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Oxford student: 'If Shamima was white, we wouldn't be debating'

Following today's the Supreme court decision to grant Shamima Begum the right to return to the UK to challenge the Home Office’s decision to revoke her British citizenship in person. Muslim Eye's reflects on the controversy by publishing an article first issued 6th March 2019 in Oxford Mail.

By Oxford University student Roy Celaire, who crowdfunded his £30,000 place at Keble College.

The debate around the rescinding of Shamima Begum’s citizenship – a young woman who left the UK aged 15 to travel to Syria – and the call by many for her to return to Bangladesh – a country she has never been to – underscores the contested, underlying nature around who can truly be British, but more specifically, English.

The idea that she can and should return to a country she is not from, makes clear the very real belief that many have in this country that if you are not white, you can never be truly English.

What has been revealing about the whole issue are the comments and the belief that many have that she should not come back to Britain as she isn’t really from here. Bangladesh has rightly stated that she is not from Bangladesh and her lawyer has already confirmed that she does not have dual citizenship. As such, the revoking of her citizenship thus leaves her stateless. I find it very difficult to believe that, had she been a white child called Lily with blue eyes and blonde hair, groomed at 15 to go to Syria, she would have had the same discourses surrounding her identity and her return.

The fact the Home Secretary Sajid Javid is himself of a South Asian background lends the situation (for many) more legitimacy: 'an Asian person said it so it can’t be racist'.

It made me think about my own identity as a Black man born and raised in England. You would think that that would qualify me as English, but many black and Asian people do not often use that term to describe themselves, often seeing British as more inclusive than English, which does not actually identify where you were born.

Even if one was to feel comfortable saying they were English, it is often, whether tacitly or explicitly, challenged by those who see themselves are the real English, the 'salt of this Earth', or as was used to describe Tommy Robinson – ex-EDL leader – as the 'backbone of this country'. The microaggressions, sometimes innocent, which are used to remind you that you are not really from here are diverse. Once, when I worked in a supermarket, a man came up to my till and randomly said: “Is it As-Salaam-Alaikum?” Naturally, I was confused. He then aggressively asked: “What languages do you speak?” I said English, and he said: “No, what other languages?” When I said I don’t speak any other languages he made a disgruntled 'urgh' sound, seeming disappointed that I was not living up to my apparent visible Otherness. A similar interaction took place, also when I worked in a supermarket, when I was asked by a white Australian where I was from. Clearly not satisfied with the response Essex, she remarked: “No, where are you really from?”

Sometimes feeling that I cannot really lay claim to Essex, since I was born and raised in London, I said: “Oh, well I was born in Hackney in East London”. I quickly realised when she then asked: “But where are you really from?”, what she was getting at.

You see, these types of questions probably wouldn’t be so problematic had the same standards been applied to white people. We don’t ask white people living in Australia, South Africa, America etc, where they are really from, and this stems from the racist idea that 'white bodies are deemed to have the right to belong, it would seem anywhere' (Wilkes, 2016*). Despite the fact that black people have lived in Britain for centuries – and in fact thousands of years – we are still seen to not truly belong, as was evidenced by the Windrush scandal. Indeed, last year archaeological findings showed that the first Briton was black. This of course caused many to scream 'PC madness'. But if we believe that human life first started in Africa, surely it wouldn’t be erroneous for this to be the case.

Essentially, we are all really immigrants. I leave you with a quote from Oxford Professor Danny Dorling’s 2019 book, Brexit and the END of Empire: Rule Britannia. “In the fifth and sixth centuries, following the fall of the Roman Empire, what we now call England was carved out by immigrant warlords to make tribal territories. A few were Saxons. Others were Vikings, Angles, Jutes, and Danish kings, who fought each other repeatedly.”

*Reference: Whiteness, Weddings, and Tourism in the Caribbean: Paradise for Sale by Karen Wilkes.

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