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Title Questioning Citizenship
Author Shahid Ashrif
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Racism, Informal Education



Questioning the concept of democracy and its relationship to ‘civilised’ behaviour

Only recently, Tony Blair, in an interview about the impending elections in Zimbabwe, declared that there were no half measures in democracy. This soundbite denies the different forms of democracy that do or can exist. It is not particularly democratic that a privileged group of unelected, titled and unrepresentative elderly (mostly) men should be able to make and amend our laws.5 Democracy might be defined as paying heed to the will of the majority, but this does not necessarily imply that the majority view is either sensible or just.6 To complicate matters further, democratic models used in Europe vary considerably - even as they do within the British Isles. The elections to the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies were not conducted in the same manner that we elect our parliamentary representatives in England. Ironically these structures and systems were put in place by Mr. Blair’s government which does not think them appropriate for the English. The debacle over the election of George W. Bush reflects poorly on that nation’s claim to be a democratic country. In Britain too, we have in recent years, been faced with a political party coming to power as the legitimate government despite having either less than 50% of the electorate’s support, or having fewer votes nationally than the opposition party.

The notion of civilised is subjective and extremely difficult to define objectively. The literature on philosophy contains a great deal about civilised and civilisation. It is also worth pointing out that the US in particular, but more generally, Europeans claim their concept of civilisation and democracy originated in ancient Greece. The Greeks practiced slavery, denied women rights and engaged in occasional human sacrifice. Besides that, modern Europeans have attempted to deny the influence of Black peoples’ idea on Greek thought despite the fact that the Greeks themselves were quite forthright about the influences upon their ways thinking. 7

Below, I have set out some of the questions I posed about the concept of ‘civilised’ during my recent input to the Black Perspectives module at DMU. In answering the questions below, the reader ought to consider whether major oppressions were operating against women, Black people, gays or the peasantry (as in feudalism) and whether such groups were able to participate in democratic decision making. The reader might wish to consider whether civilisation is characterised only by art and music – or technology, for that matter. If art, music and technology are the only hallmarks of civilisation then it is difficult to sustain the notion that some human societies are uncivilised. If a society is to be deemed civilised, we need to identify what qualifies it to be categorised in that manner. (An understanding of history of the periods mentioned below would assist considerably in answering the questions.)

Were the ancient Greeks civilised?

Were the English civilised during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1?

Were the Americans or any European nation civilised during the 18th Century?

Were the British civilised during the period of the Raj?

Were Germans during the Third Reich civilised?

Was the dictator Franco’s Spain civilised?

At what stage did European nations (including the US) become civilised?

Can a nation be considered civilised while its population is itself not considered civilised in its behaviours?

Is there any correlation between a nation being civilised and its political organisation or democracy?

There is another aspect that needs to be considered in this analysis - that is the relationship between the so-called civilised West and non-democratic and allegedly uncivilised nations. Despite their stated values and principles the US and Britain have consistently supported, consorted and traded with non-democratic oppressive regimes, ranging from South Vietnam (before America’s undeclared war against North Vietnam,), the military Junta in Greece during the 1970s, to Indonesia, Philippines and Latin America during the same period.8 Despite the Carter and Reagan administrations’ alleged championing of human rights abroad, the reality was quite different. As the literature shows, those and other US administrations helped to overthrow democratically elected governments in Latin America, provided fascist governments with the training and hardware to oppress their populations and turned a blind eye to the invasion of sovereign territories. (See references to Pilger & Zinn’s writings.) The only consistency demonstrated by the US and Britain in its pursuance of human rights and attitude towards undemocratic and ‘uncivilised’ nations has been the pursuit of profit. Essentially that has been the primary motive in most of the US and Britain’s dealings with the rest of the world. I end this section by posing the question whether an alleged civilised society can be considered civilised if it aids and consorts with allegedly ‘uncivilised’ societies.

Cultural Diversity & Equality

Since Mr. Blunkett’s pronouncements about the uprisings in Oldham and Bradford,9 he has been provocative and offensive in his statements about citizenship and the cultural values of sections of the Black community. Blunkett is an unreconstructed assimilationist and has set back the debate about our plural society.10 Perhaps Blunkett can tells us the relevance of the language issue to the Asian youths who retaliated against racist provocation and underemployment. The Home Secretary’s comments about arranged marriages plays to the White public’s ignorance about the distinction between arranged and forced marriages. No community believes in forced marriages and as for arranged ones, they vary considerably in the extent to which they are arranged and the room the prospective bride and groom have to manoevre. Arranged marriages have in racist discourse become identified with Asian communities, thereby denying the extent of parental control and approval operating in European styles of marriage. The degree of approval and control exercised by the upper classes is even greater than in the general populace and at its most extreme among royalty. (The monarch cannot be Catholic and hence potential heirs are discouraged from marrying a Catholic - even though Catholics and Protestants are sects of the same religion!) The Home Secretary’s unwelcome advice about Asians finding partners in Britain instead of finding them in the subcontinent is motivated by concerns about Black immigration to this country.11 The laws as they already exist, permit the removal of a divorced woman whose marriage to a British citizen fails. Interestingly, a man married to a British citizen would not be removed in the event of the marriage breaking down because the man is considered to be the breadwinner and head of the household! Both racism and sexism has become institutionalised within our immigration laws.

The reasons for some British Asians choosing partners from the subcontinent needs to be understood in terms of a reaffirmation of the values of Indian society. These values are important to Asian communities as evidenced in the fact that Asian communities, despite being aware of the bureaucratic delays and harassment suffered at the hands of the immigration service, continue to seek partners from the subcontinent. The effect of racism on minority cultures is to make them inward looking, less adventurous and to push them towards ossification. One of the more readily available remedies to this is an injection of fresh people and ideas into the minority communities from closely related communities that are less constrained culturally.

The majority of White Britons may not consider religion an important aspect of their lives but to Asian communities it forms the backbone of their respective cultural communities. Not surprisingly, such communities wish marriage partners drawn from the same faith communities. It is naïve and pious hope that has White liberals argue that in matters of marriage religion should not matter. To date, devout or practising Christians have rarely married outside their own faith community.

Why should the choice of partners be limited for Asian communities living in Britain? (The term ‘Asian’ disguises a considerable amount of heterogeneity in terms of regional and national cultures.) The government preaches ‘choice’ yet it seeks to restrict the choice of potential partners to people living in this country without providing any rationale for its behaviour. The reality is that marriages between different ethnic groups are increasing in frequency, particularly among professional classes in the Asian community. My own marriage is an example. I as a Pakistani Punjabi Muslim living in Britain chose to marry an Indian Gujerati Muslim living in Britain. When I first decided to marry, I had not intended marrying outside my own ethnic group because I did not wish the issue of language and culture to add to the difficulties of making a marriage successful. One of the important factors in my decision to marry my Gujerati partner was that she was a fluent Urdu speaker ( - the official language of Pakistan). The language of communication in our household is a mixture of Urdu and English since my facility with Gujerati is still poor, as is my partner’s facility with Punjabi. It is important to recognise that languages are about more than simply speaking differently. Languages are intimately linked to ways of thinking. Some concepts in one language may be absent or considered alien in other languages. There also exist subtleties to concepts in some languages that are absent in other languages – the Inuit Indians having numerous words for snow that distinguish between the different types/properties of the snow. In the context of differences in languages, the issue of rearing children becomes complex. Consideration needs to be given to which language and culture ought to be transmitted to children. (This is an issue that is probably irrelevant to the majority of White monolinguals in Britain.) These are important considerations if one believes in cultural continuity. This matter cannot be ignored because of some naïve, confused, liberal notion of ‘love conquering all’. Pluralism does not involve the unspoken assumption that respect for different cultures is temporary – that is, an expectation that in time minority cultures will be assimilated. Yet that has been the true agenda of British governments, as the published literature about ‘race’ policies and the enactment of the Town & Planning Act 1966 (section 11 funding) confirms.


Blunkett is quite forthright about wanting Asian communities to change their cultural practices - without any consideration of the consequences. Britain has never had any government that has asked for changes in the cultural practices of the White Britons to accommodate Black Britons. What cultural practices might White Britons be prepared to forgo to integrate with minority communities? British society could give up the practice where all social activities revolve around the consumption of alcohol.12 It is interesting that even in multi-ethnic workforces across Britain it is common for staff social activities to be organised in such a manner as to permit the consumption of alcohol. Many White Britons who profess to believe in multiculturalism or claim to respect diversity, when it comes to the crunch, are not prepared to forego alcohol even for one evening.

It is legitimate to question why one ought to swear allegiance to the monarch when she is not democratically elected. It would not be unreasonable to expect the majority population to also  swear allegiance to the queen. If one does not believe in the monarchy it would be hypocritical to swear allegiance to the queen. There is a need for clarification of the relationship between allegiance to a nation (and its symbols), and the right to dissent and challenge the actions of its government.

The talk of tests of functional literacy leaves unanswered whether children can be considered citizen in Blunkett’s Britain. Furthermore, given the level of adult illiteracy, one might expect all adults in this country to undertake a test of reading and writing ability. To do otherwise would be to further institutionalise discrimination. When Blunkett expects people to learn about British culture, perhaps he can tell the population what constitutes British cultural customs, practices and norms. Specialist consultant in the field of racial equality have found that White Britons have great difficulty defining what it means to be British or English. White Britons need to at least debate the issue and come to a decision about what they think it means to be British/English. This should happen before governments dictate what minorities need to learn about British customs and ways of life.

The idea of citizenship has for a long time been associated with the right to hold a British passport. Past governments have manipulated the (patriality) rules to deny Black people citizenship and right of entry into this country. Governments have even gone to the length of creating different categories of British citizenship, some of which deny citizens the right of entry to this country. James Callaghan’s Labour government rushed legislation through parliament within 48 hours to prevent British passport holders from East Africa, being expelled by a tyrannical regime, from exercising their right of entry to Britain. (Many of these British passport holders from East Africa were dumped on the Indian government as if they were the responsibility of the Indian government.) Although citizenship remains within the gift of government to grant, one might still reasonably expect the government to ensure that all its citizens are given equal rights and treatment. Yet governments have permitted inequality to flourish and through their policies even encouraged inequality and discrimination. (The literature about discrimination upon the basis of ‘race’, gender, disability and age is extensive.) The present Labour government has already set the precedent of ‘internal’ exile for certain individuals of Irish extraction. This is a fundamental denial of the right of freedom of movement. The Labour government has proposals to abolish the right of defendants to a trial by jury. But even here, such proposal will impact differentially upon Black communities, as Sivanandan, the director the Institute of Race Relations has pointed out. It seems the current government wishes to perpetuate the behaviour of previous administrations in maintaining the situation where some citizens are treated less equally than others.

There is little likelihood of Black citizens being afforded equality when women in this country are already systematically discriminated against,. Those who point to the Race Relations Act and the recent strengthening of the statutory duties of local authorities to ensure equal opportunities and the elimination of discrimination, need to inquire what mechanism have been set in place to ensure that such duties are carried out. Furthermore, why does such legislation not apply to the government and ministers of the crown? There are no systematic inspections of local authorities with regard to racial (or gender) equality and social justice? Through its various agencies, the government inspects schools, prisons and more recently, hospitals – why not local authorities? One has to wonder, why a government obsessed with setting tough targets for schools, LEAs, hospitals and police, should be shy of setting targets for racial or gender equality. What we have is the pretence of equal opportunities and equal rights, but little real change. The government continues to talk about the duties of citizens, but little about their rights.13 Citizenship is of little consequence unless it guarantees rights.

In any serious debate about citizenship the questions below also need to be considered.

Are all members of a nation automatically citizens? Who are considered automatically to be citizens? If so, why?

What privileges/rights are associated with citizenship? Do all members of a nation not deserve such rights/privileges?

Upon what basis would such rights/privileges be denied to some members of society?

Can citizenship be withdrawn? Who is likely to have their citizenship withdrawn and under what circumstances?

Is the notion of citizenship of any value unless it can be withdrawn from all individuals deemed unworthy?

If citizenship is withdrawn will such individuals receive differential rights? If so, for how long?

What if any is the connection between citizenship, rights and civilised behaviour?

I am well aware that there are many other aspects or ramifications flowing from any analyses about ‘civilised’ behaviour and citizenship, but there is insufficient space to discuss these. However, the issues I have raised are important to include in any debates that the government might sponsor. Community/Youth workers might find the questions raised in this article suitable to use during group work with their respective client groups. With a view to that, I have included further reading materials that will assist discussion about these sorts of issues.


Notes, References & Recommended Reading

  1. When Mahatma Gandhi came to Britain during his campaigning for Indian independence, a British official asked him what he thought of British civilization. Gandhi replied “It would be a good idea.”

  2. History is replete with instances of where Europeans have stated their belief in certain values but then failed to practice them in their interactions with Black peoples. Despite the US constitution, until the Civil Rights Movement, Black people were denied basic rights. The values of the Geneva Convention were never extended to Black people in the colonies fighting for freedom. Even today, the US is holding without trial or charge, suspected Taliban and Al Quaida suspects in flagrant violation of the laws of the US.

  3. For a more detailed argument, see my article on Islamophobia

  4. The US government during the 1950s/1960s irradiated large sections of its population with fallout from atom bomb testing despite knowing of the deleterious effects. In fact the US government callously encouraged the population to visit testing grounds to view the explosions and the resulting sunsets caused by dust thrown into the atmosphere. After World War 2, the British government permitted the transport of many young people to Australia under the pretense that they were orphans. More recently, the medical profession permitted the removal of organs of dead children without the prior consent or notification of parents. There are numerous other examples that would cast doubt on the standards of alleged ‘civilised’ behaviour in Britain and the US.

  5. Mr. Blair’s government has made clear that it does not want a second elected chamber for parliament, preferring instead to be able to appoint Labour Party cronies to the chamber. Ironically, the Tories are arguing for a greater proportion of the upper chamber being elected than New Labour is.

  6. The idea of consensus is also problematic in the context of oppressive ideologies contaminating institutions, behaviours and ideas. Why would any individual from a minority group wish to subscribe to consensus politics when evidence demonstrates that British society is racist, sexist, homophobic, class-ridden etc.? Furthermore, it is worth asking whether Members of Parliament as representatives of the people are permitted to vote in parliament against the wishes of their electorate under the banner of ‘conscience’,  ‘independence’ or giving a moral lead. Although I personal oppose capital punishment, all polls/surveys demonstrate that the majority of the British public is in favour of hanging and yet despite this MPs have consistently voted against capital punishment.

  7. See ‘Black Athena’ and India and World Civilisation (D.P. Singhal) for further information on this aspect.

  8. For further information on this aspect, see the writings of Pilger and Zinn.

  9. See my articles concerning Asian youths & the uprisings, and the CRE pledge & politicians

  10. It was Blunkett as Secretary of State for Education that brought in regulations that impacted upon Asian parents visiting the subcontinent with their children. Despite the importance of such visits for cultural renewal and maintaining family links (- important aspects for a minority community that is constantly being attacked culturally and physically-), Blunkett decided to target Asian communities, not the education system for failing to adequately support children who go on extended visits to the subcontinent.

  11. No such comments were directed at White Britons bringing in White marriage partners from abroad the because White immigration into this country has never been a political issues unless one takes the recent issue of asylum into account. For further analysis of the asylum seekers issue, see the reference to Xeno-racism in Race & Class.

  12. Alcohol is a serious menace to society in terms of serious illness, addiction, crime, marriage breakdown and productivity in industry but no government has pursued the manufacturers and distributors of this drug. British society would be better off without this drug, but we don’t hear of abolishing the cultural practices associated with alcohol despite the serious abuses of this drug (which far outweigh the abuses of all other drugs combined).

  13. Duties tied to citizenship are unlikely to be fulfilled by citizens unless such people share a sense of community. Over the last twenty years there has been a rapid fragmentation of communities under the pressures of capitalism (and unemployment.) The cult of the individual has reached such heights that significant numbers of Britons do not consider that they have any obligations to others and do not feel the need to respect other people’s rights or property.

Suggested Reading

Ashrif, S (2001) Beyond Islamophobia; Multicultural Teaching, Vol. 19, No.2, Spring 2001; Trentham Press

Ashrif, S (2001) Charting the Development of Multi-ethnic Britain; Multicultural Teaching; Vol. 19, No. 3, Summer 2001; Trentham Press

Bernal, M (1991) Black Athena: the Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation; Vintage Publications

Cox, C (2002) ‘From Columbus to Hitler and back again’ in Race & Class Vol.43, No.3; Institute of Race Relations

Fekete, L (2001) ‘The Emergence of Xeno-racism’ in Race & Class Vol. 43, No. 2 ; Institute of Race Relations

Kundnani, A (2001) ‘In a foreign land: the new popular racism’ in Race & Class Vol. 43, No. 2; Institute of Race Relations

Paxman, J (1998) The English: a portrait of a people; Penguin Publication

Pilger, J (1998) Hidden Agendas; Vintage publications

Singhal, D.P (1993) India and World Civilisation; Rupa & Co Publications (Calcutta)

Solomos, J (1989)  ‘The Politics of Immigration since 1945’ Chapter 3 in Race and Racism in Contemporary Britain; MacMillan Press

Zinn, H (1996) A People’s History of the United States from 1492 to the Present; Longman Publications (second edition)

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