The riots that have engulfed London and other major cities in the United Kingdom over the last week are finally receding in intensity but in the wake of the horrific scenes of violence, looting and arson that has left people shaken, the real issues look set to take centre stage especially as post mortems are carried out.
Yet whilst it would be easy for the post mortem to just focus on the failure of the system to anticipate and ultimately handle and control such riots, it would be a shame to simply gloss over examining some of the causes of the initial riot and the subsequent snowballing incidents of looting and criminality. This is where it gets a bit comlicated. The riot had multifaceted elements and a proper approach to examining the riots and its causes is akin to the peeling away of the layer of onion skins. This is not to say that what happened in any way is to be justified, but explanations need to be sought.
The government on its part is perhaps keen to highlight these incidents as more of a criminal nature as opposed to anything deeper such as disaffection and poverty, despite David Cameron’s statement to parliament on its recall from the summer break, acknowledging the potential ‘context’ of the riots. In a way there is some justification to regarding some of the incidents as criminal especially in some of the copy cat incidents that followed the initial wave of riots on Saturday night. An opportunity was seized on Sunday morning to loot stores and this was followed by other people in the following days especially with the riots that took place on Monday and Tuesday. Yet to simply blame this on criminality is perhaps to be slightly naïve and to put a band aid on a very deep cut. What is needed is to go to the root of the problem.
There is an element of the people who rioted especially on Saturday night (and on subsequent nights), that feel disengaged not just from the political process (largely because politicians have also disengaged from them) but also from mainstream society (that constantly ignores them), who have no focus for their energy, anger and resentment, no sense that they can change society and no reason to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. These are people who suffer from a structural inequality which is all too obvious in the poverty you see in the communities where they live. They have very little currently in their lives and very little to look forward to. Thus one should not underestimate the frustration felt by social exclusion, disenfranchisement and wasted lives that many of these youth have.
It is also obvious that successive Governments took the eyes of the ball with regards this issue. For the last decade or so, the Government has been focused its program called Prevent (Preventing Violent Extremism) which based on a security agenda deals with mainly one community. By concentrating a majority of resources on counter terrorism measures that ended up scrutinising a certain section of the community from a security perspective and focussing on a minority within that community, real social issues which were conflated with security priorities ended up being sidelined and opportunities to address them appropriately wasted. Thus not only did a majority of the counter terrorism initiatives fail but a greater sense of isolation, disillusionment and a decline in community cohesion was the result.
The copy cat riots that followed the Tottenham one, in many parts of London and other major cities of the UK, though display a more sinister and disturbing problem. It shows a crass disregard for other people and property and judging from the wide section of people, who did the looting, is not confined to a specific class, race or even educational level. These events were symptomatic of an unsustainable need to consume and acquire in the face of declining morals. It is no coincidence that these riots took place at the same time of a global financial meltdown. The corruption of the politicians, media and police and the recklessness that has condemned our economies to its decline and the big companies that evade taxes, might be different in appearance but they all have a common denominator: Greed! As one commentator explained, the moral decadence of the criminality displayed on the streets is not that different to the moral disintegration at the higher echelons of society. The need to get more and more without ever stopping to think of the consequences! The unequal consumer society that we have become obsessed with , leading to the constant desire to acquire more and more of the better toys and the designer label clothes, in order to affirm our status with material things whilst regaling in our individuality, means that morals and ethics can be disregarded. This is where the biggest eye opener has come from the riots. Decency and humanity have been swapped for selfishness and greed.
Thus in this regard, we as a society all are culpable as we have allowed markets to dictate politics and community life in our drive to become more and to acquire more. The culture of the society has become one fed on individual achievements influenced by social status and virtual friendships. We devalued social interaction to ‘chatting’ with so-called friends on Facebook; we have allowed the smartphone to become an appendage of our bodies and we have become desensitised to violence as a result of what we listen to, what we watch on tv, what we read and what electronic games we play.
The truth of the matter is that as we peer into the mirror to ask questions as to what went wrong, we are faced with a shattered mirror in the analogy of Sir Richard Burton in the The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi, who wrote “Truth is the shattered mirror strewn In myriad bits; while each believes his little bit the whole to own”. Thus parts of the truth are everywhere and the whole truth nowhere! It is with individual pieces that we start.
From the Government’s perspective, they need to quickly distinguish between political policy and lived experiences. They will have to stop developing a set of policies that put people into silos and that view things through a security lens in order to understand the diversity of a cosmopolitan society at the grass roots where everyone actually knows each other and respects each other. If anyone thought multiculturalism at a practical level had failed causing people to dislike the country that they live in, then the evidence of various immigrant communities who readily stood up to defend their neighbourhoods during the riots points to the contrary. The Government will have to acknowledge that something more than just enacting policy will have to be done. Yet unfortunately, in the debate in Parliament following David Cameron’s speech, MPs seemed to skirt around the issues of tackling the degeneration of moral values in society instead choosing to talk about policy, funding and policing. It was as if the proverbial elephant in the room was ‘how do we tackle moral decline?’
So maybe it is not up to the politicians to take the first step. Perhaps it is up to us as communities and society who will have to swap markets for morals in politics, business and community life. We have to rediscover the moral agency that will allow us to apply universal ethics and values to our daily lives. This is not something that can be enforced by a government, but is something that has to be internally generated before it can be lived. For this, we will have to go back to the basics to develop a shared language of morals, ethics and values, which will feed into respect and understanding.
In essence, we will have to rediscover a spirituality of commonality which will allow us to recognise the common space and substance amongst all doctrines that will provide the fuel for social change and trigger action for the unity of humanity. This shared language will enable us to develop a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes this improbable experiment of reconciling and rehabilitation of vulnerable communities possible. These values and ideals will have to be living, which cannot find expression on paper or monuments or in the annals of history books, but which remain alive in the hearts and minds of people inspiring us to pride, duty and sacrifice. These living values will have to help us to build on shared understandings and should be the glue that binds every healthy society.
The concept of spirituality of commonality that we need to develop as a society in response to the terrible incidents of the last week has to be an awareness of the interconnection of all things to provide the fuel for social change. It has to recognise that diverse doctrines have a common space and substance as we all belong to this world and we need to live in peace with everything and everyone and protect it for those who come after us. It has to be about a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of those who are voiceless. It has to allow us to value behaviour that express mutual regard for one another, honesty, fairness, humility, kindness courtesy and compassion.
People might scoff at the naivety of this statement but the point is that we have no choice. We have got to a position where something new needs to happen. For too long, narrow interests have vied for advantage with ideological minorities seeking to impose their own versions of absolute truth. It is time we reassembled the pieces of the broken mirror.
In order for this to happen, as many people have already been talking about, we need to engage: with each other, at different levels and ultimately with the authorities. The Bishop of London talked about nourishing relationships in order to develop an understanding of right and wrong. I would go even further to say that an extension of nourishing relationships and engagement is the concept of linking and partnership for mutual learning. What we need is a change of paradigm of the post Second World War twinning initiative between towns in England, France and Germany which was done as a means to prevent future conflict in Europe through international friendship and solidarity at community level. What we need now is the development of partnerships in solidarity between towns, local authorities, schools, hospitals, religious organisations, youth clubs to not only understand each other but to strengthen communities, add to social cohesion and contribute to personal and professional development through friendships made and work undertaken across the partnerships. Whilst this is needed within the UK, it is also a feature that this should be undertaken between the UK and counterparts in the Global South.
The concept of linking and partnerships are increasingly important to people (especially those with counterparts in the Global South) because with the increasing global nature of the workforce; movement of industries and companies; the narrowing of the information border and the gradually interdependency we as a globalised community seem to be becoming, people (especially the youth) in the UK need to understand the cultural contexts of other countries so that they develop the skills to be employed in far flung areas; they develop the skills to interact with each other and ultimately they develop the skills to respect one another. It increases not only community cohesion within the UK but will also contribute to social skills and global cohesion.
Organisations currently working in the field of linking and partnership such as BUILD (which is a coalition of 45 international development agencies committed to the development of sustained partnerships between communities in UK with counterparts in developing countries) will vociferously tell you that they see that issues such as unemployment, marginalisation, mental health problems, obesity, drugs, gangs and gun culture can and have been addressed through community partnerships undertaken between the UK and the Global South. So linking works!!
Thus there is a need and an opportunity now more than ever to promote the linking of communities to harness more cross-community collaboration, in the interests of peace, tolerance and wellbeing.
Within this spectrum of partnership and linking, we cannot disassociate ourselves from the role of faith. As we talk about the development of new morals, ethics, values and spirituality, we need to consider faith and the role that faith organisations will have in adding to this new narrative. Faith provides a narrative and a space in which one can start to explore some of these discussions of ethics and morals. In many of the smaller communities (especially the minority ethnic and immigrant communities), faith and faith organisations play a pivotal role in responding to the demands and pressures of the local community, where they operate with local knowledge to address specific community problems. They are highly active in many fields of social service, healthcare, education, human rights, youth development etc. They are self reliant, capable of harnessing the communities’ manpower, skills and resources. They serve very often as role models; variously taking a stand against corruption, developing infrastructure, delivering “sharp end” programmes and offering relief, healthcare and educational resources- where they would not otherwise be found. They are invariably unswerving in their zeal and commitment and many organisations work entirely voluntarily in a spirit of service.
Though there is a character to the religious playing field, that complicates matters with an undeniably, as strong a history of internecine strife and struggle, discrimination as they do of cooperation and collaboration and a problem of religiosity, we cannot ignore their voices and their role. Thus it is against this framework of potential disagreement and division, which we need to build and sustain links. The report “Engaging With Faith”, drawn up on behalf of The Commonwealth Foundation, by Professor Ian Linden and Andrew Firmin, recommends that we should strive to, “support joint working between inter faith networks, by promoting North-South, South-South linking, sharing of practice and focussed exchanges.” But what is needed is something more: linking, between and within faith (and non faith) communities-and certainly faith hub, to faith hub, rather than focussing on inter-faith networks, within the global north and more specifically between cities, towns and communities in the UK.
We need to realise that each of us (with our own faith, culture and community spirit) have a bit of that shard of broken glass from the shattered mirror. Only by piecing them together can we ever hope to move out of our silos and attain a much more cohesive community that better understands, respects and accepts each other. We need to collectively work such that breeding violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate. We need to ensure that our youth are given accurate information about other traditions, religions and cultures. We need to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity and to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings.
Linking, partnerships, engagement all mean the same thing: a sense of cooperation that leads to better understanding which should be encouraged and supported. This is a powerful tool for the promotion of dialogue, tolerance and harmonious living. Existing initiatives need to be strengthened and new ones started that have sustainable footprints in the community whilst providing a space for all stakeholders of society to play a role. The concept of linking should be enhanced through a comprehensive education strategy, both formal and informal, that breaks down the seemingly insurmountable divide of ‘us’ and ‘them’. This education should begin at home, within families and small communities, where the benefit of dialogue and linking can be seen and felt. It should roll through schools, institutes of higher education and ultimately politicians, legislators, governments and multi-lateral organisations.
Tan Sen, the master musician at the court of the Moghul Emperor, Akbar, had some fifteen musical instruments in the Emperor’s chamber, which he had tuned to one frequency. Upon playing just one instrument’s musical note, the other fourteen started to resonate, to the astonishment and delight of the audience. Ideally this story can serve well as a metaphor for how communities can work in harmony to achieve an enlightened result.