Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong for Asian Men (BBC iPlayer, available in UK only until about 12th September)
Last Sunday there was an hour-long programme on BBC2 purported to be about the problems facing young British Asian men in the UK. It was presented by one Mehreen Baig, a former teacher who previously took part in BBC2’s two-part documentary Muslims Like Us and has been a presenter on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live. Despite good reviews in the secular press, a number of my Muslim friends were deeply dissatisfied with the programme: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan in a review on Al-Jazeera called it “a lazy reproduction of racist, culturally essentialist stereotypes approved by an ‘insider’” while Ahmed Hankir offers a perspective from an actual British Asian Muslim man. To their credit, the Daily Telegraph also published a critical review from a Muslim, Hussein Kesvani, which is paywalled but the headline summarises it: ‘Young Asian men’ are facing the same problem as other men: a crisis of masculinity. I recommend reading all these reviews.
My immediate response was similar to Kesvani’s: the first part of the programme focussed on an ethnic community which has suffered a similar fate to many white communities in the same part of the country, namely seeing the industries their men worked in (for generations, in the case of the mostly white coal mining and steel working communities, and came here to work in, in this case) destroyed since the 1980s because of a combination of globalisation and politically-motivated privatisation and industry rundown. The problems in some of those places are similar to those in the northern Asian communities — men who were brought up expecting to go into a particular job and are now at a loose end, often living in towns and villages which lack any other industry or meaningful work opportunities. Not every section of the Pakistani or even Mirpuri community in the UK has this sort of challenge, any more than all white men, so it is an unrepresentative group to base a documentary about “Asian men” on. Boys falling behind girls in academic achievement is a found in some of these other parts of society as well where boys were traditionally brought up expecting to go straight into manual work.
Baig compares two very particular sub-sections of the British Asian community, the other being Ugandan Asians which she generalises as being of Gujarati origin, when in fact there is an actual Gujarati community in the UK which is made up of both Muslims and Hindus. East African Asians (who are not all Ugandan) are a mixture of Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians and offshoot sects from Islam such as Isma’ilis (the Damjis, the family Yasmin Alibhai-Brown comes from, are Isma’ilis). She presents the Ugandans as being somewhat less reverent than the Bradford Mirpuris, showing them drinking beer and a male comic dressing as a woman to make fun of Asian women. The implication is clearly that Ugandans are better integrated because they are less religious than Mirpuri Muslims, but there are other factors. Many of them were merchants in Africa who maintained contacts with each other when they moved here; Mirpuris were farmers who moved to the UK to work in textile mills, and this lack of entrepreneurial background and acumen may explain why so many are attracted to the multi-level marketing (MLM) ‘businesses’ Baig shows them involved in and does not make any attempt to investigate — they are, in fact, a scam with much in common with Ponzi or pyramid schemes, as they rely on attracting new participants rather than selling products or services, and any such scheme will collapse when there is nobody new to attract. There must, in other words, be many more losers than winners.
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan calls Mehreen Baig a native informant; her stance puts her firmly in the “Muslimander” tendency I mentioned in a post about the Boris Johnson affair — the type that ‘justifies’ the nonsense they talk about Muslims or Islam by saying “I’m a Muslim, and …”. She is relying on outsiders taking her word because she is “one of” the people she is peddling broad-brush stereotypes of. Her Twitter feed in the days after the programme aired illustrates this: it was full of retweets of positive reviews and well-wishing from various media friends and thank-yous from her. She was not interested in engaging with Muslim critics of her work, and in fact she blocked some of them including Suhaiymah. This was not a very representative picture of British Asians or the problems they face, and it did not even begin to consider racism or media and public hostility focussed on terrorism, which has been a given in discussion of “the Asian problem” since at least the 2001 riots: the problem is always Asian failure to integrate, brides from the village back home, sons treated like princes and girls like domestic skivvies, Asian-majority schools; it’s never racism, the fact that discrimination in the job market is rife, that some of the schools are just no good, not that they’re majority Asian.
The programme also had an irritatingly Dooleyesque quality: too much of it was focussed on Baig’s own reactions to what she saw, many of them banal — she once noted, for example, that the young people she met were fond of looking at the view, which showed only Bradford; it is actually quite a striking view and the city is set in a lot of the kind of natural beauty that people travel from all over the country to Yorkshire to see. A good documentary maker lets the subject matter do the talking rather than stamping their face and opinions all over it. I don’t think Asian Bradford boys are any more lost than any other group of boys from low-income backgrounds in England, and particularly the north of England, but they are certainly more stigmatised and this programme did not even begin to explore that.
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