– Hey, what have you done today?
– Nothing, just some shopping.
Sitting at the window of my Bethnal Green flat, I have become accustomed to such an exchange. Hoping to probe more deeply into the lives of my participants, I would often ask them to tell me what they had done during the day, only to be met with an exchange that presented “a challenge for cultural analysis” (Ehn and Lofgren 2009: 99). What is there to write about if nothing “out of the ordinary” seems to happen? Consumption creates “rhythms and temporalities in everyday life” (ibid), rarely noticed or reflected upon. Its apparent banality, invisibility even, often conceals questions of subjectivity, power and control. By looking ethnographically more closely at British-born Bengali Muslims living in Tower Hamlets, East London, this chapter explores the dynamics that make consumption not just ordinary but also meaningful and mandatory. It is precisely through this everyday practice that I discover a formation of “the Muslim self ” in the borough. The process of formation is just as important as “the objects that are communities or subjects that are ethnicities” (Back et al. 2009: 5). My case in point is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid and occupation. On the one hand, the campaign is subject to personal struggles and processes of making alongside forces of tension, fragmentation and forgetting. On the other hand, it is in articulation with various meanings and discourses that designate boundaries, assign common values, reinforce social ties and symbolize distinct group awareness.
I begin the chapter by introducing BDS. The movement uses facebook, twitter, and youtube to appeal to consumers’ longing to act devotedly towards distant others. These appeals must make sense to potential recruits and, if they are to spark action, they must resonate with diverse members of the public. Resonance implies alignment between movement claims and what the public already knows, feels or has experienced. BDS, put differently, has to echo with communities in which it operates. I draw from available data gathered by others working in Tower Hamlets and quote from it whenever it is relevant – using the secondary literature in order to allow readers to locate the context of participant narratives. I pay particular attention to the intergenerational debates and the consequent shift in the nature of district politics driven by a new generation of British-born activists. The second generation – those in the thirties to fifties age band – had become a majority of the ruling Labour Group in 2002, and a majority of the local council in 2006. Yet, in the ethnographic work, it was this “secular, left of center, municipalist politics – closely linked to a machine that could mobilize particular villages and regional groupings from the diasporic subdivisions of Bangladeshi Sylhet – that was opposed by a new generation of idealistic activists” (Back et al. 2009: 10).
I argue that the British-born generations are more inclined to communicate a set of geopolitical issues that are of relevance to Muslim communities across the world. For them, BDS is about the appearance of consciously political Islam that has an active interest in, and awareness of, Muslims everywhere. At the same time, the campaign is about what it means to act as a good citizen within contemporary society. Idealistic activists demand that Britain take on a more inclusive definition of itself – one that makes room for Islam and Muslims in it (Moll 2007). In doing so, they put together a more general explanation of what it means to be a Muslim. “Being” Muslim reverberates through concrete social actions and relationships made possible by a commitment to religious progressiveness. To “become” progressive, Muslims must return to the core sources of Islam that highlight the values of equality, religious freedom, respect for diversity, just dealings and love (Duderija 2006). In other words, by joining BDS young Bengali Muslims living in Tower Hamlets hope to bypass the culturally restricted understanding of Islam held by members of the older generation, as well as extremist understandings of the faith and common stereotypes these understandings encourage.
From spring 2009 to spring 2014, I made regular visits to the district. Produced data are limited in the number of people contacted but rich in the qualitative information they provide. My participants, put differently, are not representative in a statistical sense, but their views are an important part of a more general debate among British Bengali Muslims about belonging (Eade 1997c: 149). Individuals quoted in this chapter use BDS to problematicize local and national identities on the back of discourses and practices that are not fixed in familial, ethnic or religious essence. I encouraged them to consider meanings of these different categories with a goal of discovering “imagined worlds” they inhabit. I traced a creation of worlds that are both above and below the scale of nation-state – worlds that are simultaneously local and global. The present chapter offers a glimpse into everyday life practices of the British-born generations that inhabit these worlds. It asks, “who boycotts”, “how” and “why”, without resorting to grand generalizations about faith, belief and identity. As I arrived in Tower Hamlets in April 2009, these questions were going round and round in my head.