Vol. 5 Num 574 Fri. January 06, 2006  

Far from Integrated?

The past two months saw racial riots in at least three Western countries, Australia, France and the UK. It was soon clear that the riots had religious undertones and they were, or had turned into, in fact, Muslim-Christian disturbances. It was not a premeditated attack by the Christian majorities of these countries to "wipe out the Muslims" rather, if at all, it was the other way round where Muslims/Afro-Asians were deliberately and willfully attacking the Christian /white-owned properties. Defying the conspiracy theorists logic, the governments as well the mass of the general public, both the Muslim and Christian communities, demonstrated exemplary restraint in the wake of the provocations. The rioters from both sides, one must hasten to add, were organized criminal gangs of youngsters, not the least representative of the communities at large.

The riots in UK was a local affair of the city of Birmingham and were initially started between two rival racial groups within the Muslim community. A pirated radio station aired a news that a black Muslim teenager girl had been raped at a beauty parlour owned by an Asian Muslim Ajaib Khan. Angry black Muslim youths started attacking shops and properties owned by Asian Muslims. The next day, hundreds of youngsters of Pakistani and Indian Muslim origin landed in Birmingham by trains from adjacent towns and joined the local Asians in launching revenge attacks on African Muslim neighborhoods. The Police tried to trace the alleged victim only to find that there was none. Most probably no rape had taken place and rumor mongers had had their field day among the poor communities of Asian and African origin who vent their frustrations on each other for want of anything else to do. Ajaib Khan claimed that the news was fed by his rival Asians who wanted to destroy his business as he was doing so well that fellow Asians had boiled with envy.

The riots took a different turn when local white gangsters started attacking Muslims of both Asian and African origin to avenge the Muslim community for, what they believed, destroying the peace of their town. Muslim graveyard was desecrated, graves were vandalized and two mosques were attacked. So it became a street fight between White Christians on one side and African and Asian Muslim together on the other. A timely intervention by the local Member of Parliament Khalid Mehmood, the Police and the leaders of both the communities helped bring the situation under control after three days. One man lost his life, 35 were injured and around 50 arrested.

In the Southern port city of Sydney in Australia, the Western suburbs of the town are densely populated by Muslim immigrants. The violence started when two white life guards on the beach stopped some Arab youth from going afar in the water. Their tone appeared to the youngsters as rude and insulting who then called some other immigrant friends and thrashed the life guards. Some white youngsters of the town stared an SMS text campaign on the mobiles asking the whites to take a revenge. Many gangs coordinated with each other, and by next afternoon 5000 whites arrived at the beach ostensibly to stop another allegedly planned attack by the Muslims on the whites at the beach. As it turned out, it was a hoax there were no Muslim youths ready to attack the whites, so the latter vented their anger on all Asian and Middle Eastern-looking guys and families picnicking at the beach and started thrashing them. So it became a free for all, with Muslims and Christians attacking each other wantonly.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard as well as the State Premier of New South Whales, appealed for calm and took immediate remedial measures to give enhanced powers to the Police. The police behaved effectively and professionally and brought the situation under control very soon.

The most serious riots were in France which were triggered by the death by electrocution of two African youths from an electric pole behind which they were hiding from the Police. The Paris Police, no need to say, is not known to be extremely polite in their encounters with the illegal immigrants.

Here the riots were most serious and soon spread to all major cities of France. The jobless Muslim youths, in their thousands, attacked White-owned property. The riots continued for three weeks and the Police and security forces appeared helpless as they could not be everywhere all the time. The moment the police patrol would be out of sight, small groups of Asians and Africans would appear from nowhere armed with cans of kerosene oil and a few more cars would be set on fire. Over 15,000 cars mostly owned by ordinary middle class Frenchmen were set on fire by the arsonists. The Government of France requested and received emergency aid from the European Union to help coop with the emergency and to pay compensation to the local victims.

One thing is clear; the riots in these different corners of the world were not spontaneous response to isolated incidents. The causes are deeply rooted in the marginalization of the Muslim communities in the European societies for the last three decades since the major waves of immigration began. The unemployment rate in many of the Muslim neighborhoods of the Western countries is as high as 70% and the average income level as low as 28% of the national average.

Admittedly, the European nations did not ask these immigrants to come to their countries and have a right to tell them that they are not welcome. But then just one century ago, the forefathers of these Muslims had never begged the European nations to come, occupy and colonize their homelands which made them so impoverished, so as to risk their lives on high seas to land on the shores of developed countries in search of a decent living.

The present poverty in Muslim lands has direct roots in the phenomenon of non-representative authoritarian regimes. The lack of accountability, the arbitrary allocation of resources, grandiose projects with dubious economic utility and all the hall marks of the 'political economies of dictatorship' make the income gap between the rich and the poor, unsustainably great. In a state as rich as Saudi Arabia, the poverty in urban ghettos of the capital Riyadh is appalling; the metropolitan area of Riyadh is comparable to that of Los Angeles, only that in the former one thirds of households have no running water for drinking or sanitation. The poor localities in Riyadh and Dubai seem marginally different from those of the poorest nations, Mali and Niger. The people from this whole gamut of Muslim nations of different political and economic hues pay their way into Europe's ghettos, courtesy the human traffickers, who bribe the Western security and coastal officers for safe passage, and those who fail, find their way into Iraq to blow themselves up near an American or British military convoy.

While one must appreciate the restraint and maturity shown by the Western communities in the face of wild provocations, one must add that for a long term solution of the Muslim minority problem, the European nations would have to put their heads together to draw up a plan of stopping to pat the dictators in the third world, promote democracy there, and bring the dictators to justice, even if it is by physically arresting them from their home countries, like the US forces did to President Noriega. Unless the developing world is also turned into a world worth living, the riots may recur atavistically.

Saad S Khan is a Cambridge-based scholar and a widely read analyst on politics, governance and human rights in the Muslim world.
Some 15000 cars were torched in French riots.