Before 2001 there were a lot of brown-skinned people of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan extraction living in Britain. The primary objections of Nick Griffin and his equivalents to these people were that they stole our jobs and took over our cornershops and they didn’t support the cricket team. After 9/11 these people disappeared and were replaced by a sinister organisation called ‘The British Muslims’, dedicated to undermining the national way of life through religious fanaticism and rapid breeding. On Question Time last week Nick Griffin referred to some passages in the Koran which prove this beyond all reasonable doubt.
Meanwhile, throughout the blogosphere spread theoretical assertions beginning: “Of course, 95% of them just want to get on with their lives, but… (insert some concern based on the idea that British Muslims fundamentally see things differently to the rest of us.)”
These latter theories are not the ravings of racists or bigots, just people who’ve read grand sweeping books about clashes of civilisations and news stories about rioting brown Frenchmen and, of course, lurid highlights from the Koran. It’s easy to slip into it, we all do it all the time. But the problematic words in these theories are “them” and “us”, which are meant to refer to British Muslims and “Westerners” respectively. I don’t mean ‘problematic’ in some drippy we-are-the-world sense; rather, that when it comes to practically applying these categories to actual people it turns out to be devilish difficult to work out who should go into which.
Yesterday I had Sunday lunch with Mrs Brit and a coven of her pals who enjoy cooing over our baby. One of this coven has brown skin and the surname Mohammed. She would naturally, under Nick Griffin’s definition, be a secret menace to the rest of us at the table, who have pale or pale-ish skin and surnames like Nixon, Bishop and Whelan. But given that Ms Mohammed wears jeans and drinks booze and has never in her life left the shores of Britain except on holiday and, as far I’m aware, has never set foot in a mosque during our acquaintance except for the same reasons that I’ve set foot in churches (marriages and deaths basically), then one of our non-bigoted Theorists above would, I guess, classify her as a “westernised Muslim”; one of the 95% who “just want to get on with their lives.”
At which point the full arbitrariness – and indeed, strangeness – of placing Ms Mohammed in the category “British Muslim” becomes vividly clear. To plonk her on a continuum of British Muslims, with 'westernised' moderates at the one end and Abu 'Hook' Hamza at the other, seems about as useful and meaningful as putting me in a category of British Roman Catholics – a continuum with the Great Lapsed (like me) at one end and Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor at the other – and then, while allowing that I am a greatly “westernised” or “Anglicised” Catholic, attempting to make broad assumptions about my views and behaviour by quoting from the Nicene Creed.*
We have a glaring category error on our hands here. Putting Ms Mohammed in a bundle with Abu Hamza - however vast we allow the gap on the continuum - makes as much sense as placing her Sunday lunch pals in a category with Timothy McVeigh. A more meaningful categorisation would of course put McVeigh and Hamza together in the section “Inadequate Male Nutjob”, and while no doubt Al Qaeda will turn to Inadequate Male Nutjobs with brown skin and surnames like Mohammed as the first port of call for recruitment, the crucial thing is that they be Inadequate Male Nutjobs, even if they have white skin and a name like Nicky Reilly.
And what about if Ms Mohammed hooks up with a man with a surname like Smith and they have a light-brown coloured baby? Will this sprog be a Muslimised Westerner or a Very Westernised Muslim? Or perhaps just another mongrel Briton, there’s an awful lot of us about.
The upshot of all this is to expose the futile and arbitrary business of attempting to impose large, simplistic categories onto what is, in reality, a chaotic mass of British humanity. It’s not dissimilar to the Family Tree Problem; not completely invalid or untrue, just a vanishingly narrow way of looking at complexity; presenting a version of reality simplified to the point of utter meaninglessness. In fact, the "British Muslim" categorisation is even more irrelevant in identifying real people than is calling yourself “Scottish” on the basis that one out of your thousand great-great-etc-grandfathers was called McDougall, since identity is such a malleable and subjective concept, whereas at least it is objectively true that he was called McDougall. If, for example, you think that being a Manchester United or Liverpool fan is a relatively trivial element in dividing up identities compared to nominal religion, then you really don’t know anything about actual Britons.
Beware grand sweeping theories about clashes of civilizations or anything else: they’re all, ultimately, wrong. Demographics is a game for computer nerds.
“Anti-human” is another overused pejorative, but I reckon that starting with a category and then attempting to force people into it is a pretty good example of anti-humanness. Mind you, we can’t help categorising, mostly benignly. I was thinking back to my university days. Of course we were right-on students so we shunned skin colour as an identifier, but we still divvied people up by musical taste, clothes etc, or by Arts (trendy), Science (geeks) or Medical students (tossers). Naturally some of those trendies, geeks and tossers were brown-skinned, but remember, this was before 2001 so none of them were British Muslims. That lot hadn’t been invented yet.
*In fact, since “Muslim” covers so many different groups and sects, you could equally substitute Murphy-O’Connor for any bugger who's been baptised, from the craziest creationist Christian to virtual agnostics like Dr Rowan Williams, and the analogy stands.