By Kaamil Ahmed
London burned in its own anger and we watched as it happened, grumbled about it, then shuffled those five days out of our minds.
Five years later and it is clear we utterly failed to engage with the issue. Non-black British Muslims are just as guilty as the rest of the country in this, even though the Riots happened in our own communities and the core causes affect many of our neighbours and co-religionists.
Many of us engaged in the same dismissal of the riots as “senseless” thuggery despite the very real conditions that led to that outbreak of anger and have arguably deteriorated since. That includes distrust and fear of Police, a dearth of opportunities and the very visible impacts of austerity policies.
“There has been a long-term deterioration of the relationship between people in our community and the police, in particular young people from ethnic minorities. Stop and Search was frequently described as being excessive and disrespectful.” – Citizens Inquiry into the Tottenham Riots
What is worse, is that Muslims should have known better than to distance themselves from the issue. We saw a lot of celebration of Muslims defending their own shops and neighbours, which was commendable, but little attempt to then look back at what caused these frictions in the areas they live in.
The looting cut across ethnic boundaries (those charged: 40% black, 37% white, 6% Asian) but the initial hotspots for rioting betrayed the deeper problems. At the time of the riots, London’s black population was 11% but made 28% of those stopped and searched. In Haringey, where the riots started, there were 367 job vacancies for 10,000 people unemployed. These were issues brushed over in a government response that attempted to reduce the crisis to criminality; not unlike their approach to radicalisation.
Anyone who has despaired at the reactions to attacks in Europe and the US should have recognised how politicians dismissed a crisis as “senseless” or the media clambering to portray Duggan as a criminal before facts could be established. If the London riots were not obvious enough, the comparison should have at least become apparent during the last two years when in reaction to Black Lives Matter highlighting police brutality against African Americans, parts of the media tried to defame the victims and dismiss protests as riots. This language and these reactions are exactly what Muslims have to deal with in the aftermath of attacks that are used to tar the whole community.
With the Black Lives Matter movement now starting to sprout in the UK, focusing on deaths in custody, there is an opportunity to show solidarity where non-black Muslims failed five years ago. We often call for greater recognition of the difficulties caused by government counter-terror policies, whether through Prevent or police treatment in places like airports. We fail however, to offer the same support to others.
Perhaps it is time to recognise that the “random” checks Muslims face at airports are barely different to police harassment under Stop and Search; something black Muslims might understand better than most. As with counter-terror policies, the wider public often accepts these civil liberties restrictions with the same justification; that stopping someone, Muslim or Black, makes them safer. So if Muslims want to fight one, they should also support the fight against the other.
The US Black Lives Matter movement has seen the importance of that solidarity, forging ties with Palestinian activists despite the criticism that has brought them and the new UK branch, in its video campaign, also highlighted Prevent-facilitated Islamophobia.
“One of them said: ‘Mate, why don’t you ask him where Saddam is. He might be able to help out’ … They’re supposed to be law enforcement … I don’t hate the policing system, I hate the police on the street. I hate them from the bottom of my heart.”
That quote came from the Reading The Riots report by the Guardian and London School of Economics. The interviewee was a 17-year-old Muslim living in Tottenham an account of being stopped by police when he was 13, on the way to school. It showed the treatment ethnic minorities face at the hands of the police and how, if we do not stand up to the harassment of black youth, then we can expect the same attitudes allowed under the pretext of stopping street crime to be turned on us as counter-terrorism.
Five years on, we’ve failed to learn from the London riots was originally published in Convivencia Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
Read the responses to this story on Medium.