Britain Struggles With Questions Of Identity A walk from London along the road to Canterbury reveals much about Britain's changing landscape. As immigration increases and the pillars of the old identity, such as empire and monarchy, have been eroded, many communities have withdrawn into a tribal loyalty, with the spotlight on Muslims.
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Britain Struggles With Questions Of Identity

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Britain Struggles With Questions Of Identity

Britain Struggles With Questions Of Identity

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From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Unidentified Man #1: (Middle English spoken)

SIEGEL: Those are the opening lines to one of the most important works of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," read here in the original Middle English.

Unidentified Man #1: (Middle English spoken)

SIEGEL: Chaucer was writing in the late 14th century. His story about a group of pilgrims heading from London to Canterbury is a snapshot of medieval English life. And 600 years or so after Chaucer, we thought it would be interesting to see what has changed and what hasn't.

So we asked NPR's Rob Gifford to follow the pilgrim's path, and to walk the 60 miles himself.

(Soundbite of busy road)

ROB GIFFORD: It was not Geoffrey Chaucer but Samuel Johnson in the 18th century who said that the man who's tired of London is tired of life. It was true for Johnson, it was probably true for Chaucer, and it is still true today. And there are few places I'd rather be standing than here on the windswept Waterloo Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben over to my left here, St. Paul's Cathedral off to the right, and below me the River Thames, perhaps the only constant in a city and a country that's changed so much since Chaucer's time. And this journey in his footsteps is a chance to see exactly how much it has changed.

But like Geoffrey Chaucer, my journey starts with a feast at a restaurant right where Chaucer and his merry band ate before they set off for Canterbury. It's called Roast, and it's been credited with resurrecting British cuisine. Its owner, appropriately enough for modern London, is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants. And his name is Iqbal Wahhab.

Now, Iqbal, tell me about this resurrection of British cuisine. I thought British cuisine was dead and buried. Or perhaps it just tasted that way.

Mr. IQBAL WAHHAB (Owner, Roast): British food had been dead and buried 'til 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. 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.

GIFFORD: I think I'm going to go for the potted (unintelligible) meat kippers to start with, and possibly the slow-roast goose leg with a spiced, poached pear. That sounds like the kind of meal for a hungry pilgrim, I think.

Mr. WAHHAB: And don't forget to leave some space for rhubarb crumble and custard afterwards.

GIFFORD: (unintelligible)?

Mr. WAHHAB: (unintelligible) no, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GIFFORD: The problem is that it wasn't just the roast beef and the Yorkshire pudding that got lost in the shuffle from monocultural to multicultural society. 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 all 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 most of all, and a journey across the British landscape, in many ways, has to begin with them.

Mr. MAAJID NAWAZ): I think there is an identity crisis in mainstream Europe and Britain, in particular.

GIFFORD: Across the River Thames to one of the centers of London's Muslim community near Brick Lane, I'm meeting Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist who spent 13 years trying to radicalize young, British Muslims. Now, he's given up his extremist views and is working to prevent Britain's Muslim youth from following that path.

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

Mr. NAWAZ: 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. No. There are certain values that we believe in this country are values for Britain. And so we shouldn't have a lack of confidence in those values, and we should assert them where necessary.

GIFFORD: In Geoffrey Chaucer's time, just emerging from the Crusades, the situation was simple. We were Christian, the good guys. 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. The Muslims are living right here, with the same rights of citizenship as everyone else. Most of them are honest, law-abiding people.

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

Mr. NAWAZ: In America, there's more of an understanding that citizenship is based on allegiance and not on ethnicity, and not on anything else. And it's allegiance to a set of principles, a set of values, what it means to be American, you know. It needs to move into the direction that Europe has gone beyond, the period when nation-states were first created, because they were based on ethnicities.

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

GIFFORD: 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.

(Soundbite of news clips)

Unidentified Man #2: This is BBC News, the headlines at 9 o'clock. Jade Goody dies in her sleep. The 27-year-old...

Unidentified Man #3: Headline Report. The reality television star Jade Goody...

Unidentified Man #4: Jade Goody has lost her battle with cervical cancer. We'll talk to our entertainment...

GIFFORD: Mainstream Britain has been captivated in recent weeks by the life and death of a 27-year-old Londoner called 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 in the media.

Faced with what they perceive as such empty celebrity culture, not to mention an oversexualized society that drinks far too much, the danger is that 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.

Mr. MOYNUL ISLAM: When they talk about Britishness, I believe they mean that we should accept the British values, in terms of the liberal values. Liberal values mean overpopulated prisons, family breakdown, social fabric has torn apart. This is what it means. Maybe we don't want to associate ourselves with that. Rather, we like this idea of big families, families sticking together, not shifting our parents into old homes. Rather, looking after them.

GIFFORD: 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 for the years to come.

(Soundbite of a busy roadway)

GIFFORD: But despite all the problems of integration and multiculturalism, it's easy just to enjoy London. It's a fantastic city. And once you start walking on the busy Canterbury Road here, it's easy just to get lost in English history. There's so much of it all around you. And Early American history, too: Southwark Cathedral, where John Harvard was baptized; and the Mayflower pub, right on the river, where the Mayflower set out for the New World in the 1600s.

Then into miles and miles of suburbia - London is so huge - until finally now, I've reached the outskirts. A busy road has climbed a hill here, and suddenly, laid out in front of me, is the County of Kent, with Canterbury out there in the distance somewhere. And the issues of rural England are not the same - in fact, it's a whole different world.

This is Rob Gifford, NPR News, on the Canterbury Road, on the edge of London.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, Rob Gifford moves deeper into Kent, and we hear more about Britain struggling with its multicultural identity. The new Canterbury tales also continues online at, where you can explore an interactive map of the road from London to Canterbury, and preview the rest of Rob's journey.

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