Version classiqueVersion mobile

Identité et diversité : créations, discours, représentations

Anne-Marie Motard

Oral Memory and Construction of Identity: the Case of Bengalis in Britain

Ansar Ahmed Ullah

Texte intégral

1In 2005 Swadhinata Trust (a project of the Nirmul Committee) embarked on an oral history project, Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain, which voiced three generations’ experience of being Bengali in multicultural Britain (EADE 2006). The project consisted of a collection of fifty eight oral histories with a focus on three specific themes: ‘roots and memory’ (on the history of Bangladesh and the 1971 War of Independence); ‘community creativity’ (on welfare and community involvement in the UK, from the 1970s-1980s) and finally ‘popular culture: between tradition and innovation’ (mainly focussing on more recent British Bengali musical heritage, from the 1970s-1980s).

  • 1 Web. www.statistics, gov . uk/down to ads/ theme_compendi a/foe2004/E thni city.pdf.

2According to the 2001 census,1 there are 283,063 Bengalis (of Bangladeshi origin, excluding Indian Bengalis) currently living in the UK; they constitute the third largest ethnic group after the white British in inner London. Despite their substantial presence within the ‘global city’ of London and in urban centres across the country such as Luton, Birmingham and Manchester, oral histories of their settlement within the UK has been limited to a few pioneering publications. Many of the first settlers are now elderly (sadly some have already passed away) and their memories and experiences are being lost as their testimonies have not been recorded and preserved. The Trust’s project aim was to preserve some of the memories and experiences of the elders.

Roots and Memory

3The first theme looked at was ‘Roots and memory’–the history of Bangladesh and of the 1971 War of Independence, with people’s memories of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and events leading to the Liberation War. As the interviews made clear, the Liberation War was not just fought in the Bengal delta. By 1971 a small but growing Bengali community had been established in the UK and in many places, such as London, Luton, Birmingham and Manchester.

4During the war of Bangladesh in the community played an important role in highlighting the atrocities taking place in Bangladesh, lobbying the British government and the international community and raising funds for refugees (who had taken shelter in neighbouring India) and the Bengali freedom fighters. It is said that many donated their entire week’s salary and, at least in one case, a woman donated her entire wedding gift of gold jewellery. There were even people willing to go and fight in Bangladesh, and some did.

  • 2 Case filed by Pakistani government in 1968, implicating Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others in conspir (...)

5It is interesting to note that Bengalis were involved in political activity in the UK before 1971 as they supported the Awami League’s Six Point programme in 1966, which demanded greater autonomy for East Pakistan and campaigned for Bengali nationalist leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s release after he was arrested in 1968 in the Agartala conspiracy case.2 The UK Bengalis sent English lawyer and QC Sir Thomas Williams to defend Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others charged with treason.

6The interviewees talked about Bengali cultural identity within the context of Pakistan as the Bangladesh independence movement was essentially driven by Bengali nationalism as a reaction to Pakistani arrogance. The assertion of Bengali identity within the Pakistani state came to the forefront of political activism in the 1950s when the Pakistani government decided to impose Urdu as the only state language of all Pakistan (West and East). The Bengalis of East Pakistan fought back against this decision with a movement demanding the inclusion of Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan. But what started as a language movement in the 1950s would turn into a fully fledged Bengali nationalist movement in the 1970s as a reaction to disparity between two wings of Pakistan, which finally led to Bangladesh (East Pakistan) breaking away from Pakistan as an independent state in 1971.

7C.A.S. Kabir, a political activist, states his love for the Bengali language and how it gave him an identity:

I can remember so many things regarding our independence movement, our language movement… From that time we had a feeling that some sort of Bengali nationalism has arisen in my mind; that we are Bengali. We demanded [that] the state language should be Bengali. (Eade 2006: 19)

8He further stated:

During my teenage I used to write, and I was fond of my language, and I was also a cultural activist; so I used to love my language, I used to love my culture. I fully identify myself as a Bengali, I think that’s culturally I am a Bengali, [my] language [is] Bengali, so I am 100 per cent proud of being a Bengali.
(Eade 2006: 41)

9Tunu Miah, a young man during the Bangladesh movement talked about the prejudice he faced in the UK from some Pakistanis:

They did treat(ed) us as second-class citizens of the country, the then Pakistan. They even believed that we are (were) not true Muslims, [that] we were second-class Muslims. It was long before the independence movement began and the war started. This was the main reason behind the independence war. The general people… were aware of the discrimination. Especially in this country, the UK, the Pakistanis behaved [towards] us very badly. They played like kings and thought that we were slaves. They are good, they are learned, they are good Muslims also, and the Bengalis are a nation of slaves, they are not good Muslims also. And the Bengalis, who originated from the Hindus, are not good Muslims at all. They talked with us without any respect, even when we were talking to them with due respect. (Eade 2006: 37)

10He also questioned the recent assertion of religious identity by some young people:

The word ‘Bangla’ gave us an emotional courage. We were so involved and so desperate at that time. Nowadays people are not proud of [this] identity–they love the identity of being a Muslim. Of course, I am proud of being a Muslim but I am a Bengali in the first place. The Turkish are proud of being Turkish, Indians are proud of being Indians, but why we are afraid of being Bengali. Some of the Bengalis [in the] Young Muslim [Organisation] tell that we are Muslim, not Bengalis. (Eade 2006: 25)

11Another interviewee talked about the importance of young people and instilling identity. Badrun Nesa Pasha who was an activist in Birmingham talked about her children with pride:

Whatever your root is, don’t forget your root. If you need to go back, go back ten generations and find out that your forefathers belonged to Bangladesh… I tell my children to visit Bangladesh regularly… Don’t forget your roots. Learn Bengali, learn as many languages as possible… Most importantly, my children are very proud of Bangladesh. We all tried our best to teach them Bengali, so we started Bengali classes in 1978 organised by the Bangladesh Women’s Association. Mr Roger (non Bengali) was the role model for those who wanted to learn Bengali. If he could learn Bangla, you can learn Bangla. And if he can [learn] Bengali culture, you can learn Bengali culture as well. I am really proud of my children; both of them can speak fluent Bengali.
(Eade 2006: 48)

Community Creativity

12The second theme focussed on the emergence of the second generation of Bengali community activists and their entry into mainstream politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bengali community politics moved away from preoccupations with political struggles in Bangladesh.

13The interviews also looked beyond this period of Bengali community formation and political mobilisation to events leading up to the contemporary situation in Brick Lane. They pointed to the crucial economic and social changes–the decline of the garment industry, the expansion of the service sector, especially restaurants and shops, the emergence of a third generation where the highly educated pulled away from those without prospects. In Spitalfields the impact of the ‘global city’ was felt by the gentrification of the conservation areas by rich white ‘immigrants’, the colonisation by high technology, advertising, media and the artistic sector, the arrival of City of London businesses and across the borough generally the transformation of the derelict docks in the south into the gleaming Manhattanesque landscape of Canary Wharf and the new housing for white middle class newcomers on the Isle of Dogs and other southern localities.

14Brick Lane is still the centre of Bengali enterprise but it has become a global icon, as a result of attempts by local Bengali entrepreneurs and the local Council to market the area ‘Banglatown’–the East End’s answer to the West End’s Chinatown.

15But the Bengalis had to literally fight for Brick Lane as a place of their own. From the mid 1970s many British Asians, including Bengalis who lived in the East End of London, were experiencing racism, social deprivation and high levels of unemployment. For the Brick Lane Bengali community, who were under constant attack from the racists as early as 1975-1976, the murder of Altab Ali, a clothing worker, in 1978 was a turning point, especially for its youth. It led to their mobilising and politicisation. They began to organise youth groups, community and campaigning groups and linked up with other anti-racist movements and groups. The groups that came out of this struggle were the Bangladesh Youth Movement, the Bangladesh Youth Front, the Progressive Youth Organisation and the Bangladesh Youth Association amongst others. 1978 saw the emergence of the second generation of Bengali community activists who would later enter mainstream politics in the 1980s.

16From the 1970s-1980s Bengali community politics moved away from preoccupations with political struggles in Bangladesh. Alliances were forged between some of the first generation and the younger activists. The energy of the youth was consolidated by the formation of the Federation Bangladeshi Youth Organisations (FBYO), an umbrella body, in 1980 spearheaded campaigns for better housing, health, employment and education and against racism. The FBYO was the first truly national campaigning organisation that made representation of Bengali interests and spoke on behalf of the Bengali community across the borough and nationally.

17Young Bengalis seized the opportunity both to gain access to the local political system and to various funding streams channelled through the local council, the greater London authority and the education authority. They also saw the importance of building alliances with activists outside the Bengali community, such as other ‘Asians’ from Hackney, Newham, Camden and Southall and those from the white majority community of the East End.

18In the 1980s, 34 of the 112 community groups listed by local education authority were led by Bengalis in Spitalfields ward (Brick Lane area) of Tower Hamlets. As Bengali community activism grew, many activists took prominent roles in community politics. Brick Lane became the centre of Bengali activism. 1982 saw the first Bengalis elected to local council. Labour candidate Ashik Ali became a councillor from St Katherine’s ward and Nurul Haque, an independent candidate from Spitalfields, defeated a Labour candidate. Atpresent Tower Hamlets Council can boast the largest number of Black/Asian/Bengali councillors in any one borough with a total 29 Bengali councillors out of total 51 councillors. The breakdown is: 18 Labour (Male 16, Female 2), 2 Respect (Male), 1 Conservative (Male) and 8 Independent (Male 4, Female 4).

19In 2010, Rushanara Ali was the first Bengali elected to the UK House of Commons. Rushanara Ali MP grew up in Tower Hamlets, having moved to the UK from Bangladesh when seven years old. She studied at local Mulberry School and Tower Hamlets College and then joined Oxford University. She had worked in Parliament, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office and the Young Foundation in Bethnal Green prior to her entering British parliament.

20Today Brick Lane, in addition to being ‘Banglatown’ and the curry capital of Europe, is the focal point of the Bengali community. The interesting point to note here is that many of the young people who wanted to move away from their elders’ preoccupations with Bangladeshi politics, in fact, in many instances, mention the Bengali nationalist movement as a source from which they drew inspiration and courage to fight against the racism that they were facing in Britain. Nooruddin Ahmed, an anti-racist activist, acknowledges this fact:

If you look at the … first demonstration in ‘78 after Altab Ali’s murder, it was the elderly who took the initiative and then the young people joined in. Then obviously the young people were able to march ahead of the older people. They never left each other behind. It worked [as] a kind of solidarity… People experienced the organisation of demonstration, lobbying MPs House of Parliament, House of Commons, giving petitions, everything worked.… [The] 1971 (Bangladesh) movement affected [what happened] in 1978 and subsequently as well. So those were transferable skills and young people… learned from [the elders]. (Eade 2006: 64)

21In addition, they asserted their Bengali identity while withholding their British identity too. Rajonuddin Jalal, one of the founders of the Bangladesh Youth Movement declared:

I am British of Bengali origin, so my cultural identity will always be there. I was born in Borlekha, Sylhet (in Bangladesh)–[those are] my cultural roots [and] that’s where my parents and grandparents come from. But I am a Bengali–that’s my national identity. I am British because I grew up here, I live here, I am going to die here. My children were born here so they are the future of Britain. (Eade 2006: 105)

22Akikur Rahman, another youth activist belonging to the Bangladesh Youth Association further added that the fight against racism was also a fight to assert his ethnic identity:

Mentally I was Bengali, completely Bengali, and [crucial to] my survival [at] that time. Yes, I am proud to be Bengali and I wanted to live as a Bengali. It was a challenge. Because to force me and [take] away my identity, I won’t let them have it. Because this is the ‘identity’ fight. It is racism, completely against my identity. So my fight was [to stay] a Bengali. I am a British Bengali.
(Eade 2006: 106)

Popular Culture: Between Tradition and Innovation across Three Generations

23In the third theme we looked at ‘popular culture: between tradition and innovation across three generations’, mainly focussing on traditional and more recent British Bengali musical heritage from the 1970s-1980s.

24With the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical ‘Bombay Dreams’ and ‘Bride and Prejudice’, Asian music is now firmly rooted in Britain and has broken out into a mainstream audience. Missy Elliot, Madonna, Britney Spears, Bjork to name a few have all used samples or have remixed their tracks with British Asian music.

25The rise of Asian music started in the 1970s with Biddu, Steve Coe and Sheila Chandra but it was in the late 1980s that British Asian youth first started to create a new musical genre by combining dance music with the music of their parent’s generation. Young people were growing up in an environment of racial violence and political struggle for self-identity while drawing strength from street culture and their Asian roots. They took pride in their music as they could claim it as their own–neither white nor music imported from the Indian sub-continent. The artists who emerged from this period became some of the greatest Asian artists Britain has seen. Some of these artists (Asian Dub Foundation, Joi, State of Bengal and Osmani Soundz) are of Bengali origin and are the true pioneers of the Asian underground scene.

26These developments were explored through interviews where participants explained their involvement with and approach to music, the influences on their own music, the role models which influenced them, their musical preferences, the festivals, events, performances which they participated in, their songs, released singles and albums, their interest in traditional music from Bangladesh, the mixing of different musical styles and their views about young musicians and the younger generation.

27In addition they also talked about their British Bengali fusion identity in Britain. Suzana Ansar, a vocalist, said:

Because I am a mixed person–I am a British-born Bengali, I have a mixed identity–I like classical music. That’s where my training came from. Similarly, I like traditional Baul music or folk music because I can find similarities in the two. I also like Western music. I like hip-hop and R & B, and so it’s very broad.
(Eade 2006: 121)

28Sam Zaman, a DJ and front man of State of Bengal felt proud of his work:

I have participated in melas (festivals). . . I did the Bradford Mela last year. I did a workshop and I [was] a DJ. . . . I have done a few different things. I still do them but not just in this country, most of my work [is] overseas. America, India, China, Europe–wherever it takes me I just go. We also did in Brazil in February… . [We] have the name ‘State of Bengal’… [and] we played in Dhaka, Chittagong and Calcutta in 2001. So for us that was the ‘State of Bengal’ playing in the state of Bengal! That made me feel very proud. My grandfather was very proud.… (Eade 2006: 124)

29He also expressed his fear of losing his Bengali culture:

In the old days I remember we used to have festivals and events that were arranged by Bangladesh Youth Movement on Cannon Street [Road]. Those donʼt happen now. I don’t hear anything about it. So. . . we have taken a step backwards in terms of modern day Bengali-culture or Bengali-influenced music. That is something that needs to be addressed and readdressed. Because unless that happens you can forget about Bengali culture and music, because it won’t exist in this country. (Eade 2006: 134)

30Ashfaq Kazi (Minto), a dancer and choreographer explained how they fused Bengali music to make it more appealing to young people:

[We are]… trying to educate them into appreciation of the Bengali music. . . . Our aim was purely to give them some exposure, whether it is a small snip… of a popular song.
Music can never be static, people are creating new styles, old styles are being modified.… It’s a very organic growing thing and it comes from people’s heart and as long as you have an audience who appreciate it then that music is growing. If you create something new and nobody likes it, that’s going to die.… You can’t put a framework and say that these [are] the boundaries of the particular music.… You have to use the freedom to grow.

We produced the music [and] had used Western music and Asian music and it sounded good to [the] audience.… We have to appeal to the both sides of the population. We just needed to get it out there.
[I was proud of being a member of Joi Bangla] dance crew. We did our best at that time to try [to] promote our own culture. [It]… had [success]… . We should be proud of our achievement. We were only a youth organisation, trying to do things in our own way. And none of us was a professional… I was quite heavily involved with local young people and I was actually a member of the Bangladesh Youth Movement, based in the Cannon Street Road… . At the time I was working at the Montefiore Centre for an organisation called the Federation of Bangladesh Youth Organisations.
My first involvement with the ‘League of Joi Bangla Youth’ was with a scheme organised by them. They had the funding from the authority to take a group of young children, bring them in school holiday periods on various activities and play scheme activities, taking them out to the fun fare, to the sea [and to] museums… . On the other side, we would have discussions on other areas and avenues that we could explore, we could diversify… . And one of the areas that we highlighted was to promote the Bengali culture. And when we speak [about] the Bengali culture, it is obviously the music and the dance etc. the generation [was] coming up, who [was]… born in this country. [They] had actually no exposure to Bengali culture and heritage. They didn’t know [that] our heritage was diverse and stretches back thousands of years.
The way we decided to promote it was through the medium of English music and dance because lot of young people… [liked] English music and dance. We thought. . . we can introduce our own culture. . . in a way that the young people will be interested to listen. We thought [that it would be a] good idea… to present it as a fusion. (Eade 2006: 134-135)

31And finally Mark Uddin, a dancer and a member of Joi Bangla Sound System, thought of cultural identity as progressive:

[The younger generations should] be proud that [they] are Bengali and… are in London… . [They should] always make the best. Wherever you are, be progressive! (Eade 2006: 137)

World Politics and Identity Politics of Britain

32As we know and have witnessed, the concept of identity based on ethnicity/race or cultural heritage as stressed by the interviewees has of course changed over time, especially since 9/11 and 7/7 and the war on terror against extremism.

33One of the key developments since the early 1980s has been the increasing importance of Islam. This has been driven by the arrival of wives and dependants during the 1980s and 1990s and debates about wich beliefs and practices should be handed on to the very large third generation. The secular radicalism of those interviewed here has been challenged by Islamist critiques of western materialism and the British government’s involvement in two Gulf conflicts and Afghanistan.

34The UK Bengalis, along with Asians and Blacks residing in the UK, have experienced many identity labels being branded or imposed on them by policy makers (or asserted by themselves–see below the discussion on the third generation British South Asian Muslims) since the arrival of large numbers of immigrants in the 1960S-1970S. Initially people from South Asia (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) were termed collectively as Asians. People who came from the Caribbean were classified as Blacks. Other labels such as Ethnic Minority Community, BME (Black and Minority Ethnic Community) and at present BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) seem to be in use and of course, in the current climate of the fight against terror, religious identity, specifically Muslim, is widely being used.

The Rise of the Religious Right in the United Kingom

35Since the 1990s there has been a trend to engage faith communities in the name of ‘faith in regeneration’, resulting from the realisation that many faith communities and their individual members can make a positive and significant contribution to urban regeneration. Furthermore, since the 2001 disturbances in the English northern cities of Burnley, Oldham and Bradford, and of course since 9/11 and 7/7, as recommended in ‘The Cantle Report’, there has been a drive to engage with the Muslim community in the name of ‘community cohesion’ and now ‘inclusion’. Faith groups and their places of worship can certainly contribute and play a positive role in community development but it should not be at the expense of secular minority groups as it has happened in the East End of London where I come from.

  • 3 PhD student in Sociology at Goldsmiths College writing a comparative analysis of the impact of ‘the (...)

36As Dhaliwal3 observes:

Certainly since New Labour formed a government in 1997, we have seen the extension of voluntary aided status and related state funding from Christian and Jewish faith based schools to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools, the legitimisation of religious groups as partners in the delivery of education services through the Education Act 2006 and the establishment of a faith and cohesion unit within the newly formed Department for Local Communities.
(Dhaliwal 2007)

37Dhaliwal argues that the faith agenda was being pushed prior to New Labour coming to power thanks to the relationships between the Labour Party and local ethnic minority councillors involved in religious organisations at local and national level, who argued that Muslims should have the same privileges as Christians. This kind of identity politics was widely taken up by Labour in opposition as part of their arguments about racial equality.

38Significantly, the movement began as early as the mid 1980s and not with Muslims and not with UK issues of equality and diversity but rather with the Sikh mobilisation for Khalistani politics (Dhaliwal 2007). In the 1980s Southall witnessed ‘Militant Khalistanis fighting for an independent theocratic Punjab in India were making their presence felt in Southall and life was becoming more difficult as a result for young women on the streets’ (Gupta 2009).

39The government and political parties continue to ignore the impact of the mobilization around ‘homeland’ issues here in the UK and internationally, apart from, of course, Islamist groups. In March 2007 BBC Radio 4’s programme ‘File on 4’ reported that Sikh extremist groups were channelling money from the UK to Punjab, India to fund militant activities and some Sikhs even feared that their temples could be used the way radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza radicalised the Finsbury Park Mosque in London (BBC Radio 4 2008).

40The emergence of Muslim based mobilisation was already apparent in the debate about Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses published in 1988. In the first decade of the 21st century a number of faith groups have engaged in direct action in support of their views. In December 2004, an enraged Christian toppled wax statues of soccer star David Beckham and his wife Victoria as Joseph and Mary at Madam Tussauds; Christian fundamentalists have fought against Jerry Springer and The Oprah Show since 2005 and there were violent protests against the play Behzti by Sikh extremists in 2004. In 2006, a Hindu group attacked a leading London gallery for holding an exhibition of paintings of Maqbool Fida Hussain, the most prominent contemporary artist of India. His paintings included Hindu goddesses in the nude. Awaaz, a South Asian secular group argued that the government policy of engagement with the faith communities poses a threat to secular space in that:

. . . it substantively contracts secular spaces in which people and communities interact and exist and forge bonds; and (b) it reduces culture to faith, such that even within communities there is growing intolerance for diverse ways of expressing cultural and individual identity.
(Awaaz-South Asia Watch 2007: 21)

41According to Arun Kundnani (2007), the UK counterparts of the Indian Sangh Parivar referring to the family of organisations of Hindu fundamentalist movement of India, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh-UK (HSS-UK), Vishva Hindu Parishad-UK (VHP-UK) and Kalyan Ashram Trust-UK, share the same ideology but within the British context, focus on winning official recognition for their own version of ‘Hindu’ identity. Kundnani mentioned another organisation, the Hindu Forum of Britain though not a Sangh Parivar organisation but has publicly defended the VHP–which has a long history of involvement in communal violence in India and was directly involved in the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002. This organisation’s secretary general is one of thirteen Commissioners on the Commission on Integration and Cohesion that was established by the government in 2006.

42As Kundnani points out public authorities have encouraged a shift from secular to religious identity politics:

Government departments and local authorities have long sought to ‘manage’ diversity through the appointment of community leaders deemed to be the official representatives of South Asian ethnic and faith groups. The very government departments that preach the need for ‘community cohesion’ and ‘integration’ are breathing new life into an essentially colonial ‘divide and rule’ model of representation turning now to communities with religious affiliation rather than the ethnic communities favoured previously. The danger is that this approach leads to the disproportionate influence of divisive and right-wing elements within communities. One of the consequences of the rise of this kind of religious identity politics has been at the expense of earlier notions of secular ‘Asian’ unity. This has also promoted the disunity of South Asian diaspora.
Hindu nationalists in Britain have long campaigned for the term ‘Asian’ to be dropped. More widely, there has been the growth of the idea that racist whites could be persuaded to exclude Hindus and Sikhs from their hatred and focus instead solely on Muslims. It is the same tendency which has led some Hindus and Sikhs to adopt a divisive response to racist attacks against Asians in the context of the ‘war on terror’. Rather than stand with Muslims and call for an end to all ‘revenge attacks’, some Hindus and Sikhs have launched campaigns under the banner of ‘we are not Muslim’, as if Muslims are any more valid as targets for revenge than non-Muslims are. (Kundnani 2007)

Islamist Politics

43New Labour, the anti-war movement and extremist groups have all contributed to empowering—thus forging a Muslim identity—and politicising a large number of Muslim youths. In the weeks after 11 September 2001, with the prospect of a US-led war in Afghanistan, the Stop the War (StW) coalition was founded in London, bringing together a number of organisations, the largest of which was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

44Having emerged as the chosen vehicle for Muslim participation in antiwar politics, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) were elevated from relatively obscure and unknown groups to ones with national profile. They gained considerable influence, punching well above the weight suggested by their limited membership and narrow formal constituency. MAB helped mobilise thousands of Muslims, encouraging them to get involved in the anti-war movement. At demonstrations, protesters from many different religious and political backgrounds carried its placards.

  • 4 Web.

45In addition, a number of small, marginal but highly organised, extremist groups such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (recently banned in Bangladesh) and the Al Muhajiroun (now disbanded in the UK)4 operating under various names such as Ahlus Sunnah Wai Jama’aah, Islam4uk, Islamic council of Britain, Islamic Shari’a Court of UK, Society of Muslim Lawyers, London School of Shari’a, Salafi Youth Movement UK, Global Issues Society, Salafi Media, Islamic Dawah Foundation, Tayfatul Mansoorah, Mansoor Media, London Dawah, Londonistan1 and Path to Tawheed, have used literature and the Internet to propagate their own brand of Islamist politics amongst the young.

  • 5 Web. 54/episode-1.

46Moreover, the Bangladeshi Jamaat-e-Islami (the largest fundamentalist political party of the Indian sub-continent, operating in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir) operating in the UK under various charities and religious organisations has managed to infiltrate all the major political parties as shown by a Channel 4 documentary.5 They control some of the largest religious institutions and have a number of community support initiatives well financed by local and central government. In contrast to the small extremist groups, Jamaat-e-Islami has a much wider and substantial influence over the Bengali Muslim community.

The Identity of Third Generation British South Asian Muslims

47Much of the popular perception and academic analysis of identity among young people of South Asian origin is that there has been an inexorable shift to a single identity of being ‘Muslim’. The first time in recent history when British Muslims featured prominently as ‘Muslims’ was during the protests against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses in 1989. From being almost culturally and politically invisible, ‘Muslims were suddenly projected as a dangerous fifth column, subversive of western freedoms: a Trojan horse in the heart of Europe with a deadly cargo of “fundamentalist” religiosity’ (Lewis 1994: 1).

48Today many South Asian young people appear to be keen on identifying themselves as Muslim. This is evident in Garbin’s (2007) research when he comments on Muslim identity: ‘… The Bangladeshi participants often prioritised their Muslim identity.’ While Choudhry (2002) comments: ‘Religion similarly helped to cement the Asian adolescents’ group identity. There appeared to be a wave of Bangladeshi and Pakistani adolescents embracing the Muslim religion very fervently.’ Choudhry observed that children from deprived areas such as the East End of London seemed to be more passionate about their religion. She suggests that turning to religion may be a way of seeking guidance away from poverty, deprivation, drugs and crime.

49Eade (2005) and Garbin (2005) have extensively studied Bangladeshi Muslims in Tower Hamlets. They argue that the sense of belonging is a far more complex process than simply being a member of a nation state or having ethnic allegiances. Realities of migration, globalisation and political movements all influence where and how a person may find a sense of belonging, which is also unlikely to be fixed in any one time or tied to any one place. And when the state, as in the case of Britain, fails to provide any meaningful sense of belonging to its citizens (Kundnani 2007: 121), many young Muslims are likely to look to other sources of belonging, be it religion, as they see Islam as part of their culture, or religious political movements to challenge the perceived double standards of the West in relation to the situations of the Palestinians or the Iraqis.

50Olivier Roy, a French political scientist, has offered another theory in relation to the second and third generation of Muslims. He said that the ethnic, linguistic, cultural barriers between the different Muslim groups are collapsing. One of the reasons is a communication problem–a generational gap between parents and children who do not speak the same language. The mother/father may not be fluent in English, while the children may not be fluent in South Asian languages. It is why many young Muslims now reassert an identity primarily focused on religion, not associated with the country of origin of their parents. In Olivier Roy’s words:

What we have now is the reconstruction of religious identity without the bonds of culture, language, and history. So what we are witnessing in Europe is a transformation from an ethnic minority into a faith community. These people want to be considered as citizens and Muslims. (2007)

  • 6 The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College, 2008.

51For Muslims, living in a non-Muslim environment raises a number of dilemmas both externally and within, because strongly held Muslims values and customs are constantly being challenged by living as a minority within a majority Christian society (Khan 2000). This dilemma of identity is being exploited by extremist groups who appe ar to be providing an identity or a sense of belonging to a wider global community. ‘Islamist militants skilfully exploit young Muslims identity conflicts between Western society and the “cultural” Islam of their parents.’6

52The main objective of this paper was to address the relations between oral history and Bengali identity in contemporary London and to observe how the Bengali community in East London has constructed a sense of belonging by creating a political and cultural space through a collective effort and the shared knowledge of its history of struggle in the 1970s-1990s. The interviews revealed how different generations experienced the political and social-cultural events which strengthened their identity in Britain. In this context, public events have been integrated and have become part of what it means to be Bengali, constructing part of this identity by, for example, branding the area surrounding Brick Lane ‘Banglatown’, celebrating Baishakhi Mela or observing Bangladesh’s national days.

53But, since then, both national and global events have questioned this identity and led to the construction of a new identity based on political Islam, especially amongst the youth (Khan 2000). The Bengalis who asserted secular cultural-ethnic identity in the 1960s-1970s within Pakistan and Britain, and asserted their right to British citizenship as British Bengalis in the 1980s-1990s, are now being challenged by a third generation of British Bengalis. This new generation is now constructing an identity solely based on a religion–Islam (Choudhury 2002, Garbin 2007 & Roy 2007).

54The interviews showed that the first generation of Bengalis in Britain saw Islam as one aspect of a plural, multi-layered identity. The children and grandchildren of the first generation have taken Islam as the basis of a monolithic identity in the struggle for political and socio-economic interests. For some it is both a reaction to, and a defence against, the experience of poverty and racism in inner city Britain.

55This means that the impulses and activism of what might in another age have been seen as working-class or secular anti-racist protests has been reborn as a form of Islamism. The fight of the secularist Muslim camp against racism and poverty appears bland compared to the ardent certainties of religion… While these developments and the current social, economic and political conditions are pointing towards the predominance of a Muslim identity, other identities still persist, challenging–especially among the Bengali Muslim secular camp–this conception and thus creating underlying conflicts within the Bengali Muslim community itself.


Works Cited

Awaaz-South Asian Watch. ‘Connecting British Hindus? A response’. Runnymedes Quarterly Bulletin. September issue, 2007.

BBC Radio 4. ‘Sikh Separatists “Funded From UK’” broadcasted on File on 4. 26 February 2008. Web.

Dhaliwal, S. From Anti Racism to Religious Identity Politics. Speech delivered at South Asia Watch Public Forum. SOAS, University of London, 10 May 2007.

Choudhry, S. Coming of the Chameleons: The Emergence of a ‘Discourse of ChoiceAmongst the Children of South Asian and White parents. London: Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2002.

Eade, John and al. Tales of Three Generations of Bengalis in Britain. London: Nirmul Committee.

Eade, John & D. Garbin. The Bangladeshi Diaspora: Community Dynamics, Transnational Politics and Islamist Activities. London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2005.

Garbin, David. Bangladeshi Diaspora in the UK: Socio-Cultural Dynamics, Religious Trends and Translational Politics. 2005. Web.

Garbin, David. New Ethnicities Among British Bangladeshi and Mixed-Heritage Youth. Guildford: University of Surrey, 2007.

Gilligan, Andrew. Britain’s’ Islamic Republic. London: Channel 4, 2010.

Documentary shown. Web. ches/episode-guide/series-54/episode-1.

Gupta, Rahila. ‘An All Too Familiar Affair: Women Had Been Fighting Fundamentalism on the Streets of London for Years before The Satanic Verses’. The Guardian. 21 Feb 2009. Web.

Home Office. ‘Preventing Extremism TogetherWorking Groups. London: Home Office, 2005. Web. http : //security. homeoffice . gov. uk/ counter-terrorism-strategy/preventing-extremism/.

Hussain, Ed. The Islamist. London: Penguin, 2007.

International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Recruitment and Mobilisation for the Islamist Militant Movement in Europe. London: ICSR, 2008. Web.

Lewis, Philip. Islamic Britain: Religion, Politics and Identity among British Muslims. London: IB Tauris, 1994.

Phillips, Richard. ‘Standing Together: The Muslim Association of Britain and the Anti-War Movement’. In Race & Class, Institute of Race Relations. London: Sage, 2008.

Roy, Olivier. Secularism Confronts Islam. Talk given at Carnegie Council, New York: 5 November 2007.

Glynn, Sarah. Playing the Ethnic Card: Politics and Ghettoisation in London’s East End. Institute of Geography Online Paper Series: GEO 018, 2006.

Kundnani, Arun. Cant on Cohesion. 24 August 2006. Web.

Kundnani, Arun. The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st-Century Britain. London: Pluto Press, 2007.


1 Web. www.statistics, gov . uk/down to ads/ theme_compendi a/foe2004/E thni city.pdf.

2 Case filed by Pakistani government in 1968, implicating Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others in conspiring with India against the stability of Pakistan. The case is popularly known as the Agartala case as the main conspiracy was purported to have taken place in the Indian city of Agartala in Tripura state.

3 PhD student in Sociology at Goldsmiths College writing a comparative analysis of the impact of ‘the faith agenda’ in two London boroughs–Ealing and Newham–looking at the influence of religion in the relationship between state and civil society.

4 Web.

5 Web. 54/episode-1.

6 The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College, 2008.


Swadhinata Trust, London
Est membre de la fondation Swadhinata créée en 2000 afin de promouvoir l’héritage Bengali à Londres.

© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2013

Licence OpenEdition Books

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search