Whose Community, Again?

Exactly. How very seldom this kind of thing gets pointed out:

Second, the promotion of religion in public life, especially under New Labour, has not only legitimised “rotten” multiculturalism – where culture has long given way to religion, particularly if it is capable of delivering ethnic minority votes. It has also created space in institutional forums that has been exploited by communities such as the Sikhs. While the sentiments of inter-religious dialogues are noble, the result is often to stifle dissent within religions and essentialise particular traditions as representing the Sikh, Muslim, Christian or Hindu way. In a highly plural and secular society, nothing could be further from the truth.

Just exactly so. All this pious invocation of ‘community’ and ‘culture’ on every hand works to confine people within those communities who don’t necessarily want to be confined there, and to shut them up when they don’t necessarily want to be shut up.

Behzti is not an aberration. While the gaze of the establishment has been fixed on using religions to deliver peaceful outcomes, it has overlooked the serious contestations within these traditions and the implications for multiculturalism. Marginal groups, like the Southall Black Sisters, have long complained of physical abuse within minority ethnic communities; only last week a Sikh father was sentenced for plotting to kill his daughter who, according to him, had brought disgrace on the family by marrying a Jew.

The ‘serious contestations within these traditions’ – that’s what I keep saying. Community, culture, tradition, religion – all those words function to obliterate differences, refusals, dissent, desires to escape and say no and decide for onself, hopes for autonomy and self-fashioning and adult independence and equality. They are profoundly, intensely conservative, coercive, confining words, all of them; they should be hedged about with enormous suspicion and caution at the very least, instead of invoked with aggressive piety and self-righteousness by people who take themselves to be progressive.

Salman Rushdie says cogent things too, not surprisingly.

‘It has been horrifying to see the response. It is pretty terrible to hear government ministers expressing approval of the ban and failing to condemn the violence, when they should be supporting freedom of expression.’ His outburst was sparked by the refusal of Fiona Mactaggart, the home office minister, to offer support for either the theatre or the author following protests by a violent mob last weekend…Mactaggart, whose constituency of Slough has a large Sikh population, refused to condemn the mob and told Radio Four’s Today programme on Tuesday that the play would be helped by the closure.

And Rushdie goes on to make a point that had occurred to me – the Behzti riot reminded me of the BORI riot last year. Remember that? When an angry mob sacked the Bhandharkar Oriental Research Institute because an American scholar of mythology had been disrespectful of Shivaji?

Mr Rushdie, who was born in India, said that the Sikh protestors had adopted the violent tactics used by Hindu nationalists on the sub-Continent. ‘This seems to be a trend that has come from India, where extremists have attacked a number of artistic and cultural events, with very little control. Works by some of India’s most revered artists have been attacked by Shiv Sena [an extremist Hindu grouping], and now the Sikh community here are travelling down a similar path,’ he said.

Indeed. And see this article by Latha Menon on the subject, with particular regard to historians and other scholars. A number of artistic and cultural events indeed, and institutions and processes as well. Not good. Not a thing to soothe and mollify and brush away under the cozy rubric of ‘community.’ Andrew Coates wrote about this last week:

As we have seen, a majority appears to align with Islamicists against secularism. The Anglo-Saxon “left’s” views correspond to an ideology resting on three sources. The first derives from straightforward British imperialism. That is the practice of separating “communities” on religious ground. Under the Indian Raj different religious groups had the right to distinct “personal law”. That is that the profoundly unequal relations between men and women under Hindu and Islamic “law” (with the notable contradiction of Sikh rules) were eternalised in jurisprudence. At present in Canada there are serious attempts to re-establish this state of affairs. “Community leaders” (not elected but given by their status as religious figures) are recognised by the state as those who determine “their” communities’ rules.

There you are again – another one of those words or phrases that need to be treated with extreme caution and alertness, and so seldom are – ‘community leaders.’ Those community leaders who met with the Birmingham Rep to try to get them to re-write ‘Behzti’ – who made them leaders? Who agreed that they were leaders? Who appointed them, who asked them? The papers and radio never said, at least not that I saw or heard. It just always seems to be taken for granted that people who present themselves as the voice of the ‘community’ are exactly that. Especially, I’m guessing (do correct me if I’m wrong), when those people are (as they so often are) men.

Peter Tatchell had good things to say the other day too.

Whatever happened to the principles of universal human rights and international solidarity? Is it really Islamophobic to condemn the stoning of adulteresses in northern Nigeria and the arrest and torture of gay people by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority? Can we remain silent when Muslims are suffering persecution at the hands of fellow Muslims? Is Muslim-on-Muslim oppression any less worthy of our concern?

So. Community me no community, at least not until some searching questions have been asked.

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