Britain Struggles With Questions Of Identity

First in a five-part series

Waterloo Bridge i i

hide captionThe Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are among the iconic structures of London visible from the Waterloo Bridge spanning the River Thames.

iStockphoto.com
Waterloo Bridge

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are among the iconic structures of London visible from the Waterloo Bridge spanning the River Thames.

iStockphoto.com
Map: Revisiting The Road To Canterbury
Lindsay Powell/NPR

The New Canterbury Tales

A five-part NPR series retraces the steps of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales to explore Britain in the early 21st century. It offers a portrait of a changing nation some 600 years after the pilgrims made their colorful journey from London to Canterbury. Read an overview of the series.

Part 2: An England Coping With Change, Loss

Part 3: Importance Of Church Slips Rapidly Among British

Part 4: Chaucer's Cheek Too Bold For Britain?

Iqbal Wahhab, owner of Roast restaurant i i

hide captionIqbal Wahhab, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, is the owner of Roast restaurant, which is credited with resurrecting British cuisine.

Rob Gifford/NPR
Iqbal Wahhab, owner of Roast restaurant

Iqbal Wahhab, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, is the owner of Roast restaurant, which is credited with resurrecting British cuisine.

Rob Gifford/NPR
Cancer-stricken reality TV star Jade Goody kisses her fiance Jack Tweed i i

hide captionMany British Muslims reject what is perceived as Britain's empty celebrity culture, embodied for some by Jade Goody (shown here with her then-fiance Jack Tweed), a 27-year-old reality TV star whose battle with cancer and recent death captivated the British media.

Chris Radburn/AP/PA Wire
Cancer-stricken reality TV star Jade Goody kisses her fiance Jack Tweed

Many British Muslims reject what is perceived as Britain's empty celebrity culture, embodied for some by Jade Goody (shown here with her then-fiance Jack Tweed), a 27-year-old reality TV star whose battle with cancer and recent death captivated the British media.

Chris Radburn/AP/PA Wire

Muslim Women In Europe

As immigrants from the Muslim world continue to settle in Europe, governments are questioning the notion of multiculturalism, which has often created separate, parallel societies. Officials are now focusing on the status of women, with the notion that empowering them is key to helping communities integrate.

Read Sylvia Poggioli's series on the state of Muslim women in Europe.

Great Britain has changed substantially since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which described life in late 14th century England. For this five-part series, Rob Gifford retraced Chaucer's steps, walking the 60 miles from London to Canterbury, to give a snapshot of Britain in the early 21st century.

In the 18th century, it was Samuel Johnson, not Geoffrey Chaucer, who said that the man who is tired of London is tired of life. It was true for Johnson, it was probably true for Chaucer, and it is still true today.

On the windswept Waterloo Bridge over the River Thames, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are visible in one direction, St. Paul's Cathedral in the other.

The Thames is perhaps the only constant in a city and a country that has changed so much since Chaucer's time, and a journey in his footsteps is a chance to see just how much.

But no good pilgrim can begin a journey without a feast. And there is no better place to start this particular journey than at a restaurant located in the borough of Southwark, where Chaucer and his merry band ate before they set off for Canterbury.

From Mono- To Multicultural

The eatery is called Roast, and it's been credited with resurrecting British cuisine. Its owner, appropriately enough for modern London, is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants. His name is Iqbal Wahhab.

"British food had been dead and buried until about 10 years ago when we realized the consequences of what had led to what we call mad cow disease, which is the drive for cheaper and cheaper food," Wahhab says.

"With that realization, we demanded better quality ingredients. And when we got them, we started demanding better quality cooking from them. The kind of dishes that we've got on our menu here, they've been lost in transit, if you like, while we moved from being a monocultural to a multicultural society," he says.

In England, it wasn't just the roast beef and the Yorkshire pudding that got lost in the shuffle.

The whole concept of what it means to be British has come into question in recent years, as immigration has increased and as the pillars of the old identity that united the kingdom — empire, monarchy, the Church of England — have been eroded.

Many communities have now withdrawn into a kind of tribal loyalty to their own groups. Rightly or wrongly, the spotlight has fallen on the Muslim community, and a journey across the British landscape in many ways has to begin with them.

Identity In Crisis

The first steps of the journey to Canterbury lead across the River Thames from Southwark to Brick Lane, the heart of London's Muslim community. There, Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist who spent 13 years trying to radicalize young British Muslims and who has since given up his extremist views, works to prevent Britain's Muslim youth from following that path.

"I think there is an identity crisis in mainstream Europe and Britain in particular," he says.

Looking back on his confused childhood, not knowing whether he was Muslim or British or both, Nawaz says Britain has tried too hard to accommodate immigrants.

"It's an understanding that certain values that we hold dear do not apply to other cultures because that's just them, that's their culture," he says. "No, there are certain values that we believe in this country are values for Britain, and so we shouldn't have lack of confidence in those values, and we should assert them where necessary."

Belonging Based On Allegiance, Not Ethnicity

In Chaucer's time, just emerging from the Crusades, the situation was simple. The English were Christian, the good guys, while they — out there — were Muslim, the enemy. There were no blurred lines of allegiance.

Today, as some see battle lines drawn once again between the West and the Muslim world, the situation in Britain and the rest of Europe is much more complex. Muslims are living right here, with the same rights of citizenship as everyone else. Most of them are honest, law-abiding people.

Nawaz says that to prevent alienation and radicalization, Britain needs to become more like the United States.

"In America, there is more of an understanding that citizenship is based on allegiance and not on ethnicity ... and it's allegiance to a set of principles, a set of values, what it means to be American," he says.

Nawaz argues that Europe needs to move in that direction as well — beyond the period when nation-states were first created and were based on ethnicity.

"We've gone beyond that now. We should move beyond that and recognize that there are citizens who have been born and raised for generations in Europe who are Muslim and they are European," Nawaz says. "And as a result, their citizenship is based upon allegiance to Europe and the values of Europe."

Integration Vs. Assimilation

But some say that's exactly the problem. Many young British Muslims who are not extremists do not have allegiance to secular, liberal European values, and even for a non-Muslim looking around in British society, it's not hard to see why.

Mainstream Britain has been captivated in recent weeks by the life and death of a 27-year-old Londoner named Jade Goody. She wasn't famous for any talent as such, except taking part in a reality television show and exposing her personal life in public.

But the media couldn't get enough of her. Then, tragically, she was diagnosed with cancer, and her recent death, like her life, was also covered in minute detail by the media.

Faced with what they perceive as such empty celebrity culture, not to mention an oversexualized society that drinks far too much, many Muslims want to retreat even more.

In every coffee shop in London's East End, you'll find people like lawyer Moynul Islam, who pay their taxes, obey the law, contribute to society, but simply don't want to buy into liberal secular Britain.

"When they talk about Britishness, I believe they mean that we should accept the British liberal values," he says. As enumerated by Islam, those values include overpopulated prisons, the breakdown of the nuclear family, the tearing apart of the social fabric.

"Maybe we don't want to associate with that — rather we like this idea of big families, families sticking together, not shifting our parents into old [folks] homes, rather looking after them," he says.

Muslims want to integrate, he says, but they won't sacrifice their beliefs just to be the same as everybody else. Finding that balance between being British and being Muslim is going to be at the heart of attempts to resolve Britain's identity crisis in the years to come.

Beyond London

Despite all the problems of integration and multiculturalism, it's easy once you start walking on the busy Canterbury Road to forget about them and just get lost in English history. There's so much of it all around you.

Early American history is represented here, too: Southwark Cathedral, where John Harvard was baptized; the Mayflower pub, right on the river, where the Mayflower set off for the New World in the 1600s.

Heading beyond suburbia into the outskirts, the road climbs a hill and, suddenly, opens up to the county of Kent — with Canterbury out in the distance somewhere. The issues rural England faces are not the same — in fact, it's a whole different world.

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