Postcard from England: Make Tea Not War
Hello my dear readers, I’m back in the Netherlands again. I was in England between 18 June and 3 July and I have talked to many people in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leicester. This time I was not only there for my research on Muslims from the Netherlands who have migrated to the UK and their identity, lifestyles and memories, but also to talk with as many people as I could about the kind of ‘in your face’ activism some Muslims deploy in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany as part of a research project I’m working on with a several colleagues.
It was clear from the all the talks that the events of Woolwich were still very much alive in people’s mind. Almost every talk I had came to that topic at least once. The verbal and physical assaults against Muslims and other acts of agression against mosques were treated with what one might call ‘Hollandse nuchterheid’ or ‘Dutch down-to-earth-mentality’ although there is probably a good English equivalent for that as well. Sure in particular the bomb device set off at Aisha Mosque in Walsall scared many people I talked to, but many also warned not to engage in all kinds of scaremongering about Muslims getting attacked everywhere and to treat the number of Islamophobic incidents with caution. One reason for doing that, is that some feared that those incidents are changing the terms of the debate. While after Woolwich many of the people I spoke to were abhorred by the attack and the subsequent theatrical performance of one of the perpetrators, they also observed that the incidents against Muslims triggered feelings of the need to defend and moreover, to retaliate.
That is a justified fear I think; it is indeed proven in many other cases that violent incidents can cause a chain reaction of more violence and counter-violence and violent rhetoric destroying the language of peace, dialogue, inclusion and civility. A noteworthy event that was told many times was the York mosque who invited the EDL demonstrators into the mosque for a cup of tea and together they ended the evening with a football match. It appears that not only violent events can change the terms of the debate but also peacefull tactics can suddenly change the whole scene. Also the idea of ‘Making tea, not War’ was seen as the deployment of a tactic that has a typical ‘British ring’ to it. For many of my interlocutors the York story was seen as a nice example of how Muslims should act. It is one of things I’m interested: in what tactics can change debates and how do these tactics emerge and what are the assumptions and intra-Muslim debates behind it?
I’m not going to elaborate on every meeting I had, but I do want to share one interesting event I went to. On Sunday 30 June in the Hilton Hotel in Ealing I attended the launch of a new television channel StarTV. (See also the short report at the Somiland Blog by Goth Mohamed Goth.) It is a really remarkable experience by the way to come to that hotel in London, see all these incrediby nice British Somali people going to the same room as you and the first that happens when you enter the room is that you are welcomed in Dutch.
The channel, an initiative by Dutch Somali Phd-student, youth worker and now also entrepeneur Mohamed Hassan and several others, is going to make programs for Somalis in the diaspora. The evening was one as usual: many many speeches by lots of different people. Not the most exciting thing maybe but as a ritual it is important as it gives you a clue as to who matters and how broad the potential support for the channel might be. Interestingly there was a Somali-Dutch speaker as well who showed a keen interest in cooperating with this channel in order to show their content (they already have) to a wider TV audience.
Such speeches are not only about content but also at establishing or maintaining and publicly performing a particular type of social relationship with the audience and the organizers of such an event. At the end of the reception one of the guests came forward asking what this channel has to offer compared with the already existing Somali TV channels. This older man reminded me of several of these events in the Netherlands where it is usually some older man (sometimes an older woman) who comes forward and asks the one million dollar question, addresses the elephant in the room. Often these are people who appear to be a little peculiar but still liked and respected at the same time.
Mohamed Hasan responded (in Somali, it was translated to the audience) very clear I think that this channel, contrary to the others, will be a diaspora channel, focussing on the issues and preferences of the diaspora audience with regard to life in Europe and the situation in Somalia and Somaliland. Throughout the evening many speakers, in particular young and female speakers, addressed the need to take up issues such as khat, problems of Somali youth and so on in a critical manner. A few people told me that this might turn some of the programs of the channel into controversial ones but they emphasized that there is a need for that, in particular among young people.
There were a few politicians and institutional spokespersons as well. Some from within the community, showing their support for the channel and emphasizing their view that the Somali community is an invisible community (despite having ‘many docters and lawyers’ as was repeated many times during the evening) and the channel may or should contribute to making it more visible. There were several white non-Somali speakers as well, one of them saying that he is willing to appear in programs of the channel and that he will take up the issue of female circumcision, according to him a form of violence against women. Somehow I often get really uncomfortable when (white) politicians and policy makers do that: speaking about female circumcision at a public event that is not about female circumcision but is organized by a community that is connected to that practice. I’m not sure why I feel that way. Is it about discussing something that, to me anyway, is so private at an event that is not related to it? Is it about the white man trying to save black women (not withstanding the fact that there are many among Somalis who are against it as well)? Or do I pick up the unease among the audience? Or is the latter a case of projection on my part?
Home and away through sound and visibility
I think StarTV is an interesting combination of diaspora politics, Somali entrepeneurship, community work and transnational citizenship. A few days before the launch I already had a little tour at their office showing me some of their programs. Here also the events of Woolwich came back in the talks but also in the try outs of a few programs they made that featured some street interviews.
One of the programs about cooking by the way had a tune that will be recognized by many Dutch Somalis and other Dutch people as it was the tune of a very well known long standing Dutch TV program. This made me think of the role of sound in people’s sense of belonging, recognition, home, familiarity, and so on. When I heard the tune it completely took me by surprise although Mohamed ‘warned’ me by saying ‘you have to listen to this, you will recognize it’. It also brought me back to my home situation wherein many people amongst family and friends love that program (I do not by the way). I guess with many Dutch Somalis this will also be a strong embodied moment of belonging although perhaps with different meanings attached to it. One wonders if the eagerness many Dutch Somalis in England have to talk Dutch with me (even if their Dutch sometimes is buried deep in their childhood memories) is not only about speaking it but also about hearing Dutch from me and hearing themselves speak Dutch?
The other issue, emphasized during the launch of StarTV pertains to visibility. What is actually meant by this? There is an abundance of media reports about the problems of Somali youth in the UK; this is not the kind of visibility one is after of course. The idea that there are many lawyers and doctors also suggests a particular kind of visiblity; one that is good but not enough as it came often up in reference to lacking Somali police officers. Another question comes up then: visible to whom? So it could be about having people in public functions visible to the public; splitting the latter into two: the wider public including Somalis who want to be protected against crime and a smaller public of Somalis including the Somali victims and perpretrators of crime who want a police force they can relate to. Speculation of course, but it would be interesting to explore this issue a little more. I also wonder, although it didn’t come up in the talks, what the Olympic medal of Mo Farah means in this case. It was a medal for England by a Somali runner. Visibility could therefore also have something to do with being visible to a wider public as part of England (or the UK?) as British ánd Somalis. This also came up in some of the speeches during the launch of StarTV and the little tour I had at their offices. Visibility then becomes an ambition to feel at home and to be recognized (in different meanings of that word) as being at home in the UK, in the Somali diaspora and perhaps in Somalia as well.
My trip to England was very useful again and also a very nice experience again. I like to say thanks to everyone who was willing to talk to me now or next time.
During my stay in England I received the news that the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) decided to fund a research proposal on Muslim activism that I wrote together with Annelies Moors and Sarah Bracke. In this research we will analyse the varieties in positions Muslim activists have taken in the Dutch Islam debates after 1989, with in particular attention to gender and to social media. Needless to say, I’m very happy with this and look forward cooperating with others involved. Also best wishes for my other colleagues who received funding and I hope that others whose application was refused and who also had a very good proposal will have more luck next time.
A blessed Ramadan!
Thanks for this short yet comprehensively written article.
I like the way you draw the various diverse issues together. Islam, the Muslim Ummah, representation, activism and belonging are all interlinked and have local as well as transnational dimensions that all critically matter. Having a media platform such as Star TV has the potential to offer not only a different perpective but one that is thorough and progressive. I believe with such medium we can discuss, explore and dig deep into many social phenomena in order to have meaningful understandting of what is at stake.
I will in Holland in within the next two months if not earlier to launch our service there. I will keep you up to date.
Many congrats with the funding. The project looks very exciting.
Keep in in touch.