Critical remarks on cultural aspects of Asian ghettos in modern Britain (1).

Author:Husan, Rumy
Position:Polemic
 
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Introduction (2)

Events in Northern towns (Bradford, Burnley, and Oldham) in the summer of 2001 have, once more, shown the existence of a Nazi menace and the threat it poses to ethnic minority communities. The destruction of this threat must be the priority of the British Left and, accordingly, its energies devoted to this task. At the same time, however, analysis needs to be conducted in regard to the dynamics of racial tensions that provides such fertile ground for racists and Nazi organisations. What forces are driving this? How really serious is this development? Is it generalised or restricted to towns and cities with certain characteristics? This article attempts to look at one particular aspect of the above that seems to have been neglected by the Left in Britain: the sprawling Asian ghettos that have arisen and become embedded in the past three to four decades. It is important to note that, in contrast to the major urban riots of 1981 or 1985, the participants of the 2001 riots have almost exclusively been young Muslim Asian men. (3) The aim is to draw conclusions from a phenomenon that is, on the one hand, generating deep alienation and resentment on the part of young Asians and, on the other, attracting systematic harassment and violence by racists. Particular, and critical, attention is focused on Asian cultural practices.

We can start by asking the question: what view should socialists and progressives (or, the Left) take regarding an array of Asian cultural practices and traditions? Indeed, should there be a view on this? The preoccupation up till now has rightly been--and must remain so, for the foreseeable future--with fighting and exposing racism. However, in part, this has led to a reluctance to peer closely into Asian communities. Why has this been so? Largely from the belief that multiculturalism implies cultural differences ought to be respected, and any problems arising within a minority culture, downplayed, so as not to detract from the more important cause of fighting racism. So, there is a very understandable fear that criticising aspects of Asian cultural practices can accentuate negative stereotyping of Asians in general, and give the green light to further racist slanders and attacks. This, however, can lead to undue caution. Moreover, racists do not need any assistance or prompting in pursuing their malevolent agenda. Thus, where bigots and racists make 'cultural' criticisms, the Left should have no truck with these and denounce them for what they are.

But, an important consequence of this downplaying has been that those who are subjected to oppressive aspects of Asian culture against their will (especially girls and young women) are frequently denied a voice and support. At the same time, the grip of progressive thinking--particularly within the ghettos--becomes marginalised which, in turn, weakens the ability to resist racist scapegoating. My contention is that this benign neglect should end and attempts made to provide a critique of practices that should not be impervious to constructive criticism. This is premised on an empathy, understanding, and solidarity with often enormously beleaguered communities. Indeed, the fear of the charge of racism has manifested in a 'defensiveness' on the part of white progressives so that they absent themselves from this debate; but all-too-often Asian progressives have also been hesitant to raise their heads above the parapet and I argue that they at least should not feel paralysed at such a task. Any charge of racism certainly cannot be levelled at them, nor recourse made to 'guilt-tripping' tactics.

Though racism is still rampant, and the race card is still played by the two main parties (so disgracefully over asylum seekers in recent years), the level of generalised racism appears to have declined and ethnic minorities are increasingly considered a legitimate part of society by all mainstream parties (always reluctantly by the Tories). This provides a space to undertake a critique of Asian cultural practices. This is not to diminish the fact of the widespread institutional racism that still exists alongside the 'popular' forms of racism--but the very fact that there is an acknowledgement by the state that institutional racism, and not just in the Metropolitan police, is an unwelcome reality which it wishes, in however a mealy-mouthed fashion, to root out, is a very positive signal to both the ethnic minorities and the rest of society, for it suggests a further marginalisation of overt racism from the mainstream. Though much remains to be done, and there is certainly no room for complacency, nonetheless, real progress has been made: virtually no overt colour bars, a high level of mixing of peoples (much higher than say in American cities), a significant influence of black culture (though not so much Asian--see below) on mainstream society, notably in sport, music, and cuisine, and an increasing participation of black people in television (again, excepting Asians), the arts, and media. This can, to a significant extent, be considered the gains that have accrued after so many campaigns for equality, and struggles against racism.

But when one peers into the life of so many Asians, one finds that there are large numbers who feel enormously trapped by oppressive and repressive practices that are foisted on them from within their own communities. The contention of this article is that cognisance needs to be made of this stark fact, and a laissez faire attitude to an array of practices should no longer be adopted.

It should, at the outset, be made clear that 'Asian culture' is not homogenous, and significant variations do exist. Nonetheless, generalisations are possible owing to the high degree of prevalence in Asian communities--especially in inner city ghettos. My contention is that fundamentally, a good deal of Asian culture is reactionary and antithetical to the aim of the struggle for human emancipation; that is, specifically, to the cause of socialism. Prima facie, this should not be surprising, as cultural practices are not formed in a vacuum but, as Marx theorised, are part of a society's 'superstructure'. Applying this formulation, we can argue that much of Asian culture emanates from economically less developed societies with a superstructure encompassing mysticism, obscurantism, intense fixation on caste and class, oppression of women sometimes to the point of misogyny, lack of individuality, and the shunning of reasoned and critical thinking. Such characteristics were, of course, also prevalent in advanced societies prior to their development, but it is precisely this fact that gives potency to Marx's thesis. (4) In sum, intellectual development in these societies remains grounded largely in pre-enlightenment thinking. (5) An important by-product of the transferral of the culture to more developed societies is that it often results in the young to lead schizophrenic lives, often of great anguish and pain. A particularly shocking statistic reflecting this fact is that the highest suicide rate in Britain is that of Asian girls and women (see below for details).

What is at the heart of the matter is the contradiction between the freedom of cultural and religious expression (which the Left should support) and the freedom of cultural and religious oppression (which the Left should oppose) that often emanate from the former. This paper, therefore, necessarily attempts to set the limits of the former freedoms where they collide with the struggles for liberation in all their forms and, more specifically, where such 'freedoms' can be deemed as no more than the denial of fundamental freedoms to individual members of the Asian community. The crux of my thesis is that not only are much of the various Asian cultural and religious practices antithetical to the notion of liberation but, fundamentally, these often lead to bigotry and divisiveness which, in consequence, also weaken the ability to resist racism and oppression from racists within white society.

Some characteristics of the Asian population

Asians comprise just over half of the total ethnic minority population of just over 4.6 millions in Britain. Table 1 provides the population breakdown of the different ethnic minority groups based on the 2001 census.

Among Asians, there is now quite a marked difference between the different groups, namely, that those from an 'Indian' background are better placed in all socio-economic indicators than those from a 'Pakistani' and 'Bangladeshi' (P and B) background. In regard to school education, Indian girls perform the best of any group: 66 per cent achieve 5 or more GCSEs at A*-C grades. Similar percentages for other groups are: white girls 55 per cent; Indian boys 54 per cent; white boys 45 per cent; P and B girls 37 per cent and (shockingly) P and B boys 22 per cent. There is a similar ethnic spilt in regard to higher education: those most likely to have degrees are Chinese, Indians, Black Africans, and Other Asians--whereas P and B women are the least likely to have degrees (just 7 per cent in 2001/2002). Moreover, P and Bs are the most likely to be unqualified (for men, 27 and 40 per cent respectively; for women, 40 and 48 per cent respectively). (6)

The employment rates of Indian men (at 73 per cent--rather lower than the 80 per cent for white men) and women (at 58 per cent--considerably lower than 71 per cent for white women) is, however (especially for women) much higher than that of Ps and Bs (61 and 55 per cent for men and only 24 and 17 per cent for women). The extremely low employment rates of women for the latter groups, combined with the fact that Pakistani and Bangladeshi men are overwhelmingly in skilled manual and partly skilled work, explains the high level of poverty and overcrowding in these two groups. Here, cultural pressures on Pakistani and Bangladeshi women to marry young, and to stay at home to look after the...

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