Monday, October 26, 2009

'British Muslims' and the Demographic Delusion

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.


Gaw said...

Just superb.

Perhaps the two most significant categories one can draw up are between those who categorise and those who don't.

Without rigidly (but sometimes opportunistically) applied categories how would the commies and nazis have maintained their world views? Mind you, we must be careful not to be too rigid in this application or we may find ourselves on the other side of the line...

I like your three-letter acronym: IMN (inadequate male nutjob). It deserves to catch on and has many applications across both times and places. The source of a great deal of the worlds nastiest little problems.

worm said...

I agree with your sentiments entirely, and entirely agree that people are individuals and cannot be neatly grouped together -
but is it not a fact that the people who have tried to blow us up lately have all said that they want to kill us in the name of islam?

I haven't seen a news report of the police arresting any C of E terror cells lately, leading them from a house at dawn whilst forensics experts fill up clear plastic bags with suspicious looking tambourines

Brit said...

Yes, that is indeed a fact, Worm.

Hey Skipper said...

Taking worm one step further: why are so many IMNs Muslims?

Of course, this question points to how essential categories are: in order to ask it, one has to separate IMNs from the IMnotNs, AdequateMNs and AMnNs, then note that worm's observation is a correct description of a categorized reality.

The danger is in using the wrong categories.

Fervent, literal, universalist religious belief is the category we need to watch out for.

Just so happens that, these days, the majority in that category are Islamic.

But so was David Koresh.

Uncle Dick Madeley said...

Absolutely right. Sweeping generalisations don't work, unless, of course, you're like me and take Dirty Harry Callahan's approach of hating everybody equally.

Brit said...

I'm not sure there's any reason to suppose that IMNs are not spread pretty equally across all religious and ethnic backgrounds.

IMNs with Muslim parents are most vulnerable to recruitment by Al Qaeda, but not exclusively so.

Brit said...

And of course IMNs in the south-west of England are most vulnerable to recruitment by the Manchester United Supporters Club.

malty said...

The post stimulates like no cupcake ever could.
As long as we can carry on treating the Swedes like dim Nazi's then everyone else is off the hook, except Vaz.

malty said...

And the French.

malty said...

And the Aussies, not Clive though.

Brit said...

Ah thanks, Malty. My mission in life is to show that everything anybody has ever thought or said is wrong. Including me.

Ian Woolcott said...

That's nicely said, Brit.

Peter Burnet said...

Kudos for taking on the BNP Nasties with such gusto, but you may want to be a little careful with that rhetoric. I'm not sure a chaotic mass of British humanity is a winning rallying cry for racial and cultural tolerance among the decent middle, and if you and Appleyard keep going on about how proud you are to be "just another mongrel Briton", the urge to insert flea-bitten in front will prove irresistible.

No disrespect to Mrs. Brit's friend, but isn't it telling how relieved we find it whenever a Muslim takes a drink. In the old days, we sought out immigrants who led moral, sober lives. Now we feel safer in our beds knowing our Muslim neighbours have all passed out in the town centre at 3:00am.

Seriously, you should know by now not to try shanghai genetics to help you in your social and cultural causes. "We're all God's children" still packs a mean punch when used sparingly and if that puts you off your biscuits, you can always haul out the UN Declaration on Human Rights and cross your fingers. At least you won't have to worry that some fascist scientist will suddenly claim he has isolated a Muslim gene that evolved through genetic drift and pontificate on how science is self-correcting.

Paul said...

Racism begins with our families, parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, people we admire, respect and love.

However, as we grow and mature we come to the realization that what we were told by our family when we were children were slanted lies base on their prejudices. We realize that most people are like ourselves and not so different and want the same things, like a home, steady work, a Medicare plan and schools for our children (if you travel you will see this). We realize that most people are of good hearts and goodwill.

This reminds me of a parable from the good book where a Levite and Priest come upon a man who fell among thieves and they both individually passed by and didn’t stop to help him.

Finally a man of another race came by, he got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy and got down with the injured man, administered first aid, and helped the man in need.

Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his fellow man.

You see, the Levite and the Priest were afraid, they asked themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”

But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

That’s the question before us. The question is not, “If I stop to help our fellow man (immigrant) in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help our fellow man, what will happen to him or her?” That’s the question.

This current climate of blaming others for our woes is not new. We have had this before and we have conquered it.

Remember “Evil flourishes when good men (and women) do nothing”. Raise your voices with those of us who believe we are equal and we can win this battle again.

Brit said...

Peter - I'm not under any illusions that my blog is an instrument in a general Fight Against Racism, it being a drop in the internet ocean for one thing, and yes, "we're all mongrels" being an inevitably unpopular slogan for another. In fact, I assume that everyone who reads this is already non-racist - I'm more interested in talking about the strange misconceptions and delusions that permeate everyday thinking (such as that ancestry is not a matter of personal choice, or that hamsters aren't evil).

Brit said...

No disrespect to Mrs. Brit's friend, but isn't it telling how relieved we find it whenever a Muslim takes a drink. In the old days, we sought out immigrants who led moral, sober lives.

Talking of which, that's exactly the sort of odd statement I'm addressing in the post. It's not racist or malicious of course, but it bears no resemblance to reality, and it's just... weird. And weirder the more you look at it.

Mrs B met her pal in the mid-90s, ie. before all brown-skinned Britons became a degree of Muslim. There was no question of thinking "Oh thank goodness, I've found a Muslim who drinks." She was a law student who had the surname Mohammed because her father is second-generation Pakistani. Obviously skin-colour was noticeable and therefore, for we middle-class liberals, an Unmentionable Issue (there's no naive nonsense about "colour-blindness" here), but the religion was never any kind of issue at all, Unmentionable or otherwise.

martpol said...

Superb post, Brit.

To pick out just one point, it's long interested me that "us and themming" afflicts people who are keen to demonstrate their non-racist credentials as much as it does the racists themselves.

Peter Burnet said...

Do calm down, friend, I was generalizing with hyperbole and not talking at all about your friend. Apologies for any offence. The larger point is that the reason folks like Griffin and his followers will hopefully soon go the way of wide ties and paisley shirts is that nobody believes in genetic racial differences anymore. It's recognized as a wacky notion befitting nutjob losers. That was not true for pre-war and '50s racism which, although we like to believe was invented by the great unwashed, actually had a lot of suport among the mainstream academic and scientific establishment.

The name of the game among modern anti-immigrant xenophobes is acculturation. Our grandfathers may have believed certain races or cultures were intrinsically inferior, but your modern racist (who unfortunately rides side saddle on conservatism) is much more likely to claim quite credibly that he has no racist bone in his body, but he just can't understand why they don't exit the Immigration Hall at the airport speaking perfect English, humming Rule Britannia and rooting for the English side against the dreaded frogs. Thus does your mongrel argument risk falling on deaf ears. It's like trying to prove a resurgence of Nazism on the basis of the graffiti in the washrooms of inner city pubs.

Brit said...

Peter - no offence, vicarious or otherwise, was taken, believe me! Cross purposes again.

As I said, my purpose here is not to fight racism and use the mongrel argument as a weapon in the Good Fight. I'm assuming that we all already agree racism is a rotten thing (I really do think that racism is as near to a non-issue in Britain as anyone could reasonably expect these days) but pointing out how the reality of mongrelness is widely overlooked, by way of intellectual exercise.

malty said...

Talking of mongrels, our neighbours dog died yesterday, bloody Springer Spaniels, coming over here, taking all the best kennels, jumping the queue at the vets, bloody awfull smell of their cooking, Enoch was right after all. England for the Old English Sheepdogs!!

Gaw said...

Did anyone see the C4 documentary last night on whether intelligence is racially determined?

It set itself up as a serious, heavy-weight investigation of the science. However, when Rageh Omar demonstrated on a note pad what a bell curve was he got the x-axis and y-axis confused.

Bell-curves are quite an important part of the argument so I was surprised that, presumably, the director, researchers and camera man as well as the presenter didn't really know what they were.

TV, eh? The usual charlatanism. But surely on a subject as sensitive as this - where it would be good for your conclusion to be beyond any form of reproach - it's pretty important to get these things right.

Recusant said...

Ah yes, Gaw, I saw that. It was quite embarrassingly bad. There was nothing new or challenging on it at all, just a smugly reached pre-ordained conclusion.

In fact it was so bad that it probably had people thinking there must actually be something to this Race/IQ thing and when Steve Jones was dragged on to wearily proclaim that it is not race that determines IQ but culture, you can imagine sundry folk saying to themselves "but if there is no genetic basis to race then the difference must be cultural. Race is culture." And off we go again.

The 'Scud Stud' Rageh has really come down in the world.

Gaw said...

I think one of Rageh's first sentences was: 'It's an issue that keeps rearing its ugly head, only to get swept under the carpet again'.

Poor maths is one thing, but when a journalist can't even write...Sheesh!

Sean said...

No its not sweeping grand books I am bothered about.

About 10 years ago if one of our young lads had rung me up in the morning to tell me he was not coming in for a few days because he had been stabbed I would have called him a lyin twat and told him call in and collect his P45 asap.

Now its very different, now we get lads sleeping in vans so they dont have to go home and face the misery of the places they live in.

10 year ago the young lads were cocky and confident now they are mainly suspicious and on edge, you call them IMN.

Sorry there as been a change. Its so nice to sit in a comfortable middle class home and be able to write about it instead of have to live it.

Like this perhaps

Brit said...

Care to explain what that little rant has to do with the post, Sean?

James said...

"but is it not a fact that the people who have tried to blow us up lately have all said that they want to kill us in the name of islam?

I haven't seen a news report of the police arresting any C of E terror cells lately, leading them from a house at dawn whilst forensics experts fill up clear plastic bags with suspicious looking tambourines"

All whales are mammals.
Therefore, all mammals are whales.

James said...

"Sorry there as been a change. Its so nice to sit in a comfortable middle class home and be able to write about it instead of have to live it.

Like this perhaps"

Holy Shit! I'm having to learn that HTML crap for uni. I hate it!