Thursday, 1 October 2009

Individualism vs. Collectivism

In 1982 BBC Radio 4 ran a series of interviews with members of Britain’s various Asian communities under the program title ‘Asian Links.’ The general idea was to gain a picture of how these migrant communities were adapting to life in Britain and also how they maintained contacts with their homelands. The CRE put out the interviews in book form in 1982 and a reprint in 1987. It isn’t very interesting stuff, but I thought this little extract makes a point quite well about what easy prey the individualist Brits are for more clannish groups.

Towyn Mason: The migration started, however, well before the second World War. Because of the rugged conditions in their home area, it became the custom during the early part of the century for young Mirpuris to go sea, and some, when they docked in British ports, decided to stay and earn a living. One such was Abdul Hakim, who arrived here in 1929. His great-nephew, Mohammed Amin Qureshi, a prominent figure in Bradford’s Pakistani community, told me about him.

Mohammed Amin Qureshi: He started going to the seaports, because a lot of our people were seamen, and whenever their ship came in, from them he collected some cigarettes, tobacco, and a lot of other things which were very cheap, and then he brought these things and knocked on the doors of the people and started the business of selling handkerchiefs, neckties, and other small things. After a few years, he went back to Pakistan and then told his children, ‘You’d better come to England.’ So one of my uncles came in 1934. Then they started buying things from the warehouses around them. But in the War, when they found out that the Germans were bombarding South Shields and Sheffield, and houses were empty there and they could buy cheap, one of my uncles bought a house in South Shields of his own. When he got his own house, then he wrote to all the others that, ‘You’d better come, we can get furniture cheap, we can get homes cheap.’ And then they came together in one place. Then they said, ‘This is our home now.’ So from then on all the other family of mine ...

Towyn Mason: How many members of your family now?

Mohammed Amin Qureshi: My family members, if I start counting, they are not less than eight hundred in this country.

Towyn Mason: When Mr Qureshi spoke of his ‘family’, he meant not just his immediate relatives but a wider grouping known as the ‘Biraderi’. This is a kind of brotherhood or clan, and it’s one of the basic elements of social organisation in much of Pakistan, as well as in India and Bangladesh.

Farrukh Hashmi: The nearest term is the extended family, but Biraderi is a kind of belief system, so to speak, where you believe that these are people who are supportive to you, and who will lend you money when you need it, who will support you when you are sick, who will help you, will come to your weddings and your deaths and join in your sorrows, criticise you perhaps. It’s a kind of a club which is supportive to you, but the condition for joining it is that you submit a certain amount of your individuality. In return, the Biraderi supports you back when you need it.

It’s nice to have a club like this when you’re either sick or old, but when you’re young you want to be an individualist, so you don’t want it. That’s why the younger people like to be out of the Biraderi, and older people like to go back into the Biraderi.

You can exclude people out of a Biraderi, and people can be included in it, through marriage or through relationship. It is the people who commit themselves to belonging to your family group.

Abdul Rashid: Even though we’ve moved into twentieth century England, this concept of the Biraderi still exists. If there are fundamental disputes between members of the Biraderi then they will be settled by the Biraderi themselves, even in England. And if a member of the Biraderi from, say, Birmingham, came to my house, I would respect him like a father, not just a guest, because he is part of our clan. It’s built into you to regard the Biraderi as your ultimate source of help, should you ever need it. If you have a dispute with your neighbour, then the first person you consult is the Biraderi, and they are there to be as fair as possible and to give you a fair deal like an English law court would.

Towyn Mason: The support provided by the Biraderi was particularly valuable to Mirpuris when they arrived here.

Farrukh Hashmi: The Mirpuris, and other Asians of course, tried to side­step prejudice by becoming owner-occupiers. If they applied for a council house and didn’t get it, they became owner-occupiers. To do that, they had to go and borrow money, and they could easily borrow money interest-free and be trusted to return it back.

Similarly, if they couldn’t get a job, they could go and borrow money and start their own business, start their own grocery shop or start their own cinema. So the Biraderi was a very supportive thing in terms of helping its members and lending them money and resources, which they knew would be honoured. And, through that, the Mirpuri community has been able to settle down and establish itself, because the weaker members were supported.

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