Culturism and Religious Re-branding

So the British ‘newspaper’ The Sun featured an op-ed this morning in which Trevor Kavanagh defended the criticism of British Muslim communities by Clarissa Dickson Wright, who said she was terrified walking through urban parts of Leicester, because she got lost and found herself in an area “where all the men were wearing Islamic clothing and all the women were wearing burkas.”

Dickson Wright had received a fair amount of criticism for her comments, but Kavanagh defends her, saying “far from merging with local communities, many [in British inner-city areas] seem to have decided as an act of defiance to live and dress as if still in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia or the Middle East.”  He notes that he believes that most Muslims living in Britain have nothing to do with sinister terrorist plots, but “unless they and their leaders stand up and loudly and repeatedly denounce such conduct, their community will always be surrounded by fear and suspicion.”

Okay, let me just say at the outset that I recognize, having lived in Britain, that the Sun is not really so much a newspaper as toilet paper for people who think that toilet paper should have pictures on it.  But it’s a holiday 4-day weekend here in the US, and I’ve spent two days working on rewrites of my thesis, and can’t be bothered to write something more intellectual.

So anyhoo . . . I’ve talked before about ‘culturism‘, and why proponents of the concept defend it as totally not racist, but I think Dickson Wright’s and Kavanagh’s comments both fall into that grey border area.  On the one hand, they’re obviously trying to single out Muslims as a distinct cultural movement, but it’s unclear to me if they’ve do so effectively – I’ve never spent time in Leicester, but at least the South Asian, Middle Eastern and East African communities I knew in London were of mixed religious backgrounds, and at least Kavanagh’s comments seem to me to be conflating national, racial and religious identity.

Also from having lived in Britain, I’m confused as to why both Dickson Wright and Kavanagh seem to be addressing these communities as if they’ve sprung up overnight – I lived in London eight years ago, and it had a sizable South Asian community then.  Maybe it’s new to Leicester, but at least the idea that there are large South Asian, Middle Eastern and East African communities in many British cities I certainly noticed in my time living there, and I wasn’t even local.

But really, the problem with Dickson Wright’s and Kavanagh’s criticisms of the Muslim/non-descriptly Middle Eastern-South Asian-East African communities of Britain is that they’ve stumbled into the long-standing trap of culturism: assuming that there is a ‘pure’ culture of a place that new communities need to buy into to be a part of it.

Oddly enough, if you rewrite Dickson Wright’s comments, but replace reference to Islamic dress with ‘gansta’ and throw in some references to Spanish-language usage, you’d have a description of my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.  Pretty much anywhere in the West Valley or Central Phoenix past Dunlap Ave or so, more of the signs are in Spanish than English.  As a kid, this never really struck me as odd – after all, it was my hometown, and it had always been like that.  But when I moved to the Midwest for college, I had a number of people comment to me that they had visited Phoenix (it’s a major winter tourism town, after all), and they really loved it, but that they really didn’t feel safe in . . . certain parts of it.  When I pressed them for locations, the answer was always the same – they felt uncomfortable in the Spanish-speaking areas because those areas felt foreign.

But here’s the thing – they were the foreigners.  They were the tourists.  I’m about as white as can be, but I’m perfectly happy walking around Central Phoenix.  It doesn’t strike me as foreign because it isn’t – those communities have been there for nearly as long as the city itself.  As  a kid, I heard Spanish as much as English, half the radio stations were always in Spanish, and my school always celebrated Dia de Los Muertos along with Halloween.  But for people from the Midwest, all of that is foreign to their concept of ‘an American city.’

Historically, the same goes for any non-Anglo Saxon Protestant community here in the US.  Today, people travel from all over the country to enjoy the massive St Paddy’s Day celebrations in Chicago and Boston, but a century ago, people were wringing their hands that all of those Irish Catholics were going to destroy the culture of those cities.  Today, you’d be remiss to visit San Francisco or Los Angeles and skip their amazing Chinatowns, but a century ago, those Chinese immigrants were going to be the death of those cities.

But that’s the thing about culture – it’s not stable.  It’s not set.  It grows and develops over time, like any other social construct.  Sometimes it absorbs subjugated or minority cultures without much effect on the dominant culture – see my last post about cultural appropriation – but sometimes, particularly when there is a high concentration of a particular, non-indigenous culture, the local culture adopts aspects of the non-indigenous culture, not as “an act of defiance,” as Kavanagh puts it, but as an act of communal familiarity.  People sing songs and eat foods that remind them of home, and they invite their friends and neighbors to join them, until those traditions become part of their neighbor’s lives, as well.

And that’s the problem with the idea of religious re-branding, that these communities ‘need’ to stand up and decry the acts that other’s associate with them – no they don’t.  Because their right to exist in their own neighborhoods, in their own communities, in whatever part of the world they want to live in isn’t predicated on your liking their traditions.  If you don’t like way your neighbor lives, you either learn to live with it or move away.  You don’t try to get your neighbor deported.  If you don’t like Diwali or Hajj celebrations, then don’t live in a neighborhood with a lot of South Asians.  And if you want to live in downtown Phoenix, you might want to learn some Spanish.  But these things don’t take away from your culture, they add to it.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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