This month in Manchester: the past is another country

The default white western view of Islam as a sealed world is wrong.

Steve Hanson
25 May 2017
mosque 3_0.jpeg

The mosque is an intrinsic part of the red brick landscape of Manchester. Image, Steve Hanson.

Three things happened this month that made me think long and hard about the cultural and political shifts currently taking place. 

The first thing that happened was a visit to a mosque in Manchester. I met the Imam, heard the call to prayer, and then observed the prayers themselves. Here was a strong corrective to the default media image of mosques as closed, female-free worlds. 

Upstairs, language classes were taking place for the young. Downstairs, people I had never met came in to pray and smiled and waved at me, the stranger. The building was ex-industrial, with its curved roof beams holding small arts and crafts flower motifs. 

The scene upstairs served as a picture of the last 50 years of city history in many ways: The old white bearded men and their wives, teaching; those who arrived through the limbs of Empire as it passed away, and as industrialism waned. 

Manchester, the prototypical globalising city, became just one more node in a globe it helped to create: it became globalised. 

My father tells a story of a back-breaking job he once did, lifting bales of raw cotton from a chute and loading them onto a wagon. The bales were from India and bore Indian writing on their packaging. Yet the Empire view of England as the 'centre' is usually portrayed, migrants 'come in' to this space to be organised by the ruling power. 

Citizenship tests in Britain illuminate how this assumption clings on, that 'they', the others, must conform to 'us', although what 'us' means seems to lie in the past. 

Many longstanding English citizens wouldn't be able to answer a lot of citizenship test questions. They are shot through with a pedantic, classed, schoolbook history, that makes the tests as old-fashioned as they are jingoistic. 

The indigenous city and the alien city are completely meshed, therefore the terms themselves, 'indigenous' and 'alien', should no longer signify. 

My father, lifting cotton bales, was in a vortex that spun raw materials, goods and labour, around the world. He was not at a benign all-knowing centre of civilisation. He was just working at one of the countless terminals of global exploitation. 

The second thing that happened this month was that my parents came out to visit me, in Manchester, England. 

We went to a café. The waiter in the cafe was Syrian. He spoke very good English, but he couldn't understand my father at first, when he tried to order. I had to do it for him. 'Nobody can understand me naa', my father said, as the coffee and cake arrived, in a Yorkshire so broad it may as well have been a foreign tongue. 

My father grew up on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border only a short drive from Manchester and worked the dying end of the cotton trade all his life. My great grandfather lived until he was very old, and I remember him speaking. His speech contained all the intonation of Methodism and the bible, of seventeenth century English. It lived on in him: 'Thee', 'thaa', 'thine' and 'thy' peppered his everyday speech. 

Yet in the café, it struck me that the past is the thing that is often offered to us as a sign of 'indigenousness.' My family have lived in the same place for generations, and when they can be tracked away from there, via the first census data, it is only a little way up the valley. 

But here was my father, struggling to make himself understood, using English, in Manchester, not far from his home town. This is exactly the place where the far right might swarm into the discussion, aggressively asserting that 'the indigenous' are being swamped by difference. 

But it isn't just people from other countries who struggle to understand his broad accent, it is the young in the town he lives in, people from outside the area, in fact anyone not familiar with his dense 'isogloss', his regional patois. 

The past is another country, but that foreign land is also always with us: The seventeenth century English my great grandfather's speech was riddled with was itself hybrid. It bore the presence of its struggle against Rome, and its earlier invasion by The Normans. Yet it is often seen as 'quintessentially English', the language of Shakespeare. There are no pure languages on earth: Language is all difference. 

Augustine's City of God equally misleadingly presented Christianity as a split between the sacred and profane. But it was never the case. The holy city and the profane city always overlapped. In Manchester, the mosque I visited sits among the dereliction, crime, drug dealing and prostitution of an inner city slump zone. 

Like Croydon for London, this area has long acted as a kind of arrival point for the city of Manchester. The Irish, then South Asian settlers made their marks on the cityscape as they came in and opened shops, bars and made places to worship. Some moved on, but some stayed, leaving a permanent trace. 

This journey mirrors the journey from the countryside to the town or city that my ancestors made when they travelled from the agricultural landscape to the industrial city. It is a journey made by black cotton pickers into Chicago, or by the Irish to mainland Britain and Manchester, during the time of the potato famine. 

All of these moves were triggered by the violence of capitalist accumulation, none of them were choices coolly made from an array of benignly offered routes. These upheavals create hybrid, meshed spaces. 

In the mosque we find a big, shared impulse of religious practice, to make order out of a chaotic cosmos. On the floors of the various prayer rooms in the mosque, all of the carpet designs point east, because this western building is oblivious to the alignment required by its current occupants. 

It was originally built facing the road that allowed materials to be imported and exported to and from it. There is a kind of disorientating cubist clash between the angles of the original walls and the new floor designs, which is not merely accidental. It seems to speak of the fundamentally meshed, but opposite geometries of the east and west. 

The west is often crudely designated the place of Enlightenment rationalism and the east of mystical irrationalism. The Greenwich Meridian is where east meets west after all. But both meet in this mosque as people return from their businesses to pray. 

Belief systems per se often have more shared characteristics than differences. For instance, the Islamic Calendar is based on the cycles of the moon and sun, as are all calendars, whether made by Pagans, French Revolutionaries, Christians, Occultists, or in fact believers in 'Enlightenment'. 

After prayers, I drank tea with one of the community organisers in the library. In between books with Arabic script down their spines were several versions of The Bible. Having visited countless churches, I know that the Qu'ran is only occasionally found there. Muslims believe in the life of Jesus Christ, Moses and Abraham. Christian and Muslim traditions overlap, rather than bifurcate. Yet the teachings of Allah are not part of the Christian faith. 

Again, this is a very different picture to that often given by the right wing media in Britain. The forced split in traditions can be traced back to Emperor Constantine and the Nicene Creed, which began to sieve the soup of fluid middle-eastern belief systems into 'Doxa', received opinion. 

The New Testament sewed the ex-Roman Paul into the fabric of Christianity forever, as a kind of alibi for its own terror against Christians. Does this sound familiar, as America goes into another round of attempts to exterminate a terror it partly created?

Of course, there are differences between Christianity and Islam. The Trinity is one big difference. For Muslims, there is One God and that is it. There is no Father, Son and Holy Ghost. There are different versions of Islamic faith too, but the mosque I visited welcomes them all, a little like Christian Unitarianism. 

There are always things that can unite us, universals, and here is a big one: In Manchester, right now, whatever you believe, disbelieve, or express ambivalence towards, the city is being ripped up and laid down again as it desperately prepares to try to shift into a new round of capitalist accumulation. 

The past might be another country, but because of this, the country is also always just another kind of past. It is up to us to deny the bigoted dogma of ‘purity’ now emerging, emboldened and empowered, with these kinds of explanations, in order to more correctly diagnose the problems of the present.

Because you know that I needn't tell you about the third thing that happened in Manchester this month. Or the fourth, that a mosque was firebombed in Oldham.

Every single Muslim I have met is for peace. Before you cast a single stone, verbal or otherwise, go and speak to one.

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