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Monday, May 21st, 2012

Can You be Muslim and English?

Can you be Muslim and English? © ramzi hachicho -

We recently celebrated St. George’s Day here in England, the day of the country’s patron saint.  My children dressed in red, white and blue for their schools’ St. George’s celebrations.  For most people this is no longer a celebration tied to religion, but about celebrating all things English.  I have always felt very conflicted about my identity—am I English, British, Pakistani, Punjabi or none of these?  Can you be more than one?

Growing up, my parents made it very clear to me that we were Pakistani. However, I could relate to so many things English–literature, culture, the tolerance of difference, the beauty of the countryside.  A part of me wanted to proudly say I was English.  Another part of me had a very strong feeling that as a person with brown skin, who dressed and lived differently, I would be a laughing stock for saying so. I felt I would not be accepted as English, a British Pakistani perhaps as a stretch, but definitely not English.

As an adult, I realise now that over time my identity formed around faith.  I was first and foremost a Muslim, nationality meant nothing. I was part of a global community of Muslims who were my family regardless of race or nationality.  Yet, a longing to belong persisted/remained.  Every time a British athlete won a medal I felt proud. Every time England played football, I rooted for them.

When I had my children, I began to revisit my thinking around identity.  Surely as the fourth generation of my family in this country, they wouldn’t have to question who they were?  But who were they?  I decided there had to be a cut-off point for immigrants—after four generations in this country I could say now that they were English?

It was a strange process for me to come to this conclusion.  I knew little about my roots and my family origins.  Before my grandmother died, I sat down with her, pen and notebook in hand, and asked her who were we? Where did we come from?  Were we always “Arain,” the Punjabi farming caste? (She thought the last questions was rather silly—“Of course we have always been Arain!”).

As she wound her way back through the years with stories and information about our family tree, I felt goose bumps.  So this is what it was to belong to a people, to have come from somewhere, to have roots.  Funny enough, knowing my ancestry didn’t hold me back in claiming an identity—it freed me to move forward and claim the place I lived in now as my own.

Another instance that contributed to my thinking about identity was a throwaway remark from a work colleague and good friend.  We were discussing how sometimes people looked at my dress (abaya and hijab) and assumed I couldn’t speak English.  She laughed, “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re as English as they come!”  It stopped me in my tracks a little—maybe I was.  After all, I realised that Muslim values align very closely with traditional English values—modesty, fairness and tolerance.

A few years ago, England was playing in the football world cup.  The kids wore the team t-shirt and had their faces painted with the flag.  We lost to Germany early in the tournament, rather painfully.  You should have seen my then seven-year-old daughter shouting at the television and abusing the team every time Germany scored (I am convinced she would make a great team manager for England one day).

Later that day, we visited a charity bazaar.  I was stopped by a lady who told me off for letting the children paint their faces.  She was offended by Muslim children wearing a flag with a Christian cross on their faces.  I wasn’t angry with the lady; there was no malice in her.  She genuinely believed in what she was saying.

I smiled and walked away, but the incident raised genuine questions in my mind—could I be Muslim and English?  Was it wrong to wear the English or British flags as a Muslim?  I suspect many British people would say that it doesn’t matter, it’s not about religion, but the cross is still right there.

Two years later, with England playing football at Euro 2012 and the Olympics coming to London, I feel proud to be a Londoner and yes, English.  I am hoping we win in football and I am rooting for Team Great Britain to win as many medals as possible.  And what about celebrating St. George’s Day as a Muslim? St. George was half-Palestinian and half-Turkish and died a monotheist. He is claimed as a martyr by Muslims as well as Christians, so there is no issue of celebrating.

In the end, my youngest son, age five, resolved the issue of identity for me. He declared to his dad, “Me and mum are English, you and grandma are Pakistani.” That’s settled then.  I always knew my children were English anyway. The boys sleep with their socks on and none of them can tolerate chili peppers.

© 2012, Umm Salihah. All rights reserved.

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Umm Salihah is a hijab-loving, working mum of three dirty-faced angels (Little Lady - 7, Little Man - 5, Gorgeous - 3 years) as well as being big sister to Long-Suffering sister, Fashionista sister, Kooky little sister and the Invisible Man who between them keep her sane and entertained. She is the lady of the house in a home full of children, extended relatives, in-laws, guests and friends and works full time in policy and service improvement in local government in England. She mainatins a personal blog and is raising her children Muslim.

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  1. CommentsViewpoint Innovation: Cross-Cultural Coaching & Consulting.   |  Monday, 28 May 2012 at 4:14 am

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  2. CommentsClaire Shepherd   |  Tuesday, 19 June 2012 at 1:44 pm

    I was very moved by your article about being both English and Muslim and I empathised with many of your points. My situation is slightly different to yours in that I am English through and through, however I am a revert to Islam and have been married to a Pakistani for many years. We are the proud parents of a son and daughter aged 9 and 11 respectively. My children have also participated in royal weddings, world cups and school christmas plays on many occasions and I too have wrestled with my conscience. Am I giving my children mixed messages? Will they ever feel an identity? How much does this conflct with Islam? I too have struggled at times as I am no longer completely in tune with my old English friends yet neither do I feel Pakistani or even bonifide muslim! Having said this however, I do feel very comfortable with all three of these ‘identities’ and guess that my children and I are ‘a bit of everything’. We have also added another dimension to where we belong by having lived the past 7 months in Saudi Arabia where we are surrounded by muslims and non-muslims of many nationalities. I think that the idea of identity is changing and I feel so content when I look at my children’s ability to be completely at ease both when surrounded by a massive (and rapidly expanding) extended family, some of whom speak no English, and when walking through the English countryside collecting holly to decorate the house for Christmas with Granny and Grampy.

  3. CommentsS   |  Tuesday, 26 June 2012 at 9:23 pm

    I have to say I totally disagree with your thinking process. Islam does not recognise nationalism, the Prophet (PBUH) himself chose to settle in Madinah rather than move back to his birthplace after the conquest of Makkah. His companions came from every place and walk of life, yet they only identified themselves as Muslims. Even if the cross does not hold any relevance to Brits nowadays, it is still the cross and an overt symbol of all that is misguided in Christianity.
    George Bernard Shaw famously said that “patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” Your own daughter makes this point as she shouts abuse at Germany because it defeated the British football team – that is precisely the kind of behaviour that patriotism inspires (all those football hooligans out there who give this country a bad name abroad are also driven by this same patriotic fervour that convinces them that they are somehow superior to all the other competitors by virtue of being British). Subhan Allah, Allah has made this entire planet for us to enjoy and witness His signs and take heed; it is man that creates borders and divisions. While I live in the UK and bring up my kids here, I have never taught them that they belong to a certain place. Why should I restrict them to one geographical location? As George Santayana said, “To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.” It is very possible to live here but raise your children to have one identity, the only one that matters – Muslim. When they watch football, or indeed any other game, they root for the underdog, or the team with the prettier uniform, or the guy with the funny hair. While the nation gets swept away in football fever (which has taken the place of religion for many) I make sure that my kids only see it as a game, something to play for fun and not to take so seriously. I love the British countryside, and the traditions of cream tea, and the lovely public parks, but for me, these are simply blessings from Allah; I also love Arab hospitality, American friendliness (um, no, not the govt, but the people), and Pakistani sense of fun and humour. Again, blessings from Allah. Doesn’t Islam teach us that we do not belong here? That we are just passing by? That this world is simply a transit stop? That is the lesson our kids need to have ingrained in their hearts, not a false and misplaced pride in something that is not a result of any hard work on their part, but simply an accident of birth.

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