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6 September, 2011

A Fish Out of Water

Britain's Muslims are poorer, less well educated, have a higher unemployment rate and feel more alienated from the mainstream than almost any other ethnic or minority group.

As the builders move in to repair the burnt-out shops and looted warehouses, and courts hand down lengthy prison sentences to those arrested for rioting, theft and vandalism, Britain has begun an agonising analysis of its four days of madness in August. Why did the riots spread so quickly? Why did the police not react faster? What do the events say about the morals, outlook and frustrations of Britain's younger generation? And how big a factor were racial differences and the failure of minorities to integrate fully into Britain's multi-cultural society?

Worries about Britain's Muslim minority, numbering around 1.8 million, have been a preoccupation for Britain's government for the past decade, especially since the bombings of the London Underground by four young British-born Muslims in July 2005. Various official reports and surveys paint a bleak picture. Britain's Muslims, mostly immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Middle East, are poorer, less well educated, have a higher unemployment rate and feel more alienated from the mainstream than almost any other ethnic or minority group. They are strikingly less successful than Indians, mostly non-Muslim, who are well educated and have mostly become middle-class entrepreneurs.

There are several problems faced by Muslims in British society. First, they all come from different backgrounds (unlike in France, where they are mostly from north of Africa, or Germany where they are mostly from Turkey). As a result, the community is fragmented into rival ethnic groups, with no unified leadership. The government finds it hard to know which group to talk to about issues affecting Muslims. Each group - the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Arabs, etc - wants to show it is the most zealous, and therefore each tries to outdo the other in extremist rhetoric to prove their Muslim piety.

A second problem is that the mosques in Britain lack educated leadership. Many imams are brought over from Pakistani villages, with little knowledge of English and none of the Western way of life. As a result they have little in common with British inner-city teenage Muslim boys, and instead preach only jihad and traditional conservative views to convince them to be good Muslims. And Muslim teenagers, since they do not drink, rarely meet white Britons socially. They do not go out to pubs in the evenings and do not allow young Muslim girls to mix with non-Muslims.

After the London bombings, the government took various steps to stop the spread of extremist ideology. It made it a crime to preach violence, and cracked down on preachers who were praising al-Qaeda and terrorism. It banned visas for any Muslim preacher who could not speak English. It also provided funds for moderate Muslim leaders to speak to local Muslim communities and encourage them to be good citizens.

This provision of funds has proved a mistake. Some of those receiving funding are only pretending to be moderates, concealing their real views and interested only in getting hold of the money. Many young Muslims are deeply suspicious of these officially-sponsored groups, seeing them as government agents to infiltrate the Muslim community.  Yet in the past year or two, things have improved. This was vividly shown in the aftermath of the recent riots in Birmingham, a city where the large Muslim minority is bitterly hostile to the black minority (race relations between Asians and black in Britain are generally poor). Three young Muslims were killed by a car driven by young black men - and there was talk of revenge raids on the black community. But the father of one of the victims called on the Muslims to remain peaceful, and gave an impassioned speech about the need to show mercy and tolerance. The riots stopped. And a week later, at an emotional funeral ceremony attended by 20,000 Muslims and other groups in Birmingham, there was an impressive  display of calm, compassion and a determination to prove that Muslims are responsible British citizens. Yet it will take time before the suspicions of the majority white community die down. The publicity given to extremist preachers, the fear of al-Qaeda, the link with militant training camps in Pakistan and the political turmoil in the Arab and Muslim world have all sharpened prejudices against British Muslims. Their loyalties are called into question. There is concern that Muslims do not share the majority values of tolerance, democracy and women's rights. Muslim Britons are seen as loyal more to other Muslim countries than to Britain. Islamophobia, a vocal grievance of British Muslims, is a real threat to communal harmony.

Nevertheless, it is striking how many ethnic minorities are now reaching positions of power and influence in British society. There are Muslim, black and Indian MPs and peers sitting in Parliament, as well as ministers, judges, actors, surgeons, company directors, broadcasters and diplomats. Outsiders, especially those from Eastern Europe where immigration is more recent and more contentious, are often surprised that Britain, and especially London, is such an ethnic melting pot. Passengers on the Underground come from all parts of the world. And fringe right-wing parties appealing to white resentment have been massively rejected in recent local and national elections. Full integration will take several generations, however. The riots showed that today the dominating issue for young people is not race, but poverty, unemployment and a lack of opportunity. And that affects Britons of all races.

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