Nayha Arora graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2011. She worked as a Berkley Center Undergraduate Fellow in 2008, contributing to the report on interfaith marriage. Nayha also participated in the Junior Year Abroad Network while studying abroad in England during the 2009-2010 academic year.
November 3, 2009
Since I arrived in London in September, I have seen campaigns, demonstrations, and posters in opposition to the British National Party (BNP) almost everyday on campus and across the city. I didnt know anything about the political party upon my arrival, but this didnt last long, as the BNP has attracted significant attention among British citizens recently. The BNP was founded in 1982, and today it is often described as a fascist Nazi Party. In June, one million people voted for the BNP in the European Parliament elections, earning the party two seats in European Parliament. In the 2008 British local elections they won fifteen of 584 council seats. While the leaders claim the BNP is no longer the racist, anti-Semitic party it once was, the party still only allows Caucasians to be members (this policy is currently under revision due to pressure from the Equality and Human Rights Commission), and heads of the party have in the recent past made statements denying the Holocaust and demeaning homosexuals and Islam.
In the midst of much controversy and uproar, the BNP was invited to join the panel of BBCs Question Time, a show that has become an institution in British democracy over the past 30 years. The show airs every week, offering a forum through which the audience can have an open debate and question-answer session with Members of Parliament. Nick Griffin, who holds one of the BNPs two seats in European Parliament, represented the party on Question Time on October 22. Over the course of the show, he managed to insult and disgust people by calling homosexuals creepy, stating that Islam doesnt fit in with free speech, democracy and equal rights for women, and describing the influx of immigrants as genocide of the indigenous British people.
People in the audience and on the panel described Griffins views as not only offensive, but also in contradiction of the very fabric of British culture and tradition. The long history of immigration in the UK was touted as one of the countrys strengths. In tracing back the importance of diversity in British history, one panelist cited the involvement of Chinese, African, Indian, and Pakistani soldiers alongside British soldiers in the fight against fascism in WWII. An historian on the panel marked the reign of the Romans in the region as the beginning of this rich multicultural tradition.
When Nick Griffin stated that the country is and must remain a British, Christian nation, with more respect for the rights of the indigenous people, Jack Straw of the Labor Party responded that almost no one in the country can claim to be entirely British. It seems there is a fundamental disagreement between the BNP and its opponents over what kind of nation Britain is. According to the English Church Census of 2004, on average, 6.3% of the population in the UK goes to church on Sunday, and Sunday churchgoing is falling by 2.3% every year. A Tearfund survey of 7,000 UK citizens in 2007 showed that two-thirds of them had not been to church in the last year. One in ten of those surveyed goes to church every week. Fifty-five percent of them identified themselves as Christian, however. Christianity, whether practiced or not, does seem to be part of the British culture and tradition, but some would argue that pluralism and the peaceful coexistence of people with different religions and cultures is just as central to British culture.
While the BNP has numerous opponents, the fact remains that one million people voted for the party a few months ago. The rise in the BNPs popularity is partly attributed to current lax immigration policies. According to an Institute for Public Policy Research study based on the 2001 UK census, 7.53% of the UKs population in 2001 was born overseas; this rose from 5.75% in 1991.The BNP is winning votes from white middle-class workers who are disappointed with changes that have come with the rise in immigration in the UK.
So is Britain facing an identity crisis, as a British and Christian nation that is an increasingly multi-cultural and multi-faith country? Is the rise in the BNPs popularity a small show of resistance to the growing population of immigrants, or is it the beginning of a reversal in the acceptance and pluralism that some consider an integral aspect of British society?
During Question Time, Jack Straw of the Labour Party stated that the BNP does not represent a threat to fundamental British values. He said it is simply another example of the trend in British politics of fringe parties on the right defining themselves against the others---first the Jews, then the Irish, then the Afro-Caribbeans, and now against the Muslims. In that statement he may have been attempting to further diminish the credibility of the party, but he also managed to call Muslims the other and upset an audience member by using the term Afro-Caribbean instead of African-Caribbean. This slip of tongue and the surprising success of the BNP in the June elections are both reminders of how insidiously and unknowingly cultural arrogance and threats to pluralism can creep into a society.
Peace and acceptance in a pluralist society must be actively maintained as a community grows and changes with time. Over time, there may be threats to this peace. Constructive responses to these threats include healthy debate, as is occurring in the UK now. They also include citizens having the opportunity to tell their representatives that they are African-Caribbean, not Afro-Caribbean, or that they disagree with current immigration policies. Ultimately, the challenge to equality and diversity presented by the BNP has been met with a public that is actively asserting the importance of these tenets in British society today.
COMMENT BY PROF. ARIEL GLUCKLICH - January 22, 2010
Some of the essential points of my class, Hindu Religious Tradition, in which Nayha was a student, are displayed in her comments on the BNP and on the state of multiculturalism, racism and politics in England. Hinduism, and India today, presents an example of amazing cultural, linguistic, social and religious diversity within a single nation. There is much to admire there as, for example, the last millennium of Hindu-Islamic relations has produced an amazing civilization. But there is also much to fear, particularly in the last two or three decades have seen the rise of religious nationalism and narrowly constructed identities. Nahya Arora's essay is constructively critical of English cultures of intolerance, but not so critical as to cripple the debate and conversation that the broadening of minds requires. I know very little about English politics but I find both her argument and tone highly Indian, in the best sense of that term.
March 10, 2010
Although historically a Christian nation, religion does not seem to hold a prominent position in British politics or culture. I came to the UK expecting a country where religious beliefs are respected and do not serve as a source of controversy or division; my expectations have by and large been met. Political debates during this election period have not placed emphasis on questions of abortion or gay marriage, with their strong religious undertones. The LSE Islamic Society recently hosted Experience Hijab Day on campus, when numerous girls of various faiths sported blue hijabs in honor of International Womens Week and Muslim beliefs. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly endorsed last weeks National Hindu Students Forum Sewa (selfless service) Week, praising the value of service in Hinduism. I have found that the dominant reactions to others religious beliefs are respect, acceptance, or apathy. When this apathy persists even in the face of radical statements and actions that threaten or oppose religious tolerance, it becomes a cause for concern.
A recent incident on campus exemplifies this issue. An article by Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa, a reader in LSEs Management Department, published in February stated that half of Muslims worldwide are terrorists or active supporters of terrorism. The Director of the LSE, Sir Howard Davies, when asked to respond to this statement, said he found these views disagreeable but he was not about to censor what the faculty writes. Some students spoke out about their disapproval of the schools mild reaction to Kanazawas views, which they insist are not based on empirical fact but merely opinion. After extended debate at the Student Union General Meeting, a move to denounce Kanazawas views fell through. I found it surprising that outside of two articles in the newspaper, not much more attention was given to this strong and contentious statement made by an academic in one of Londons leading universities.
In my previous letter I cited the publics angry reaction to the BNPs hateful and divisive statements as an example of the great importance placed upon equality and diversity in British society. Kanazawas less prominent but equally objectionable public statement of religious intolerance has not been met with a reaction that parallels that elicited by the BNP. Respect for free speech is the primary justification for this inadequate response. This incident at the LSE is one of several cases I have found in the UK in which unfair treatment of or statements against a religious group have been justified and accepted as actions or statements in defense of such democratic values as free speech and equality before the law.
In January of this year, Nigel Farage, a leader of the Independence Party, stated that the party planned to prohibit Muslim women from wearing a niqab in public places and buildings. Farage responded to critics by saying that the policy was not radical and should appeal to people who want to live in a country where there is one law and that law applies to everybody. In February, an employee of British Airways who was not allowed to wear her cross at work went to court to appeal a ruling by the Employment Appeal Tribunal that stated that the British Airways policy did not constitute religious discrimination. The woman lost the appeal, and the judge stated that a blanket ban may sometimes be the only fair solution when an employee holds beliefs that may be opposed by others in the workplace.
In each of these cases, religious rights have taken a back seat to more widely shared values of freedom of speech and equal treatment under the law. Taken independently, these incidents do not seriously detract from the overall accepting and tolerant quality of British society. They do raise the question of what would happen if and when a choice between democratic and religious rights is posed with greater stakes at play.