes race-talk a taboo subject.

This racial construction of the Asian and the Muslim as a problem in British society is nothing new. Since the 1970s scholars have argued that the modern form of Western racism emerged out of fifteenth century fears of Islam and Judaism. This did much to consolidate European ideas of Christian civilization against the peoples of North Africa, the Middle East and India. Race and racism have shifted much since this time, yet the lineage remains an important source of historical reference. As geographies of racism shifted from religion to race Europe went from Christian to white, and the so-called "orient" from Muslim to brown. With groups of people migrating throughout the modern world racial geographies have broken down only to be recreated in new ways.

The history of these northern de-industrializing British towns, that sets the backdrop for this racial conflict, is one that has become commonplace in the current onset of global capitalism. In the 1960s many Pakistani and Bangladeshi families were moving to the industrial north of England to work in the cotton mills. As machine technology advanced the need for shop labor diminished. Communities across the board were struck with massive unemployment. Racially segregated work places and job discrimination kept communities divided by color. For immigrants the only option for work was in the service economy -- groceries, gas stations, restaurants, cabs -- indeed tenuous and risky work. The public sector, a relatively stable form of work that reflects middle class status and education, absorbed much of the white unemployment.

When the riots broke out many of the Asian youth argued that their Muslim communities were under attack by white supremacist gangs. There is plenty of evidence that the fascist National Front was moving in to cause trouble for some time. The culpability of the police to stop this harassment and the instigation of violence is also at issue. As in so many episodes of violence involving racial attacks, the police did little to rectify or prevent what had been fomenting. Violence against Muslim communities was left uninvestigated with scuffles usually blamed on Muslim youth. In the end the Asian youth were rebelling against a racist system that ignores their complaints and treats them as second-class citizens.

Across the Atlantic: September 11, 2001

As things were calming down in Britain, the September 11th tragedy created a sense of crisis throughout the US and the rest of the planet. With the war on terrorism came a new justification for racial profiling, a marked increase in hate crimes, and the odd idea that limiting civil liberties gives Americans greater freedom. The debate over the Muslim question in the West has increasingly taken a new turn. Too much of the public discourse is based on years of historical fallacy and stereotypical reduction. The Muslim world is associated with oil, poverty, and despotism; while Islam is oppressive, violent, and anti-democratic. On Sunday March 3, 2002, the New York Times printed a map entitled "Terror Diaspora." It sketched "a world of cells and plots" from the Philippines to Pakistan and Germany to the United States that seemed to burst with double meanings. The map purportedly connected the dots to the face of terrorism with pictures of people and places connected to Al Qaeda and sometimes not. The map also seemed to say that the Islamic world has migrated to the West, and none are safe. The title itself, two words that so often seem misused, leaves open the possible reading of all migrants as potentially dangerous. Yet, the map of the "Terror Diaspora" could have very well been entitled "American Imperialism." Switching fear and terror for power and conquest, migrants and Muslims for special forces and war. In many such examples it's not the facts that are at issue, but more how fact (or its semblance) becomes representative of groups of people. Who is the terror in the diaspora, and why is the diaspora a terror?

In these bleak times, two teenagers from New York decided to take it to the mic in the name of social justice. Out of the basement hip-hop of Staten Island, Abstract Vision and Humanity(AV/H) exhibit Gramsci's dictum "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." On their CD poli.trix(available at they give us politically charged lyrics that range from critiquing the lies of the media to solidarity with Palestinians to the pains of growing up Muslim in America. This caliber of analysis is the type of thing that has become mandatory for those who see themselves engaged in struggles against oppression. And to hear it from such young voices is an inspiring, positive sign. What compelled them to record their rhymes after 9/11 was a simple desire to share their thoughts and ideas with others. For them, the conscious approach means speaking up about issues that surround them. In particular they wanted to smash the stereotypes they were hearing about Muslims at school and in the media.

One track in particular entitled "Self-Defense" caught my attention. Sampling from BBC News voices of Muslim youth from Britain and their battles with racists, the lyrics refer to a cross-Atlantic justice. When I asked them about this track they spoke of solidarity in terms of shared histories of racial oppression. On both sides of the Atlantic there have been tragic displays of hatred and racism. What AV/H felt after 9/11 was similar to what Muslim youth in Britain were experiencing in the race riots of 2001. The difference, though, is their class positions in their respective societies. The desi community in Britain is more working class while in the US it is professional. Yet, as they argue, even this is changing with class diversity increasing, and racists hardly judge by class alone. This nod to international solidarity is just the beginning. In their sampling and lyrics AV/H cite the need for militant civil disobedience. For Muslim youth in Britain this means the creation of "no-go areas" or "black man areas" in order to create zones of safety for desi communities. Confronted with harassment and physical violence, desi youth created these areas as places whites could not enter for security purposes. The reporter for BBC challenged this as a racist form of excluding whites, yet the youth argued that this was a form of local justice. When the government cannot provide protection to certain communities then the community has to protect itself. This was surely the case in the race riots in Northern England where the police did not respond to complaints of harassment by desis young and old.

On both sides of the Atlantic this translates into demanding rights against oppression. This begins with the articulation of racist acts committed against individuals and communities. Too often the failure of tackling problems for desis is a product of refusing to talk about race. Having an understanding of how race and racism operate, as unclear as these concepts can sometimes be, is necessary to combat this kind of hatred. More than ever there is the need for anti-racist struggle to rethink how race operates. Especially in regard to how religion becomes part of what is understood as race.

Talking Race

(H)Islam is not the way of my people
No matter what race or gender we're all equal
Time to join hands and fight what is evil
-- abstractvision/humanity, "(H)Islam," poli.trix

After the riots in Britain victims became easy targets. National leaders condemned the riots. Community leaders found the opportunity to lay the blame on the decline of Islamic values among Muslim youth. This fed into a long history of animosity with Britain's Muslims and a fear of criminality in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. After September 11th these anxieties seemed to be vindicated. This further criminalized and justified racial profiling of Muslims. Anti-terrorism has come to mean that someone with brown skin is suspect.

What is also at issue is the confusion of what is happening in Muslim communities. On both sides of the Atlantic, moderate and liberal Muslims are being blamed for letting their communities be dominated by religious conservatives. In the US, the struggle for Muslims and desis is still to find where they locate themselves in the race and class formations. Communities react to their surroundings. In the complex world of migrant communities, political approaches are often a result of external pressures such as discrimination.

Scientific racism, the idea that race is based in genetics, predicated that culture was a manifestation of innate biological differences. Hence the statement "all Muslims are violent because they were born that way" refers to an immutable, inherent characteristic that is biological. This is the idea that one possesses an essential characteristic that remains the same such as a body part or fingerprint. With the advent of Mendelian genetics, and the rise of culture-based forms of discrimination, scientific racism has undergone numerous fragmentations and reconstitutions. Much of what we constitute as culture has come to be accepted as learned. Yet to say "all Muslims are violent because of their religion" is to shift the terms of the argument. It depends on a reasoning based in cultural racism. That is the idea that although genetic characteristics are quite diverse, culture itself does not change. Hence culture becomes the location for racial attributes: violence, terror, poverty, etc. This slippery slope of racist thinking allows a shift from culture to physical characteristics. Hence, Islam is bad so brown people are bad. The foil to this logic is the obvious diversity of religions and cultures.

In their track "(H)Islam" AV/H point us in this direction. They dissect the idea of one official Islam against the diversity of Islamic belief and practice. It's a call to the basics of peace, equality and the fight for social justice. This reasoning is a tightened up critique of power that exposes racist thinking. The purveyors of a stereotyped Islam would have us believe that culture never changes. What Abstractvision/ Humanity prove to us is that there are young folks busy in the making of new culture.


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I think they find it difficult to accept that all are like them. Is it necessary to be a Muslim to be a human.
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