OVER A COFFEE: Arab Spring in London? —Dr Haider Shah
While our leftist utopians found some revolutionary fantasies in the flames of burning police cars and smashed glass panes of superstores, sympathisers of Islamist radicalism discovered their own jubilation in the rioting incidents
It is not the first time that the majestic London has seen its buildings on fire. In 1666, the Great Fire of London gutted almost 14,000 buildings in and around the city of London in just four days. Similarly, in the Second World War, London saw its buildings ablaze due to the Nazi aerial attacks. More recently on July 7, 2005, the carefree calm of London was shaken up by suicide bombers leaving many tube stations and a bus in flames. On each occasion the resilient spirit of Londoners healed the damage in no time. But what happened during the last few days of August was unprecedented in many ways. The flames were neither caused by a natural calamity nor by a determined enemy. This time Great Britain was rocked by hooded gangs of lads with no political ideology. Anger, criminality and opportunism, working in tandem, produced a rioting spree that made London and a few other British cities look like Mogadishu to the baffled world.
An editorial published in The Washington Post draws parallels between the Arab Spring and London rioting. In both cases angry demonstrations were sparked by the death of a commoner due to alleged highhandedness of the authorities. In both cases it was the social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger that escalated rumour mongering and provided a loose but effective organising mechanism to the looters. But there are noticeable differences as well. Those who had gathered in Cairo or Tunis had a clear political will and did not indulge in private property looting. On the contrary, the lads in Britain were energised by consumerist greed and found a convenient opportunity to smash the glass windows of retail outlets and decamp with fancied valuables. In the case of the Arab unrest, the strong tactics of the law enforcement agencies resulted in the deaths of many protesters, thus further aggravating the volatile situation while in Britain the police has been rather criticised for being too pacifist in dealing with the miscreants.
Many Left-leaning analysts are keen on declaring the criminal activity a social uprising, which has challenged capitalism. In these riots a few daydreamers even see the halo of a working class revolution as the harbinger of the end of bourgeois democracy. But they conveniently ignore the fact that these gangsters, notorious for hating any work, were pillaging shops of hardworking small scale businessmen. Some intellectuals started applying various sociological frameworks to find excuses for the conduct of the ruffians. Yes, a majority of these youth gang members belong to low income groups but surviving on the state welfare system, they have no idea what poverty is. The UK government will do them great service if they are sent to a Sub-Saharan country or a slum in South Asia so that they have a first-hand learning experience about real poverty and thus stop pitying themselves as victims for not being able to buy the latest model of a mobile phone or Nike joggers.
Shoplifting and occasional vandalism of public property, mostly by school dropouts, have long been recognised as some of the major social problems in the UK. In 1998, the Labour government introduced the Crime and Disorder Act to deal with the nuisance caused by local youth gangs. The law empowered magisterial courts to issue Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) to deal with young delinquents involved in minor incidents. From its inception the law was criticised by many human rights campaigners. The sheer scale and tenacity of rioting in the last few days suggest that ASBOs kind of soft legislation has not proved effective in rooting out a deeper problem. However, when a building is on fire the first concern is always how to contain and extinguish the fire. Only once the dust settles can one engage in deeper soul-searching to find the cause of the fire and its prevention in future. Analysts in the UK are therefore now discussing a holistic strategy that addresses both the containment and cure of the gang culture.
While our leftist utopians found some revolutionary fantasies in the flames of burning police cars and smashed glass panes of superstores, sympathisers of Islamist radicalism discovered their own jubilation in the rioting incidents. They argue that since non-Muslims are also committing violent acts so we are unfairly scandalised by the western media. This kind of reasoning is quite unfortunate. As we find justifications for the anger of terrorists in Pakistan and all over the world, some apologists in the British media also tried to glamourise the consumerist greed of the school dropouts but this has failed to attract any wide-scale approval. We need to be clear on the difference between rioting by youth gangs and the al Qaeda brand of terrorism. The youth gangs do not have a common ideology or an international agenda. Their activity is a localised problem that can be dealt with by stronger anti-riot policing and socio-economic action. As seen in the case of Northern Ireland, when the British police is legally empowered it can deal with any kind of organised terrorism. Ideology-based violent gangs with international support and networking are, however, more difficult to monitor or eradicate and hence pose a much bigger threat.
There is little doubt that the London brand received a serious blow because of scenes of rioting shown all over the world. A friendly football match between Holland and England scheduled for August 10 was called off by the Football Association following a third night of riots. A presenter of radio channel London Biggest Conversation (LBC) commented that he had a hard time convincing the worried American listeners that London was not falling apart. A lot of image repair work has to be done quickly and effectively by the Cameron government as the London Olympics are hardly a year away. While the government is dealing with the demon of stagnant growth and fiscal gap management, the trouble caused by happy-go-lucky lads is the last thing it wants to cause distraction in the midst of challenging international economic conditions.
The writer teaches in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org