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Kureishi on Changes in British Immigrant Life

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Charges against a group of Britain's Muslims alleged to have plotted to blow up transatlantic airliners have once again focused attention Islamic fundamentalism in Britain. Hanif Kureishi is one writer who deals with the question of how Muslims do or do not assimilate in Britain, beginning 20 years ago with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the movie, My Beautiful Launderette.

Mr. HANIF KUREISHI (Author, Filmmaker): When I wrote My Beautiful Launderette, I went to Pakistan for the first time. And I wrote My Beautiful Launderette, in fact, in Pakistan. And I became aware when I was there of the force and power of what is now known as radical Islam.

MONTAGNE: Hanif Kureishi's father was a Muslim who emigrated from India to Britain in 1947 and married an English woman. His movie, My Son the Fanatic, features a taxi driver who is also a Muslim immigrant. Parvez never quite succeeded in Britain but had always hoped his British-born son Farid would. Until one day, Farid begins selling off his records and other worldly goods, creating tension between father and son.

(Soundbite of movie, My Son the Fanatic)

Mr. AKBAR KURTHA (Actor): (As Farid) In the end, our cultures, they cannot be mixed.

Mr. OM PURI (Actor):(As Parvez): I really think it's (unintelligible) already together this thing and the other.

Mr. KURTHA (as Farid): Some of us (unintelligible) and (unintelligible) more besides models.

Mr. PURI: (As Parvez) What?

Mr. KURTHA: (As Farid) Belief, purity, belonging to the past. I won't bring up my children in this country.

MONTAGNE: The movie, My Son the Fanatic, was released in the U.S. two full years before 9/11. We reached Hanif Kureishi at his home in London.

And in your movie, the premise is that the father, who is an immigrant, wants to assimilate. The son could easily have done that having been born in Britain, but he turns away and becomes himself a fundamentalist.

Mr. KUREISHI: I think he feels that the father is - his father who is a Pakistani and a Muslim - I think he feels that his father is being absorbed into the West, and therefore the father and the Muslim community are becoming (unintelligible) by losing their identity. They have lost the past, they've lost their heritage, they've lost their history.

One of the things that you have to remember about the kids that I wrote about in My Son the Fanatic, particularly the kids in the north of England - these are not London kids, these are kids from the north of England - that these are the poorest, the most uneducated and the most alienated people in the society.

It's pretty easy to stir people who are in these circumstances, and they are easily radicalized.

MONTAGNE: Well, one interesting thing, though, about this character that you wrote is that he wasn't purely poor. He was well on his way to being an accountant. And one of the things that he said is of his life in Britain, they say integrate but they live in pornography and filth. This place is soaked in sex.

Mr. KUREISHI: This was something I was very aware of, for instance, with my own family. It's to do with the shock of the West. You know, if you come from a Muslim third world country and you come to the West, there's a terrible vertigo that affects people, which is to do with the sexuality, the decadence, the drug taking, the broken families and so on. And, of course, this is the obverse of the capitalism that we so love and admire and want.

And it is often something that we Democrats forget to explain to the poor and dispossessed, that there's a lot of other stuff that comes with democracy. And it's very hard for these families and people from these places to swallow. And they're not prepared for that kind of family disintegration.

So one way to combat that is to organize yourself into small, radical, fundamentalist groups, or, to put it another way, to cling to your religion.

MONTAGNE: I gather you wrote some of the material you were writing that led up to the movie My Son the Fanatic, including that short story, came out of the fatwa levied against Salman Rushdie.

Mr. KUREISHI: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: What were you thinking then? And, I guess, how do you think about that now?

Mr. KUREISHI: I think the fatwa against Rushdie was very, very important for the Muslim community actually in the sense that some people have said to me it was the first time they felt how powerful they could be. Not that they succeeded in killing Rushdie, but they succeeded in organizing themselves.

I think that Britain will become more and more religious. I think Britain will become more and more Islamic. You know, these people are incredibly powerful. And the more you try to wipe them out, the more powerful they will become. It's a very dangerous kind of fascism. And I think its attacks on our liberal values will increase. We're giving up more and more of our civil rights as time passes and giving more ground to Islamo-fascism.

MONTAGNE: Did you feel growing up with a father who had come from Bombay, now Mumbai, who was Muslim, did you feel excluded?

Mr. KUREISHI: I suffered as a kid in Britain from enormous amount of racism, yes. I mean we were spat on, we were abused, we were called wogs, we were called Pakis, we were chased down the street. Our lives as a Pakistani family in England were made a nightmare by racism in Britain in the ‘60s, certainly.

So we continuously felt under threat. I think other Asian people throughout the country felt continuously under threat. So it wasn't surprising that the remaining Asian people who huddled together and formed what is now known as the sort of ghettos and found it very difficult to integrate. Because particularly the period I'm talking about, the ‘60s and the ‘70s, was very violent when it came to racism.

MONTAGNE: Compared to your childhood growing up in this racist environment, what about your sons?

Mr. KUREISHI: We live now in London - at least or certainly in the part of London in which I live in - what's called a multicultural society. There are waves and waves of immigrants around here and the latest are the Poles. And we all get on fine and we don't kill each other. But then nobody starts on another group as it were.

And my kids, with Muslim names, live much freer lives, much - they're certainly far freer from fear than I ever was. They don't walk down the street thinking that people are going to spit on them or call them Pakis or deny them jobs or abuse them or whatever.

So in terms of multiculturalism, we have certainly come a long way. Unfortunately, we've created a lot of other problems that certainly make their lives look darker than the future I envisioned for myself when I was young.

MONTAGNE: Hanif Kureishi, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. KUREISHI: Thanks, Renee. Cheers.

MONTAGNE: Hanif Kureishi is a screenwriter, novelist and filmmaker. He spoke to us from his home in London.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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