Thursday, 31 March 2016

Even Cameron contains multitudes

Within a day of the terrorist outrage in Brussels, US presidential candidate Ted Cruz had seized the moral low-ground, suggesting that police should ‘patrol and secure Muslim neighbourhoods’ in America before they ‘become radicalised’. He was unable to say which neighbourhoods he had in mind, nor how such aggressive policing would encourage the residents to feel more bonded with the rest of society. Meanwhile in Britain, UKIP leader Nigel Farage exploited the attack as an argument for Brexit, as though terrorism is a peculiarly European problem.     

On Easter Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators disrupted a peaceful gathering of mourners in the Brussel’s Place de la Bourse, chanting nationalist slogans, making Nazi salutes and confronting Muslim women in the crowd. To what problem, I wonder, did they imagine this aggressive behaviour was the solution? Britain’s own far right groups, such as the National Front, the English Defence League, the Scottish Defence League, South East Alliance and Combat 18 (so named because Hitler’s initials A and H are the first and eighth letters of the alphabet), have gathered in Dover in recent months to signal their opposition to the refugees across the Channel.  

These are some of the more grotesque ways of missing the point. With a tad more subtlety, David Cameron, responding to concerns about the numbers of British citizens attempting to travel to Syria to join Isis, said earlier this year that there are too many Muslim women unable to speak English. Referring to those who have entered the UK on a five-year spousal settlement programme, he said that ‘After two and half years they should be improving their English and we will be testing them.’ Asked whether those who failed would be deported, he replied, ‘You can’t guarantee you can stay if you are not improving your language.’

Cameron puts a feminist gloss on this new policy, suggesting that it is patriarchal cultures that keep women from integrating. But the discriminatory threat speaks more loudly than the promise of liberation. Risking an Orwellian paradox, he explained that ‘We will never truly build One Nation unless we are more assertive about our liberal values.’

I think of my late father-in-law Irving Zeiger who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Cleveland, Ohio. When he misbehaved at school and his widowed mother was called in to see the principal, young Irv had to translate. Their neighbourhood was full of Jews and Italians, many of whom would have struggled, like Anna Zeiger, to pass a test in English. America didn’t do badly out of that generation of immigrants.

For a more contemporary insight, I turn to British blogger Fatima Rajina, who is keeping a record of a research project she is conducting with fellow academic Victoria Redclift (to whom I am related), comparing communities of Bengali heritage in London’s Brick Lane and LA’s recently established Little Bangladesh (

Rajina expresses anger at Cameron’s linking of the terrorist threat to the linguistic choices and deficiencies of Muslim women. She is grateful to her own mother for making her speak Bengali at home, ‘the only place she felt we could preserve and engage with our Bengali identity’. With proficiency in five languages other than English, Rajina feels that ‘knowing another language is like having another soul’. Time spent in Bangladesh during childhood gave her ‘an insight into the culture, the everyday nuances I would have missed otherwise’. With so much of her work conducted in English, a language which for her ‘lacks animation and is slightly burdensome’, speaking Bengali, she says, ‘gives me life and breathing space; it gives me freedom.’

Fatima Rajina’s experience allows her an unusually wide reach, but her sense of occupying multiple identities is far from unique. In my own family, I see how Jewish and American attachments overlap and conflict.  I know what it is to feel both English and Irish, both British and European, and it isn’t obvious to me that I have more in common with the demonstrators in Dover than with the refugees in Calais.

Cameron’s authoritarian impulses pale in comparison with Cruz’s. But like Cruz he seems to imagine that social cohesion can be imposed by threats and scolding. And he slips too easily into a position of thoughtless privilege, apparently unaware that he himself inhabits social and economic subcultures from which many of his fellow citizens feel excluded. 

For more on minority languages in Britain 

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