(This post originally appeared on Dawn‘s blog, here.)
The worst nightmare of every British Labour party member/supporter appears to be coming true (well, perhaps in slow-motion, anyway): the public perception of them has dropped so low that working class Britons are actually going as far as supporting the far-right British National Party (BNP) in opposition to Labour’s perceived failure to safeguard their interests.
I say slow-motion, of course, because so far the BNP has only won two seats in the European parliament, which most British citizens consider to be in a magical and far away land (Brussels, specifically) that has nothing to do with their real, everyday lives; the writing, however, appears very much to be on the wall. Frustrated with perceived mismanagement of the financial crisis, fatigued of being involved a war they no longer consider to be even remotely connected to their long term interests, voters are beginning to listen to alternative voices (anyone, really) to Gordon Brown and the party they’ve kept in power for over 12 years.
With this shift in political affiliations, there is, of course, the fairly warranted concern that the UK, as a society, is becoming more xenophobic, closed, and generally unpleasant for people not of Anglo-Saxon descent (that there are few people who are truly ‘indigenous’ to the British Isles appears to be something that has escaped the BNP’s attention, interestingly). So while people may be supporting the BNP on policy issues such as their stance on the war in Afghanistan (they are for withdrawal of troops as soon as possible), crime (they are for “free[ing] the police from the politically correct straitjacket which is stopping from doing their jobs properly” and bringing back the death penalty, among other things), education (they want the reintroduction of corporal punishment, daily Christian assemblies and the teaching of “old-fashioned” literacy and mathematical skills, among other things), the party’s position has become inseparable from a view that the UK has for too long been ‘soft’ on immigration, and that the rights of “indigenous British people” need to be “protected”. [For a full list of the BNP’s policies and their stance on various issues, click here.]
The reaction to a recent series of religiously motivated attacks near London’s City University serves as a good example of the sorts of fears that are being crystallised amongst immigrants to the UK in general, but Muslims in particular.
First, the facts.
On Nov 5, 2009, at about 7.45pm, a group of City University students were attacked as they made their way from the university. The attack was termed a “racially aggravated assault”, and two students sustained stab wounds, though they were not life-threatening, according the university.
Three males were then arrested, but have since been released on bail.
The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis) says that that attack was only the latest in a series of attacks on Muslim students near City University. A Fosis statement claims that “30 youths” were involved in the attack on Nov 5, and that attacks earlier in the week “left three students requiring hospitalisation for severe facial and head injuries as they were set upon by the gang shouting Islamophobic and racist abuse including statements like ‘Get those Muslims’ and ‘Paki’ being used repeatedly; they were subjected to a series of projectile missiles, including bricks, metal poles and sign posts”.
Fosis called upon the university to “provide assurances for the safety and welfare of all students on campus” and requested that “such measures [be] maintained permanently”.
The attacks left a definite mark on the Muslim community at City University, with the City University Islamic Society giving accounts of a series of attacks against Muslim students, and, while it expressed its gratitude to both the local police and the university, it also called for measures to be taken to ensure the safety of Muslim students at the institution. (City ISoc’s full statement can be found here.)
Several blogs and forums, too, picked up the story of the attacks, and while most simply reproduced either Fosis’ or City ISoc’s statements, others called for Muslims in general to be more ‘vigilant’ when in public spaces. Some went as far as to suggest that Muslim women (inevitably referred to as ‘sisters’, interestingly . . . though this is perhaps a post for another time) not travel after dark and ask their families to escort them to and from university.
The question is, then, is Britain becoming less tolerant of minority groups as time passes, or were these incidents isolated? Well, if you locate the attacks within the broader political climate (growing support for a far-right party – though, it must be said, this support is still limited so far, and the BNP remains a fringe political party), or even within the broader multiculturalism vs cultural integration debate taking place across Europe (which cultural integration seems to be winning in key instances: the recent ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland, for example, or the bans on the wearing of head scarves in certain places in France and the Netherlands), it would appear that there may well be cause for concern amongst minority groups.
To say that Britain has been seized by rabid xenophobia would be several steps too far, but there is definite cause for concern in the rise of the far-right in the UK in particular, but in Europe in general as well. And, seeing as Pakistan’s diaspora is one of the world’s most widely spread, any such move is always relevant to Pakistanis.