Britain’s immigrants: Mournful of the queen, but mindful of empire

Shafi Musaddique

Thu, September 15, 2022 at 11:20 PM·4 min read

  • Patrick VernonBritish social commentator and political activist

Police Constable Imran Rasheed is on standby for duty during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. He is also second-generation British Bangladeshi. As such, he says the queen’s death has stirred up conflicting emotions.

On the one hand, the monarchy evokes the agonies of “horrific acts conducted in the name of empire, dividing nations and conquering lands overseas,” he says. But he also holds very personal affection for the queen for her “countless charitable causes.” As miles of mourners file past her casket, he feels a sense of attachment to Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.

Those born in Britain to immigrant parents “occupy a gray, middle area, constantly changing,” he says, finding difficulty separating “the individual from the institution.”

Mr. Rasheed’s conflict is widely shared among Britain’s immigrant and diaspora communities with links to former colonies, particularly in the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. For many of them, celebrating the departed queen’s life comes with added weight. Like many others among the 14% of the U.K. population who identify as nonwhite, he has developed a growing understanding in recent years of the legacy of empire and the monarchy’s place within that. There is a sense among many that their reverence for the departed queen should not come at the expense of remembering the Crown’s role in British colonialism.

“Growing up in the Midlands, many West Indian [Caribbean] households had pictures of the queen, Jesus, and the West Indies cricket team,” says social commentator and cultural historian Patrick Vernon, born to Jamaican parents who had arrived in the 1950s.

“Bit by bit, the front room has changed. That reflects where we are now.”

The queen and the monarchy

Like much of the country, a deep-seated reverence for the queen endures among Britain’s immigrant and diaspora communities.

Over 5,000 members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a minority sect founded in the 19th century, sang a “pledge of allegiance” chant at a three-day congregation mourning the queen’s death.

“As British Muslims, we are saddened by the demise of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and we stand together with the nation during this difficult time,” says Abdul Quddus Arif, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association.

Older worshippers at London Central Mosque, partly funded by Winston Churchill’s war Cabinet in 1940, remember the queen as an anchor in their lives in an ever-changing, socially liberalizing world. Both her Christian faith – which they found a source of inspiration and commonality against the backdrop of the modern decline in religious affiliation – and her policy of noninterference in the early years of Pakistani and Indian independence still resonate.

Older members of the so-called Windrush generation, too, had a “degree of deference” toward the queen, says Mr. Vernon. They were British nationals from the Caribbean who had arrived between 1948 and 1971. In 2017, it emerged that many were wrongly detained, deported, and denied legal rights under successive governments, culminating in a “hostile environment” policy driven by former Home Secretary Theresa May.

Such injustices, along with painful memories of colonialism and the struggles of postwar migration, have led some to question whether mourning the queen betrays both their ancestors and the harsh realities of the immigrant experience in Britain.

For Fatima Rajina, an academic specializing in British Bangladeshi social history, honoring the queen’s memory is an affront to those who have had their lands “looted” for precious resources, including royal jewels such as the Kohinoor diamond and the Great Star of Africa, mined in India and South Africa during the colonial era.

The monarchy, she says, symbolizes “intrinsic values Britain holds very dear, and we see this in [the] everyday: obeisance to authority with little critique, stifling any form of resistance, and upholding the stratification along social class lines.”

Challenges for King Charles

Whatever the legacy of the queen, King Charles III faces a new set of challenges.

He will have to maintain broad support for the monarchy at a time of deepening inequality in Britain, where immigrant communities are already at the sharp end of the poverty line. According to the Office for National Statistics, people of Bangladeshi origin earn on average 20% less than their white British counterparts – by far the largest ethnic pay gap in Britain, with Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean households not far behind.

Charles has, though, established a connection over many years with religious leaders, particularly in the British Muslim community.

“He spoke out against Islamophobia at a time when hate crimes and assaults on Muslims were on the rise, especially after 9/11,” says Kazi Rehman, imam of the London Central Mosque. The new king’s acknowledgment in his inaugural address to the nation that Britain is now a country of “many faiths” has already won some hearts and minds.

Charles faces plenty of work ahead of him. Mr. Vernon, a “reluctant” recipient of the queen’s Order of the British Empire honor, says the king must quickly prioritize potentially tricky conversations about colonialism.

“He will have to face the big issue of reparations and the history of Britain’s past in the Caribbean and other parts of the Commonwealth,” he says. “That’s not going to go away. The genie is out of the bottle.”

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