Identity is a slippery fish.
I came of age during what now, looking back at it, seems a high-water mark in the story of British Multiculturalism. It was a moment that celebrated the literary talents of writers like Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith, the music of Talvin Singh and Asian Dub Foundation, a moment that brought us the Lawrence Enquiry whose energy (I was a young reporter at Red Pepper at the time) was the setting for a personal political awakening.
Multiculturalism, for me, was more than a flavour. It was a vision that enabled self-acceptance – the idea that I need not choose between meaningless distinctions but could bring myself to the table as I was, reveling in all my contradiction.
It was an idea that nurtured self-confidence and optimism. At the time I had no idea of the kind of pressure that was stacked against us, nor that the cultural values I had come to take for granted could be taken away as easily as they had been given.
It was the War on Terror, and the cultural shifts that came with it, that made me wiser. I slowly woke up to a world where systematic discrimination – the routine humiliation of being singled out in airport lines, at tube stations, on buses, because of the colour of my skin – was now the norm.
This discrimination was manifest in the emergence of practices like detention without trial, in racist discourse about borders and immigration, and a foreign policy more belligerent than perhaps anything we had seen before. The celebration of difference appeared to drown beneath a wave of public anxiety so that, within 5 years of the 7/7 terrorist attacks, a British Prime Minister could build political capital by declaring multiculturalism itself an abject failure.
As it played out in the world, this process, as it was for so many, played out as an experience of personal trauma too. It left me questioning my own belonging in the only place I knew to be home: a process that quietly shattered my self-confidence, basically shut up my voice for a decade or more, and it was only after all that time, drifting, struggling to engage, that I came to understand something central to my identity: that multiculturalism is not an idea at all, but a reality, the sea we swim in, and that we can choose how we want to engage with that reality.
In the autumn of 2014, I came across the story of Moazzam Begg. A former Guantanamo detainee who was charged in February of that year for Syria-related terrorism offences, he was held for 7 months in Belmarsh awaiting trial, and then on the day the trial was meant to begin, unexpectedly released.
A spokesman for the West Midlands Police said, at the time, that new evidence “had come to light” making a conviction impossible, but what that information was, and what the truth of the allegations against Begg were has never been disclosed.
The story attracted a little news coverage then promptly vanished into the ether. Friends I discussed it with assumed there couldn’t be smoke unless there was fire. I found myself terrified by that easy assumption of guilt, an attitude that to me seemed to encapsulate that cultural shift that had defined the War on Terror.
It troubled me so much that I began the long process of looking into the facts of this man’s life and what emerged was nothing less than an allegory of our multicultural “failure”, the story of one man, struggling to reconcile twin poles of his own identity and drawn deeper into the fray of a global narrative of conflict.
The Confession, the film I made to make sense of that process, releases next week in cinemas around the country and comes at a time that our national identity is plunged into a new era of crisis.
The canvas it presents, spanning the quarter century that led from the First Gulf War to the rise of ISIS, offers little by way of ready solution to that crisis. What it does explore is how much more polarized, more compromised and more insecure we find ourselves as a result of the narratives we’ve been buying into and the actions they’ve allowed.
For Compass members seeking to create new narratives of nation and to build a good society, I hope that this offering can inspire fertile conversations everywhere, both about mistakes that have been made in the past but also a better road we can travel into the future.
For the next two weeks I will be in venues from Glasgow to Brixton, Brighton to Belfast, with Moazzam Begg, answering questions on the film and ready to have those conversations. I hope to meet many of you along the way.
The Confession Tour of Q&A screenings with DIRECTOR ASHISH GHADIALI AND MOAZZAM BEGG starts Monday
Monday 8 August – Glasgow – Glasgow Film Theatre – hosted by Richard Haley, Chair of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
Tuesday 9 August – Edinburgh – Cameo Picturehouse – hosted by Noe Mendelle, Director of the Scottish Documentary Institute
Wednesday 10 August – Cardiff – Chapter Cinema – hosted by Emlyn Williams
Thursday 11 August – London – Picturehouse Central – hosted by Professor Tariq Ramadan
Friday 12 August – Birmingham – MAC – hosted by Salma Yaqoob + Special Guest
Saturday 13 August – London – Hackney Picturehouse (18:00) – hosted by Maryam Mir, Reprieve
Saturday 13 August – London – Ritzy Picturehouse (20:30) – hosted by Omran Belhadi, Reprieve
Sunday 14 August – Cambridge – Arts Picturehouse
Monday 15 August – Bradford – National Media Museum – hosted by Taiba Yaseen
Tuesday 16 August – Leeds – Hyde Park Picture House – hosted by Hilary Wainwight
Wednesday 17 August – York – City Screen Picturehouse
Thursday 18 August – Brighton – Duke’s At Komedia
Friday 19 August – Belfast – Queen’s Film Theatre – hosted by Eamonn McCann