Sunday, 3 May 2015

Ladies’ Entrance at Rear

I am about to embark on a controversial subject, which could easily result in misunderstanding. It is very important, therefore, before I begin, that I state my political credentials, so that you know where I am coming from. I believe that the Muslim community in the UK has a right to its place in our society. This is the case principally because it is hard to deny that it was the rapacious appetites of the East India Company and the British Empire that forced, unbidden, an association with our culture on Muslim communities centuries ago. Our forebears certainly played their part in the arrival of the first Muslim generations on our shores.

Then, some years ago, in my son's year in my school, I taught a Bangladeshi Muslim boy born in Portsmouth. Last year, that same boy died in Syria fighting for Islamic State as a Jihadi. In its last edition Star and Crescent kindly published my elegiac sonnet - ‘One of my Pupils’, which mourns the death of this same lad. Whilst lamenting the folly of the choices he made, I, nevertheless, expressed a grief I felt at his passing – incomparable, of course, to the grief his family must still be feeling. This might lead you to conclude that I have a certain, though I’m sure imperfect, sympathy for the plight of immigrant communities and the ensuing generations they produce.

Last year, also, I was interviewed outside Portsmouth Guildhall, in French (I am, by profession, a French teacher) by a journalist cameraman from Canal + and also, in English, by a female English stringer for a German radio station. Both interviewers wanted to know why I was attending a protest against the presence of Nigel Farage at the launch of his campaign at a meeting in our Guildhall.

Having said all of this I am not a simple creature politically. In writing what is below, I am also indebted to articles by Rod Liddle and Douglas Murray I have read in the last few months in the Spectator Magazine. But, then, it is far from a simple matter that I am about to treat. Before I begin I will mention a final indebtedness to the Star and Crescent’s ‘cultural correspondant’ who, in his article “A Brief Walk Around God, Ignorance and Southsea”, also published in the last edition, sparked off this article with his reference to signs he had seen on the Jami Mosque. I, too, had seen them and had also registered a reaction to them.

As a post-colonial power the UK has played host to many incoming cultures within its geographical borders, and continues to do so. Muslims are a serious contingent. Differently to many other nations, it has tended to address the potential problems arising from this fact, by using the multi-cultural approach. This places the incoming cultures and the host culture alongside each other in what appears to be a model of equality. In doing this, it’s apologists take a stance outside of any of the thus-arrayed cultures (including the host culture) and laud it’s democratic credentials. Whether anyone is elevated enough, as such proponents of the method appear to consider themselves, to be able, truly, to stand outside of any culture is a moot point.

Does multi-culturalism work, and, if not, why not? Well that’s what the posting of these signs of the local Mosque brings to issue. Let’s look at them and at my reaction to them. The signs in question (there are three of them) are prominently displayed and clearly legible on the side of the Jami Mosque, from the level of what used to be called a saloon car, as one enters and leaves the city via the Bradford Junction roundabout. They state, with a directing arrow that the “Ladies’ entrance (is) at rear”. I have to admit, given that, as well as being a reader of The Spectator, I also read Viz magazine and am the proud owner of what my wife describes as a puerile 70s sense of humour (several previous owners), I reacted to the signs at first with a schoolboy snigger. For this, of course, I feel a deep sense of shame.

Later, I felt different things. Firstly, I was slightly irked by a contradiction in the attitude towards women that the signs seemed to betray. On the one hand, women were elevated by being referred to as “ladies.” This conjured for me 1940s and 50s MGM films from the Sinbad stable in which the beautiful, partially veiled, daughter of a Grand Vizier or other Eastern potentate resists the attention of a rash of unsuitable suitors who address her as “My Lady” until Mr Right comes along. However, the signs, having, thus, appeared to promote womankind in its opening words with a quaint honorific, then, just as swiftly, relegate them to the tradesmen’s entrance with its closing words. Somehow this jars. It further jars that these signs are publicly sited where 50% of the public that sees them are non-muslim women, most of whom are bound to find them inimical, if not offensive, if they give them a moment’s consideration.

So, in this multi-cultural society, one culture has caused a degree of offence to another. And that other culture is not any old culture. It is the host culture of the majority. In Islamic countries it is usual for apostasy to be punished with death, homosexuality to be utterly taboo on pain of serious punishment and for anything resembling Western feminist attitudes to be not at all the flavour of the month. The signs on the Mosque bring Muslim culture and the culture of the host country into direct collision. What solutions does multi-culturism bring to this situation? Which views on the place of women in society should prevail in a situation like this where the two views would seem to displace each other? From the point of view of the host culture the signs might seem evidence of egotism. At worst, their placing might seem arrogantly, and insensitively dismissive of the culture that laps at the steps of the Mosque from every side or, at best, dangerously naïve, in that it could expose the Muslim community to a certain hostility. At best too, it’s very poor PR.

If these signs demonstrate that multi-culturism has no answer to such a situation, how do we address it? I would suggest the best model is that of a host culture which receives multiple other cultures to be embedded within it. This necessitates a dialogue between the host culture and each of those incoming cultures. By choosing to embed themselves in the host culture the incoming cultures announce that they are willing for there to be such a dialogue. Not to agree to this is to say that they don’t really wish to be here.

Our cultural correspondant comments that the signs are legal because of exemptions to the Equality Act granted as a result of multi-cultural ideologies, presumably. I believe in equality and, personally, I’d like to see my Muslim brothers in a dialogue of equals with benign members of western culture like myself. What I worry about is the willingness and ability of the Muslim community to engage with our host culture in this way. To engage thus implies many things. It implies an awareness of, and a sensitivity to, the host culture. It implies a certain openness to allowing a degree of interpenetration and cross-fertilisation to occur. It implies an ability to encompass and address us in all of our secularism, our liberalism, our materialism and our skepticism (we might even have something to learn from their traditionalism, religion and moral sense).

If the nature of the Muslim community and its faith makes it unable to take such risks it is in danger of ghettoising itself away from dialogue with its host culture. This could be a disastrous mistake leading to alienation, fossilization, polarisation and a truly siege mentality. It might also expose it to less benign influences than the likes of such as me. To live is to change and to be affected by those with whom one comes into contact.

Some may say that Islam is incapable of making such accommodations by its nature because it lacks the flexibility to evolve and is too defensive in its attitudes to what Christians might call “the world”. By definition, though, the Muslim community, by putting down roots in such soil as is found here gave up its rights to such defensiveness. It must be willing to evolve in its chosen environment. It has to believe that changes which it might undergo are not threats.

Of course, to write an article like this is bound to open me to charges of Islamophobia, particularly from the out and out multi-culturalists. In spite of this, I choose to publish. This is because responses to such problems have not been well addressed to date. You only have to look at what happened in Rotherham to see that this is true. A different approach to that used there might result in happier outcomes for everyone, not least the Muslim community. I imagine that Muslims in the north of England do not feel more secure because of these events.

In mentioning the possibility of accusations of Islamophobia I am acknowledging that I am under the spotlight of our western post-christian culture which examines my motives in writing an article such as this. It scrutinises me to see whether I write from motives of hatred or, perhaps, a desire to discriminate or divide. If Muslims want to be on an equal footing with me in our common society they have to be willing to subject themselves to the same scrutiny under which I work and be my equals in this respect too. In the case of the notices on the Mosque such scrutiny might ask them if the placing of the notices shows nuance and subtlety. Does it show the Muslim community paying the dues of sensitivity, consideration and respect which the wider community around them deserves? Or might it risk communicating that the Muslim community feels that the wider community does not deserve such consideration, even if this is not the case? Might it also risk making the Mosque look like an anachronism.

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