My Grandad the Extremist

I had a wonderful and close relationship with my grandparents. This was due in large part to the fact that I was their only child’s only child, and my father died when I was less than two years old. This positive and loving relationship was, at times, also a very intense one. As former teachers, on half term breaks they would eek out every second to educate and influence me in the short time they had. Between informal lessons we would often clash on differing perspectives inherent in the generational gap. This revolved around essential rifts between my endorsement of values underpinning societal changes (as I understood them via my liberal influences), and my grandparent’s attachment to the righteousness of things as they once were – and should remain. Topics of disagreement ranged from corporal punishment in schools, the need for school uniform, sexuality, whether or not gollywogs on jam jars were racist, or the legitimacy of modern pop music as an art form. These all caused angry and frustrated exchanges. My grandparents were sweet, kind and gentle souls, but like many of us could quickly turn tyrannical when their core values were threatened.   

As is typical my rage as a young man tempered as I grew older. I was better able to concede on certain things I was previously stubborn about and on others I could calmly live with my grandparents views when able to comprehend how things must appear to them. In calmer conversations I think I managed to shift their thinking to some degree, and they mine. In many ways the evolution of this relationship forms some fundamentals of dialogue; the possibility of changing minds when we reduce the imperative to do so, reducing angry reactions and encourage understanding.

But my grandparents were not one of the same and had their own differences. When it came to my grandad he held broader more timeless principles of socialism and fairness that I could agree with and was influenced by. His passionate objections to the extremes of wealth and poverty have stayed with me. It wasn’t here that we clashed. We clashed because despite being a staunch socialist, trade unionist and Labour supporter his whole life, my grandad was undoubtedly a big C Conservative when it came to social and cultural traditions. 

It is the nature of Conservatism in this sense that is so often overlooked in the discourse on radicalisation, extremism and viewpoints deemed societally unacceptable. So it felt worth recalling some of his views and relating them to current controversies.  

“It all started with this audience participation”. Something the ‘yanks’ imported into our culture after war. Bizarrely this first observation was made by my grandad to exemplify the root of social and cultural decline in general – a growing cultural shift from British restraint to U.S style razzmatazz. A phrase my grandad detested was “if you can’t beat em join em”. He would recall a man of his generation offering this up as an excuse while dancing at a wedding disco. Observing this modern scene with despondency  (the visual absurdity is not difficult to comprehend), he would chastise the man for these words each time he remembered them. 

This puts me in mind of the recent ding dong among Muslim figureheads regarding the legitimacy of the ‘Happy Muslims‘ video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVDIXqILqSM). As a method of transforming misperceptions of an angry and strict community it was critiqued by some as pandering to Western modes of culture – with questions raised as to why the idea of ‘fun‘ and sillyness were seen as synonymous with happiness. Such critics, at least those that claimed the video was unIslamic or inappropriate, were branded by others as the extremist counterpoint to the progressive Muslims presented in the video. Although the producers were not intending to present this kind of stark binary choice, but rather an alternative view of a diverse community, the reaction to the video presented itself as a Muslim-Western, or good Muslim-bad Muslim issue, rather than one that might transcend all cultures and religions.

The thing is my gander would have hated the happy muslims video no matter who was depicted in it. He hated the word ‘fun’. Not because he was a miserable man, far from it, but because it represent for him, gruff Yorkshireman that he was, a meaningless notion that led to people doing daft things for no good reason. A version of the Happy Muslims replacing Muslims with people his age ‘moving with the times’ and getting down with the kids to transform perceptions of the elderly would have appealed him. In fact ‘Move with the times’ was another phrase he hated – ‘what times!’ he would exhort.

Another recent ding dong that put me in mind of my grandad was the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in Birmingham schools. What ‘values’ were being implemented here? Were they part of an Islamist political plot or were they simply a manifestation of the conservative values held by the local population? What would my Grandad say? Well actually he might well agree with many of the values implemented in the schools, but as a former teacher he would be appalled at the idea of education being dictated by governors as opposed to the education authority and teachers. In this sense he would get to the root of the problem that was seemingly lost in the furore (all unpacked brilliantly in my view by Kenan Malik here: http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2014/07/20/sacred-cows-and-a-trojan-horse/ )

The point being there was and is a conversation to be had – but did it need to be such an hysterical and far reaching one? In the manifestation of Conservative Muslim values through the de-secularisation of public spaces – we have to be careful to consider what it is we are reacting to. Gender segregation for example might well be part of an extreme Islamist groups ideological agenda to infiltrate Universities and schools or it may be simply social conservatism – and we need to be able to make these distinctions. We can raise concerns, Muslims and non-muslims alike without calling out ‘gender apartheid’ as if gender division is, in and of itself, an anathema to everything this country has ever stood for. My grandad abhorred the liberal mixing and frolicking of couples he observed on the modern University campus, and would have preferred the system as was, of regulated and monitored courting and strict divisions in many other spaces.

Many Islamic ideologues would like to portray Western society as essentially permissive and debauched (‘Defined by pornography’ an observation I recently heard from a member of a Muslim panel discussing the Caliphate). Many Islamophobes would like to present Western or British society as essentially liberal and progressive and at odds with Islam per se. Both miss the nuances in the less absolute value differences that may link my grandad as much to conservative Islam as modern day British culture. In this way my grandad serves as a reminder of how we so often misdiagnose the conversation. As a Muslim how quickly might he have been branded an extremist – ignoring his concomitant values as a socialist and trade unionist? When we respond to social conservatism within different communities we of all backgrounds should ask whether we are responding to an extremist ideological threat – or simply having a family debate with people we may also have much in common.

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