One of the more exciting aspects of working on our British [Muslim] Values project to date has been the opportunity to meet, and collaborate with, people we might otherwise never have encountered. Such encounters have been particularly rewarding, for me, for two different, if related, reasons.
In the first instance, it has afforded us a chance to hear, and engage with, the voices, stories and experiences of individuals we didn’t previously know. One of the things we were very keen to capture in the project was the diversity – and (at the time, what was a presumed) heterogeneity – of Muslims in Britain today; something particularly important given the essentialisms that course through debate around British Values (in reference to ‘us’ and ‘them’ alike). This has political importance, in this context, given the state of multiculturalism in Britain today. It also has, I think, human significance, potentially providing us with a very slightly enriched tapestry of viewpoints and understandings about life in Britain today. One of my favourite ways of capturing this kind of impetus is Paul Ricoeur’s account of the ‘good historian’ in which he suggests:
The fundamental objective of the good historian is to enlarge the sphere of archives; that is, the conscientious historian must open up the archive by retrieving traces which the dominant ideological forces attempted to suppress. In admitting what was originally excluded from the archive the historian initiates a critique of power. …The historian opposes the manipulation of narratives by telling the story differently and by providing a space for the confrontation between opposing testimonies.
In some small way, our project – as I understand it – represents an attempt to do just this. An attempt to retrieve alternative, and indeed competing, conceptions of ‘British values’ and their purported others (whether ‘radical Islam’, ‘terrorism’ ‘extremism’, or anything else) and to force a confrontation with established discourses on this phenomenon which have become now so thoroughly institutionalised in citizenship tests, counter-radicalisation policies, school classrooms and beyond.
The second aspect highlighted above refers simply to meeting people who are willing to take part in this research: to put their time, thoughts and experiences into a project for very scant immediate personal reward. Having interviewed four of our film-makers now, I have become really struck by the level of trust people have had in us, in doing this. Trust that we are who we say are; trust that the research has the ambitions we have sketched out to them; trust that we will treat their experiences – and, indeed, their work – with sensitivity and respect; and, trust that we won’t manipulate, distort or otherwise misrepresent the footage they have collected. Many of our filmmakers have spoken to their own friends or families within their footage, which, of course, adds another level of trust to this dynamic.
This experience is one I typically feel immediately after meeting one of our film-makers, often accompanied by two questions. First, would I do the same if the situation were reversed? Would I place my time, story, and friendships in the hands of someone I didn’t know? (The wonderful opening sentence of Elizabeth Dauphinee’s The Politics of Exile often comes to mind here: ‘I built my career on the life of a man called Stojan Sokolović’). And, second, how would I feel further down the line in this project should I wish to critique, deconstruct, or challenge the thoughts or politics of this person who has already given us their trust and their time? There is, I think, a very different relationship that emerges from this sort of research encounter (what a horrible phrase!) with citizens, compared to, for instance, that which comes out of interviewing elites.
None of this, of course, is to suggest that our participants don’t have their own interests, agendas, aspirations, and agency. They obviously do. One interesting thing to come out of the research to date is the diversity of explanations people have for taking part in our project. These span reasons of curiosity – ‘It would be interesting to … explore the conflict Muslims (especially younger Muslims) may feel when grappling with abiding by their religion, when certain elements of British culture e.g. the drinking culture, sexual liberty etc., so clearly conflict with this’; professional advancement – ‘I thought this is an opportunity to become a social scientist, in a way’; and, a desire for their own socio-political critique:
We need to cast open the net and look beyond the caricature of Muslims as extremists …in conflict with “British Values” … peddled not only by some sections of the media and political class, but by sections of the British Muslim community themselves. This project offers a unique opportunity to approach a section of British Muslim society that has not yet been engaged in dialogue, the voice of British Muslim women.
And, in putting these aspirations into practice through working upon the project, it is possible that our participants themselves have likely been impacted, perhaps changed, by their work. As one of our film-makers put it, reflecting back on the process of making her film, working on this project became:
very much a personal story …[exploring] my identities as British, as Muslim, as a woman: what did that mean for me?
To be able to go and speak to … women who I grew up alongside or who fit similar categories [to me] felt like a real honour … And in some ways, actually I think it’s been quite important for my relationship with those people because we finally actually have talked about things
It will be really interesting to see what happens when you start showing it to people …that will give me an idea of how successful it has been. …It’s slightly nerve-wracking, but I’d love to see what people think.
The very importance of these questions and relationships, of course, bring us squarely back to those issues of trust and responsibility with which we began.
Lee Jarvis, 20 October 2017