Revenge attacks in England

A Muslim-owned store in a Leeds suburb was set ablaze the night of July 22 in what police called a racially motivated attack. No one was injured in the fire, which destroyed a convenience store in the suburb of Harehills. But the attack, which occurred across the street from the Bilal mosque in the working-class section of town, is being investigated as a "malicious incident." Iqbal Khan, the owner of the store, said the fire began when four white youths started setting merchandise ablaze, then ran out. He said he was able to escape before the store went up in flames.

In sermons and special announcements during Friday prayers, community leaders and imams warned worshipers to resist being provoked by anti-immigrant groups. "Everybody's shocked that incidents have occurred," said Mohammed Iqbal, a city councilor in Leeds, speaking to worshipers at the Kashmir Muslim Welfare Association mosque about the latest bombing attempts. "It should be clear to us all that these kinds of events are a threat to our freedom." (NYT, July 23)

A commentary by veteran social worker and community activist Max Farrar, with years of experience in Leeds, sees the London bombings in the same tradition as the "riots" of previous decades in British working-class districts, which in his view were fueled by racism:

Riot or uprising?

One framework within which observers often see the social problems of Leeds, Bradford and other Yorkshire cities is that of “riots�?. Leeds witnessed “Caribbean" riots in its Chapeltown area in November 1975, “multi-cultural" riots in Harehills-Chapeltown in July 1981 and July 1995, and “Asian" riots in Hyde Park in June 2001.

It seems far harder to categorise the Beeston men who carried the London bombs: they are seen either as beyond understanding, a manifestation of “evil", or as an alien aberration of Islam. None of these are adequate. In my view, the Beeston bombers should be understood in the context of the past thirty years of alienation in inner-city Leeds. In this perspective, both “riots" and the terrifying new turn to bombing, may best be analysed as an extreme variant of violent urban protest.

In making this argument in relation to “riots" ten years ago this week while reporting on the attack on police and the burning down of a pub in Hyde Park, Leeds, I wrote: “If ‘protest’ implies conscious and legitimately channelled complaint, and “riot" implies mere criminal violence, neither word quite captures the meaning of this event" (New Statesman and Society, 21 July 1995).

Since anyone who tries to discuss the political dimension of the bombings is ritually denounced as an apologist, I suppose I am forced to add that I seek only to find explanations, not justifications. Many young men of Muslim faith in Leeds and Bradford, just like past “rioters", have deep-rooted grievances against the British state. They are socially and psychologically alienated; some have become nihilistic.

Those who have turned to suicide bombing have used a religious ideology to justify mass murder. This makes them very different from the “rioters�?. But one thing that applies to both is the complete divorce between all these marginalised young men and the conventional political processes.

The young men – of all colours – who have taken part in the violent protests in Leeds since 1975 have another thing in common: although their anger only boiled over into organised violence for a night or two, that anger never went away. They all come from inner-city areas with much in common with Beeston: a significant proportion of non-white residents, much higher than average rates of unemployment, low educational attainment, and a housing stock that is the worst in the city.

But I don’t think any of these protests are stimulated by economic deprivation. When I analysed (as “uprisings�?) the events in 1975 and 1981, I started from the politics, rather than the deprivation indicators, that are specific to the inner city.

I briefly worked in Beeston in the early 1980s, trying to help local Muslims whose homes were being attacked by white racists. The police response to my representations was lamentable. A Leeds Community Relations Council report for the year 1985-6 recorded 305 racist incidents in that area, and noted that male unemployment in Beeston was 14% in 1981. Almost half of the respondents had been forced to change their daily habits because of these attacks; one man said “we’ve got no real life�?. The report seems to have led to improvement in some of the police and council policies, but there was no political response.

Farrar ends on a despairing note:

Karl Marx’s point that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions" applies well here. Militant, fundamentalist Islam, attempting to throw Muslims back over a thousand years of their history, may be understood as the most deadly and misguided protest against the depredations of capitalism that has yet been witnessed.

(OpenDemocracy, July 22)

See our last post on the London attacks.