This last month, the New York Times released a podcast on the so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. The podcast is really good listening for anyone interested in the various issues that come into play when racist structures and ideologies come into contact with the petty disagreements of day-to-day life in institutions. What seems to be the driving force behind suspicions about Muslim leaders in schools during this ‘scandal’ was that there were latent prejudices about Pakistani Muslims in Birmingham that manifest themselves as abstract stories about terrorists being groomed in certain areas of Birmingham. Those abstract stories were just that: abstract. They represented strongly held beliefs, so when evidence (in this case, very weak evidence: a clearly inaccurate letter) appeared, it was much easier to believe that it because it fit with that abstract storyline with which people already were familiar. If you believe that immigrant communities are up to no good and plotting terrorism, it’s much easier to believe someone when they tell you that they have evidence of a terrorist plot.
In the stories I have been analysing so far, it’s struck me how easily people move between specific details of stories to how those stories represent the regular sorts of things that people in their lives do or did, or how those details represent the way that specific categories of people do things. It’s not just stereotyping and racism — it’s in everything people do to explain the world around them. Your father was very kind to you, and you can remember one specific time that he was particularly kind. Or the school that you went to was very strict and you can remember one time when they were particularly strict with your friend. These estimations and judgements seem to be tied to stories, and those stories, in their telling, also seem to be stories that people have told before. They aren’t ad hoc memories that appear for no reason — they are the stories that define how each individual sees the world. Hopefully, further investigation will reveal more about how exactly the process of storytelling becomes moral reasoning.
Much of the work of this project so far has been meeting people and meeting more people and then meeting more people. I have been travelling around the city the last three weeks, talking to various leaders and learning more about how religious communities live and and worship together, with while trying to get some sense of the space of the city, particularly south Birmingham, where I have been doing the bulk of my work. It strikes me that many of the populations of interest, particularly when it comes to superdiversity, are small, concentrated communities, often not visible unless you know exactly when and where to look for them. I’ve been grateful to so many different people for helping me by introducing me to everyone they know.
A highlight so far has been meeting with the mayor as a part of the Citizens UK Birmingham Leadership Group, to discuss our priorities with him. The more I learn about community organising, the more I realise the important of timing and being careful to find the right time and place to pursue particular priorities. What is the right place and the right time to do each action will change, depending on the circumstances and you need to be open and willing to adapt to the circumstances around you.
As a person with an American accent in Birmingham, people often ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m often slightly annoyed when I answer this question particularly if it comes up when someone in a shop is asking me this after I’ve asked where some item I can’t find is. I’m from Birmingham: it’s the place that I consider home. You can imagine that most people don’t accept this answer and it usually gets followed up with, ‘Right, but where are you really from?’ and I have to launch into the long confusing story about why I ended up here, of all places.
The thing about Birmingham is that quite a few people are not really from around here. Yesterday, I was looking at a map Bartley Green with the warden at St Michael’s CofE church and we were talking about how everything had been built after the war — all the families had been transplanted from other places. After two months of talking to people in south Birmingham, I’ve been struck by how many stories of people and communities include some movement either within the city, or from other places in the country, or from outside of Britain.
My project is interested in Superdiversity, which for me includes the sense that there are really no majority categories in the city. This is certainly true looking at the changing demographic data around ethnicity, but is less clear when you look at the census data for religion. Birmingham is still a majority Christian city, with large minority Muslim and non-religious populations, followed by Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jewish people. These larger categories, however, mask vast diversity within different faith groups — Christians might be Catholic, or Anglican, or Pentecostal; Muslims could be Shi’a or Sunni, or from conservative or liberal mosques; the ‘nons’ cover everyone from ardent atheists, to the spiritual but not religious.
As I reflect on my first few months of this project, I am struck by how these two features — diversity in where we’re from and diversity in what we believe — of Birmingham come together when communities emerge in particular places. If we want to know what it means for someone to be of faith or of no faith in a particular place at a particular time, there’s so much more to find out than just asking them to tick a box on a form. And what you might assume about someone about the way the look, or sound, might be misleading too. This is just a starting point, of course, but the construction of categories of faith and regional and ethnic identity in the stories we tell about ourselves do seem to be important to understanding how local communities function and how telling these stories can be important for thinking about why things are the way they are.
I’m very excited to announce the launch of my edited collection Analysing Religious Discourse.
Analysing Religious Discourse Book Launch 19 July, 1PM-2PM (BST)
Celebrate the publication of Analysing Religious Discourse! The first edited collection of its kind, the volume introduces contemporary research on religious discourse from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives, including ethnography, metaphor, cognition, and many, many more topics. The launch will feature presentations by many of the volume’s contributors.