By Asghar Ali Engineer
19 Aug, 2011
The riots in London and other cities of U.K. like Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester, Liverpool indicate end of multi-culturalism in the West. The horrible massacre in Norway last month also a pointer in that direction? We need to seriously analyze these events. When Asians and Africans from former colonies began to migrate to western countries the Europe began to be multi-racial and multi-cultural which was a new experience for people of the West. In other words they were now paying the price for their colonial policies the brunt of which so far was borne by colonized countries only.
When the considerable number of Afro-Asian peoples became part of these former colonies, like France, England, Germany, Netherland and several other countries, the sociologists and political scientists evolved a theory of multi-culturalism. So far these countries had only one religion, one language and one culture. But now these countries had people of different cultures, religion and language and hence called this phenomenon as multi-culturalism.
It is interesting to note that they called their countries multi-cultural rather than multi-religious because culture has deeper impact on human behaviour and intellectual orientation than religion. Among those who migrated to western countries many were their fellow religionists i.e. Christians but with African or Asian cultural background which was as unacceptable to them despite sharing religion with them. Also, their ethnic origin (skin colour) was also very different.
Thus being Hindu, Muslim or Christian hardly mattered to the whites of Europe. They considered themselves as superior culturally, racially and educationally and considered non-whites as inferior. So for them culture and ethnicity were far more important than being of different religion.
Also, they thought they are more tolerant and people of Afro-Asian origin more religiously orthodox and much less tolerant. However, it was mere rhetoric than reality. When the numbers of migrant began to reach certain critical limit, their intolerance manifested itself. As long as their (migrants) number was insignificant they boasted about their tolerance but when it exceeded certain limits their intolerance surfaced and governments began to make stringent laws to control migration. In Netherland, government even decided to show naked women’s pictures to Muslim migrants and see whether they would accept it. They did not even think about women’s dignity.
The massacre in Norway was also result of extreme intolerance of other cultures and religions. Anders Behring Breivik was angry because more migrants (especially Muslims) were coming to his country and the ruling party was too liberal towards migrants and hence migrations must stop. It is interesting to note that he learnt a lesson or two from Hindutva forces also in intolerance and especially mentioned that in his voluminous manifesto comprising over 1500 pages. Thus it is evident that all rightwing forces, whatever their religion or cultural background, think alike.
This intolerance becomes sharper at the time of economic downturn. The Western economy is going through crisis and unemployment is increasing which causes frustration among the unemployed youth and frustration and anger motivates them to indulge in acts of violence. They begin to think that real cause of their unemployment is migrants who take away their jobs though that is not the real reason. It is crisis of capitalist economy and also American war dependent economy but migrants become target of their wrath.
What happened in London a few days ago and spread to several other cities of U.K., especially Birmingham and Manchester which have large sub-continental population, is much more complex and one should understand it with all its complexity. It all started with police killing a coloured person of 30 years age who was married with three children. The way it spread rapidly not only in different parts of London but to several other cities shows there was much more than most commentators have written about.
The British Prime Minister called it ‘pure criminality’. It is too superficial an observation and cannot be accepted as a comprehensive explanation from a responsible person like Prime Minister. Indeed criminals are also involved but it is not doing of criminals only. Criminals just joined in when disturbances started as always happen. In communal rots too in our country criminals too take benefit of rioting and indulge in looting and even settling scores with their rivals. One did not expect from the Prime Minister of a country to give such over-simplistic explanation.
A comprehensive explanation would include political, economic as well as cultural aspects. It also has to be seen in the background of rising intolerance and rejection of multi-culturalism in Europe in the wake of revival of rightwing politics and revival of rightwing politics is mainly on account of deep economic crisis western world is going through. It has been observed since Second World War that economic downturn brings in its wake revival of racism and neo-fascism.
This again shows that tolerance or intolerance is not a religious phenomenon as often thought but quite a complex phenomenon which include several factors including cultural ones and those of identity and power-sharing. We unfortunately think it is religion which makes one tolerant or intolerant. The way blacks have killed Asians not only during these disturbances in London and Birmingham but also in earlier riots in England shows it is not merely racial but also economic.
Asians, especially those from Indian sub-continent have done well economically as they run businesses and have better standard of living than blacks, blacks bear grudge towards more successful Asians and take it out during such disturbances. The widespread looting of shops in which some whites were also involved as in India many middle class people, especially women loot shops during communal riots, shows how our values have collapsed.
Our education system itself is to be blamed for this. Like everywhere in capitalist system whole emphasis in education system is on competition, not on cooperation. Competitive spirit is the very foundation of our education and, of the two pillars of capitalism, competition and consumerism, consumerism generates spirit of jealousy and people want to imitate the rich and super-rich and want to consume what they consume and that leads to crime of all sorts.
A little spark can ignite the whole city or cities. As if people were waiting just for a spark to fly and everything will go up in flames. A few years ago, in Los Angeles it erupted when a white cop beat up a Blackman for minor traffic violation and this incident was video-recorded and shown. Whole of Los Angeles went up in flame. It shows how skin-deep is our culture and our civilizational values.
Riots like those of London and massacre like that of Norway show mirror to people of the west how superficial is their understanding of their culture and civilization. They accuse Muslims of being violent and undemocratic, how violent they themselves are and how deep are their prejudices. It was not very difficult for Hitler to capture imagination of German with his Nazi philosophy, Germany which had centuries of civilization.
Also USA, in partnership with U.K. and certain other European countries has been waging wars in Asia and Africa and recruiting soldiers for that purpose and indulges in propaganda justifying violence has its own effect on the youth who go and fight as soldiers. It tells upon their psychology. The American debt crisis, though it is not being admitted, has much to do with the needless wars it waged in Iraq and Afghanistan and that has brought about economic crisis in whole of Europe causing so much socio-economic woes and frustration among the youth.
There are violent tendencies among all of us and it needs great efforts to keep them under check and time and again we have to stress basic values like compassion, justice, human dignity, wisdom, mutual cooperation in goodness, humility and so on especially through our education system. But if all the time we all of competition and achieving at the cost of others and bullying weaker sections by parading our strength would only spur violent tendencies and these tendencies would recoil on ourselves also. The old adage that if you dig a pit for other to fall in, you yourself are likely to fall in it, is based on great deal of wisdom.
There is no doubt that western society evolved concept of human dignity and human rights but its ruling classes are greatest violators of those norms and values. The Western societies which all the time talk about tolerance is increasingly becoming intolerant of the others. Will they learn from events such as in Norway and London?
Asghar Ali Engineer is a prominent Islamic scholar. He heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.