Grated Britain

Below is an opinion piece written by ETE’s regular contributor, Cherry Jackson. 

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I’ve been living in Paris for almost a year now. Not only have I learnt so much about French culture and myself during my time here, I’ve made really good friends. And my friends are not only of French nationality, but they are also Taiwanese, Argentinean, Australian, Israeli, Mexican and American, Italian and German. The friendships would have been much harder to forge if Britain was not in the EU.

When I awoke on that fateful day I was absolutely mortified. How can people be that blind, that bigoted, and that stupid? I frantically sent a half-apologetic (on behalf of Britain) and half-hysterical text to a friend in Berlin and rang my mother to cry down the phone at our country’s foolishness. Then the news started to report that people who voted “leave” began to say that they didn’t really want to leave, they just wanted to make a statement…

Just to let you all know: voting is NOT a game. You can’t pick up a get out of jail card. Do you know how long it took the UK to get into the EU? Through years and years of persuasion and the death of a certain Frenchman, we wangled our way in over a ten-year period, culminating on 1st January 1973. During this time, Britain was witnessing a series of strikes by miners, who were, quite rightly, campaigning for better pay and conditions. And yet despite this political turmoil at home, Edward Health, our then Prime Minister, still persisted in Britain’s membership. Now we once again face political turmoil at home, but this time due to the apparent wish to divorce ourselves from the EU. What I am hoping now is that someone with the maturity and selflessness stands up and puts an end to this madness. We must cling to this farfetched ideal like a blind man clings to his cane.

We have need for a strong woman or man to stand up for the greater good, and I don’t know whether it is French culture rubbing off on me a little, but I feel a great desire for physical action. We can Tweet, post statuses and write to our MPs all we like, but we need to make a physical statement. We need to take to the streets with European Union flags flying in the wind, demanding a second referendum, demanding that this stupidity must end. Direct action is imperative. Perhaps, however, it is too late, with Theresa May now roosted at number ten, and Cameron having fled the city (perhaps to a farm stocked with porky, pink pigs).

We were all shocked by the result, from the shores of the Isle of Sky to the white cliffs of Dover; but what particularly shook me was that the result contradicted our history and policies. Has not Britain always been a nation of migrants of some sort? Vikings, Celts and Normans, Anglo-Saxons and Romans have all arrived on the shores of this green and pleasant land and taken root. Different cultures have co-existed and integrated, enriching Britain in terms of vocabulary and of food, of politics and of religion, and of sports and technologies. We are already so diverse that we are an agglomeration of nations, made up of Scotland, and Wales, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and England. Our colonial subjugation of others, horrific as it was, enriched Britain culturally even further (would Britain be Britain without the chicken tikka masala?), whilst also giving our country military and naval might that no one had seen before, and no one has matched yet. Without those colonial subjects, the UK would not be what it is today. And now many individuals have stuck their noses up at the next generation, forgetting the maltreatment, the racism, rapes and general brutality that our ancestors committed to theirs! It is our unified state, all of the citizen and expats[1] from Pakistan, the Caribbean and India, the commonwealth countries and EU countries, and our multi-ethnic history, that has made Britain great, both in the past and in the present. The fact that people of every creed, race and colour can live side by side, that everyone is considered equal no matter their sexuality, gender, race or religion, is what makes Britain great today.

But Britain also has a policy of multiculturalism. This multiculturalism stands apart from the policy of assimilation that is present in so many other European countries. Take France, for example. France represents itself as a liberal republic (not ruled by a monarch) founded upon a shared secular culture. The term ‘secular’ is supposed to mean that there is a separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries. The citizens of the French Republic supposedly owe their highest loyalty ties to the French state and this is represented by having a society unified in the public domain and also with an encouraged (or enforced) unity of cultural practice in private or communal matters. This “unity” regards ideas about the Republic, how to dress and how to eat, when to work, when to play and other such bodily practices.
Consequently, the body mirrors society as the society mirrors the body. This unity in France between the body politic and the political body is intended to be achieved through socialisation practices, which are conducted by the [nuclear] family and the state through educational institutions and affiliations of these, such as state-run sports clubs.

As such, the French state regards anything that shows loyalty to something else other than itself as disobedience, as an attack on France and the core of Frenchness. This can be seen in the foray surrounding headscarves in public institutions. This is an on-going political problem that involves whether Muslim women have the right to wear the hijab (headscarf) in public institutions, such as schools. Given that the moral values in French society are depicted as following a secular doctrine (although they are better read, rather ironically, as naturalised Christian values retained from pre-revolutionary times), educational institutions are state-designated supposedly “religiously neutral” places to learn about culture (i.e. to be socialised as a French-person) through a curriculum sanctioned and inspected by the state.

Now, although there are private schools within France, the French government highly subsidises private primary and secondary schools, even those affiliated with religious organisations. This occurs as long as they apply the same curriculum as the public schools, with the same academic standards, and that they do not discriminate on grounds of religious affiliation nor make religious education compulsory. This diminishes the influence of religion and thus the state still manages to pursue a policy of assimilating all people living within the geopolitical boundaries of France to the nation-state and the idea of secularism.

Now, when girls and women enter public institutions, such as schools, wearing a hijab, the French state sees them as not only flouting the sacredness of secularism, but also displaying their disagreement with Frenchness and French things, and having a primary allegiance to something other than the French nation-state. Instead of recognising the fact that people have different loyalties to different things, that may or may not be equal, or more or less important than something else; instead of recognising the fact that women should be able to wear whatever they want, the French state simply banned the hijab, seeing it as inherently offensive to French identity.

Germany too is guilty of such a policy. There has been much debate over whether it is constitutional to allow Muslim women to wear the hijab in public spaces, and whether it is constitutional to allow Muslim children to avoid physical education classes within schools on the grounds of morality and religion in Germany. By rendering these contestations through the Constitution, the debates are turned into overly political and national issues.

In regards to the hijab, the focus of the German state and media is on Muslim women who wear the hijab, the interpreted reasons for wearing such a garment, and the women’s relationships with non-white Muslim men. Media exposition on “honour killings” – most tales speak of a woman’s decision to take off the hijab resulting in her murder by her male relatives – help create this image of oppressive Muslim masculinity over submissive, helpless Muslim femininity, symbolised through the hijab. To the German eye, the hijab symbolises oppressive gender relations between Muslim men and women, with the Muslim men subordinating Muslim women. Subsequently, these “honour killings” and the hijab are written into a discourse of primitiveness and backwardness, and people quickly jump to the conclusion that these are attempts by Muslims to impose sharia law in Germany and overturn the German state itself. Not only do the media and the German state ignore the impositions placed upon Muslim men in regards to dress, considering that most followers of Islam within Germany are non-white, and are often Turkish, the issue becomes heavily racialised.

Now, in reference to Muslim children’s exemption from physical education, through public discourse of both state officials and the media, it was argued that sports and physical education are important attempts to integrate Muslims into German society so that they are associated with the cultivation of what it is to be a German.

The wish to avoid physical education by some Muslims in Germany is due to the arrangements of how one changes from one’s civilian clothes into one’s gym clothes, as well as the actual garments themselves. The arrangements and clothes violate the prohibition against nudity in The Qu’ran, which perceives the display of flesh and the looking at other people’s genitals (whether a man’s or woman’s) as immodest. This stands in stark contrast with the German notion of modesty and nudity, which is grounded within a modern and postmodern national framework where public nudity is linked to the cultivation of the German body and purity.

Indeed, throughout modern and postmodern German history, physical exercise has been expressed as an important aspect of the cultivation of the German citizen, from the Korperkultur movement in the nineteenth century, to the Weimar Republic’s Lebensreform movements that was meant to restore the body to natural health post-World War I. During the Third Reich, the Nazis emphasised perfecting the Aryan male body through strict bodily discipline and the containment of the dangerous sexuality of women to the benefit of the nation. And, in the post-Nazi era exercise was considered imperative to restoring and disciplining the German people after the devastation and demoralisation caused by the war and defeat. So, according the German state and media, when Muslims are removed from physical education classes they are avoiding becoming “fully German.” Consequently, many Germans perceive Muslims as threats to the state and social order.

However, it is not as if we British are not guilty of prejudices ourselves when it comes to nationalistic sentiments. Take, for example, that classic film The Italian Job (1969). The gist of the film is that a cheeky, handsome Cockney criminal called Charlie Croker, with the aid of a band of criminals, tries to steal a mound of gold in Turin, right under the Italian mafia’s nose the day after a football match between Italy and England.

What it means to be British is blazoned throughout the film. Some of the patriotic semiotics make you smile: the humorous one-liners, the red, white and blue coordinated minis, driving suits and coach, and the obsession Mr. Bridger has with the Queen. But some of these aspects of Britishness are not something to be proud of. There is an obvious class divide between the terribly posh drivers and the working class, rough-sounding band of criminals.  The arrogance and ignorance of the Brit abroad is also made blatant when one of Charlie’s gang, asking for directions from an Italian in the city of Turin, simply shakes his head, and whilst walking off mutters “Bloody foreigners!” when the reply is in Italian. During the traffic jam scene, there is a small moment where we see Catholic choirboys gambling in the back of a car. And to top it off, there is simply the fact that this entire job is a blatant display of British arrogance towards the Continent; this is summed up very well by the Italian mafia boss who asks Croker whether Mr. Bridger thinks he can take over Europe from his prison cell. It is this ignorance that has caused British “patriotism” to run riot, sending us down this rabbit hole. But now all the “leavers” say that they only wanted to blow the bloody doors off!

Would Britain be so great without our diversity? Would we be British without Manchester’s Curry Mile and the markets in Whitechapel? Would Britain be so great without the thousands who died during those two world wars who came from Pakistan and the Caribbean? Where would it be without the support of our fellow Europeans through the two world wars and the Cold War? Let’s forget about Dunkirk, let’s stop shouting “Two World Wars, One World Cup” at every football match against Germany, let’s put all that in the past and let bygones be bygones. But let us not forget what we were fighting against in World War Two – the ethnic cleansing of an entire people. The people who voted leave didn’t want “others,” any untermenschen, coming to Britain; what does that discourse remind you of? Before 24th June, we never had it so good. Let’s hope we can still have it this good for many years to come.


[1] I refuse to use the loaded terms “immigrant” and “expat” as something distinct from each other. Rather, I would prefer if everyone who migrated to a country was called an “expat,” the more positive of the two words.

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