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The politics of belonging in Britain

By Jenny Allsopp
Friday, 20 January 2012 15:40

‘There is no opposite to belonging’: Nira Yuval-Davis in conversation with Jenny Allsopp on religion, migration and the politics of belonging. So is it time to open up the debate and ask what it means to belong ‘in’ – rather than ‘to’ – contemporary Britain?

In a speech on immigration in October 2011, David Cameron issued a call for loyalty to the British nation, asserting that ‘together we will reclaim our borders’. This collective act would serve to ‘send illegal immigrants home’, but also to foster solidarity among us as a people and a community of belonging. Nira Yuval-Davis’s work has long provided a vital interrogation of this ‘we’, exposing tensions between the duties stemming towards our fellow citizens through our contract with the nation, those to other communities to whom we relate and those that reach out towards other humans qua humans. At a recent festschrift in celebration of her work and new book ‘The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations’, two dialogues were explored in panel discussions, on women and fundamentalism, and on East London, racisms and refugees. I met Nira later to explore these in more detail.

Belonging and the Politics of Belonging

Nira described the ‘politics of belonging’ to me as an ‘overall framework’ that encompasses nationalism, racism and citizenship; the contesting discourses around which people organize and construct boundaries of a collectivity where we belong. Her work has been to examine this framework intersectionally, in order ‘to denaturalize the various collectivities and rhetorics and ideologies about collectivities and their boundaries, to realise that they affect differently different people who belong to them, to see how they relate to each other, to explore how they are all situated, and to see how nationalism and cosmopolitanism and religion all interrelate in specific concrete cases.’

Through this approach, Nira has come to see autochthony, the claim to true indigineity, as the hegemonic form of racism today, and part of a movement that is attempting to force nationality and citizenship back together in order to exclude: ‘this is of course like drawing lines in the sand because it is virtually not possible.’ Yet the politics of belonging framework demonstrates the tenacity of stick wielders seeking to dominate and divide through the propagation of identity politics.  At the festschrift Phil Marfleet highlighted the concrete and often violent implications of the stick that draws the line in the sand: ‘who decides who “belongs”, who incarcerates, who deports?’ Through vigilante style politics such as Cameron’s recent invitation to shop illegal immigrants, solidarities long ignored by the mainstream are being challenged as this ‘who’ is increasingly tabled as a monolithic ‘we’.

From the ground up the meaning of belonging appears very different, as people attach to different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different age and generation groups, different gender, sexuality and ability, people living in London or in the North. For most of us the experience of belonging, or belongings, is a multi-layered one. The answer to this complex puzzle for Nira is certainly not fragmentation into smaller identity groupings, nor to construct a group of abstract individuals with an idealized relationship to the state – simply citizens. The answer is ‘to look, in an intersectional way, at how people are differentially located, differentially identified, and to differentially evaluate these locations and identifications and boundaries between people.’

Women and fundamentalism

That Nira’s insights have advanced debate on gendered dimensions of belonging was evident in a panel discussion on fundamentalism, which featured Pragna Patel of the London-based feminist group, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and Gita Sahgal of the Centre for Secular Space. The SBS report, ‘Cohesion, Faith and Gender’, is an important precedent in this respect. Pragna maintained that it ‘blasted a hole through the notion of faith communities’ by getting women talking about their experiences of gender and belonging in a way that did not converge with the identity politics propagated by the UK government and media.

Nira pins down two major reasons for the rise of the idea of ‘faith communities’ and dominance of religious organizations in the public debate on belonging, particularly in the wake of the Rushdie Affair and 9/11: a desire to control and moderate religious organizations to prevent the growth of home-bred terrorism, and the privatisation of the welfare state compounded by the fact that many services that were part of citizenship entitlement were no longer available. In this context, ‘religious organizations seemed to be sustainable civic organizations and were increasingly relied upon because this was also part of their own ethics.’

These changes had a concrete impact on the work of SBS’s, a group which Nira has been active with since the 1980s: ‘when the local authority threatened to stop their funding under the supposed kind of new legislation that said it was against social cohesion because it was only for black women and thus particularistic and not universal, at the same time special funding was given to at least twelve different types of Muslim organizations by the same local authority!’ In Blair’s ‘classless’, ‘post-racial’ society, it was felt that ‘the only legitimate difference became that of faith. Thus while they were talking about the death of multiculturalism into an assimilationist perspective, at the same time they also talked about multi-faithism. There was another by-product of it, which combined the privatisation as well as the rise in importance and role of religious discourse and organization: the rise of faith schools.’

East London racism and refugees

A panel on East London, racism and refugees at the festschrift provided more insight into the micro implications of the national, religious, cosmopolitan and citizenship questions explored in Nira’s book, as well as local histories of activism and resistance. Phil Marfleet proclaimed East London ‘a site of resistance par excellence’. As the old commercial hub of the British Empire, and site of arrival and departures, it is a place that embodies the tensions of what it means to belong. These tensions are the spark behind the upcoming conference that will take place prior to the Olympic Games in April this year, London: City of Paradox.

In a joint piece of action research with Nira which involved participatory theatre with local refugee communities, Erene Kaptani has explored the range of social and cultural capitals that refugees have employed to help them to settle in this paradoxical city. Nira remarked on the success of one Kosovan woman who, unable to comprehend what had happened when her baby fell ill, phoned home and was able to use Latin to consult with a local doctor. Religion can also be seen as a source of social capital and potential liberating force for migrants, as explored by Chloe Lewis in her article  ‘Religion, gender and migration: beyond ‘obedience vs agency’.

Erene’s focus on ‘what it is to be a refugee and to settle in London and especially East London’ gave rise to what Nira called ‘illustrative moments’, moments that ‘encompass the rich and multi-layered experiences and meanings and hopes and frustrations’ of integration and belonging. One refugee from Kosovo had arrived in London in a lorry and first emerged in Southall. Nira smiled as she recalled how, suddenly meeting people from the Indian subcontinent, the girl had exclaimed, ‘we were misled we didn’t reach London we reached India!’ Another migrant revealed how he unexpectedly won the friendship of a police officer in having mistakenly taken a train from London: ‘he went to the train station and he saw many trains and he thought, which train shall I take in order to go back home? Then he thought that all the trains from the platform were heading in the same direction, so it doesn’t matter which train I take…and so he got on one of the trains. Three hours later he found himself in Liverpool and the policeman found it so funny that he gave him the personal money to send him back to London. It’s a great story. You know, before when you just talk about macro narrative you’ll never hear about policemen helping refugees, you just hear about other things.’ Such ‘illustrative moments’ provide a vital insight into this micro reality, and challenge the stereotype that ‘either you become integrated here and assimilated or you are with your people’.

Belonging in Britain

Posing a challenge to those who would construct boundaries of belonging and not belonging in opposition, the findings of the East London action-research- like the Southall Black Sisters report- challenge many prejudices in the way we consider relations between and within different segments of society. They demonstrate that ‘boundaries can be more or less permeable, can be more or less naturalised and contested’. For as Nira explains, ‘the relationship between self and other is not necessarily that of the exclusion of zero-sum game. There are other relationships between self and non-self, and there is a relationship between me and us. There is also a boundary there, but this is not necessarily exclusionary. There is also the relationship between me, us, and – not versus – them, which is this kind of conviviality in which most of us live and which the research about refugees exposed. Most people do not necessarily relate to others as us or them, but just live side-by-side and interact sometimes. They do not attack others but go quite happily about their lives. It is only in extreme conflict situations this can transform itself into zero-sum.’

While Nira Yuval-Davis’s work testifies to the importance of examining religion, gender and politics together, it thus also advocates for the need to divide and deconstruct them, and to look at the inter-relation between different political projects of belonging in an intersectional and contested way, asking, what does it mean to belong, and what is it that people belong to? In doing so her work poses a crucial challenge to hegemonic forms of nationalism and citizenship and tackles the micro as well as macro implications of the contemporary political projects of belonging on the ground.

Yet whilst Nira’s work makes the important and timely claim: ‘there are no dichotomies between belonging and not belonging’, individuals in Britain and whole communities still find themselves placed on either side of a political fence which is all too easily internalized and reproduced. Meanwhile, debate remains curtailed by insistence on the preposition ‘to’, what it means to belong to Britain, as exemplified in the stress on loyalty, and the idea of earned citizenship. It is time to open up the debate and ask what it means to belong in contemporary Britain. Only then can we open our eyes to the multiplicity of forms in which we experience belonging within the UK and reach a more intersectional understanding which embraces rather than oppresses multiple solidarities.

Originally published by Open Democracy

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