UK: Warning of riots

This article appeared in summarized form in various news sites, but I think it is worth reading through, as it brings up several interesting points.

Trevor Phillips does not take one thing into account: the UK might be "failing to adjust to changes" in their society, but before the question of adjusting comes up, they real discussion is whether the UK should adjust at all.

Talk now, or reap the whirlwind

Race relations chief Trevor Phillips warns that unless we have an honest debate about the difficulties of integration and the real anxieties out there tensions will increase

Last week, as Tony Blair described the wearing of the niqab as “a mark of separation”, something remarkable was happening across London. At the Albert Hall 500 pupils, teachers and parents from all over the UK applauded Shajeda Rahman, a 15- year-old from Dudley, as she accepted a prize for her painting of an Asian woman wearing a hijab.

Shajeda’s painting was part of a competition in which young people create art that expresses how they see themselves in Britain. “In my piece there is a girl looking into the mirror . . . the girl is me as a western girl. The reflection of the western me is showing me as a religious Bengali Muslim . . . [the union jack and the castle] represent where I am from, and the reflections, in the mirror [of the Bangladeshi flag] represent my background. So overall my painting shows I am a British Asian Muslim and I am a Dudley citizen,” she said.


It became clear from their contributions that Shajeda and the 800 or so others in the Young Brits at Art competition share none of the agonised soul-searching about multiculturalism and integration that has been obsessing the rest of us. These young Britons do not seem too bothered by human difference.

This is not to say that they have been producing cheery postcards for some happy-clappy version of multicultural Britain. Far from it. They are clear-eyed and unsentimental in their assessment of multi-ethnic Britain; their pictures show gang violence, anger and deprivation. But they also show wit, daring and hope. And most of all they reveal a desire for a Britain with a shared culture where we maximise what we share and minimise what drives us apart. This is a generation that has reached the place that Britain needs to go. They are a generation at ease with their diversity.

Frankly, these young people seemed puzzled by the fuss over the face-covering in the classroom. I imagine they would think the arguments about the rights and wrongs of wearing a Christian cross at check-in desks equally absurd. There is only one question about these two cases: does it get in the way of the job? The answers are probably yes for the first and no for the second. Although, as I understand it, the second case was about wearing jewellery as part of a uniform rather than about religion.

These incidents have touched a nerve. The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE, which I chair) publishes an employment code to offer guidance in these tricky situations. But it’s clear that we need to offer extra advice. To this end I intend to invite Rita Donaghy, head of the conciliation service Acas, to advise on the best way forward. Her blend of tact and toughness should help us to decide how to tackle problems such as dress codes, who should get time off when, and the myriad small issues that can bring a workplace to a stop.

However, getting it right in the workplace is not the biggest problem. The tensions go much deeper. That is why in the past two weeks the so-called debate on the veil in the classroom has been racing up a blind alley. Don’t get me wrong. I am not with those who moan that politicians should stay out of all this. At the CRE we have taken to saying that in the 21st century there are only two big political questions: one is how we live with the planet, and the other is how we live with each other. If politicians can’t talk about this, then we can’t criticise them for being irrelevant.

The debate about how we live together in this rapidly changing Britain has to be conducted in plain English without any of the mealy-mouthed politeness that stops us openly speaking the secret “truths” that we might share with people who look like us: “Muslims hide terrorists”, “white women are slags”, “Jews control everything secretly”.

Just as our reasonable desire to recognise diversity has sometimes ossified into a version of multiculturalism that preserves difference at the expense of equality, it may be that the necessary drive to stop offensive racial “jokes” and stereotyping is beginning to be warped into a stifling suppression of free expression. There is a danger that increasingly we are so afraid to speak to each other about our differences that nobody can say what they mean and nobody can hear what is meant. Such barriers to honesty and understanding are a disaster for race relations.

These words will of course be taken by some as a licence to offend; they should not be, as the CRE will use its powers strenuously against racist speech. But anything that forces us to address our prejudices publicly has to be an aid to integration. I prefer the person who tells me to my face that he dislikes or fears me because of my colour, than the hypocrite who smiles at me, then whispers slyly about “them” in the safety of his all-white circle of friends. For too long the far right and some racial and religious minority extremists have been able to peddle their lies without challenge, in the back rooms of pubs, in places of worship and even at the school gates. The opening up of the debate about difference is the most potent defence against bigotry; prejudice is a worm that thrives in the dark and shrivels in the daylight.

So I welcome the debate. The problem with it so far is that it has been conducted in the wrong place between the wrong people and about the wrong things. I had no concerns about Jack Straw’s initial careful expression of concern about the wearing of the veil in his surgery. After all, this was as much a comment about him and his generation as it was about the niqab. It may be that people like Straw have greater difficulty coping with the social gap that not seeing someone’s face undoubtedly creates; for the internet generation, who can conduct entire relationships through a computer screen, this may not be quite the same kind of barrier. Either way, it was entirely reasonable for him to express his discomfort.

Straw’s comments could have liberated us to say that sometimes we don’t like the way others behave, without turning it into an accusation about their faith or race. The so-called Muslim leaders who initially attacked Straw were wrong. They were overly defensive and need to accept that in a diverse society we should be free to make polite requests of this kind.

Then something went wrong. This important but fragile piece of ground that needed a gentle, nuanced discussion about how we talk to each other with respect in a diverse society turned into what the political folk call an air war, fought on TV studio couches and radio phone-ins across the land.

On one side of the trenches we have those who want a fully fledged auto-da-fé against British Muslims, in which anything any Muslim does or says must be condemned as a signal of their wilful alienation and separation; on the other hand the defensiveness of some in the Muslim communities has hardened into a sensitivity that turns the most neutral of comments into yet another act of persecution. This is not what anyone intended and it is the last thing Britain needs. This could be the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago. Only this time the conflict would be much worse. We need to chill.

All the recent evidence shows that we are, as a society, becoming more socially polarised by race and faith. The only place where this may not be true is in our schools and the main reason is that in many of our cities things cannot get any worse. Many of our schools are almost mono-ethnic and white flight is entrenching these damaging patterns.

Add to that the rapid change in the composition of our communities; the faces we see in the high street are changing colour; the accents in the shops are more varied. It’s unsettling and there are people, notably the far right, ready to poison the communal well with sly attacks on anyone who can be painted as a “foreigner”. Even the “white” incomers bring their problems; the CRE is already receiving reports of eastern Europeans bringing pre-1960s attitudes from countries pervaded by deep racism, attacking black and Asian people in our streets.

The real problem that Britain faces is not Muslims’ way of life. Nor is it Islamophobia, poverty or foreign policy, although all these things are contributing to the turmoil. The real crisis is our failure to adjust to change in our society and our failure to find a civilised way of talking about our diversity.

In the past, of course, it was easier. We could turn to authoritative institutions — the church, the school, the employer — to tell us the answer. But today, even if the church had the courage to lead — and there is no sign of that in this debate — its authority has gone. Today the people speak for themselves and we think it’s time that they heard each other.

Next month the CRE will host the largest race convention held in Europe. It will mark our 30th anniversary and the start of the final year of our existence before we hand over to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. At the convention we intend to launch a national conversation that will allow people of all backgrounds to talk openly about some of the issues that have surfaced in the past two weeks. Its theme will echo the question made famous by Rodney King, the victim of a brutal police beating in Los Angeles 15 years ago: “Why can’t we just get along?”

The debate will not just be London-based. In every region where the exhibition is shown we will mount an evening’s open debate on the Rodney King question, led by young people and chaired by a distinguished local figure. The transcripts will be posted on our website and we will invite further debate about how we manage the deep differences emerging in our society. This is a debate we must have. But we have to have it in the right way. We must celebrate our differences, but if that is all we do we ignore the feelings of the many millions of every race, faith and culture for whom the frictions of diversity are much more evident than its benefits. No amount of lecturing from comfortable middle-class liberals will brush away the anxiety felt in many of our towns and cities.

If we don’t talk about this honestly, we have seen in this country, in Holland, in France and in the United States what happens next. In 1963 the great African-American writer James Baldwin quoted an old spiritual in a famous essay, correctly predicting the civil strife that was to come: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, Said no more water, but the fire next time.”

Source: Sunday Times (English)

1 comment:

Jan said...

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