Reimagining British Muslims
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Wednesday 18th May 2022

Monday, January 18th, 2016

“I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien.” – Sting

What does it mean to be a British Muslim today?

Being a British Muslim today, born, bred and raised in England with immigrant parents, is to have an eclectic medley of voices swirling in your brain.  Living and constantly shifting between different worlds, religions, languages, cultures, traditions and voices, all competing for some kind of hold on your identity, on your spirit, on your will. All this baggage of mixed loyalties, competing facemasks and fashions, stuffed into a short-lived life, which, for many of us, typically consists of home, work, mosque and “holidays” to Pakistan or from wherever your ancestors hailed.

You can probably guess the kind of subsequent inner conversations we all have. The self-doubting and the subconscious questioning that arises,  am I Pakistani first or British? Or shouldn’t I say Muslim first? But I was born and raised in Britain so that makes me British doesn’t it?  Yes, but if you really were British, then certain sections of society would not be telling you to go back to your own country.  So you can’t truly be British then. That leaves being Pakistani.  No, when we visit our relatives back home in the Punjab, Azad Kashmir or wherever, they tend to think of us as “goray” (Englishmen) and howl with laughter at our heavily Anglicized Urdu and hysterically funny attempts to express a bit of Punjabi, Pohtwari, Pushto or Pahaari.  Not a real Pakistani then either.

After experiencing these doubts for a while, some us finally start asking questions like: so where on earth do I really belong? And does it really matter whether you belong to a nation or not?

We are in some ways a lost generation. Us Britishers who hailed from immigrant parents. Especially, Muslim parents. Consequently, I can’t really connect with any strong feelings of loyalty and love of one’s country. Instead, loyalty to one’s local community and individuals makes more sense. So, when my father has the Pakistan channel on during Jinnah day, it doesn’t really tickle my fancy. And the fluttering St George’s flag, Union Jacks and the various other colours in the world cup positively annoy me. Flags, national anthems and hearty cries of “For Queen and Country” just don’t capture my attention. Is that my fault? Am I doing something wrong?

“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”  – William Shakespeare

Britain. I was born here. I grew up here. All my friends, family and childhood are linked to Britain. The state has served me pretty well thus far. Apart from one or two overtly racist teachers, I was lucky to have excellent teachers who really cared for me, who lit the fire of learning in my heart. I owe a great deal to them. I am a free man, a citizen. I hold a passport. I was born in a British hospital. I was given equal care as my white and black compatriots. I can speak my mind and be critical of local officials and complain about the police without being dismissed because someone could get in trouble for not acknowledging my human rights. Well, in theory anyway!

So I try my best to give back to a society that has given me a good chance. I work hard. I try to integrate with my neighbours, with my work colleagues and I vote in elections. I do my best to be a good citizen. To be a member of my local community. I live in the same town I grew up in. I have spent the best part of my life thus far studying and teaching English literature, extolling the great poets and writers of the English language. My bread and butter and the raison d’être of my working life is to share my intense love of the English language and my passion for the literature of this sceptred isle that my own teachers instilled in me. However, I have equal feelings for languages per se, especially Arabic and Urdu. I read and recite the Holy Qur’an in Arabic and its rhythms and reverberations move me like nothing else. I believe in it as a truly unique and supernatural text. The supreme speech of God, Allah the Light of existence. But each language has its own magic; its own truth. When I read Shakespeare, or Blake, or Steinbeck, I feel universal truths resonating which I can benefit from. My Islamic faith has not blinded me from the benefit of other traditions and channels; in fact it has only helped to enhance my appreciation, which is a principle that some Muslims fail to grasp. And what’s remarkable about English is the sheer volume of creative language that has been expressed through it, which is very enriching to those who expose themselves to this sea of meaning. What is also remarkable are the lives of some of the great writers of Britain. I am particularly moved by the humanitarianism of the likes of Dickens and Blake. The courage of Wilfred Owen and the great empathy of John Steinbeck had for the plight of the poor and dispossessed. Simultaneously, having read the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and grant him peace, I am utterly compelled and fascinated by his life. I am completely convinced he was true in word and action. He was the last prophet whose message is the final word to guide us. My metaphysical and spiritual beliefs have not blinded me to the light that shines from other voices and other texts, which I believe are the manifestations of the divine attributes. I am absolutist in my faith, which makes perfect sense in this consumerist, contemporary age of platitudes and moral relativism. But my absolutism doesn’t alienate me from my fellow man. If it does, then I have fallen into extremism. Absolutist? Not very British? Does being British mean to be secular or to be nominally religious or just a fair-weather relativist?

Anyway, back to this green and pleasant land. I know the pattern and configuration of the trees and the lie of the grass in my local park. I know the local streets like the back of my hand. When I go abroad and come back, the first things that hit me are the deep, rich shades of green of the countryside on the way back from Heathrow. I feel like I know this land. I feel like this is my earthly home.  But hand on heart, do I call this my land, my blessed plot, my birthright, my country? Would I stand proud and represent Britain ahead of all other nations? Some people like me would. And many like me wouldn’t. Would I? Not really. Do I sound ungrateful? Unpatriotic? Traitorous? I do feel loyalty to my home-town and to the people of my home-town who have been an important part of my life, be they White English or otherwise. I would happily stand with them against a clear aggressor or oppressor. So, I am happier identifying myself with a certain region, my locality, but not a country to the exclusion of all others. For me, there is something more benign in the local area where you grow up. I call myself a British Muslim because it is helpful for defining something about me and where I come from. It is a nominal badge; it is useful and not the be-all and end-all.

But there’s another reason why I hesitate in anchoring myself with a nationalistic reality. There are many here who certainly don’t consider me a fully fledged Brit. Even though I was born here, they’ll never accept me. They believe that Britain is the true home of the White Anglo-Saxon races who settled here centuries ago. True, this country has experienced waves of invasions and migrations. But this is the land of the White Northern European races. They are the ones who truly believe that this is their birthright, their true home. Their nation. Their blood runs thick under the soil, in their ancestors, and the structures they built and lived on which are now but remnants of proud memories in nationalistic minds. And I am not one of them. For them, I am the other. For them, race is inextricably linked to land. White people have always lived here from time immemorial, so it is the land of the white man. You come from Asia, your skin and facial features reveal a mixture of Northern Punjab and perhaps Pathan descent. Your skin is light brown. You don’t really belong here. Go back to your own country. However ignorant this mode of thought may sound, if you have heard this argument just a few times from a few people over the decades, the drips form stagnant pools of alienation deep in your heart are stirred. Perhaps they’re right deep down, I know I don’t really belong here. But it is still the place I was born in.

“Phir be dil hai Pakistani (Hindustani).”  Raj Kumar

Go back to your own country they say. Well, there are many bona fide British Muslims and economic migrants who would love to go back to their country of origin. If only they had the money. If only it had the system England had. The NHS. Well-organised. Make lots of money. Get an education and a job. Be rich here and be even richer back home and build a fantastic “kohti” (villa) back in Azad Kashmir, Lahore, Islamabad or Pindi. A significant proportion of British Muslims hail from Pakistan and in particular these four places mentioned.

I cannot say that my heart beats for Pakistan. My heart beats for my relatives, for my grandparents who I knew and loved, who are buried in the soil of Northern Punjab. My own ancestors, those from whom I inherited my physical appearance and personality, came from this South Asian region. What’s more, I have visited the resting places of some of the great saints who lie buried in the soil of Pakistan like Datta Ganjbaksh Ali Hijwiri, Baba Fariduddin Ganjshaker and others. I am convinced that these individuals were exceptional and unique people. As I am convinced, that despite the corruption and problems in Pakistan, there are some individuals there, like the saints aforementioned, who have found the secret behind existence, who live on a plain of spiritual intoxication that some of us stressed westerners yearn for. There are still some remarkable people in Pakistan, who live simple yet difficult lives, where the electricity goes off daily, where the politicians and police rob the public shamelessly, where the Taliban still lurk. There is a beauty in Pakistan that people do not appreciate in the west.

Nevertheless, the Union Jack will never fly outside my home and neither will the green and white crescent and star of Qaida Azaam’s promised land. My heart does not yearn for a physical abode, like Raj Kumar singing for Hindustan. My heart yearns for a place beyond borders and beyond time.

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” George Bush

Does my rejection of patriotism worry you, especially as I’m Muslim? Does that mean I am more likely to be radicalised and potentially be recruited by Al Qaida or Daesh? I remember hearing President Bush’s speech shortly after 9/11 and feeling pushed towards two doors. The door of assimilation and the door of separation. I decided to knock through the wall in between and fashion another door. The door of truth. And the truth is somewhere in the middle, as they say. So for me, the average English, Irish or Scottish man that I come across wants the same thing as the average Arab or Pakistani that I have also met. A job, a decent home and a safe place to bring up children and live the way you want to live. I don’t hold them responsible for the spectre of violent extremism. I don’t believe anyone needs to be pressured into siding with a particular country or racial group because of political intrigues and motivations. Most people desire safety and security, whether they be black or white, Muslim or atheist, British or Pakistani. But I feel this invisible inquisition, this spirit of the age, calling upon me and asking me where my allegiances lie, and the only answer that gives me peace in my heart is truth and justice. Side with justice and truth and not with a particular country. Only then will you find your place in the world, with a clear heart. Otherwise you are in danger of becoming a scoundrel, who blindly follows his people into excess, for his love affair with tribalism, clothed in the flag of patriotism.

“The next life is better for you than the present one.”  -The Holy Qur’an

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t actually belong anywhere, but I live and enjoy living in Britain. The place that I really belong is beyond time and space, it doesn’t have borders, a flag or a national anthem. You don’t need a passport to prove you belong there. You just need to live a good honest life in this world, worship God sincerely, and eventually you’ll get there. True bliss. It is not in my hands as to who inhabits this promised land beyond time. It is in the hands of God. So it is truly unwise to judge who will be there and who will not. But heaven is the place for me. Where I can truly say, that’s where I hope I’ll end up; a place I will love with all my heart, if God has mercy on my soul. Sound barmy to some of you? Well, bizarrely enough, that’s what many British Muslims believe and is why we are not necessarily too bothered about national pride, patriotism or jingoism.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t care about Britain. You are not truly a believer, until you love for your fellow human-being, what you love for yourself, as the Prophet suggested in his famous saying, Allah bless him and grant him peace.

Proud British people will have to come to terms with the fact that many like me will never feel that pride for Queen and country. It’s the people and particular places that stir our pride. And the people “back home” in Pakistan should realise that this lost generation will not be healed by simply learning the language and visiting “back home” more regularly. We live in Britain and we love our life here and we respect the privileges and responsibilities of being citizens. We love other places and other people. We don’t want to see war between countries, and we don’t want to be put in a position for fighting for one side against another. We must stick to truth and justice. Fight for justice and fight for what is right for everyone, not for just ourselves and our notion of what it means to be free.

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Novid Shaid is an English teacher and pastoral manager from the UK. He has worked for fourteen years in state...
read more about Novid Shaid