Alternative title: Cultural ineptitude is not the same as racism
Having been traumatized by the events of 9/11 and 7/7 when the husband was caught up in the aftermath I did not plan to write about Paris. But as details about the backgrounds of the terrorists filtered through I found it fascinating to note the type of individuals that the ‘so-called Islamic state’ (as the BBC now calls it) seem to be attracting.
Someone else has explained how poverty and ignorance are not the cause for people turning to extremism. If only we can identify that ‘something else’ that makes individuals susceptible to ‘radicalization’, we might be able to prevent it.
The news media tell us that the likes of ‘Jihadi John’ seemed to have suffered a significant amount of family breakdown, unstable and mobile childhood, teasing and bullying, poor performance at school as a result of these disadvantages, ‘going off the rails’ to indulge in drugs, women and other ‘un-Islamic’ practices and crime before being radicalized.
People on the margins of society – ‘misfits’ – are the target recruits for IS.
How did they become misfits? As a social anthropologist/sociologist, I am interested in how individuals acquire the requisite ‘cultural capital’ to become fully functioning and happy adults in their society.
In a lot of literature young British from migrant groups are often said to be ‘between cultures’. They are neither fully comfortable in their own ‘migrant’ nor adopted ‘British’ cultures, however British culture is defined.
Interestingly I found in my own research in the late 1990s British-born Chinese who were ‘straddling cultures’. They were as capable of ‘being Chinese’ when with other Chinese, as in ‘being British’ when with other non-Chinese compatriots, having acquired the cultural capital to succeed both inside and outside ‘Chinese-only’ contexts.
When we look at the history of migration into Britain, we see within many other migrant groups, no matter what colour of skin, cultural, linguistic or economic background, the majority have eventually acquired this cultural capital to thrive in mainstream society. Why do potential IS recruits remain ‘between cultures’?
Is it Islam, the English language (or the lack of), the ghettoization of certain migrant groups, racism, or a permutation of these factors?
There are thousands of Muslim migrants who are thriving in British society. My successful Muslim friends and their grand/parents chose, for example, to become vegetarians where they could not get halal food. They ‘kept calm and carried on’ and made the most of their economic and family situation.
These days the demand for halal food in schools is so strident that some schools have quietly acquiesced and simply feed the non-Muslim children halal food, much to the dismay of those parents who are pro-animal welfare. Even supermarkets are complicit in this.
Until recently Britain is the only European country that did not require its new citizens to speak English, its official language, to a minimum standard before being naturalized. Previously first-generation migrants, keen to make their future in Britain, learned to speak it to the best of their ability. It opened doors to good jobs.
I came to work in England in 1993 and noticed that increasingly the authorities were translating forms and notices into a host of migrant languages at schools, hospitals and other public agencies. How different it was from Amsterdam where I could not even get English newspapers!
The people running Britain were clearly suffering from the collective guilt of her imperialist past. Excusing new migrants from learning English was part of this corporate apology.
They call this ‘multiculturalism’. An unintended consequence was the ghettoization of certain communities.
Large groups of newer migrants now grow up entirely within their own ethnic enclaves. Is it any wonder that they cannot speak English?
When their children do not mix inter-culturally, how can these migrants understand why other people have different cultural traits and worldviews?
Many jobs and professions require more than paper qualifications. Prospective employees are expected to dress appropriately, know how to eat at restaurants, speak in public, and treat people of either sex with respect and dignity.
If children grow up without learning how to use cutlery correctly, is it any wonder that they face difficulties in finding jobs?
This cultural ineptitude is construed as - contorted into - ‘racism’, fomenting a sense of injustice.
Azziza (not her real name) is a very well-spoken middle-aged mother, abandoned by her husband, and about to finish her business degree, paid by the British taxpayer. She pointed to her Muslim robes and said, “Look at me. No one is going to employ me.” At least she did not claim victimhood. Yet.
Previously migrants adapted – in their manner of dress, language, demeanour – in order to thrive professionally. Now Azziza could choose to put on a business suit at her next job interview or remain unemployed – and unemployable – as the generous welfare system allows her this luxury, as have great swathes of the migrant population.
They may be well-homed and well-fed, but there is a poverty of the soul.
The lack of structure in unemployment leads to purposelessness. Depression and/or drug use ensue, often leading to crime and incarceration. When a seemingly purposeful/happy person comes along to say, “I can offer you a purpose/mission in life. You can become part of a global brotherhood,” it must seem an incredibly attractive option.
This person could be a ‘Kong Hee-type’ who then says, “Repent of your sin and henceforth live an abundant life, using your talents to serve God and society.” Or a Muslim radical who says, “Kill all infidels.”
Those teenage girls from East London who travelled to Syria are also ‘between cultures’. They only wanted to be able to choose their boyfriends and husbands like most girls in Britain. If they cannot do it in Britain – because their families have strong objections – it must sound irresistibly attractive to be able to do so, even if only in Syria.
As an individual I can only do so much to draw the marginalized like Azziza into mainstream society, befriending them and lending support as I do. Migrant families have huge resources thrown at them – free education, free health, welfare support. They have to choose to get out of their physical, mental and cultural ghetto.
Surely it is unacceptable in 21st century Britain that people are excused from shaking hands with the guest-of-honour at new citizens and university graduation ceremonies because such ceremonial physical contact between males and females is prohibited in their religion.
If they have chosen to live in this enlightened society, then they must accept and live in this society for what it is: in its totality. They cannot pick and choose those bits that benefit them and then bite the hand that feeds because certain practices do not accord with beliefs that belong to the Dark Ages.
Only policy-makers can make such individuals toe the line. “Between cultures” is not a nice place to be.