Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A nation within a nation ?

I will be at Lord’s next Tuesday for the first day of the Pakistan v Australia Test match – and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been a neutral at many Limited Overs matches over the years but this will be my first Test when England is not playing. I’m genuinely neutral and just want to see some good cricket. But whilst I am a neutral the same won’t apply to many thousands of spectators – if the Edgbaston Twenty20 tasters are anything to go by.

At Edgbaston, and no doubt also at Lord’s and Headingley, the grounds will be mainly populated by unmistakable Pakistan supporters. These are not, of course, the equivalent of the travelling "Barmy Army" - here on a cricket supporters’ visit from Karachi or Lahore. No - they were nearly all young people of Pakistani descent who are, I suspect, mostly born, bred and living in Britain - and with British Passports tucked away back home. And when England plays Pakistan later in the summer it will be the same – large swathes of green clad fans will be cheering on England’s opponents. Now in a country with Britain's freedoms these Pakistan supporters are entitled to support whatever sports team they like. That is their right. I just wish that, in sporting terms, they could be committed to the country of their chosen future rather than the country of their ancestors. I wish that they shared the pride of many in their communities when a cricketer of Asian origins (Ajmal Shajad for example) gets into the England team.

Now before anyone tries to "Colonel Blimp" me for holding these Tebbitian views let me explain a little further. If, at my advanced years, I emigrated to Australia (a country I like very much) and even became an Australian citizen it would not stop me from supporting England in The Ashes. Contradiction? Not at all. You do not cast off your personal allegiances of fifty years or more just because you relocate to another country. Once a Pom, always a Pom. But if I had children born and educated and working in Australia I would expect them (encourage them) to support the Aussies.

Sport, even cricket, is essentially trivial but in the case of nationality and allegiance sport can be a force for good, binding people of different backgrounds and cultures together in a common cause. When Amir Khan won a silver medal in the boxing at the Athens Olympics I rejoiced along with him and his family who, whilst of a very different background to me, are all now as authentically British as I am. And there is certainly no more patriotic Englishman than Nasser Hussain (or his late father Jo for that matter) notwithstanding their Indian origins.

So sport can be a force for good in binding people together whether it be in the England team (with their disparate national and cultural backgrounds) or those who support them in the stands. So why if you were born and raised in (say) Bolton of parents who emigrated from Pakistan would you support Pakistan and not England? It is emphatically not the same as your choice as to whether to support Bolton Wanderers or Manchester United. The reason any of us supports one club football team rather than another are many and varied and rarely even remotely contentious. But to openly reject supporting the national football or cricket team - the one that represents the country of your birth and of your nationality is a very different matter. All too often the failure of a young person, born in England and who grew up here, to support our national sports teams is an act of protest and a sign that he is, to a degree, alienated from his country. And yes, notwithstanding the triviality of sport, that alienation does matter and is potentially very disturbing.

Now this argument begins to get a bit heavy. Had the young Yorkshireman (born and bred in Leeds) Mohammad Sidique Khan chosen to express his discomfort with the British way of life by wearing a Pakistan cricket shirt and cheering on Pakistan few would have given his actions a moment’s thought. But that was not Mr Khan's choice - he chose to express his alienation as a suicide bomber on a Circle Line train in London on 7th July 2005. Mr Khan's actions were those of someone on the lunatic fringe of the alienated but they stemmed, nevertheless, from the same basic causal roots as the entirely innocent actions of those Britons who choose to support Pakistan rather than England at a cricket match.

I have never believed that, in Britain, cultures should be subsumed into some bland, generic "Britishness" that is predominately white and Anglo-Saxon and has broadly "Christian" values. I enjoy the diversity of modern Britain and don't want it to change back. But I do believe that this diversity can co-exist with a common pride in our nation and our nationality that all can share whatever our backgrounds. And I also believe that to support our national sports teams, irrespective of our origins or roots, can be a spur to the reduction of alienation and to unity. The less alienated any of us feels the more likely it is that the extreme expressions of alienation, such as that which happened in London on 7/7/05, will be less likely to happen again.

To return to cricket. The MCC is congratulating itself for having sponsored the Pakistan/Australia encounters this summer and in purely cricketing terms few would argue that these are not worthwhile matches – especially as Pakistan cannot play international matches at home at the moment. Having said that did anyone at the MCC think about the broader implications and consequences of this sponsorship? The organisers of these matches obviously chose London, Birmingham and Leeds as the venues because of the large numbers of people of Pakistani origin in these regions. But I wonder if the MCC and others responsible for the matches would agree that they have provided another context for the open expression of a Pakistani nationalism by British citizens? For the vast majority of these people the support will be benign – but moves which legitimise this nationalism in a fairly harmless way for the majority also provide a legitimised context for much less benign expressions of nationalism by a minority. Recently the “Centre for Social Cohesion” released details of the profiles of 124 individuals convicted of Islamic terrorism offences in Britain since 1999. This showed that 69 per cent of offences were perpetrated by individuals holding British nationality.

Now it may be that some of the British Asians so strongly supporting Pakistan versus Australia will switch allegiance to the country of their birth and nationality and support England in the upcoming Test matches. But I doubt that it will be many of them! In effect the Pakistan v Australia matches overtly acknowledge – even celebrate - that we have a nation within a nation in Britain and many of us, however liberal our views and welcoming of cultural diversity we are, will regret this – and worry about it.

This article is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in the cricket fanzine “Yes, No, Sorry” in 2006

No comments: