Britain Ponders Its Melting Pot After Riots by Group of South Asians
LONDON — IT began with a simple incident: On a neighbor's complaint, two police officers stopped a group of South Asian youths playing soccer in the street.
But within minutes, full-scale rioting erupted. The violence that lasted for 48 hours in the northern English city of Bradford is prompting tough questions for the community and national politicians 200 miles away in London.
All are trying to understand the pent-up rage that drove hundreds of South Asian teenagers - members of a normally peaceful community - to rampage through the streets on June 9 and 10, throwing gasoline bombs, burning cars, and causing $1.6 million in damages to shops and houses.
Keith Hellawell, chief constable in the area, says one of the reasons was that the Muslim youths aged between 12 and 20 had lost their ties with their old religion.
But Faqir Mohammed, acting president of the Bradford Council of Mosques, says the police "handled the affair badly, and caused the trouble to escalate."
"No matter what caused the rioting, we must try to find the reasons," said an official in the Home Office in London. "Bradford is only one English city with a substantial nonwhite minority. There are others where the same circumstances could produce the same or similar results."
Meanwhile, South Asian community leaders and senior police in Bradford held urgent meetings. By June 13, local police reported an uneasy calm.
In all, there are about 1.5 million nonwhites in Britain, more than 2 percent of the population. Bradford, with a 70,000-strong South Asian community, has one of the heaviest concentrations of people whose ethnic roots are in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The city was once the center of England's woolens industry, but production has fallen heavily in recent years. Unemployment in parts of Bradford has soared up to 50 percent.
Chief Constable Hellawell notes that the great majority of those involved in the Bradford rioting are British-born - the children or grandchildren of immigrants who arrived from South Asia in the 1960s and '70s.
"They see themselves as British citizens, and they are," says Max Madden, the local member of Parliament. "But they think they are going nowhere. They believe they are unwelcome to a very great extent in Britain and feel angry and concerned."
Mr. Madden's feelings are echoed by Muslim community leaders in Bradford. "The Muslim community is the most law-abiding community in Britain," says Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the human rights committee of Britain's Muslim parliament set up as a national body four years ago. "But it is clear it is being deprived of many things that the rest of the country takes for granted, such as jobs, housing and decent schools," he adds.
Bradford's South Asians have become "uneasy about the invasion of their districts by the culture of drugs, petty crime, and commercial exploitation of women," says Bhiku Parekh, a political scientist at the University of Hull. "All this undermines their traditional values and their family life, and generates a climate of moral panic."
The incident that sparked the rioting, a local police officer says, was "very ordinary": "The kids were playing football in a back street, and we told them to stop."
But police and community leaders disagree over what happened next. Police say two of the youths were arrested, and a third fled. Local Muslim leaders say that in the pursuit of the third youth, police used heavy-handed methods and hit his sister, who was cradling a baby.
Soon hundreds of South Asian youths were parading through the streets. On the second night of rioting, a group stoned the police station where the detained youths were being held. Police moved in with batons and riot shields, and there were more than 20 arrests.
Professor Parekh says a new element has entered the grievance many local South Asians feel about life in Britain's inner cities.
"Initially, it was the older group of people who pressed the police and other authorities to improve conditions for ethnic minorities," he says. "What Bradford has shown is that young Asians are taking over the moral and religious campaign of their elders, and giving it a more muscular and political orientation."
"Young people are rising up as much against their own elders and society as against the police," agrees Norman Bettison, assistant chief constable in the area. "The police are simply the anvil on which the youth are beating out their frustration and anger, and they seem to be alienated from every conceivable part of society from which they are drawn," he adds. "We are trying to open a dialogue with them, but it is very difficult."