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by Dr Aminul Hoque

In the summer of 2004 my family went to our motherland of Bangladesh in search of self-discovery. One moment sticks in my mind. I saw that my aunts and uncles all looked worried and were muttering amongst themselves. They decided that one of my uncles make the trip from our remote village to town to purchase knives and forks, so that my siblings and I could eat the staple diet of rice and curry. My father quickly reminded my relatives that his kids were Bengali, and perfectly able to eat with their hands! One of my aunts started to laugh and replied [in Bengali], ‘You are not Bengali anymore baisaab (brother), now you are Londonis’.

This is the migrant story of non-belonging, the eternal search for a place we can call ‘home’. The East London Bangladeshi community have been in the UK for over sixty years. We are a hard-working, vibrant, law abiding and honest bunch of people. One of the key issues facing our community is the identity riddle. This is especially pertinent for the British-born generations. Who are they? Bangladeshi? British? Muslim? Londoners? East Londoners? None of these? Or a fusion of them all? Where do they get a sense of belonging and acceptance? Crucially, they were born here. They think, eat, live and breathe British (whatever that means?). They, we, are British.

The issue of non-belonging is crucial. Marginalized by some sections of mainstream British society due to ethno-cultural and religious differences, many are also excluded from the Bangladeshi community because they’ve adopted a seemingly western lifestyle. And we, as my story shows, are dismissed as British or ‘Londonis’ by fellow kin when we visit Bangladesh. So the question is: where do we go? Where is home? One 15 year old girl who speaks in my book, British-Islamic Identity: Third Generation Bangladeshis from East London, echoes this feeling – it’s like being an eternal tourist not fully belonging anywhere: ‘they keep on telling me to go back to where I came from. I was born here. I am 100 per cent British. Where is it exactly that I am supposed to go back to?’ This is the identity conundrum that weighs them down and is so intensely complex to negotiate.

The peaceful religion of Islam can help fill the identity void. Amidst the daily reality of non-belonging, poverty, Islamophobia and alienation, Islam, offers many of us a sense of peace, humanity, belonging, family and spirituality. And it offers some of us a platform for a political search for identity revolving around equality, voice, recognition and a commitment to social justice. Importantly, it helps manage the ‘who am I?’ riddle. However, for a tiny fringe minority, this sense of persecution and anger turns into something more sinister and dark.

The recent news about the three British school girls, Amira Abase, Shamima Begum and Kadiza Sultana – two of them Bangladeshi – going to Syria to join Isis has baffled, shocked and rocked the British nation and in particular, the community of East London. They have left behind a trail of devastation especially on their families, who are utterly traumatized. So how do we make sense of this mess? Many unanswered questions arise, chiefly, why have three of our ‘own’ gone? (When I say ‘our own’, I mean us, the British nation). The truth of the matter is that we may never know. What they have done is wrong and cannot end well. There seems to be no answer, no solution. Perhaps they have been caught up in the conundrum of non-belonging and view the violent and extreme ideology of Isis as a way out?

And let’s not forget an important factor in all of this – the girls’ ages. These are vulnerable and impressionable children, grade A students or not. They are teenagers, subject to all the uncertainty and angst that characterizes adolescence. They are also, perhaps, driven by a sense of adventure, fuelled with the bravado and exuberance of youth, and searching for a sense of belonging, purpose and excitement, and have become caught in the web of Isis propaganda of resistance and rebellion.

I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I am as perplexed as anyone. This debate must continue.

Dr Aminul Hoque,MBE,is a lecturer in Educational Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a visiting lecturer at London Metropolitan University. British-Islamic Identity: Third Generation Bangladeshis from East London is published by Trentham Books at IOE Press and is out now. Follow Aminul on Twitter @BrIslam2015.

A version of this blog was published on the Goldsmiths, University of London website on 2nd March 2015.

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