Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Kamila Shamsie pro-community, anti-nation

Kamila is standing up for free speech (or to be precise, the right to remain silent). This is, on the face of it, a noble cause. However as a member of the elite, she needs to check her privilege and fully appreciate the benefits of having one foot in the West and one in the East. Dual citizenship brings many material benefits yet appears to be problematic in many other ways (only one of which is to turn up one's nose at old-fashioned concepts such as nationalism and patriotism).

If immigrants are only to subscribe to the (liberal) religion of community spirit and ignore the national treasures of their adopted nation (yes, the Queen is one), then what is the purpose of getting an UK citizenship anyway? Are there no communities to be built in Pakistan? We know the answer to that: people are seeking shelter from the evil Taliban (which itself was spawned by evil Amrika).

Of course, in this day and age immigrants are not expected to be grateful for having escaped a fate worse than death, rather the host country must be grateful because diversity has gone up and large groups of people do not speak English in public (in the UK). It seems to us however that Kamila is actually encouraging trickle-down of elite thought processes which will make integration of working class immigrants more difficult. Isolated from the mainstream, such people are likely to turn angry, frustrated and resentful (especially when financial success eludes them and cultural domination of the secular West terrifies them). What will all this anger do for fostering true community spirit, Kamila?
I have had reason to think about national anthems recently myself. Last year I became a British citizen, and during the citizenship ceremony found myself merely moving my lips during most of God Save the Queen. 

The only national anthem I have ever sung in the UK is Pakistan's – but before anyone leaps to conclusions about what this might reveal about my attitudes towards the two nations of which I am a citizen, let me explain.

In 2012, a theatrical group from Pakistan performed at the Globe theatre, kicking off with a rendition of the anthem. My first response was embarrassment. But there is something deeper in me than a thought-out response, developed in my adult life, towards the symbols of nationalism: nostalgia. Every week at school we sang Pakistan's national anthem, and my friend Zerxes, playing the piano accompaniment, would add a humorous flourish between chords. I always hear those extra notes when I listen to the national anthem, and it still makes me smile as I sing. There is also this to be said for Pakistan's national anthem: the lyrics are in Persian, which renders a good portion of it unintelligible to almost everyone in the nation. We can all therefore impose our own meaning on them: "Rise up, it's time for a Revolution!" or "More TV channels now!"

The British national anthem, on the other hand, is problematic because it is impossible for anyone with the most rudimentary understanding of English to ignore what it is saying: God Save the Queen. I wish the Queen no harm, but if you want me to sing something with feeling make it "Prime minister, save our libraries". The truth is, you can probably get me to sing along to most things if the musical arrangement is attractive enough and the words don't simultaneously demand a wholehearted appreciation of God, Queen and nation – really, it's too much.

I've never given the appearance of not singing the British anthem when those around me are doing so. Instead, I move my lips meaninglessly, and only sing out such bits as "men should brothers be". I'm conscious, you see, that my failure to sing might be seen as a churlish rejection of the country in which I've chosen to live. I am aware of a whole freighted business of the migrant's relationship to their adopted nation each time I encounter the national anthem.

I expect I would sing La Marseillaise if I were in France. However, I would do so not as a national anthem, but as a revolutionary song (expect for bits such as "mâles accents"). We should each have the right to decide what a song means to us, and what singing it at a particular moment might symbolise. The underlying problem with all national anthems, regardless of their lyrics, is that too much is assumed when certain people choose not to sing them, and the assumptions are related to how "true" a citizen of the state you are deemed to be.

A Pakistani from the widely persecuted Ahmadiyya community not singing Pakistan's anthem would face greater hostility than I would, even though I'm now living outside Pakistan. A French minister born in French Guiana who remains silent during La Marseillaise at a public ceremony to commemorate the abolition of slavery will face hostility even though other ministers routinely don't sing along. This is true even though – or perhaps because – the minister in question was instrumental in bringing about a law that recognised slavery as a crime.

Jingoism, nationalism, patriotism, community spirit. I would immediately look askance at anyone who lacks the last and possesses the first. The two words in between are more complicated. The national anthem can represent any one of those four terms – or none – to the citizens of a state. But everyone in a nation should have the equal right to sing or not sing. And surely, we should care more about the laws politicians propose than what they do when a band strikes up. Or where they were born. Or their skin colour.
Link: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/14/dont-sing-national-anthem-if-you-dont-want-to


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