Sunday, September 18, 2005

Coconuts and extremists

I should state at the outset that this post is going to offend some people, and I apologise. However, I have constantly returned to this theme in my thoughts and have only desisted writing on it as a matter of politeness. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that the matter should be stated in clear terms.

First of all, a word or two on coconuts and extremists. Most people are presumably familiar with the identity characterisation of extremists. It is a lay conception which if disputed remains well-understood. ‘Coconuts’ is a pejorative term describing those that have opted for social mobility while simultaneously abandoning their cultural and religious heritage. They are brown on the outside, white on the inside.

There seems to be a process at play which has repeated itself across a wide variety of situations, most specifically in the media but this also applies to cultural matters in general. I don’t wish to mention names, but if readers remain alert to these issues then they will undoubtedly come across another example in the near future. The process is as follows. A coconut for a wide variety of reasons decides to leave their community and adopts a position of criticism and rejection to their background. He enters the world of journalism on the back of this critique, makes it clear that this is his stance and attempts to make himself accepted as somebody without such a background i.e. on his own terms. The pathways to achievement are open to him and success is relatively more attainable. However, the coconuts then face an obstacle in that their employers persist in viewing them as ethnic representatives. This takes a rather comical turn when these same coconuts are asked to return to their communities to provide some analysis on these same communities for the wider public. They are then seen returning to their old families and friends while asking for some kind of access to the people and issues that matter. It also introduces a conflict of interest into the equation as their personal life trajectories (and presumably emotions) are tied deeply to the object of study. Rushdie, as a literary example, is the prototype as he constantly comments on the people that he hoped to have turned his back on about four decades previously. This whole process also confounds the whole nature of cross-cultural understanding. It is in the interests of the coconuts that the extremists are forever presented as unreasonable. The day that the extremist alternative is legitimated is the same day that the coconut option loses its credibility, that is, once the extremists are accepted – the coconuts will look silly standing alone on Mount White Elephant. I am not interested in denigrating people who have chosen alternative ways of living, but I do find it difficult that my path towards inclusion – metaphorically speaking – is perpetually problematised by those who have an irredeemable conflict of interest. This process needs to be examined, and extremists or should we say ‘practising Muslims’ should be given a chance to present themselves on their own terms.

On the point of inclusion, I should also mention a couple of incidents that made me laugh (post hoc) but which nevertheless describe the politicised nature of this whole process. Goffman speaks of the point at which the actor moves from backstage to frontstage as an important point to pick up on the subtleties of the whole process. I have attempted moves towards inclusion (i.e. from backstage to frontstage) on numerous occasions. On one such occasion, I had been attending an academic seminar for quite a while but had never spoke. One day I decided to muster up some courage to make my point which was on social constructionism (i.e. that people live within their own worlds of understanding). I was immediately responded to by a colleague who suggested that I believed in the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. I was completely shocked by his intervention and unfortunately did not have sufficient wit about me to respond. Another time, I managed to gain access to a policywonk meeting. As I was doing the rounds at the end, one Asian non-Muslim organiser came up to me and made an anti-Semitic joke (again about Jewish supremacy) and then laughed. I kept a straight face and politely explained why her opinion was wrong. No doubt, if out of politeness, I had nervously laughed along, I would have been termed an anti-Semite thereafter. Both incidences reveal the terse nature of incorporation and the prejudices involved. Muslims are at present under-represented in all areas of public life. A transition towards a more equitable outcome will require an understanding of why the situation is as it is today.