Saturday, August 13, 2005

Understanding suicide bombers

With similar incomprehension British society has been asking of the 7 July tube bombers “How could young men, born in England, personally unaffected by events in the Middle East, seemingly functional members of society, commit these acts?” Or more simply, “How could people who enjoyed cricket do this?” Obviously, in Britain and elsewhere, it has lead to a certain amount of soul-searching about whether multiculturalism has worked.

This misses the point.

The migrant experience has always involved initial ghetto-isation. The problem has never been the first generation’s coping with a new country, it has been the experience of their children.

The only place I’ve seen the point made was in a short literary essay (which shamefully, I failed to make a note of and have not been able to find on-line) on novels dealing with the alienation and anger of some children of migrants and their distinctively different experience to the generations before and after them. It was an idea I kicked around with a few friends recently, and this is a summary of my tentative conclusions.

Most migrants move for a better life. They don’t expect it to be easy and expect to work hard. Often migrants are prepared to take a step down the social ladder. Think of the archetypal foreign-trained professional who, with locally unrecognised qualifications, takes up unskilled work. Why? So their children have a shot at a better future.

Which can put a lot of pressure on the kids. One of my friends provided an example of a girl in her high-school with two African parents who had decided their first-born would be a doctor and their second-born a lawyer. Of course, the first had the gift for languages and the second for maths, but they were pressured to stick to the plan regardless. I can think of a uni friend from a migrant family (her father a successful developer), and she and all her siblings are now either doctors or lawyers.

This isn’t limited to migrant families, obviously. Many families who’ve recently “made it”, typically self-made entrepreneurs, will want to see their kids with “safe” qualifications in law, medicine, accountancy and so on.

However, second generation migrants are brought face-to-face with the hypocrisies in any society. Most western democracies are built on an egalitarian vision that “anyone can make it”. And while anyone can make it in Britain, Australia, Canada or the US – not everyone does, and there are fewer barriers for some than others. Children told by their parents they’ve come to a land of opportunity and pressured to succeed will have a more negative experience of the usual levels of incidental discrimination and suspicion of “new” migrant communities.

They may be able to make it, but will have to work harder for it than many, particularly in a post-industrial society with a shortage of blue-collar and entry-level positions.

On top of this, of course, is the potential dislocation of being caught between “home” and “national” culture. The second generation, as native speakers of the local language, are often the interpreters and intermediaries between the family and the outside world. A fine example of this, of course, is the popularity in some quarters of radical Imams who preach in English.

Caught between two cultures, the appeal of a pan-ethnic, supra-national religious identity must be strong. If already angry and alienated from your “local” culture, identifying with the suffering of Muslims elsewhere in the world can’t be particularly difficult.

None of this is to suggest that every second-generation member of a migrant community is a fiery, disaffected potential terrorist. Just that the pressures upon them are distinct and possibly unique.

A fact of the Australian experience is that by a third and certainly a fourth generation most migrant communities have lost any ability to speak fluently their “home” language. Indeed, many would regard it as pretty poor taste to suggest everyone who looks kinda Chinese, Greek or Italian should be able to speak Chinese, Greek or Italian.

Put simply, in the long run, local culture wins out.

Thinking of which, it’s not as if disaffected, violent masculinity organised on tribal lines is anything foreign to Britain. But football hooligans are no more representative of blue-collar former steel and coal towns, than the tube bombers are of their communities.

If you have a sufficiently large number of disaffected young men in a population, anger and violence is more or less inevitable. The “root causes” may lie in a lack of justice in the Middle East, but they may equally lie in social inequalities much closer to home.

If we’re going to tackle potential home-grown terrorists in multicultural societies, we need to stop thinking of them as somehow fundamentally alien and the special responsibility of “their” communities to weed out.

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