For more than a few weeks in the summer of 2001, British Asian Muslim youths took to the streets of the northern English towns of Bradford, Burnley and Oldham to demonstrate a protest against a long history of racism and social, economic, cultural or political marginalization and discrimination in their neighborhoods.
The mainstream British media vilified the young protesters as drug dealers or addicts, petty criminals, perpetrators of attacks on the British, disloyal subjects, more importantly Islamic radicals, and reported these events as illustrative of disconnectedness of British Asian youths from the wider British society, informed by the outside foreign influences. In his "Unruly Strangers? The 2001 Urban Riots in Britain", Ash Amin offered an alternative explanation of the protest. He characterized the actions of these youths as "a counter-public making a citizenship claim that cannot be reduced to complaints of ethnic or religious mooring or passing youth masculinity.
The anger expressed a demand to own and mould these towns of racialized space allocation on their own terms" (462). For Amin, these young British Muslims who "have grown up routinely mixing 'eastern' and 'western' markers of identity, through language, bodily expression, music and consumer habits" (462) deny to be confined in their own minority spaces. They, too, challenge the majority opinion that minority communities should behave in a certain way in public as well as the dominant western notions of Muslims as pre-modern or backward. Not only that, they forge an alliance with the global Muslim community and various Muslim struggles around the world.
Monica Ali's Brick Lane can be read through the concept of protest that Ash Amin has documented. The novel captures many reports of harassment and attacks against British Bangladeshi Muslims. Prior to 9/11 catastrophe, police visit the mosque and question the imam.
"When [he] was at school", Karim shares with Nazneen, "[they] used to be chased home every day. People getting beat up the whole time" (215). After the 9/11 cataclysm, British Asian Muslims bear the brunt of a new wave of constant suspicion and hostility. "A pinch of New York dust", imbued with Islamophobia, blows "across the ocean" and settles "on the Dogwood Estate" (305).
Consequently, Bangladeshi Muslims in the East End of London feel culturally and socially isolated and excluded. Bangladeshi women become an easy target of anti-Muslim hatred. Young girls have their hijab pulled off, Razia puts on her Union Jack sweatshirt and is spat on.
A local racist gang Lion Hearts distribute the Islamophobic materials in the wake of 9/11. The members of the Lion Hearts deny cultural diversity and understand Islam as a religion of 'hate and intolerance'. They also claim that the extremist Muslims are "planning to turn Britain into an Islamic Republic, using a combination of immigration, high birth rates and conversion" (207).
As a desperate reaction to racism and their unequal status in the British society, second and third generation British Bangladeshi Muslims turn to radical Islam. Karim and other young British Bangladeshi Muslims form a local Muslim community called The Bengal Tigers. Their mission is primarily to unite Muslims in Tower Hamlets and protect "their local ummah" while simultaneously "supporting the global ummah" (198).
The young members of The Bengal Tigers get involved "in their gangs, and they fight the posse from Camden or King's Cross. Or from the next estate" (215) as a response to racism and anti-Muslim hatred. Eventually towards the end of the novel, they organize a demonstration against the Lion Hearts. The violent images of British Bangladeshi youths cannot be reduced merely to the pre-existing stereotypes in the West.
The presence of young Bangladeshi-British Muslims in public space indicates that they are refusing to remain as silent and passive subjects hidden within their own communities while simultaneously asserting their active participation in British society in an anti-racist and equal rights discourse. Public protest, albeit a marker of isolation and dissatisfaction on many levels, can be undertaken only by those who think that their nation of birth has provided them with the democratic right to even resist the government policy and who feel a sense of belonging.
Given that, public anger shown by the British Bangladeshis does not mean that they are alienated and disconnected from the wider British society but their protest signifies a powerful engagement with the inclusive idea of Britishness or what Amin refers to making "demands as full citizens that cannot be sidelined as minority claims for minor spaces of recognition" (460).
The conflict between The Bengal Tigers and the Lion Hearts presents the 'other side or underside' of an inclusive multicultural Britain, the origin of which is to be traced in the colonial past of South Asia and the 9/11 cataclysm. In that, the conflict depicts uncanny moments that produce a sense of insecurity for British Bangladeshi Muslims and that make it almost impossible for them to be integrated into the wider British society.
By moving into public space, British Bangladeshi youths make an assertive claim of Britishness while challenging the discourse of invisibility surrounding the ethnicities in the British society. But in that, they ultimately fail for they resist violence with violence. Their failure, thus, reflects the unproductive vision of violent protest. Citizenship in a multiethnic and multicultural Britain can be obtained not following the militant way or violence but via the fusion of different cultural influences offered by Nazneen who too becomes one of few female members of The Bengal Tigers. Unlike Karim and other young Muslims, Nazneen responds in a different way.
She does not take any oppositional stance or adopt any radical Islam and eventually, becomes a British Asian without sacrificing her cultural or religious values. In her final act of ice-skating in sari, her body becomes a fusion of British and Bangladeshi influences indicating broadly the need to develop the habit of coexistence for a peaceful and democratic world.
The writer is a Lecturer in the Department of English, Varendra University, Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]