The danger of tolerance in a prejudiced society

In my TEDx talk on the importance of the Global Village, I begin by discussing my own prejudices against the common Asian dress for men called a ‘lungi’ and questioning the audience about their own prejudice.

Who did THIS to me?! (photo: Andrew Bernie Bernard)

Who did THIS to me?! (photo: Andrew Bernie Bernard)

Of course, most of the people there would have been amused by my ‘skirt’ rather than outraged and indeed while living in Bangladesh I found the idea amusing myself. The only ‘darker’ emotion was the suggestion that I might wear one myself. When suggested it would invariably result in raised eyebrows and a definite “not if my life depended on it!” Looking back now, knowing as I do that I did relent in the end, I find it interesting to question why the thought was so borderline repulsive to me.

We’re all products of our own societies and cultures and that means we come with the baggage of prejudice. I’m looking forward to seeing a play soon called ‘Bangla Brummies’ soon which looks at prejudice from the point of view of Bangladeshis living in Birmingham, UK. The prejudice is both aimed at Bangladeshis and is also found within them. I like such honesty and it is something much needed in the world today. We’re all very good at being critical of others but not so good at being critical of ourselves.

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Life has changed a great deal for me over the years. When I grew up in the 70s it was okay to be homophobic, racist and consider anyone who didn’t live according to what was considered decent British lifestyles to be deviant and potentially immoral. The opposite is true today. We all have the right to live whatever lifestyles we like as long as we don’t break any laws and don’t cause any direct harm to others. This is a good thing, right?

Yes, obviously, I think it is on the whole but there is one caveat: making prejudice socially unacceptable doesn’t mean prejudice isn’t growing. This is a very real danger I don’t think we’re taking seriously yet and we need to rather urgently.

While the Brexit debate was growing, before the referendum took place, British social media was awash with opinion. On the whole, the ‘remainers’ like me talked of the prejudice against foreigners and the fear that leaving would give the floor to racists. I personally was knocked back (entirely, I have to say, but white middle-class people) again and again by those who were insistent that Britain really isn’t racist but has a history of embracing people from other cultures and is one of the most tolerant nations in the world. It’s easy to say when you’re not the one being targeted time and again.

I remain convinced that the cheery ‘welcoming Britain’ myth isn’t true because it flies in the face of human nature. We all have a tendency to be scared of people who are different to us and Britain has fuelled such fear for centuries. But if you don’t allow voice to these feelings, the anger and fear builds up until you have a dangerous situation. When a crack in the dam appears, all hell is let loose.

We’ve had many cracks in recent months and years. Every time there is a terrorist attack (and only the ones by Islamic extremists are highlighted by the media) we see a violent reaction against innocent targets. When Britain voted to leave the EU there was an immediate reaction against foreigners or those perceived to live according to foreign customs. Today we’re living in a world where prejudice has suddenly gained acceptability again. In a few days time the American public will be voting to potentially promote a violent misogynistic racist to the Whitehouse. There shouldn’t be any competition at this point. Actually no, there should never have been any competition at all from the beginning as my article here pointed out. Yet, though Trump shouldn’t stand a chance, it is neck and neck. Even though he is still unlikely to win, the damage is done: enough Americans think he’s right and that is very, very scary.

I’d love, at this point, to tell you what the answer is but if I’m honest I feel very defeated by humanity at the moment. Like I say, we all have our own prejudices and I’m well aware of mine. We live in a grey world but one which likes to judge others according to the rules of ‘black and white’. My preference has always been to speak from weakness. It’s no coincidence nor attempt at insincerity on my part that my TEDx talk is honest about my own fears and prejudices. I’ve always tried to be honest about the things I know are less than good about me rather than attack another for the things which are less then good about them. I’m happy to criticise societies, cultures, governments and policies but it is rare you’ll see me rant against another human being – but believe me I could! I prefer to rant against myself instead.

Ironically, I’ve been criticised for such honesty and many a time I’ve been misunderstood for it but I can’t help but feel like I wished more people would be the same. Living in a blame culture is tiring – when you’re already very aware of your faults, having to justify them to others constantly is just draining. One great characteristic of the British is that we apologise even when it isn’t our fault. Someone bumps into us and the first thing we say is “Oops, so sorry!” I’d love to see more of that in a sincere form universally applied. What a world we could live in if everyone said “I’m so sorry” instead of “You say sorry right now!”

 

Posted in community, Culture, Life, Philosophy, politics, Racism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Beating Back the Bulldog – The rise of British Asian movies tackling social issues

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A new UK movie was released this year by a theatre company which hopes to be the first ‘Islamic film company’ in Britain. The film, Freesia, is thought to be the first to tackle the growing problem of Islamophobia in Britain and has already earned a string of awards. It is the latest in a growing trend of movies which hit hard at issues deeply ingrained in British culture.

Conor Ibrahiem, artistic director of Arakan Creative, spoke about how Freesia fits in the context of British Asian movies in general.

“It’s not the first film to tackle Islamophobia worldwide – American Sharia (2015) is the first I know of. But that’s a comedy set in the USA whereas Freesia tries to deal with real issues facing British Asians today in a serious, compassionate way.”

Comedy does seem to be the vehicle of choice for many British Asian directors. Bhaji on the Beach (1993), East is East (1999), Anita and Me (2002), Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Four Lions (2010) and The Best Marigold Hotel (2011) are all comedies which tackle various issues such as racism, unyielding cultural expectations, and terrorism but ultimately seek to entertain audiences rather than challenge.

Ibrahiem’s film, by contrast, is serious throughout. The plot follows three families brought together through the racist attack by a white youth on a Muslim man. The audience get to understand the youth’s background of poverty and frustration, the Muslim man’s struggles with his son and the difficulties of a Muslim woman – a witness to the crime – trying to find her place between British and, in her case, Middle-Eastern cultures. In the background of each household are some Freesia flowers which, it is explained, are given to people who are graceful under pressure. The flowers also represent friendship and innocence – subjects which take on increasing significance as the film progresses.

Ibraheim’s careful treatment though means the film never becomes too heavy or bleak for general viewing. For this director, entertainment and tackling issues seriously go hand in hand.

“The companies producing films like Four Lions are rather generic. Instead of setting out with the goal of raising issues, these films are one-offs – and of course that’s okay – but by contrast Arakan hopes to have an ongoing commitment to addressing the stories within the Islamic and South Asian world. Yet we still want to produce family entertainment – films you could watch with your grandma and your children.”

In some ways, Freesia has been made more in the style of a TV movie which, in the UK, is a style which allows for digging deep into difficult issues. Britz (2007) was one such TV production and looked at what would cause a second-generation Muslim to turn against their birth country and forced marriages. Honour (2014) is another which considers so-called ‘honour killings’ as did Film 4’s Catch Me Daddy the same year. However, important though these issues are, there have been criticisms of melodrama levelled at the directors and of entertainment rather than ‘enlightenment’ as the New York Times complained of Honour. By contrast, Ibrahiem intended to make something more true to experience and relevant to British Asians.

“I want to see more stories from the people who are living these lives for real. How many Asian people have really seen these films? Instead, I’m hearing feedback on Freesia from audiences which have seen the private screenings like ‘finally someone from our community who understands these issues’.”

This earthy reality has certainly impressed those who have seen Freesia calling it “thought-provoking” and “fair and balanced” during post-screening sessions or on feedback forms – five screen tests have given a consistent 80-90% positive rating from audiences. The film has garnered numerous nominations from festivals including ‘Best original Screenplay of a Feature Film’, ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Original Score’ from the International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema. Other achievements include, so far, ‘Award of Merit’ from the Accolade Global Film Competition in San Diego, ‘Best New Filmmaker’ from the Canadian Diversity Film Festival and ‘Best First Time Filmmaker’ from the Auckland International Film Festival.

Ibrahiem himself is not new to recognition. Among other successes, he won the Mosaic’s ‘Arts & Culture’ award in 2010 and Brit Writer’s Awards in the ‘Script & Screenplay’ category in 2012.

That Ibrahiem is ambitious is not in doubt: he dreamed big to make Freesia a reality despite a tiny budget and having to raise funds through a grant-making charitable trust, but the dreaming hasn’t stopped there.

Freesia isn’t a one-off. I want to see Islamic social realism as a new, recognised sub-genre in British Asian movies. We’re already making plans for a sequel to the film which would look at the issues surround Sharia Law. My hope is to make a number of films which can take a look at all sorts of prejudice and demonstrate that it is ‘Islamic’ to be caring about all social problems and not just our own ‘in-house’ issues.”

But is the reason Freesia stands out from other movies is that there isn’t a place for a British Asian movie that tries to tackle social problems so based on daily routine life in Britain?  Is it a prophet or a pariah? There’s good reason to think it does have a place. On Monday November 23, 2015 an 18-year-old hijab-wearing Muslim woman was attacked by a white youth who punched her in the middle of a busy main street in Birmingham – a city with a large Asian population. It’s just one of many islamophobic atttacks which have taken place since the Paris killings last year.  According to The Telegraph reports of such hate crimes have increased by 300 per cent since November 13, 2015 and most of the victims are Muslim women wearing hijabs and niqabs and often quite young. Most of the perpetrators were white men aged between 15 and 35. While the Paris attacks have seen a surge, the media interest in stories such as British Asian men grooming and sexually abusing young white girls has fanned the flames of extremist groups and the nation’s distrust of the Asian community in general. Membership of anti-immigration groups such as UKIP and anti-Muslim groups like the English Defence League have risen alarmingly. After the Brexit vote -where the fear surrounding immigration was a key argument for many who voted to leave the EU – the press noted a sharp rise in racist attacks, particularly on Muslims, and though that has abated to an extent there continues an air of concern among many in Asian communities.

While groups such as UKIP and EDL are relatively new – but highly popular – organisations, white racism seems to have been deeply embedded in the White British psyche a long time; probably since the days of the Empire. ‘The British Bulldog’, a small but tenacious animal, is a well-known symbol for the British, but that aggressive and persistent attitude which is felt to make the nation great has an ugly side too where rational thinking fades and mob mentality is difficult to eradicate. Ibrahiem thinks education is key and sees his film in this context.

Freesia is written in part for a Muslim audience. It respectfully challenges the community to address issues like grooming and deal with them. But it is also a movie for those who hate us. I would love people from these groups to come and see the film and see the other side. For that reason we deliberately portray the positive and negative sides to both communities.”

It’s a bold move and is, perhaps, something which takes Arakan’s future movies out of the current narrative of British Asian productions. Where previous films may have been guilty of melodrama and perhaps being a little trite in their handling of sensitive issues, Freesia is real enough to hold its own in the UK’s tough and intimidating schools. Again, this is all part of the plan by Ibrahiem and his team.

“We want this film to be used in schools and we’re hoping for the opportunity to work with education providers to see this happen. We’re ready to provide resource packs to use for lessons which would give the opportunity for teenagers to engage in the issues raised by the characters.”

Remarkably, the film succeeds educationally in ways its two closest companions do not. Brick Lane (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) both present the harsh realities of life in the UK and India respectively and deserve the immense success they’ve received, but both also add scenes of sex and violence which might make teachers and councils think twice about their use in the classroom. Freesia has nothing which will concern authorities yet manages to hit hard with the message that British society needs to change without preaching or talking down to the audience.

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At the time of writing, Arakan’s production is still doing the rounds of the international festivals and it waits to be seen if it will be picked up for general release in cinemas, taken by British TV or made a part of the British national curriculum for schools (it is encouraging for the team that they have just received their 14th official festival selection, this time from the Yosemite International Film Festival). It’s hard to say which of these would have the greatest impact and it is certainly impact rather than commercial success which drives Ibrahiem. The goal of seeing Arakan Creative as the UK’s first ‘Islamic’ film company is a spiritual one rather than cultural. The crew who made the film came from both white and Asian communities, Muslim and non-Muslim.

“’Islamic’ is an holistic idea,” Ibrahiem explained. “It is about how you interact with other people and the world. It’s about encouraging good moral values and understanding others.”

This inclusive understanding of faith which is at the core of what Arakan stands for can be seen in the latest venture the company has undertaken; not a film but a comic book titled ‘The Abrahamix’ which features three superheroes – a Muslim, A Christian and a Jew – who team together to fight racial injustice. The type of media Arakan uses is clearly not a concern; the message however is unwavering.

For more information about Freesia go to

http://arakancreative.co.uk/freesia-film/

You can see the trailer for Freesia here:

https://youtu.be/6-B0CClN2DQ

 

Posted in Racism, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Asian and American? The aftermath of Donald Trump’s rise

“It’s embarrassing,” says Carol, “Everyone in my hometown seems to think he’s a hero.”

Carol is a doctor from Ohio who as been working in Bangladesh for more years than she cares to admit. She returns back to the US every few years for a few months of rest and her last time home was Spring 2015. The man she’s talking about is Donald Trump.

“You grow up knowing everyone and you think you know them. It’s astonishing then to see how much they’re lapping up all this nonsense he’s saying. I mean – why is anyone listening to him at all?

Why, indeed, is anyone listening to Donald Trump? It’s a question asked by many a political commentator. Back at the beginning of the American election campaign Daniel W. Drezner, writing in the Washington Post in 2015, asked candidly that if the Republican presidential candidates really were as strong as they’ve been hailed to be then “why is a reality TV clown beating them all?” Social media around the world was abuzz with similar observations – though the language was often rather more choice to say the least. In fact, bar the Republican publicity machine itself, it was quite difficult to find anyone, online at least, singing his praises. Trump (and often his hair) is still seen anywhere between the butt of everyone’s jokes and reviled as the devil incarnate.

So why didn’t he go away? As Drezner put it, somewhat prophetically as it turns out, if the other candidates were so strong then how come a man with “no comparative political advantage except celebrity and a willingness to insult anyone who crosses his path” managed to keep ahead every step of the way? Even right at the end of the election process now, when he has consistently been behind, Trump is still here hanging on.

The general considered wisdom had been that Trump had no chance at a shot at the White House. When he became the outright victor among the Republican nominees, the voices of scorn weakened somewhat but still continued to dismiss him as a real threat to the Democrats. But for many, the eventual outcome in November is irrelevant. Although current media attention has been drawn to his views on sexually abusing women, it shouldn’t be forgotten that much of his campaign has been based on racial prejudice. For many from Asian or Asian-American backgrounds and living in the States the damage is already done – and certainly for Muslims his rhetoric is just the latest (and perhaps most alarming) of what is fast becoming decades of abuse.

For Carol, Trump’s focus on immigrants – and Muslims in particular – is  distressing.

“I’ve worked for so long in a Muslim country and I consider many Muslims as my friends,” she says, “so to come back to my home town and find everyone praising a man who sees all Muslims as terrorists really sticks in the craw.”

Thankfully, this is not the case everywhere it seems. Aqsa is a senior editor at a digital conversion company in NYC. She’s concerned about how the campaigns are going but feels the mood is generally one of disgust rather than support.

“Many, if not all, people I know or am close to are appalled by his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance,” she says of Trump. “None of us understand how his campaign, which is built on racism and spreading fear, has gotten him this far.”

Anushay Hossain, a Bangladeshi journalist based in DC, is even more adamant.

“I think the majority of Americans are horrified. This is not what their country stands for. Trump does not represent that majority of Americans – or even Republicans for that matter.”

Aqsa and Anushay have different backgrounds – one from Pakistan heritage and the other from Bangladesh – though both identify with the Asian communities in America.

“My dad is a self-made businessman who emigrated to America from Pakistan in the 1970s. My mom came in the early 1980s after they got married,” Aqsa explains. “ I was born here in America and identify with both American culture and Pakistani culture. American culture because of my education and friends, and Pakistani culture because of my upbringing at home. I consider myself to be Asian American.”

Anushay would class as one of the immigrants Trump would like to keep out.

“I came here as a student, left for Europe to complete my Master’s, then came back to Washington years later only to marry and settle here.”

Does she see herself then still as a ‘visitor’ to the States?

“I very much see myself as a Bangladeshi, always, but after almost two decades in the US, I need to start acknowledging the American part of me, too. I am Bangladeshi-American and Asian-American and Muslim-American. Bring on the labels!”

In many ways this is the conundrum which faces Asian people living in America – the labeling. Most people from Asian backgrounds are brought up in a rich culture which remains important in family life – especially if from so-called ‘South Asia’. Being a Muslim or a Hindu or a Sikh is a major part of life for many in ways not felt quite as strongly by white Westerners. At the same time, growing up in America, the land of opportunity, means buying in to the whole deal and declaring ‘God bless America’ even if you weren’t born here. This is something which may even be unique to the States – a kind of neo-nationalism which is usually positive and welcoming.

“I love being an Asian American,” Aqsa says in describing this mix of cultures. “It’s the best of both worlds. I can relate to my fellow Americans in terms of pop culture and liberal views. However, I am also in touch with a more traditional and modest culture, and that has allowed me to experience more – whether it is knowing three languages other than English, growing up with a whole other cuisine, or having a different sense of style. The best part about this though is the acceptance of being this way in America, where there are so many different cultures. I see more interracial couples than before, and not just in Muslim communities. That’s a pretty wonderful thing, to see people willing to take part in exposure to a new culture.”

Traditionally then the image portrayed has been that anyone can come to the States and, in a sense, become truly American just as Anushay describes. In Britain, this is not so much the case. There, many Asians feel ‘ghettoized’ – they grew up British, enjoy British life, yet they feel completely rejected by the predominantly white population and retreat into their ethnic backgrounds for support. Large communities gather together in Manchester, Birmingham or London, for instance, but still feel isolated and nervous. Is America going the same way.

Not everywhere in America, at least in Anushay’s opinion; it really depends on where you live as to how accepted you feel.

“I live in a very international city like Washington, DC so I think the anti-Muslim rhetoric has had a different impact on my immediate community than say, Muslim-Americans in some small town in Kansas. But his (Trump’s) rhetoric has been terrible to hear and watch regardless of where you are in America.”

Aqsa takes a slightly different view and feels it is more to do with how much notice you attract.

“I feel safe as an Asian American, but I do think things might be different if I stood out more, e.g., wore a hijab or traditional South Asian attire. I can only assume I would then be put under a microscope by those who support Trump and his anti-immigrant/Muslim stance.”

It’s not just with Asians in America though. Internationally, people are alarmed and upset not just with the possibility of Trump sitting in the Oval Office but with what he’s being stirring up along the way.

The Chinese, by all accounts, are actually enjoying the show and thanking their lucky stars for Trump. He’s a goldmine for the state-run media who are reveling in his abusive language and punches pulled in Chicago and using such moments to demonstrate how flawed democracy is proving to be. Russia initially seemed to like him after Trump called Putin a strong leader, but things thawed a little when Trump accused Hillary Clinton of not being strong enough to handle the Russian president. British economists are more than just raising a reserved eyebrow as they consider the very real possibility of a Trump in power and the resulting impact on the European economy. Germany simply didn’t know what to make of it all with some commentators pointing the finger at the US press and effectively saying ‘you made this happen. Just what did you think would happen when you gave him such airspace?’

It is perhaps no surprise, given Trump’s wall-building rhetoric aimed at those to the south of the border, that the strongest condemnation came from Mexico. Enrique Peña Nieto, the current sitting president, compared Trump’s language to that of Hitler and Mussolini and was angry at his comments about Hispanics and the much talked-of ‘Great Wall of Trump’. He’s not the only one making similar comparisons.

Carol, who spoke of her embarrassment, did so in the context of talking to a non-American and being aware that for her the whole world is watching what is happening with this election. Aqsa completely agrees.

“ Frankly, it’s embarrassing. I can only imagine that the rest of the world worries for America’s future. I think the rest of the world is mortified that Trump might be the next person to represent the American people, mainly because a country that is so diverse and modern could possibly be led by a man who is against that very idea of tolerance and equality for all.”

So how did Donald Trump defy the odds and prove to be so effective in the campaign despite consistently being seen as an idiot? Perhaps the best answer is dissatisfaction with the old system which seems to many only to benefit the rich and powerful elite and ignores the ordinary working man and woman. Trump, for all the racism, the increasingly savage tone and confused mutterings, seemed to ask the questions people want to hear. Conservatism was challenged and orthodoxy given a good punch to the gut. Whether the whole nation is asking the same questions however waits to be seen.

Even before Trump and his anti-Muslim stance, things were looking a bit tense for the 3 million or so Muslims living in America. In 2014 Zogby Analytics conducted a survey and found that 42% of Americans believed it was justifiable for law enforcement agencies to use profiling against Muslim and Arab-Americans. The survey also found that an increasing number of Americans felt these same groups would not be able to work in government positions without their religion or ethnicity affecting their judgement. Political parties hold differing views with Democrats giving Arab-Muslim Americans between 30-33% unfavourable rating whereas Republicans gave between 54-63% unfavourable rating. 57% of Republicans think Muslims would be unable to hold a role in government too. Trump, it would appear, is in the right party.

Unsurprisingly, statistics show that there are always sharp spikes in the reported violence against Muslims after terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists. This has been especially true since the 9/11 2001 attacks. In 2011, despite Muslims making up less than 1% of the American population, 21% of all complaints of religiously prejudiced violence were from Muslims. For many Muslim leaders, Islamophobia in the US is a hard fact of life. There are innumerable reports of how many Muslims who were born and raised in America now feel like they are strangers in their own neighbourhoods. As with most Muslims living in the West, American Muslims can usually talk of times they have been told to ‘go home’ or accused of being terrorists. Some have had rocks thrown at them and a fair number have found themselves at the end of an FBI inquiry. In such an environment, caution, suspicion and paranoia are bound to breed. In 2010 a poll found that around 40% of Americans believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions and a common complaint among many is that the Muslim community doesn’t speak up enough to condemn terrorism.

Two extreme reactions to this have evolved over time. Some Muslims are ‘dumbing down’ their faith. Outward signs of Islamic belief such as wearing hijabs are being removed and even names changed (Mohammed becomes ‘Mo’ and so on). There is a silent but growing wave of atheist tendency among those who see themselves as ‘culturally Muslim’ but are appalled by what they see being done in the name of religion and are increasingly disillusioned. Others however are instead retreating further into their faith, and stand defiantly against opposition.  Where this is positive and assertive all is good. Sometimes, however, the result is ‘de-Americanisation’ according to Saher Selod, a sociologist in Massachusetts who has researched the subject extensively. This is only a short step away from complete disenfranchisement and radicalisation.

There is a long history behind the distrust both white Americans and Muslim Americans have for one another. For a start, the connection Muslims feel for all the ‘ummah’ – the worldwide Islamic community – means that religious identity is at least as important as nationality. So what America does in the Middle East is felt most sharply even for those who have never set foot in an Arabic country. The plight of Palestinians in the face of Israel’s overwhelming bombardment and huge losses of life is something which angers the Muslim community worldwide. That America has always shown great support of Israel then is certain antagonistic.

Similarly, since 9/11 the so-called ‘war on terror’ is merely a synonym for ‘war on Islam’ as far as some Muslims (and non-Muslims to a lesser extent) are concerned, though the truth is somewhat more complicated than that perhaps. There are definite examples of the US working with Muslim groups – for instance the American-led intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo which led to the end of whole-scale massacre of Muslims in the 1990s – but other moments in history are more torturous to untangle.

There is no doubt that US support of the Mujahideen did help bring about the end of Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. But in-fighting between the rival factions, united against a common enemy but now remembering their differences in the quest for power, led to the Taliban taking control and a new oppressive regime beginning in the country. But many now interpret the rise of the Taliban as being entirely orchestrated by the US and funded with their blessing. There’s little doubt the US involvement was with the aim of pushing back the Soviets – at the time of the Cold War seen as essential in the battle for democracy – but somehow the story seems to be evolving to see Muslims as the true enemy and the rise of the Taliban a pawn to give America the excuse to invade in later years. Some Muslim conspiracy groups go as far as to say the US government faked 9/11 entirely. It may seem far-fetched to suggest such a thing but after the attacks in Brussels earlier this year some of the first tweets and messages spread around Facebook were disbelief that ‘yet again the terrorists conveniently left their bomb-proof passports at the scene of the crimes to help the authorities identify them.’ Paranoia then continues unabated on both sides.

For a while it did seem as though the Obama administration was making a difference in Asian Muslims relations. Cautious support of the Arab Spring revolutions were generally well-received as was Hillary Clinton’s pledge to work with Al-Nahda in Tunisia. The sense of desire for real dialogue was a refreshing shift from the Bush administration and opinion polls in 2011 indicated more Muslims were thinking of the US favourably than in previous years and believed the US played a constructive part in the Arab Spring. It is easy to see then why so many are nervous about the thought of Donald Trump bringing about a return to ‘the bad old days’.

Given the current political aversion to perceived ‘foreigners’ then, why do Asian Muslims and other minority groups continue to stay? After all, no one is keeping anyone in the country who doesn’t want to be here. Aside from the obvious fact that for many America is their home and always has been, it appears that US Muslims are doing well in closely tracking the rest of the US population. Muslim income is pretty close and often more affluent with only 2% in the lowest income bracket (compare to those in Britain which make up around 20% of the lowest incomes). Asian Americans generally have the highest educational attainment rates of any racial group with nearly 50% holding at least one bachelor’s degree. There are benefits to living in the country it seems, despite it all.

This essay has concentrated on Asian Muslims more than other Asian groups because ultimately more Muslims are coming into the States than any other. 60% of US Muslims are immigrants (not all from Asia of course, many are from Africa). Although exact population figures are hard to ascertain (somewhere between two and seven million with the figure usually guesstimated at around three million) the predictions are that immigration and higher birth rates in Asian communities will see the population double by 2030. Cultural clashes haven’t just been limited to the Muslim Asian community though – nor have they simply arisen since Trump came on the scene.

Back in 2010 complaints among other Asian communities – Chinese in particular – were also making headlines. A wave of assaults on the weak and vulnerable led to a rally in San Francisco to tell the authorities that the Chinese felt under threat and enough was enough. Interestingly, this wasn’t from white Americans but from black. In many ways, black people have won so many victories against racism since the Sixties that Asians have started to become the ‘new black’ and been targeted by the same kind of abuse.

Before this, and after 9/11 of course, Asians were often attacked in retaliation for the attacks on the World Trade Center. Ironically, the Sikh community were regular targets because the turbans worn by men made them an obvious target to those not aware of the differences between the two faiths. On September 15, 2001 a Sikh-American was murdered by Frank Roque who explained he wanted to ‘kill a Muslim’ because of the terrorist attacks. The result is every assault on a Sikh can be perceived as an insult to both Sikhs and Muslims, and does nothing to foster harmony between communities.

According to psychology theorists, people have a tendency to form groups according to social identity which will then often turn those who are ‘other’ into scapegoats for their own frustrations or failings. Prejudice against Asians can perhaps be seen in this light considering that assaults on Asians were taking place in America long before 9/11. Back in 1995 the New York Times was reporting on the rise in attacks on Asian-Americans. The difference is the shift from Asian-Pacific Americans to South Asian ones. The Al Qaeda attacks brought Muslims specifically to the fore and made them better targets for blaming than Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans. The biggest sin of Asian-Pacific communities, it seems, was merely to be successful. Muslims were guilty of a lot worse according to those who looked for someone to hate. Moreover, at a time when the Cold War had ended and Russia was no longer the ‘great bear’ the Western world nervously danced around, the worldwide Muslim ‘ummah’ with very different ways of living made a perfect new enemy to inspire nationalistic paranoia.

There is little doubt then that relationships between Asian Americans, and specifically Asian Muslim Americans, and the rest of the American population are strained – even allowing for the positive experiences felt by Aqsa and Anushay which clearly are there. Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric has stirred up a great deal of anger from both sides but also, clearly, a great deal of sympathy and support too from some areas at least.

Whatever happens with Trump come November, he’s torn through a fabric in East-West relations which covered more than just the States. There is no doubt now that a sizeable number of people agree with him; that some people don’t welcome immigrants to the USA any longer; that too many are scared of Muslims and suspicious of them. If it was open to interpretation or understandable outrage – over some terrorist attack inappropriately expressed perhaps in the past – now things are more certain and prejudice is out in the open. It takes just one man to get up and shout loudly “I don’t like ’em” to have others join him and say “me too”. The divide has spread to Europe too with the immigrant/Muslim problem (the two terms, despite being distinct and separate being somewhat blurred in the minds of the general public very often) reaching something of a zenith in the Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe. The logic that most of these people are running away from ISIS and therefore are unlikely to be sympathetic to extremist Islamic thinking escapes many including the politicians. Britain has all but closed its doors to a handful of refugees which it has grudgingly agreed to under great duress and the insistence of Angela Merkel. Even with that caveat, recent talk has been of the ridiculous idea of scanning the teeth of children to make sure they really are children. It’s a kind of political paranoia that you would more expect in a novel by Huxley or Orwell.

While it is still true to say that internationally most people are watching with Trump’s progress with equal amounts of concern and dismay, there are still others who are almost excitedly jumping for joy at the prospect of working with President Trump in the future. While it may seem certain that this isn’t going to happen, he has consistently defied all odds and predictions. Clinton’s popularity is mixed to say the least and it would potentially take just one large scandal for the gap between the two to close. At the time of writing, the FBI are re-investigating the emails case and with only days to go before voting this – or even something completely unrelated yet to be revealed – could bring about an epic photo-finish or catastrophic fall for Clinton at the last fence.

For those of us who are neither Muslim nor immigrants, all this makes for ‘interesting times’ as the Chinese proverb goes – usually suggesting bad times ahead. For those who are under the firing line-of-sight of Trump’s ire however, it’s considerably more worrying than that.

Posted in Life, Philosophy, politics, Racism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Why we need to embrace the Global Village – TEDx video now online

The title says it all – my TEDx video has finally come online and I’m delighted to share it with you guys here on my blog.

I go this a way, I go that a way... (photo: Gary McKeating)

I go this a way, I go that a way… (photo: Gary McKeating)

The production team – Entilent Media – did a fantastic job and taking my ramblings and making them look like I knew what I was doing. Val Morgan and her team were also very lovely to work with on the day. They were the ones who should have been stressed and snappy as it was vital they got all the equipment set right and camera angles perfect. Instead they were very sweet and nothing was too much trouble for them. Val put us all at ease and is one of the nicest people I’ve had the privilege to work with.

Our amazing and lovely video director Val Morgan (photo: Gary McKeating)

Our amazing and lovely video director Val Morgan (photo: Gary McKeating)

Anyway, now you can see the video for yourself and judge what you think. Did they do a good job? More importantly, please share the link far and wide if you are in agreement with the message. I would really love it if this presentation was a small part of a wave of people promoting Bangladesh in a positive light. My heart-country and people have taken a battering in recent years and I would so dearly love to see that change.

Posted in Bangladesh | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Perfect Scapegoat: When accusation becomes a weapon

the-perfect-scapegoat-picRecently I reviewed Jessie Kyd’s book The Perfect Scapegoat. It is an honest account of one young woman’s tortuous life from the age of 16 up for the next 20 years or so. It was made tortuous because Jessie Kyd was accused of sexually assaulting a girl with special needs she used to help a family care for.

Of course it is impossible to know if this woman was as innocent as she claims – there are not many paedophiles in this world who willingly hold up their hands and admit “I did it” – but over the last three years or so I’ve been working with several organisations and researching the experiences of many men and women who have been falsely accused of sexual crimes and I can tell you that Jessie’s story rings true.

That’s not to say that Jessie’s story doesn’t have unusual qualities; it does, not least being that she was a young woman accused of abusing a girl. Most false accusations revolve around men sexually abusing someone else. Indeed, Jessie talks of some of the various authorities she had to speak to saying they had not come across a case like hers before. Likewise, the reasons for the false accusations were unusual too and, ultimately, a little unclear. In most false accusation (herein referred to as FA) cases the person accusing does so for revenge – the break-up of a relationship of some sort – or a vindictive act to stop the ex-partner from having access to their children. Sometimes it is jealousy – which can have its roots in many places. It is rarer, as Jessie hints at here, that the accusation is to throw off the scent of the real abuser.

She only hints at this for two reasons: one, she knows what it is to be judged without evidence and doesn’t make the same mistake; second, the most bizarre thing is that there was no real evidence to suggest any abuse had taken place at all. It is this latter aspect which perhaps saved both Jessie’s freedom and her life.

I’ll let you read my review of the book and would encourage you to buy it for yourself but there are broader issues her story raises which I felt needed a longer essay which go beyond the book and that’s what I want to discuss here.

There were two aspects to the years of troubles Jessie went through: The first was, of course, the accusers (the girl’s parents) who not only came up with story after story to try and frame her, but also openly tried to ‘run her out of town’ making life impossible for the girl (who was training to be a teacher) to work in schools or be accepted in her home town.

But the second was quite simply the state system.

Like something out of a Kafka novel, once Ms Kyd was ‘on the books’ as a suspect, there was no way of releasing her from the grip of being guilty as far as the authorities were concerned. The police investigation was, at least, mercifully short and, despite the horrible trauma of being under suspicion and investigating officers doing their job of grilling her as they should, they did at least exonerate her stating clearly that “There is no evidence that any offence has been committed by anyone, let alone Jessie Kyd.”

But the investigative work of the police was not enough for Social Services and it was this authority which caused such grief and turmoil to Ms Kyd during her early twenties. The social worker attached to her case had made his own judgement that she was guilty – at least of something – and refused to even consider that if abuse had taken place that some other person could have been guilty. Social Services attempted to wreck any chance of a career for her and only stopped when her solicitor began legal action against them – something which only the brave and desperate try to do.

In the experience of those I’ve listened to over two years, Social Services are the constant bully who wreck marriages, partnerships and, most upsetting of all, families where they ruin the lives of children they’re supposed to protect. While it is right and proper that children come first and are protected, there’s more than one kind of way to abuse children and Social Services, in the opinion of FA victims I know, are guilty of doing this repeatedly. It takes just one person dealing with a case to have made a judgement against the accused to ensure the system works against the person permanently. As with Jessie Kyd’s case, the Child Protection team will often hold meetings and make decisions without any input or chance to plead a case from the FA victims. The accusers (parents in this case), police and other authorities get to have input but not the accused themselves – even after the Police have dropped all charges and consider the matter finished.

Even after the case was all over, Jessie Kyd lived in fear that she could never have children of her own because she was told there was ‘no guarantee’ they would not be taken from her at birth. Can you imagine living with that fear when you’ve barely begun your own adult life? I’ve seen children loved by their parents torn away supposedly to ‘protect’ them when actually the children have been devastated by the whole trauma.

If there was swift recourse to the law then it would not be so bad but the legal system is so unwieldy that it takes months for any change to happen, often at great expense and in front of a judge who may make judgement against you and make matters worse. It is a terrifying situation for an innocent person to live in.

Over the course of my own investigations it is obvious that despite much training, Social workers are not equipped to make the judgements needed to decide the safety of children nor the suitability of victims of FA to carry on their private lives unhindered. Social workers are usually overworked, underfunded and working in both distressing and stressful environments. At the same time, they wield such power that even solicitors are afraid of them. They are accountable only to the counter-decisions of a judge and they know that the expense and risk of losing is so great few will try to resist them. This combination of stress and power is a volatile mix which results time and again in great injustices against innocent victims like Jessie Kyd.

But there is a bigger dilemma here than just the unstoppable movement of the Justice and Social Services machine: that of the perception that FA is a myth.

This is taken from the official government Crown Prosecution Service page. The CPS are the people who choose whether or not to prosecute a suspect after the Police have finished their investigation and handed all the evidence to the CPS for judgement.

cps-rape-myth

There is a vicious circle in reasoning here: Women can’t possibly cry rape for revenge because out of all the prosecutions for rape only a tiny handful were made for false allegations of rape.

This is a dangerous road to take. As Jessie Kyd found out, long after her case was dropped and it was clear there was virtually no evidence to suggest abuse had taken place at all, nevertheless her accusers were free to continue slandering her name and making accusations. This story is repeated again and again. It is well established that the police are reluctant to prosecute people who make FA because it might deter real victims of rape. All the CPS file quoted above reveals is a deep reluctance to believe FA is possible at all.

Similar statistics can be found for domestic violence except that here uncomfortable research has long revealed the terrible flaw in thinking that men are the main perpetrators of such violence. Among convictions for domestic violence only 7% are for women. Using the CPS argument, that would mean men are the most likely to perpetrate such violence. Studies however reveal that as much as 50% of all domestic violence is committed by women. A study in 2014 of 1,104 men and women even found that women were ‘significantly’ more likely to engage in verbal and physical aggression than men.

Erin Pizzey is well-known as an expert of domestic violence. She opened the first refuge for victims of domestic violence in 1971 and has written extensively on the issue. You would imagine that she is a staunch defender of the belief that women are victims and men the perpetrators. In fact the opposite is the case. Erin Pizzey states that around 62% of women who came to her shelters were at least as violent as the men they had left. In her own words:

“Such individuals, spurred on by deep feelings of vengefulness, vindictiveness, and animosity, behave in a manner that is singularly destructive to themselves as well as to some or all of the other family members, making an already bad family situation worse. These women I have found it useful to describe as ‘family terrorists.’”

There are many reasons why such information is not well-known and publicised in the media despite a wealth of research to back it up. A key reason though is the bias of the CPS and other authorities to assume that only women can be victims. It is interesting that an article by Ann Widdecombe recently highlighted a general societal prejudice against men. In it she says:

“Now, everywhere you have positive discrimination. That’s a way of saying negative discrimination against men… If I’m going to complain about sexism it should be from [men’s] sex not from mine.”

From my own research among victims of FA it is clear that women are just as capable of crying rape as men are of actually perpetrating it. Logically, there is no reason why this should not be the case. It is human nature to want to control and to seek justice and the perverse side of this is to abuse and seek revenge. If a woman, looking for such revenge cannot exact this in physical form, then verbal is all that’s left. Just as school children from as young as perhaps seven or eight are well aware of the power they have to cry abuse at a teacher and cause unmitigating grief to the object of their dislike, so a woman is capable of using the cry of rape as the weapon of choice in a society obsessed with hidden sex scandals and high profile cases of celebrities who have got away with appalling abuse after decades of silence.

Of course a child who cries abuse at school is not always lying just as the woman who cries rape isn’t and this needs to be stated clearly. It is right and proper that the police and social services (where a child may be involved) should take every accusation seriously but it is also right that there is accountability in both directions. Currently when an accusation is made, the police are only interested in finding evidence for prosecution. There needs to be more willingness to search for all evidence and, where it is clear that evidence shows the accuser is lying, that the CPS is given opportunity to decide if there is a case which can be tried against the accused AND if the accuser should be prosecuted instead. There will be, of course, unresolvable grey areas – the his-word-against-her situation. But in many, many cases the evidence clearly points to the story being completely fabricated. As things stand, it is rare the police will do anything about that.

What is important is that neither victims are ignored nor that witch hunts are tolerated. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible should be required reading I believe for all police and social workers because not only is it a wonderful allegory of the ‘reds under the beds’ scaremongering of the McCarthy era but because it demonstrates just how easy preposterous accusations can billow into the deaths of innocents. Make no mistake, FA causes deaths; for some falsely accused the shame and depression is too much to bear.

In Jessie Kyd’s case, she managed to survive – even flourish – in the long run. But it came at a terrible cost which could so easily have destroyed her. It does destroy too many. If you buy the book I urge you to read it to the end. In a way, the most upsetting part for me was reading her epilogue. One final event occurred made it clear just how fragile her victories have been. It is a frightening reminder of what every single victim of FA has to endure – the trauma never goes away.

Posted in Corruption, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments