The riots in London and other British cities that briefly captured world headlines last month were not unexpected. Ever since the economic downturn began to bite, and particularly since the election last year of a right-wing government dogmatically committed to cutting the benefits of the poorest and the taxes of the wealthiest, social commentators have been warning of the possible reactions to such measures.
The fact that the riots were characterised less by political confrontation than by the attacking and looting of shops selling consumer goods has made it easy for the government and right-wing press to dismiss the riots as simple criminality rather than socio-political protests, but that is little more than deliberate self-delusion. Plenty of more liberal commentators have acknowledged that the problems stem from the fact that some of Britain’s poorest communities –” of all races –” are increasingly alienated from mainstream society, and in particular the consumerism that drives it. The myth of capitalism is based on the idea that the good life is available to all, provided that they work hard enough to earn it. The problem is that there are increasing numbers who realise that they have no prospect of ever achieving the standard of living that is apparently enjoyed by others in society, and that those in power in society are determined to keep it that way. The looting of consumer goods that was seen around the world was, more than anything else, a sign of people’s anger that they are constantly confronted in the media with images of the good life, and suggestions that worldly goods are the norm for most in society, without having any sense that they could one day achieve them.
Although the riots began as a reaction to the killing of a black man by police in north London, and initially involved mainly black communities in the capital, they were taken up by the poor among other communities around the country before subsiding after some days. One feature, however, was that Muslims did not get involved, despite the fact that Muslims are among the most deprived communities in many areas of the country, and the fact that three Pakistani youths in Birmingham were among the five victims of the riots, killed protecting their business from local rioters. The dignified and conciliatory reaction of local community leaders, including in particular the father of one of the killed youths, was held up as a model of responsible community leadership, in contrast to the “inhumanity” and “depravity” of the rioters, by the same right-wing press that usually demonises Muslims generally and Muslim community leaders in particular. Instead of the normally xenophobic and Islamophobic coverage of the right-wing press, we had the slightly surreal sight of the same papers and commentators explaining how the moral values of the Muslim community, their community identity and their commitment to hard work as a way out of the poverty, were an example of what had disappeared from other parts of British society.
There is no doubt an element of truth in such characterizations of the experience of the Muslim community in Britain, however odd it may look in the pages of the yellow press. However, it would be a pity if Muslims in Britain allowed the fact that their restraint and responsibility has been hailed by the right-wing press to blind them to the fact that our natural affinity should be with the dispossessed and marginalised in British society, rather than the apologists of the elites who are responsible for the inequalities and social injustices that blight the society. Of course, the criminality of the rioters was unacceptable and the deaths of the three young Muslims tragic; but that should not push us into alliance with those in British society who would use our experience and our restraint to further their own agendas.
The fact is that Muslims in the west live in societies that are deeply riven by social and economic injustices, which have existed since long before the impact of the recent economic problems and cannot simply be blamed on them. Our natural role in such circumstances should be to stand with the victims of oppression and try to help them in their struggles for justice. The fact that Muslims generally are a hard-working and law-abiding community does not mean that we must automatically align ourselves with the forces of capitalist conservatism that use such values to justify their own dominance and to demonise the dispossessed in society. Of course, that does not mean that our youth should join in the rioting, or that we should not condemn such criminality; but even as we condemn it, we should sympathise with the problems and suffering of the communities that the rioters emerge from, and use our position in society to try to improve the position of this underclass.
Around the Muslim world, Islamic movements are engaged in struggles against the forces of oppression and exploitation, representing and leading the fights for the justice that oppressed and exploited minorities have been deprived of. Muslims living in the west identify with such struggles and recognise that it is the ruling elites of western countries whose aggressive, exploitative impulses are responsible for so much of the trouble in the Muslim world. We should recognise as well that many people in western countries are also victims of the same elites and impulses, and that their struggles for justice are as worthy of our support and solidarity as the struggles of the oppressed in our own countries.