Dancing in the dark of western culture

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Most people reading this are probably fortunate enough to feel part of mainstream Australia by having pronounceable names, white skin and few religious dietary restrictions. By spending your teenage years kissing people of the same or opposite sex, attending parties and avoiding the worst of bullying in the playground. You won't turn on the TV or radio and see or hear stories of people that share your ancestral strangeness committing awful deeds.

Scene from Blinded by the LightEven before 9/11 and 7/7, brown-skinned South Asians who identified as not-as-Christian-as-everyone-else were the subject of vilification. Largely this was for racial reasons. In the UK Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims etc. were collectively identified as 'Paki'. While in Australia, we were called 'curry munchers', 'Abbos', 'wogs' and other terms of endearment.

Majoritarian politicians love to use any opportunity to remind minorities to integrate. Or to assimilate. It's all the same, really. Minority kids by and large resent these calls. Why? Because these kids are almost always desperate to integrate. South Asian kids like myself and British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor are among those wishing to be Australian or British. I wrote about my integration journey in Once Were Radicals. Manzoor's memoir Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock 'n' Roll — on which the 2019 film Blinded by the Light has been based — spoke about his experiences as a British growing up in a working class Pakistani family.

An essential part of the self-integration process was living the lyrics. We both took our music seriously. We both regarded the words of songs from our favourite artists as gospel. For Manzoor, it was the morose voice of New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen. For me, it was the boom of North Sea waves emerging from Glasgow band Simple Minds.

Springsteen meant everything to the young high school kid from Luton. It wasn't merely a case of shallow mimicking of dress and hairstyle. Manzoor the young writer was drawing literary inspiration from Springsteen's lyrics, even as Manzoor's father (at least in the film) wanted his son to throw out his literary passions and focus on studying economics.

Manzoor's father had good reasons, having experienced the nasty and often humiliating work of a factory labourer. 'Writing is for English people. You are a Pakistani,' he would lecture his son. The road to integration was paved with pounds and dollars. Too often I was told by my South Asian uncles the same message. 'Stop writing letters to the newspaper. Don't alienate this or that lobby. Just get good grades, rise to the top and then do what you wish.'

The problem, as I saw it, was that the uncles who reached the top never did anything to speak truth to power. They never saw it fit to rock the boat, even if the same boat was sinking. Instead, their idea was not to challenge power but to have their photos taken with politicians.

 

"We didn't want to separate from the mainstream. We wanted to be the mainstream."

 

The identity struggles Manzoor and I experienced might be described by detractors as identity politics. But our identity politics were not built around religious or political violence. We didn't resent mainstream culture. We didn't want to separate from the mainstream. We wanted to be the mainstream. Our idols were Bruce Springsteen and Jim Kerr, not Abu Bakr Baghdadi or Osama bin Ladin.  

And yet the gatekeepers of the mainstream kept pushing us away. They called us extremists yet never did anything about their own extremists. In Thatcher's England, the British National Front openly marched through the streets, its members attacking anyone deemed not visibly British enough. In Australia, an opposition leader named John Howard openly echoed the sentiments of the far-right by saying that Asian migrants had some sort of trouble with Australian culture.

Later, with the launch of the war and terror and other pronouns, the identity struggles of second and third generation western kids who barely identified as Muslim become a lucrative obsession for a cabal of intelligence and law enforcement agencies, pundits, counterterrorism academics and politicians.

Now, with German cities in lockdown over neo-Nazism, with terrorist attacks by far-right groups on mosques and synagogues across the western world and with a resurgent violent far-right being declared the biggest threat facing many western countries, that same obsession with youth identities of far-right and white supremacist kids is almost completely absent.

We aren't speculating about what is being taught in their schools and places of worship. We aren't speaking of radicalisation on social media. We aren't using tranches of draconian counterterrorism legislation to carry out heavily publicised raids and arrest people and house them in Supermax prisons as they await trial.

'My' terrorists are allegedly not integrated. But the 'white' 'Christian' non-Muslim western terrorists are very integrated. So integrated that their violent tendencies — whether attacking houses of worship or murdering their wives or partners — are somehow less serious than a bored confused kid attending the lecture of a 'radical' imam.

Or perhaps we should just recognise that most young adults, regardless of faith and culture and colour, just want to fit in and be accepted. They just want to belong. And chances are they will use mainstream culture — including American or Scottish rock'n' roll — to find that sense of belonging.

 

 

Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Islam, terrorism, John Howard, Margaret Thatcher, Bruce Springsteen

 

 

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Existing comments

"... a lucrative obsession for a cabal of intelligence and law enforcement agencies ..." Absolutely spot on, Yusuf. Day by day fear mongering, alienation of the other and building up personal fiefdoms; strip searches on no pretext, detention without access to lawyers, Nauru and Manus camps based on lies and obfuscation, locking up those who dare to raise their voices, pursuing commercial interests using our spy agencies followed by in camera kangaroo courts for those whose vision is for a fairer society. But don't talk about climate change! What a wonderful Australia we have been growing over the last 30 years.
ErikH | 09 December 2019


Manzoor, bhaya, as a South Asian-born immigrant who has lived in both the UK and Australia, and who grew up on the lyrics of The Boom Town Rats, I understand the sentiments you express. Its also hurts and embarrasses that this article is published in the week in which Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt were stabbed to death at a terrorist rehabilitation seminar in London. I searched in vain for any information revealing the tit-for-tat murder of a South Asian immigrant to Britain at the hands of neo-Nazi thugs during the same week, so desperate was I to employ any revelation of that kind to counter such a terrible propaganda setback and also to show that justice is a two-edged sword allowing plenty of scope for justification on both sides. Alas I found none! It may well be time for those of South Asian-origin to grieve for the White persons who stick their heads and hearts out to join in solidarity with us in our struggle for justice and peace, and who, as a consequence, are chopped down by others, supposedly on our side, who see a solution to injustice in the indiscriminate use of the knife rather than forgiveness.
Michael Furtado | 09 December 2019


Brother Michael. My name is Irfan. Not Manzoor. Might I suggest you immerse yourself in the Simple Minds track “Let There Be Love”. And while doing so, perhaps have one more read if you wish.
Irfan Yusuf | 09 December 2019


Interesting that someone like Waleed Aly, who is not of South Asian descent, but could be mistaken as having such, is thoroughly mainstreamed by most Australians. His Egyptian Muslim parents took the sensible approach of becoming part of mainstream society and not part of 'Little Cairo'. One of the criticisms made of their religious confreres by intelligent Muslims of South Asian descent in the West is that they are the ones who set up the barriers against 'Kaffir' Western society with all its 'moral evils'. I think there is prejudice on both sides and the more ignorant you are the worse it gets. Sociologically the situation in the West varies from country to country and contains both racial and religious elements. The economic decline in certain areas, such as the North of England, has helped breed resentment, irrational as it may be, of 'coloured foreigners' who 'took our jobs'. Coupled with that in Britain and parts of the Commonwealth. is the hangover racism of Empire. I think things are getting better with the present generation in Australia, who, in general, are far more accepting. You can thank 'leftie educationalists' for this.
Edward Fido | 10 December 2019


Sorry for mangling my communication, Irfan. I was glad to see your article but no one could have foreseen the tragic event in London and in retrospect I'm sure you'd agree that publication timing was a mistake. When news of it first broke I was with Muslim friends, who immediately prayed: "Please God there are no Muslims involved". I love your writing, Irfan Bhaya. Keep it up!
Michael Furtado | 16 December 2019


Much as I appreciate Edward Fido's attempt at even-handedness, his fence-sitting analysis, blaming "leftie educationalists" for internecine racial conflict in our imbalanced neo-colonial world, doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Waleed Aly, whom I like, is thoroughly middle-class, has a PhD, and happens to be an outstandingly intelligent and reflective communicator. Those who value him, and who look askance at his Islamic identity, fool themselves into thinking that they are tolerant as well as omniscient on the disabling effects of class and race. Waleed's White middle-class wife, Susan Carland - stereotypically nice-looking and a major purveyor of the middle-class values of tolerance and equal opportunity - also has access to a wide and attractive vocabulary and purveys social practices of upward social mobility that hallmark the highly competitive world in which many Asians, such as myself, are happy to mark their competence and superiority, such as in the spelling competitions in which Asians excel as a measure of their superiority to native English-speaking children. Unfortunately, these youngsters, many of whom I have taught at selective schools and universities, are highly privileged and have neither knowledge nor interest in pursuing goals that demonstrate their solidarity with discarded others, whether Black or White.
Michael Furtado | 19 December 2019


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