Saturday, March 10, 2012

British Bangladeshi Identity Crises

In my four years in the UK till date, I've often gotten the impression that religion is a 'culture substitute' for british-bangladeshi youth, where alienation from both their native culture and 'western' culture has led them to cling to another set of cultural values i.e. Islamic values. 

Growing up abroad, many of them have never learned their native language and have never become really familiar with Bengali literature, music, festivals, customs etc. You'll almost never see a young guy in a cotton panjabi or a lungi or a girl in a sari (except for weddings). At the same time, many of them also feel distant from western customs and habits and feel that they do not truly belong to it. So, in this state of limbo, they attach themselves to a more pan-national set of values that give them a sense of identity and community. By being British-Muslim, they suddenly have brothers and sisters from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Malaysia, Indonesia and all over the Muslim ummah. This particular attachment is clear from the fervor with which the youth campaign for Palestine as compared to socio-political issues in Bangladesh. I believe it is this desire for identity and community that causes many deshi young people abroad to be religious. 

This is not the same in Bangladesh. Bangladesh may only be 40 years old but there have been Bengali Muslims living in that particular tract of land for many more years than that. This gestation has allowed for a more comfortable synthesis to be reached between culture and religion, which allows them to exist side by side. Many people are deeply pious but also greatly revere their mother tongue and immerse themselves in cultural festivals. (I'm speaking generally of course, there are always exceptions) It isn't really a choice, it just happens. In contrast to that, in the last couple of decades, many choices have opened up to Bangladeshi youth. They can choose to stay the course of their parents or they can become increasingly 'westernized' or 'bollywood-ized'. Striking a balance is difficult and I am sure many of them will face crises of identity like their British-Bangladeshi cousins in the UK/US. 

Someone who embodies this 'caught between two cultures' identity is Lowkey, the Anglo-Iraqi hip hop artist. He describes himself as being an 'Englishmen amongst Arabs and an Arab amongst Englishmen'


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