A year or so ago I wrote a series of blog pieces entitled “Blood & Belonging” which investigated the various factors that cause people to feel part of, or excluded by, various communities – whether defined by place of residence, religion, race, or other factors. (Click here for the previous post in the series).
I have been motivated to continue the series by two recent articles in the Guardian.
One of these was a comment piece by Giles Fraser, entitled Assimilation threatens the existence of other cultures (9 December). The other was a report about an attempt by parents in Switzerland to have their children exempted from mixed swimming classes ar school. The latter reported that the parents claimed that “their religion prevented their children from taking part” in the classes. Of course, “their” can be interpreted in two ways here – as referring to the parents or the children. If the latter, I must say that I cannot accept that children can be considered to have a religion if they are not yet at an age at which they are capable of making an adult assessment of religious beliefs, independent of any such “beliefs” that may have been thrust upon them. And if “their” relates to the parents, it is not clear why the parents’ religion should affect their children’s rights. After all, when parents send their children to school, they give up some of the responsibility for their upbringing. Why should the question of whether they can attend mixed swimming classes override this delegation of authority?
The Fraser article highlighted the case of “a lad of 20 who has lived in the borough of Hackney all his life. He was born here and grew up here. And he’s a bright boy – yet he speaks only a few very rudimentary words of English”. Fraser is a former Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s, who rose to prominence during the occupation of land adjacant to the cathedral in 2011, which he supported. His regular Guardian column is entitled Loose Canon, which is presumably meant to indicate that he writes as a Christian, but is happy to criticise the church’s “party line”.
Fraser says that he admires the insularity of the community in which the young man lives. He takes issue with Louise Casey, who, at the time of writing in early December, had just published her report on integration of immigrant communities in the UK. He queries her apparent assumption that integration is “a self-evidently good thing”.
Fraser appears to see only two options for such communities, namely isolation and assimilation. He admires “the resilience of a community that seeks to maintain its distinctiveness and recognises, quite rightly, that assimilation into the broader culture would mean the gradual dilution, and the eventual extinction, of its own way of life”. I wrote to the Guardian’s letters page, pointing out that this was a somewhat simplistic view, but sadly the letter was not published. This may have been out of concern that my letter would offend members of the community in question; yet regardless of considerations of community, surely bringing up a child without allowing him to learn the language of the country in which he lives is a simple case of cruelty. For however tighly-knit the community he belongs to, there must surely come a time when he will need to ask directions, or buy a train ticket, or conduct one of the myriad other transactions that we all take for granted every day.
Fraser points out that “the very nature of community is that there is a boundary between those who are in it and those who are not”. A boundary, yes – but not a barrier, not a Trump-style wall. Boundaries can be crossed; what the unfortunate lad lives in sounds more like a prison.
“Community” is an interesting concept. Many of us lament the death of local communities, citing the disappearance of local shops and workplaces, not knowing our neighbours, anonymous concrete jungles, etc etc. But there are, of course, other types of community than those based on locality – there are religious communities, expatriate communities, communities based on hobbies and interests, communities based on gender identity, workplace and even, of course, on-line communities. It is not, to use Fraser’s term, a “self-evidently good thing” for these communities to exist or survive, although in most cases, I think most of us would say that they were worth preserving, and certainly did not do any harm by existing. But if the continuation of the community comes at the price of an individual’s basic rights, then we should think very carefully about this.
The community Fraser is talking about is, I believe, a community based on religion. No doubt the parents of the boy in question had two things in mind when deciding not to allow him to learn English: firstly, their wish to do the right thing as parents, and secondly, the interests of the community. However, it is difficult to see how the first of these fits in with their decision. Wouldn’t any parent want their child to have the means to communicate?
Without knowing any more about why they made the decision, it is difficult to understand it. But it is difficult to see how it could have been interpreted as being in the interests of the child.
All of this reminds me of the words of Kahlil Gibran:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
(From The Prophet)