Surely, for the person who discovers a definitive solution to the problem of cultural integration faced by immigrants to a new country, global recognition, and perhaps even a Nobel Peace Prize, would await. I put it to Ziauddin Sardar, author, academic and journalist that, like the fantasy science of alchemy, finding a single solution to complex issues is just that: pure fantasy.
Pakistan-born Sardar has spent the best part of his 57 years searching for answers to such questions and has written more than 40 books exploring cultural identity and its place in a modern pluralistic society. So I ask: has he found a solution?
“A number of things need to be done. First we need to see people as individuals and not as monolithic herds,” he says. “At the same time, and this is the tricky bit, we need to see individuals as part of the collective, group, family, tribe, or nation, so that the individual doesn’t exist in isolation; he or she exists in a web of relationships. So we need to see the individual, and we need to see the web of relationships, and that’s the trick to finding the answer to your six million-dollar question.”
Sardar continually passes a fat cigar between lips and right hand as he searches for answers to questions. Its heavy smell sits in stark contrast to the heady aroma of spice that hits you as you walk through the door of his home in suburban north London. Sitting in his converted loft office at the top of the semi-detached house he shares with his wife and three children, he reflects on his experiences as a young Muslim man growing up in the intolerant Britain of the 1960s. Arguably, the experience gives him an excellent perspective from which to comment on the minds of racist young men today.
Sardar was brought up in Hackney, north London, after arriving with his family as economic migrants in 1959. He remembers seeing snow for the first time, experiencing cold like never before and reading “To Let” signs in windows with the addendum: “No Coloured Need Apply”. At school the textbook versions of India’s “discovery” by Europeans and the country’s “mutiny” against its white rulers sat uncomfortably with the stories told by relatives who had grown up under colonialism and the East India Company. Making matters worse was having to run the gauntlet through the group of skinheads that would gather at the school gates everyday to shout “Pakis Out!” and indulge in their favourite pastime of “Paki bashing” – Paki, the abbreviation of Pakistani, being the term adopted by racists for any person of Asian descent.
Referring to newspaper headlines this morning on the conviction of a 16-year-old schoolboy for terrorism offences, Sardar says: “He has become a terrorist because part of his identity comes from certain ideas about what it means to be a Muslim. If he was black, he might be trying to form some sense of identity by belonging to a street gang, or if he was white he might be joining a far right political party. This question of identity needs to be answered. You cannot ignore it because most of the problems in society, from gangs to terrorism and crime among youths to binge drinking, these are all problems about personal angst, problems of ‘I am not what I ought to be’. And since you don’t know what you ought to be, it makes it all the more difficult.”
As a Muslim living in Britain, through his research Sardar has naturally questioned what it means to be a British Muslim. He has also explored the many faces of Islam in countries around the globe and how western countries, their governments and indigenous populations manage the culture and heritage of growing numbers of immigrants arriving at their ports.
His latest book, Balti Britain, is part autobiography, part history lesson, part self-discovery and part reportage. It tells something of the history of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent to Britain and questions what it really means to be “Asian”. He argues that the term “Asian” is in itself part of the problem because it fails to reflect the huge diversity in what is a convenient sub-group for westerners. However, the umbrella descriptions go both ways. The opening lines in the book refer to “Gora”, the Punjabi word for “fair skinned”, or the more colloquial “white folk”.
“We like to put people in a box and we seem to be saying that the only way we can handle people is to put them in a frame,” says Sardar. “Once they get out of the frame and they have multiple identities, then we face quite profound difficulties and that scares people. That’s where all the ‘otherness’ comes from.”
He says that while the book reflects his experiences in Britain, the model can be applied to any other immigrant arriving in any other country, including anyone choosing to live in Hong Kong, for example. The crux of his argument for better integration appears to be that of “live and let live”, but the devil is in the details. While the book is likely to appeal to readers from across different cultures and backgrounds, some chapters will have deeper resonance than others.
We like to put people in a box and we seem to be saying that the only way we can handle people is to put them in a frame
While the chapters dealing with the history of Balti cuisine (a representative of which, chicken tikka masala, is now known as Britain’s national dish) and the modern reasoning behind arranged marriages may appeal mostly to non-Asian readers, the chapters “Being Asian” and “What’s in a Name?” which respectively explore identity and how important name is to family history, are more likely to strike a chord with readers from the subcontinent.
Part of the problem, he says, is the race to embrace multiculturalism as the sign of a progressive, tolerant society, yet without the understanding of how to deal with a multicultural population. In times of economic growth especially, countries have welcomed workers from overseas. But today, in times of slow or no growth and in an atmosphere of mistrust, many governments, particularly Britain’s, are attempting to re-enforce feelings of national identity.
As Sardar points out, this highlights a contradiction in policy. And while this is clearly a headache for democratic governments, he suggests that in one-party states such as China, with its policy of enforcing identity on such a huge population, negative repercussions are inevitable. Signs of unrest among China’s ethnic populations have come to the fore this year with protests in Tibet and Xinjiang.
“[China] is a very good example of the complexity of contemporary society. It has 50 to 60 minority groups and even within these groups there is a complexity and diversity, with different hopes and aspirations,” explains Sardar. “If you’re going to impose a single identity on 1.3 billion people then you are going to have some serious problems. You are trying to impose a monolithic notion on something that is intrinsically diverse. You are trying to put a square peg in a round hole and it just won’t go.
“To some extent everybody wants the same thing – a decent standard of living, food and shelter – but beyond that people don’t feel complete unless they are connected to their heritage and history. They can’t express themselves if they don’t feel connected to their cultural identity and for its peace, China needs to allow the space for all that to happen, otherwise people will just not feel Chinese. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
Like innumerable migrants, Sardar was not born in the country he now calls home. To some degree he believes this helps him and those of his generation lessen any identity crisis. But for the children of those immigrants this can be more difficult because often they are caught between two competing cultures. The way forward, says Sardar, is to marry the best parts of those cultures in a way that suits the new generation so that they don’t feel alienated. Allowing that generation to be free to express their own opinions and ideas, but within the framework of their family’s traditional heritage, may help them become integrated into their adopted culture, removing barriers between them and the indigenous population, he says.
“I don’t think anything in contemporary society exists in isolation. The problem we face is that everything is connected to everything else and it’s the complexity that frightens us,” he says. “But for me that complexity is the challenge of contemporary times and we need to meet that challenge creatively. What is happening at a global and national level also happens on a family level. You need to allow your children the space, the voice, the representation and the power to be themselves. If you don’t do that you are going to get alienated children who will rebel against you and society.”