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If An American Can't Integrate, How Can a Muslim?
Last uploaded : Monday 9th Oct 2006 at 00:30
Contributed by : Carol Gould


The British media have been overflowing with stories about Muslims this week. From the controversy surrounding Jack Straw’s comments on the black veil, to the minicab driver refusing a blind passenger because her guide dog violates halal, to the Muslim policeman who refused to protect the Israeli Embassy to the riots in Windsor, Islam is at the centre of social discourse.

Conservative Party Chairman David Cameron MP delivered a speech last week at the annual party conference lamenting the ghettoes created by Muslim communities. He wants people to open their homes to one another and for society to integrate.

Well, in Great Britain that is about as easy as walking into a church on Sunday morning and presenting a belly-dancing performance.

When I first came to Britain thirty years ago I was tormented by my hosts on the rare occasions when I was actually invited to someone’s home for dinner because of the way I held my fork and knife. I had grown up in a country where we happen to cut our food, put the knife on the plate’s right side and eat with a fork. In fact, taking it one step further, really well-bred, genteel Americans put one hand in the lap whilst using the other one for the fork.

Of course, I was made to believe by British hosts that it was ‘wrong’ and uncivilised to eat this way: I had to learn how to mush food together on the back of the knife and push it into my mouth using the fork with my left hand. Then came dessert: in the USA we often eat dessert with a fork. No, I was browbeaten and humiliated at the table time and again by a string of indignant British hosts and literally ordered to eat my cake with a spoon. After all, if it is American or foreign it has to be wrong!

There is a story about former President Bill Clinton's miserable time at Oxford when he was a Rhodes Scholar some thirty-seven years ago. He was shunned and was at the receiving end of the same sort of verbal acrobatics that come to be the fate of most American expatriates. Indeed, after 9/11 his daughter Chelsea and her compatriates at Oxford were also made miserable. So, not too long ago, when the former President was asked for a list of Oxford chums he would like to invite to a ceremony to honour him, he said 'the janitor.' To the university's astonishment he said he was the only person who was decent to him whilst in England.

In my first years here I was told this was an incredibly complex society with a thousand years of deeply entrenched customs that would preclude my ever, ever being accepted as ‘one of them.’ If one is considered a foreigner if one moves to Cornwall from London, and if a Catholic is shunned in a Protestant village, how is it that successive governments have felt Britain is a melting pot for ethnic minorities? If I, a white, middle class American am tormented in the workplace by British colleagues about everything I am, how can less Western immigrants ever find solace here?

The current controversy raging in Britain about the niqab worn by many Anglo-Muslim women reminds me of my early days in Britain, when I was fiercely chastised for wearing 'loud' clothes ( that meant anything other than grey or Tartan green) or for wearing shirts sporting slogans. A friend once forced me to go home and change before she would venture out with me when I wore what I thought was a gorgeous sweatshirt with a slogan from the women's tennis tour.

Britain is one of the least welcoming of cultures. How David Cameron thinks people are suddenly going to be throwing their front doors open wide to welcome the multitude of ethnic minorities now inhabiting these islands is beyond me. I have passed the homes of neighbours to whom I have waved hello for twenty-odd years and never once have I been invited in for a cup of tea, let alone a meal. There is no society in the world where people are so insular and protective of their little universe. 'British reserve' is part of the deal when one moves here. Anglo-Jews are as unapproachable as any other breed of Briton: for twenty-nine years I have passed the large homes of my Jewish neighbours on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover and have never, ever been invited over to join their feasts. They actually wave to me! So why not invite me in? In contrast, on visits to the USA and Israel I have had to decide amongst a mountain of invitations for festivals from both Jewish and Christian neighbours and new acquaintances. I hasten to add that non-British neighbours in London have been spectacularly hospitable, to the point some years ago that I spent every evening in someone else's living room enjoying a rich variety of languages and foods, including sharing a meal during Ramadan with my Pakistani neighbours.

Try having a spontaneous telephone conversation with some British folk. One lonely Rosh Hashanah I rang around a couple of Anglo-Jewish acquiantances to wish them a happy new year and got snarling rebukes for interrupting their Rosh Hashanah dinner parties! On countless occasions I have been told 'I can't stop, I', making the scones fo the WI do' or 'I can't talk to you.' And down goes the receiver. Contrast this with the blessed handful of non-British chums I have cultivated here for thirty years, who fully understand the art of the telephone conversation. It is possible that because all calls except to numbers abroad are free in the USA we feel easier about chatting away, but over the years some rebukes from British acquaintances could only be classified as belligerent and downright rude.

For years I have taken on the chin with dignity hundreds of nasty remarks from many Britons about my American and Jewish heritage. Belligerent airs of superiority abound in heaps in this little country and are a kind of remnant of Empire that stings at one’s very core. Being told that my education is inferior because ‘Americans always have to take a year over again’ and ‘all Jewish Amrican men are meat-cutters in delicatessens’ when I explain that my dad was a distinguished naval architect is a microcosm of thirty years of arrogance.

One can be average-looking and white, but if one has had problems being accepted as anything but an inferior form of human life by Britons, it must be an impossible mountain to climb for a veiled woman or traditionally-dressed Muslim male to be accepted into British life. Conversely, as I have written before, how can Muslims expect to even begin to be accepted if they never wear a poppy on Remembrance Day and do not flock to West End clubs, musicals, ballet performances, concert halls and opera houses? (Not that that has ever made me 'more accepted,' but it helps.) My corner shop in London was owned for years by an East End Cockney, but this year was acquired by a Muslim family. Last week I spent an eternity trying to explain the concept of porridge to the British-born sons and grandsons who run the shop. Many neighbours had been incensed that in addition to vacuum-packed bacon, sausages and ham, porridge oats had been removed from the shelves. Eventually I had to write out 'Scott's Porage oats' and 'oatmeal' and was then asked if this was a kind of cigarette. Muslticulturalism? How can it work?

When inviting people into my home over the decades, I am asked the oddest questions. One concerns the number of books I have on my shelves. May I emphasise here that my small core of splendid British friends adore my unique abode, but it does seem a curiously British quirk to be asked why I do not 'give away' or 'throw away' what some visitors describe as 'unwanted' books. I am asked why I have a particular group of pictures or decorative items. Even down to curtain fabric and choice of guest towels, I am the recipient of queries about my 'nutty American' decor. Again, I stress that if, as a middle-class white, I am interrogated about every aspect of my inner sanctum as if I am an Eskimo, what would the average Pakistani expect if David Cameron's 'house visiting' took place?

A few months ago I went out for a coffee and whilst waiting for my friend put my hat on the table because the waitress was cleaning the chair onto which I had placed it. My friend arrived and barked, ‘ You have been in this country all these years and have not learned it is bad manners to put your hat on a table?’ This really pressed my buttons and I suppose I was a bit out of sorts for the rest of the outing, and when I got home I had an email from this person telling me how ‘obnoxious’ I am. The reason why I tell this story is that never, ever in the wildest stretches of one's imagination would an American in the United States be so unpleasant to a British guest in a cafe if the situation was reversed. In fact, in the USA Americans go apoplectic with joy at the sound of a British accent and gush all over anyone from the United Kingdom.

For years I have heard from the natives here how vulgar, noisy, tasteless and ill-mannered Americans are. ( Ever been to an American sporting event? Ever been to an English soccer game? Noisy? Vulgar?) Having recently travelled on a Cunard ship filled with drunken, badly groomed , loud and truly vulgar British and German tourists, I wonder who is the real offender. The Brits would not dine in the main restaurant because 1) 'Can't understand the menu'; 2) 'Can't be bothered to change every night;' and 'Don't want to have to tip the waiters.' And Americans are uncouth and ill-mannered?

When I was in the USA on holiday, I was called ‘Ma’am’ a thousand times by immensely polite American males, and fussed over by enormously gracious people on the street and in every field of endeavour. Nobody cared if I ate my Devil’s Food cake or pumpkin pie with a fork or spoon. It is intersting, too, that when I asked a cab driver where he was from he became indignant and exclaimed 'I am an American!' and then told me he had been born in Pakistan but was so proud of his American passport. Muslims in the USA seem to integrate infinitely better than in the UK.

When I have been allowed into the inner sanctum of British social life I have been introduced as ‘the American girl’ or in one appallingly embarrassing scenario as ‘a nut-case from America.’ I have no idea why Britons feel it is open season on non-Brits, but why is one a ‘nut case’ if one was not born here?

Once when a neighbour of some fifteen years’ acquaintance actually invited me in for a glass of wine I was lectured about ‘We have something here called Glyndebourne but I don’t suppose an American would know what that is.’ (I have gone several times, muddied shoes and all.) I was asked if I knew about the grouse shoot and the National Health Service, and informed that ‘in this country we have something called the AN-GLI-CAN CHURCH,’ as if the host thought I had a hearing problem or had just arrived from Madagascar.

In recent years I have walked past neighbours’ houses and wondered if Britons actually think a foreigner is going to leave nasty germs if they are invited into one’s home.

I do bless the small band of loyal and generous friends in Britain who have been the exception to the lamentable saga described in this article. I would, however, still venture to observe that if I, a well-dressed Caucasian woman am forever the stranger to so many here, how can less Western groups integrate? I do not believe it can ever happen, and worry about a peaceful future for ‘multicultural’ Britain.


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