The Olympic flag raised. Image credit: Nick J. Webb/Flickr.

Olympians planted the flags of their countries on Glastonbury Tor. Image credit: Nick J. Webb/Flickr.

The Olympic flag raised. Image credit: Nick J. Webb/Flickr.

The following is a guest post by Amjad Saleem, head of communications for The Cordoba Foundation.

I am a sports fan and love watching the Olympics. It symbolises all the best in the human sporting excellence and dedication and somehow also represents an opportunity to hit a pause button (rightly or wrongly) on world affairs, as for about two weeks much of the world’s focus is on the athletes.

I see the Olympics as a great opportunity to learn and understand from each other, as athletes engage with people from countries they probably would never engage with, and a time for reflection as the Olympic Truce is observed for about 100 days. Finally, it is a time for learning, as you actually discover countries that you have not even heard of. Politics, corporate sponsorship, tickets aside, the Olympics is probably one of the more unifying events around the world.

When the Olympics was awarded to London, I remember the excitement that greeted it, followed by the sudden realisation of reality as the next day, the 7/7 terrorist attacks took place. In the seven years since, the Olympics’ engagement with communities took a back seat in some respects as security took a higher priority.

For the Muslim community in particular, the scrutiny of radicalisation and constant obsession with identity and affiliation has meant that they have been justifying themselves to the British public. This is a shame as many Muslims in London reside close to the main Olympic parks and thus perhaps have not been able to fully participate in the pre-program as they should have with the hope that they can enjoy the social regeneration that is anticipated afterwards.

It is tough to articulate the mood of the country in the run up to the Olympics.  The austerity measures have really started to impact people and last year’s riots shocked the nation into once again questioning the disconnect within society.  But among many things, one topic of conversation the Games have brought up is the complex one of multiculturalism.

Does multiculturalism mean living with diversity or providing policies to manage such diversity? More often than not we find a conflation of the two, where immigration is encouraged so that the experience of a society is transformed by diversity, making it more vibrant and cosmopolitan, but also from a political perspective there are a set of policies that manage diversity by putting people into boxes and using those boxes to shape public policy.

What this means is that conversation about multiculturalism takes place in silos where inequalities in social policies are blamed on the immigrants, or sometimes the challenges faced by some sections of the community are only dealt with through a security perspective, ignoring underlying social contexts.

The Opening Ceremony was about appreciating everyday people who make up the UK and things to do with their everyday lives, be it music, the health service, their kids.

Hence, it was always going to be interesting to see how the Opening Ceremony in London would define British identity. From my perspective, what I enjoyed most about the ceremony was that it was about appreciating everyday people who make up the UK and things to do with their everyday lives, be it music, the health service, their kids. The people represented were of all colours and all faiths, sizes, genders and ages. It celebrated inventors, artists and scholars and acknowledged activists.

In the twenty-first century,  British identity is made up individuals who have their own multiple identities.

This is what I think is the most important aspect of the Opening Ceremony, as it gave a most vivid blueprint for what it means to be British in the modern day. In the twenty-first century,  British identity is made up individuals who have their own multiple identities. As Amartya Sen says in his book Identity and Violence, the key to good citizenship and social cohesion, which are components of a cosmopolitan society, is the encouragement and retention of multiple identities. People have several enriching identities: nationality, gender, age, family background, religious or professional affiliation. They identify with different ethnic groups and races, towns or villages they call home, sometimes football teams; they speak different languages, which they hope their children will retain, and love different parts of their countries.

It is from the sum of these individual parts that a strong vibrant British identity can be born.

Danny Boyle’s production articulated what Amartya Sen was trying to say. It is from the sum of these individual parts that a strong vibrant British identity can be born, one that includes a multi-ethnic choir and someone of Asian Muslim heritage dancing in a memorial to the victims of 7/7.

Of course, there is much to be done through social policies, education and community cohesion to translate that multiculturalism into practice. The reality is that there are a lot of challenges facing people who are trying to break through social inequalities and make a better life for themselves and their families even without worrying about what it means to be British. What the Olympics Opening Ceremony did was to affirm and appreciate these challenges in its overall pursuit of a grand vision for British identity. In the end, it has opened another window not only into the discussion of what it means to be British but has set a new paradigm for determining British identity, one that has more resonance with everyday people.

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Guest posts on our blog are written by individuals with whom we collaborate externally. We publish them to stimulate discussion and debate by exploring ideas. The opinions expressed in them do not necessarily reflect the official position or views of the British Council.

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