As the country enjoys a 4 day weekend for the Platinum Jubilee, Hamzah Sheikh asks whether it is right for British Muslims to celebrate an occasion associated with the institution of the monarchy.
A divisive issue in the British Muslim community is celebrating national events dedicated to the Royal Family; an institution which represents the most conservative of establishments in moral and spiritual leadership in the United Kingdom. Queen Elizabeth II has undoubtedly earned the respect and dedication of many people home and abroad for her service to her country and the people of the UK and Commonwealth. However, the scars of colonialism and the role of royals from Queen Victoria, Empress of India to Earl Mountbatten of Burma bring many questions to British Muslims of South Asian descent on whether it is morally or spiritually right to celebrate the many reasons behind the Platinum jubilee: the success and celebration of the British monarchy, preserving the order of succession and cultural support for its place in modern society.
Whether you’re a monarchist or a republican, it’s no secret that celebrating events such as the Queen’s birthday does depend on your community. As someone who grew up in East Birmingham in a densely populated Muslim community with diverse South Asian representation, I didn’t experience my first Street Party until the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. This was only because I chose to attend a sixth form college in South Birmingham which was predominately white, and non-Muslim and its neighbourhood had stronger enthusiasm to celebrate national events such as the Queen’s birthday and St. George’s day. While I was grateful to be invited by a close friend from the sixth form, the experience was completely new to me. Seeing families drinking together, a generous amount of sausage rolls on the tables and the absence of informal gender segregation amongst families, was a culture shock for me as someone who had spent their entire youth in an Asian family in East Birmingham. I was very welcomed, none of this caused offence to me and everything was optional, however, I had this strong desire to try to fit in which conflicted with feelings on why I didn’t feel like I did.
Time and time again, there are news stories and radio conversations within British Muslim and South Asian communities on whether we should celebrate national holidays or why we feel the need to take part in British identity. To be British goes far beyond holding a passport or deliberating evolving interpretations of British values. However, it’s a question that is largely unanswered as any British values in political life such as traditionalism, tolerance and liberalism can mostly be seen as (western) universal values. If one were to list recreational examples of British values, many might claim to visit the pub, 3 am kebabs after a night out or play football or cricket, although we experience how we feel marginalised from these activities as minorities whether we choose to take part or not. When these examples are ruled out, the question of whether we feel we are a part of a larger British society remains unanswered and therefore the conversation turns towards the most prominent representation of the UK in world media: the celebration of the royal family.
The key question in the conversation remains: are we celebrating the royal family, its events, and commemorations to prove we are British enough? While I am not alone in having a British Asian mother who holds the memory of Princess Diana in high regard, it is no secret that British Muslims and South Asians from working-class communities like mine have always seen support for the monarchy as an option in seeing ourselves as part of wider British society. This also remains the case for Britain’s secular racial majority, however, our history of our ancestors colonised under the British Empire, fighting on its behalf in both world wars, being called to rebuild post-war Britain before undergoing generations of racism and marginalisation has had a significant impact on whether we are seen as “British” enough. For over two decades, the Muslim lived experienced is to be demanded to prove our loyalty to our country by the British media, expected to apologise for terrorism from an extremist minority in a singular reformist branch of Islam, or having to ignore generalizations or clarify the differences in religion and culture in the South Asian community which is far less complicated to understand than the English North-South divide.
It was only during university that I had chosen to open Pandora’s box and investigate the history of the Punjab and Britain’s role in exploiting the Indian subcontinent. Political decision-making in Whitehall and Parliament has had a lasting impact on South Asian society to this day and continues to impact its politics through international aid to previously colonised countries under the Commonwealth. While school never discussed the British empire in history class and only the social effects of the Victorian society it produced, it wasn’t until recently I felt confident to make my assessment. However you do not need to be an academic to critically assess the case for Britain to owe reparations made by Dr Shashi Tharoor in the Oxford Union, Utsa Patnaik’s estimations of over $45 trillion being stolen from India, calls from Indian and Pakistani governments to return artefacts of significant cultural importance in British museums, along with the disastrous handling of decolonisation and partition under the leadership of Earl Mountbatten portrayed in series such as The Crown on Netflix and the Pakistani-British biographical film Jinnah (1998). Even in mainstream sources and popular media, I was overwhelmed by the ceremonial role of the royal family in the disastrous governance, control and decolonisation of my grandparents’ homeland.
While British Muslims and South Asians reserve the right to support or speak against the monarchy, the questions remain on whether we should and why should we? Queen Elizabeth II is not responsible for the actions of the British East India Company, the bloody annexation and partition of the Punjab or institutional Islamophobia throughout the UK. Her Majesty plays a vital role in the diplomatic relationship between our country and numerous Muslim leaders and communities across the world. While it is clear every British citizen reserves the right to not publicly support the Queen and enjoy our day off like every other Tom, Dick and Haroon, the conversation on whether we should choose to celebrate what the monarchy represents must continue – especially as the effects of marginalisation and colonialism continue to define our experiences home and abroad.
Hamzah Sheikh is Chair of the Technology, Defence and Cybersecurity Policy Network for the Young Fabians. Born and bred in Birmingham, he studied International Relations with Political Science at the University of Birmingham before completing a master’s degree in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response at the University of Manchester. He tweets at @northseapunjabi.