Thursday, September 09, 2004

Battling Amir Khan Unites Britain

I was just recently back in England for a brief vacation and a various-meats-in-pastry eating marathon. In between bites of my sausage rolls and cornish pasties, I happened to catch a fair chunk of the BBC’s Olympic coverage from Athens. Between the failure of top prospect Paula Radcliffe, the surprise of Kelly Holmes’ middle distance double, and the sudden national interest in such obscure pastimes as yingling sailing whenever the prospect of a medal reared its head Team GB seemed to be following the same script that has provided predictable fodder for millions of Brits since the birth of the modern games. However as the games ran their course one story began to build momentum and a plotline that seemed to defy easy stereotyping.

This year Britain only managed to find one amateur boxer up to Olympic standards across all the weight divisions, sending a wafer thin, gangly lightweight to represent the islands long tradition of pugilism. Although considered a hot prospect, the scrapper was only 17 and was almost denied permission to compete due to his age. And by the way, he happened to be a Muslim of Pakistani parentage from Bolton, a town in the economically depressed and ethnically confrontational northwest. Amir Khan found himself carrying the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. He toted the burden well.

Round after round, bout after bout, the boy wonder scythed through the competition. In the final Khan came within 3 minutes of snatching the gold despite his youth and inexperience. Like his hero Muhammad Ali, he floated around the ring making his diminutive opponents look like lumbering super-heavyweights. His skinny arms threw punches that made his challengers convulse like they were being defibrillated. For two weeks he punched his way towards glory capturing the British Isles in a web of excitement that willed him onwards.

After every match, the cameras would pan up into the auditorium for a lingering look at the Khan family celebrations. Time after time Amir’s dad, uncles, and brothers would leap about deliriously cheering and shouting. More than once the Greek police had to ask them to calm down. The Khan family celebrations brought to mind the scenes inside the cricket grounds of the world whenever Pakistan scores a victory. This time however the Pakistani men were waving British flags and singing “God Save the Queen.”

It is a sad comment on the standard roles assigned by the press and society to British Muslims from the Indian subcontinent that the Khan family celebrations attracted such astonished attention. According to the British media, Muslims are supposed to be the cuckoos in the nest; a lock-step fifth column of Al Qadea sympathizers just waiting for the right fatwa from the Finsbury Park mosque to rise up and slaughter everyone in their beds. What seems to have escaped most journalists notice is that to be a British Muslim is not ultimately too different to being a British Hindu, a British Jew, or a British Christian. Each person is a mass of identities, some complimentary, some conflicting. The whirl of these identities, multiplied by however many millions of people cohabit a certain chunk of real estate, is what creates the centrifugal force that becomes society. Nothing so ill-becomes a nation than to assign clunky stereotypes to various segments of its population based on the desire to propagate a lazy shorthand of identity.

To my mind, Amir Khan’s dad has done a better job assimilating into British culture that I have settling into an American mindset. He at least wholeheartedly and emotionally cheered on his adopted country in international athletic competition. I’m afraid that I still root for England over the United States when it comes to sports. Famously, about 15 years ago the British politician Norman Tebbit met with a fair degree of approval when he suggested that the way to gauge the fealty of an immigrant was to apply the “cricket test”; namely if an incomer rooted for England over his home country he was acceptable. Norman, if your methodology were to be extended to the USA, I fail the test. I love living in the states, but I can’t bring myself to have anything more than a passing interest in the fate of the various Team USAs. Still, I’m not perceived of as a threat to society, despite my marked ambivalence towards US success on the playing field and pronounced despair regarding much of America’s dealings with the rest of the world. Maybe that’s because I’m white and Christian and therefore would have to manifest extreme anti-social tendencies before I was considered “the enemy within.” British (and American) Muslims face exactly the opposite; they have to prove beyond any unreasonable doubt that they wholeheartedly embrace some mythical orthodoxy in order just to live their lives free of official and media harassment.

WASPs and other Europeans must stop believing that they have the monopoly on mature thought. Just as it is possible for a white liberal to both support the troops and abhor the conduct of the war, it is equally possible for a south Asian Muslim to enjoy the freedoms of the west while disapproving of its clumsy meddling in the mid-east. The essence of intelligence is to be able to hold two conflicting thoughts in the brain at the same time and seek to reconcile them. Until we as a society stop viewing the other as some sort of monolithic hive-mind and instead recognize that there are 6 billion individuals of divergent mind on this planet we are destined to remain stuck in the morass of misunderstanding and violence we currently wallow in.


Vicki said...


Very interesting. I did hear about Amir Khan. I like how you describe how a British Muslim can be just as much of a patriot as a
Christian, or anyone else.

I have many Muslim friends, and many of them love this country. They say how they came to the United States because of freedom.
That doesn't mean that they do not have special feelings for there country of birth. It pains the peoples of Muslim countries when
they see there own countries have awful things happening in it. They still love America too.

You talked about how you love the United States, but you still have feelings for your country of Britton in some ways. It doesn't
mean you don't love Britton still. People here in the states (the ones that lived here all of there lives) don't understand that
you can love more than one place at a time. I think you described how Muslims can love Britton just as anyone else can very well.

Welcome back Weasel! Nice to have you back. I hope your vacation was great!

Anonymous said...

Bowles here,
Excellent perspective on patriotism, ethnicity and culture. I simply can't imagine a world without diversity. Well done Weasel.