Britain: Riots, Racism and Religion

A report by South Asia Solidarity Group


this town

is becoming like a ghost town

(why must the youthfight amongthemselves?

government leaving the youth on the shelf)

this town

is becoming like a ghost town

(no jobs are found in this country)

can’t go on no more

(people are angry)...”

‘Ghost Town’ by the black and white British ska band The Specials was number one in the British music charts in the summer of 1981, as Brixton, Southall, Handsworth -- black areas across the country -- exploded. The causes of the 1981 riots -- which came to be known as the ‘uprisings’ -- were years of police racism and brutality, the growth of white supremacist fascist groups enjoying tacit support from the police, and underlying it all the impact of the first wave of Thatcherite policies, with unemployment soaring, and Britain’s working class black communities hardest hit. Exactly twenty years on, as riots take place again, this time in towns across the deindustrialised North of England and in communities of South Asian origin, it is all too evident how little has changed. Yet at another level, the events of this summer are a stark reminder of the transformations which have occurred in Britain during the last twenty years. Clearly an array of forces combined at this particular juncture to create a situation where, in Bradford, Oldham, Burnley and Accrington, Asian youth have found themselves confronting police in days long battles in the streets. The most significant of these forces were the racism of the major political parties; the presence of the fascist British National Party and National Front; the police; and the media.

New Labour having recast itself as a party of the centre-right, the Conservatives have taken up the remaining ground of the extreme-right and the entire mainstream political discourse has shifted as a result. More than ever before, ‘playing the race card’ has become a standard tactic for both the major parties. As this June’s elections approached, Labour and the Conservatives competed to outdo each other with claims to be ‘tough’ on so-called ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ and defend ‘British culture’, whipping up a latent ‘commonsense’ racism in which as we explain below, the portrayal of ‘Muslims’ as criminals, drug dealers and terrorists has become increasingly central. (Significantly, Labour minister Jack Straw was quick to defend Conservative leader William Hague against accusations that his speeches on asylum seekers provoked racist attacks, which he claimed were ‘incredible’).

This political climate created doubly favourable conditions for the handful of small but extremely violent fascist groups to attempt to stage a comeback: on the one hand, their hardcore racist ideology was finding daily echoes in mainstream politics; on the other, impoverished sections of the white working class felt increasingly abandoned by a business-oriented Labour Party and provided potentially fertile ground for recruitment. Accordingly, the BNP fielded their leader Nick Griffin in Oldham, which has a significant Asian population. He received an unprecedented (though isolated) 16 per cent of the vote. It was rallies by the BNP and the National Front, both prior to and after the elections, protected by the police even in those cases where they had been banned by the Home Secretary, and the racist attacks on Asian residents which accompanied them, and which the police ignored (even when a primary school was attacked and two children injured), which were the immediate causes of the ‘riots’.

The racism of the British police themselves goes without saying: the catalogue of day-to-day abuse and harassment testified to by young Asian men in Bradford or Oldham could have come from any black community during the last 30 years. In an equally familiar scenario, on the days of the ‘riots’ the police had stood back while racist thugs rampaged in Asian areas; when Asian youth came out on the streets to try to defend the communities, the police moved in in their hundreds with vans, batons and riot equipment. In Oldham, the police actually diverted the fascist march into a Bangladeshi area. In Burnley, Shahid Malik, son of the Deputy Mayor and a member of the Government’s Commission for Racial Equality appealed to the youth for calm. Malik, (whom ironically other sections of the state would be eager to identify as a ‘good’ and ‘law-abiding’ black person), was seen on television being mercilessly hit on the head with riot shields by the police. In Oldham, even white anti-racists were attacked with police dogs -- one activist tells how police in vans drove past him chanting ‘paki-lover’ and ‘nigger-lover’.

The police also played a strategic role in orchestrating the riots, in conjunction with the media. As far back as April, senior police officers in Oldham gave interviews to the media claiming the existence of Asian localities which were ‘no-go’ areas for white people and even alleging that white people were now the prime target in racial attacks. (When the Guardian newspaper told Superintendent Dick Cranshaw that many Asians denied the existence of ‘no-go’ areas, his arrogantly racist reply was ‘you must have spoken to the only 12 people in the area who can read and write’.) The collaboration of the police, the media and the fascist in whipping up racism was exemplified by their manipulation of the case of Walter Chamberlain, an elderly white man who was beaten up and robbed by an Asian gang a few days later. While the victim’s own family stated that the attack was not racially motivated but a simple crime, the police and the entire media continued to insist that this was a ‘racial attack’. A National Front march through the so-called ‘no-go’ areas followed shortly, with the marchers brandishing placards bearing a photograph of Walter Chamberlain after the attack which had been supplied to them by the local newspaper, known for its racism against Asians.

If all these factors have created the immediate conditions for the events of the summer, we also need to look deeper at the economic and political changes which have been taking place in Britain and how they have affected different sections of Asian communities.

Firstly, the policies of the last two decades have seen the conversion of Britain’s industrial areas, concentrated in the North of England, into a wasteland. As industry collapsed, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers, who had been brought over in the 1960s and 1970s to work the night shift in the mills and foundries, were the first to lose their jobs. Their children, who have grown up in Britain, are a generation who have never had employment. In Oldham, where Asians are 14% of the population, 25 per cent of the Bangladeshi community and 16 per cent of the Pakistani community are registered unemployed compared to an overall unemployment figure of 4 per cent. Most employment which does exist is highly exploitative and low paid, in the service sector -- for example as taxi drivers who face the constant threat of racist attack -- or in sub-contracted units -- for women, often as homeworkers -- supplying MNCs (Britain’s economic response to globalisation has been to try and attract foreign capital by advertising its labour as ‘the cheapest in Europe’). As a result, poverty in towns like Oldham is widespread and inequality is growing: a recent report found that two wards or localities of Oldham were among the ‘least deprived’ 10% nationally, while five others, including all those where Asian communities are concentrated, rank among the ‘most deprived’ 10%.

Secondly, the changing nature of racism since the early 1990s has also affected what it means to be Asian in Britain. Racism has always both been shaped by, and in turn served the needs of capitalism. Inevitably then, it now reflects globalisation while remaining rooted in the history and culture of the western societies where it originated. A feature of this new aspect of racism is the identification in the dominant discourse of a global enemy -- Islam. The development of this ideology can be seen to be part of the U.S. establishment’s perceptions of U.S. foreign policy needs. The nature and goals of this ‘Islamic civilisation’ has since been constructed by the media with the constant repetition of phrases such as ‘Islamic terrorism’ and ‘rogue states’. In Britain, the demonisation of Islam in the discourse of America’s global strategy fed into media and state constructions of ethnic minority ‘communities’ to generate a specifically anti-Muslim racism. Key events in this process were the Gulf War, and the Rushdie Affair. The construction of the ‘Muslim’ as fanatical, fundamentalist, violent, and crucially, owing allegiance to political forces external -- and hostile -- to Europe has thus come to the forefront of racist imagery. It is this anti-Muslim racism, which fascist groups adopted and intensified, which is being confronted by working class Asian youth in Bradford and other northern towns.

Thirdly, the strategies adopted by the state, particularly since 1981, to divide, control and contain black populations have been at least partially successful. These populations, which since the 1960s had been challenging the state through left-led Black organisations with radical agendas, were increasingly encouraged to identify not as Black but as belonging to one of the ‘ethnic minority’ communities. Through policies of ‘multiculturalism’ the State funded and nurtured community organisations in urban areas facing ‘special social problems’. In this way Black populations were reconstructed as communities with leaders who were politically acceptable to the state. In this context, both ‘culture’ and ‘community’ have been conceptualised and continually reconstructed by the state. At first, for example, the ‘ethnic minority communities’ were ‘Asian’ and ‘Afro-Caribbean’, later essentially linguistic -- e.g. Gujarati, Punjabi, or in the case of Caribbeans, based around island of origin -- and since the late nineties they have been increasingly centred around religion, through the notion of ‘Faith Communities’. In the case of Muslims, the government facilitated the arrival of large numbers of mullahs in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. Clearly, this has meant the reinforcing of the most reactionary elements within these ‘communities’, with patriarchal and communal forces being strengthened. In Bradford for example, a recognised ‘leader’ of the ‘Hindu community’ is also a VHP leader, who early on attempted to project the disturbances as having a communal character. Meanwhile the ‘leaders’ of ‘Muslim’ communities have shown their fitness for their role by denouncing the ‘law-breaking’ youth.

More recently, with New Labour avowing its commitment to an ‘inclusive’, ‘pluralist’ society, a so-called ‘community of communities’ even while implementing explicitly racist legislation on asylum seekers, the state has created a new implicit categorisation: black people are today divided into the good and deserving who are acceptable, and the bad and undeserving of ‘inclusion’. Asylum seekers have been defined by the state and media as outsiders. And there are numerous other such categories -- the long term unemployed, the criminalised, and of course those who politically confront the racism and injustices of the state and its agencies. The response of the government to the ‘riots’ -- the proposal to introduce teargas and watercannon for the British police -- makes it clear where the Asian youth of Bradford and Oldham fit into this scheme of things.

The factors we have mentioned here -- poverty and alienation, the growth of anti-Muslim racism, state promotion of religious identities, and the political bankruptcy of so-called community leaders are pushing large sections of these youth into religious fundamentalism. The challenge for left and progressive forces is to channel the anger of the current confrontations with the state into an organised and class conscious anti-racist struggle.