Is every nation just imagination?
Interview: Dr Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde)…
Is every nation just imagination?
Dr Nasar Meer is a Reader in Comparative Social Policy and Citizenship in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Strathclyde University, a Routledge 'Super Author' and a Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Research Fellow. He was previously at Northumbria University, a Lecturer at the University of Southampton, and a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship (CSEC) at Bristol University, where he remains an Honorary Fellow. In 2013, he was a Minda de Gunzberg Fellow at Harvard University, a Visiting Fellow with the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the British Council’s Outreach Programme. He studied at the Universities of Essex, Edinburgh and Bristol, and has held visiting fellowships with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African–American Studies, Harvard University, and the University of Aarhus. He was elected to the Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) in 2014.
“We think we choose our topics, but sometimes our topics choose us,” says Dr Nasar Meer, whose subject for the last few years has been something close to his heart – and his family background.
Meer's parents came to Yorkshire from Pakistan in the early 1960s. His father worked in cotton mills and timber mills, and his mother was trained as a teacher, but she could not teach when she arrived here because she was only qualified to teach in Urdu and soon had a young family to raise. Both parents were determined that their children got a good education and Meer went on to get his first degree in politics and sociology at the University of Essex, before heading to Edinburgh to do his Master's degree – and meet his future partner. After graduating in 2002, he spent a year “knocking on doors” doing social statistics in Glasgow, then something happened that completely changed the course of his career – 9/11.
What happened that day and the events it triggered had a huge impact on Meer, and got him asking questions like: “Where do Muslims fit in public life?” Such enquiries also took him to the University of Bristol, to study for his PhD under Professor Tariq Modood, the founding Director of the Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship. “My family had mixed views on my choice of topic,” says Meer. “They wondered why I chose to study faith and identity even though I was not religious, but I explained it had little to do with religion as belief.”
Nowadays, Meer finds himself asked all the time about Muslim affairs. “The more you work with a particular topic, the more it draws you in,” he explains. “and you quickly become what people describe as an expert.”
Meer changed the title of his Thesis several times. It started as An anthropology of how young people practice their faith and how they define their identity and evolved into a study of Citizenship and ‘double consciousness’, based on qualitative field work and policy analysis, but also drawing on the British Social Attitudes survey and Home Office data.
“I guess there was a novelty to Muslim identity,” says Meer, “still forming and finding its feet – which I came to name Muslim consciousness in my first book. The core issues that I focused on – the relationship between Western, and especially British, Muslim identities and prevailing citizenship regimes – remain as topical as ever and in many respects have become more salient than seemed possible when I started.”
One of Meer's conclusions was that younger Muslims in Britain have a different ‘Muslim consciousness’ to that of their parents. They are largely “uncoupled from traditional languages” and read the holy texts in English, while their parents' views are coloured by “a tapestry of oral customs” and traditional stories. As a result, the younger Muslims tend to learn about Islam in English and are curious to find out more, while the older generation tend to follow their faith as a matter of routine. “Minority identities have changed and developed over time,” says Meer. The first phase was the “familiar old story” about immigrants settling down in a new country, the same as any other group, like West Indians in the post-Imperial era. In the second phase, generations “re-imagine their identities,” in much the same way as “nations are imagined communities.”
Meer also says that national identity and ethnic identity are two different things, and vary from country to country. For example, ethnic minorities in England tend to see themselves as “British,” while in Scotland they're more likely to define themselves as “Scottish.”
There are also different notions of citizenship and identity in England, where many Muslims want similar kinds of “accommodations” in schools to other religious minorities, and “decent political representation,” as well as stronger anti-discrimination laws. But one of Meer’s key observations is that “Muslim identity is often reduced to religious belief alone, in a way that overlooks how Muslims have used the category of ‘Muslim’ without any unanimity on Islamic matters (precisely in fact as Jewish minorities have historically negotiated and continue to debate what being ‘Jewish’ means). This point is not widely stressed.”The events of 9/11 may have changed the public attitude to Muslims in Britain, but Meer points out that there have also been similar “controversies” in previous decades, including the fatwa on the novelist Salman Rushdie in 1991. In one way, the story of Muslims in Britain has been progressing on parallel tracks, he suggests, with foreign affairs shaping people's perceptions at the same time as integration and pluralisation continue, regardless of what happens overseas.
The Muslim community also plays a major part in civic society and welcomes internal debate. “There is much more to it than many people think,” says Meer, “in terms of media and cultural consumption – even dating.” For most Muslims, what goes on abroad is not the biggest issue, and Meer believes that the success of the community is reflected in the diversity within Muslim society, which sees itself as just the same as other communities but, at the same time, “not pretending not to be Muslim.”
In his studies of citizenship and identity, Meer also takes account of attitudes versus behaviour, saying it can be misleading to focus on what people say, rather than what people do. Social scientists should never ignore what they hear – it’s all part of the data they gather – but they are always after concrete evidence.
Social scientists can also use their evidence to puncture myths and stereotypes, according to Meer. For example, “Index of Similarity” surveys suggest that Muslims are more “geographically dispersed” than most other ethnic or religious minorities – unlike the concentrations of some groups, they tend to spread out all over. “What Muslims can’t control,” Meer says, “is the rate at which white ethnic groups around them move away and retreat to the suburbs.”
Meer’s career has been deeply affected by three different “seismic events,” starting with 9/11 in 2001. The next event was European enlargement in 2004, which allowed him to research patterns of migration and citizenship and consider how different European Union members have incorporated or excluded religious minorities. “It was a more optimistic time for the idea of a cosmopolitan and open European Union,” says Meer, even though the reality sometimes was very different to the “open and pluralistic” rhetoric of policy makers. Most nations, he reflects, continue to define themselves according to ethnicity, language and a “glorious history,” but sometimes they also rely on religion in their efforts to “re-imagine the nation.” To some extent, this is also true of Europe as a whole: “With the refugee crisis, with the horrors of terrorism, we see the idea of a ‘Christian Union’ re-emerging,” says Meer.
The third event to change the direction of Meer’s academic career was Scotland’s independence Referendum in 2014, which shone the spotlight on ideas of identity and nationhood like never before. This led to an RSE Fellowship to focus on To what extent has Scotland developed a distinctive approach to citizenship?
According to Meer, the Scottish Government and the UK Government are starting to take different approaches to equality policy, even though this matter is largely reserved. He believes there is a ‘policy window’ in Scotland on this area, even though the Scottish approach relies on rUK components.
The debate about Scottish independence continues to have a huge impact. “We can’t look at notions of citizenship independent of the national question,” says Meer. “It is linked to ‘What is Scotland?’ and what we want Scotland to be in the future. Do we do things differently, and if so, how and why?”
In Scotland, he explains, employers are required by law to gather data on employees and “monitor ethnic minority participation.” This means the Scottish Government has opened up a space in equalities policy through the ”Scottish Specific Duties,” even though equalities is still largely reserved.
On identity issues, Scotland is generally different, says Meer. Ethnic minorities regard themselves as Scottish, unlike ethnic minorities in other countries which have had referendums, such as Quebec, or countries that would like referendums, such as Catalonia and the Basque region.
On the other hand, Scotland has never really been “stress-tested,” Meer says, in terms of dealing with a significant population change and the politicisation of this in electoral terms. Nor has Scotland responded to the controversial accommodations which have been sought in England – e.g., legal pluralism and Sharia Councils – or embedded a routine anti-racism which England has seen for decades. Nor is it clear to Meer how Scotland will “re-make” the national story and national symbols, asking: “The Saltire is a Christian cross. Will that be up for revision in the way the Canadians changed their symbol from a cross to a maple leaf?”
Is there a no-go area between politics and social science? How does a social scientist remain objective dealing with issues which so many other people feel so strongly about and see primarily in terms of ideology? For Meer, the social sciences use the same basic principles as other scientific disciplines to prove or disprove any theory, but sometimes it’s hard to avoid getting into controversial territory.
For example, current arguments about immigration to Europe have polarised political opinion, but social scientists have had to be more balanced in their study of the problem. Meer and his colleague, Dr Daniela Sime, (also a YAS member) have written a short article about the “myths” repeated in the media about immigration, debunking statements such as “taking some immigrants now will encourage more to come” and “immigrants come for the benefits, they don’t contribute,” which was published in the YAS blog, Research the Headlines.
Meer quotes another common statement that “some migrants may be radicals,” but points out that radicalisation occurs via the Internet, rather than face to face or via what people perceive as “invasion.” And Meer believes that it is possible to remain “scientific” regarding these topics by studying the evidence and how this is or is not used. “The social sciences use similar methodologies to tell a story about how societies have evolved and how they might continue to do so, and while these are no less rigorous, we also want to understand how people ‘interpret’ the world and then ‘act’ on these interpretations,” says Meer. Sometimes, however, no matter how much social scientists quantify data, non-social scientists say it is “just common sense.”
In Meer's opinion, the current immigration debate maps onto other issues which are centuries old, even though the urgency of the recent “crisis” can distort public opinion. It is also very close to Meer's specialist subject – nationhood, citizenship and identity. Quoting Pericles, who said “we are we because we are not they,” Meer explains that even though the modern world is a different place, making it much easier for people to communicate and travel, and work in virtual offices, many of our notions of identity have hardly changed at all, and many of the risks we face are also very similar. “Ben Franklin said something like, ‘those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither,’ and I tend to think that we should approach rebalancing our security and liberty with great caution,” says Meer. “Above all, we should be careful not to characterise the issues as peculiar to our times.”
Ultimately, Meer is most concerned with our priorities as a society – most of the things we want are secondary to having a harmonious society, because this is the prerequisite to enjoying the things that we want. “We have to reconcile diversity and unity,” he says. “There is still a lot of tension, but there's also momentum. And social scientists can help us move forward together by telling a valid and compelling story.”