Prayers are held at the scene of a hit and run following civil disturbances in the city if Birmingham [GALLO/GETTY]
The shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by armed police in north London on the evening of August 4 created a chain of riots, looting, and mayhem in London, and subsequently other cities. The first human casualties were three young Asian men of Muslim origin in Birmingham who were defending their property. According to the West Midlands Police Chief Chris Sims: "At some point, and in circumstances that as yet I can't fully explain, a vehicle has been driven into that group of males, which tragically has led to three of those men losing their lives".
This wanton destruction up and down the country, caused by sections of our youth and aided by social media (such as Blackberry messenger, Twitter, etc), is a new phase in our social malaise. All sections of our society, from police to politicians to ordinary citizens, have unequivocally condemned this mind-boggling anarchy and nihilism. There is a genuine revulsion at this mindless criminality. There is also a soul searching going on: one columnist suggests that the moral decay at the top of society is as bad as it is at the bottom in our country.
While the dark side of these fateful few days was maddening, other inspirational things were happening. Local residents in some places fought back against the looters and vigilantes (or concerned citizens, depending upon your definition) joined police forces to help protect their property and streets. Much like the Tahrir Square Clean-up in Egypt, ordinary Londoners were seen cleaning their streets after a major disturbance. Some minority communities played inspirational roles in this national crisis: Muslims tackling looters and bigots whilst Turkish shopkeepers in north London were demonstrating exemplary community responsibility in protecting their stores. Britain's largest Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain, urged us all to clean up our cities. In the midst of the riot-led pessimism, one writer reminded us that faith-based youth work can give hope in this generation. Faith indeed played an important role for Muslims, as in the month of fasting (Ramadan, taking place across August) Muslims are reminded to restrain themselves from evil and criminal activities. In a powerful article in The Daily Mail 14 August, Legacy of a society that believes in nothing, one columnist eulogised the father of two dead young sons for his "solemn, peaceful message that will make everyone who stereotypes Muslims as terrorists and fanatics feel ashamed of themselves".
Amid all this mayhem in our cities and tough talk by politicians, the question remains; what is it that caused this sheer criminality and nihilism in certain sections of our youth? The issues are complex and deep, and opinions widely divided. We cannot look for a simple answer to a complex problem. Many causes have been thrust forward: the widening of social and economic inequality, the decline of trust in established authority (such as politicians), the gradual waning of a moral compass with a 'me-first' philosophy of life, the influence of unrestricted commercialisation of our lives and the weakening of family structure giving rise to a lack of basic discipline at home, in schools and our streets - all are relevant.
However, a skin-deep analysis and playing the blame game do not help us in solving this crisis of ours. Tough talking and robust policing are certainly necessary in the short term. We have the Olympics when the world is coming to London next year and the media will be focused on our small island. Imagine if a fraction of this chaos happens during the next summer - disaster!
We need to go deep into this social issue in order to find a long-term solution. Youth are the makers or breakers of any society. A society where family structure is robust, will more likely turn youthful energy to nation building. Where it is weak, however, that is a recipe for the kind of disorder we have seen on our streets recently.
Children are by nature inquisitive, adventurous and prone to rebellion. They are idealist, impressionable and often vulnerable. Without a strong moral 'mooring' and an anchor in the community - anchors which come from family and community, from those also at the top of society - they may enter the world without a moral compass. The tendency to rebel against the status quo is embedded in their nature, and without strong discipline (there is a fine balance between freedom and discipline in childhood), young people may turn towards antisocial activities. Schools are often at the sharp end of this indiscipline and delinquency. With rising family problems, such as domestic violence, and mixed messages on parental rights, parents are often at a loss what to do. A blame game amongst parents, schools and society makes the situation worse.
According to some studies, Britain's young people are not faring well in their behaviour compared to other developed countries. The UN's first ever report on the state of childhood in the industrialised West also tells us how Britain is eating its young. This seems to be in line with the UNICEF Report on Children's happiness of 2007, where Britain came last among industrialised countries. This does not bode well for our country.
As a behaviour support teacher and community activist for several decades, I believe that the root cause of our young people's delinquency and criminality lies in our homes. It then spreads: community and society consists of families first and foremost. But this is not about pointing fingers at parents; they are not solely responsible. By talking to any parent who is struggling with their 'behaviour-problem'child, you will find that the finger would point back to the society.
The only way we can build our society is to build our homes. Home is a place where a child starts life. A warm and caring stable family environment is essential for the healthy growth of a child. Call me old-fashioned, traditional or even judgemental, but a society cannot sustain itself by weakening its family structure. Human society stands on the shoulder of families. Strong families create strong moral values, such as love, respect, loyalty, care, patience, sacrifice, fairness, integrity, compromise and openness. They also nurture an ethos which is open to consultation and problem solving. All this depends on assertive, proactive and positive parenting, from the early stage of a child's life. According to a survey by YouGov for Channel 4/ITN, 'Poor parenting to blame for UK riots, British people think poor parenting, criminal behaviour and gang culture is causing unrest in cities across the UK.
When we fail to value the importance of family and positive parenting, they will come back to haunt us. And, dare I say, in my view marriage-based family life is the answer to raising our children as better human beings. To say marriage is problem-free will be arrogant, but marriage teaches us to be less selfish with the spirit of compromise and a sense of responsibility that no alternative system, in my opinion, can provide.
Violence, neglect or abuse in a family has always had adverse effects on children. Sadly, over many decades, the institution of family has been undermined by the pressures of extreme materialism, alongside increasing numbers of domestic violence cases resulting in parental separation. With a more dominant and unrestricted consumerism and the arrival of modern technologies, such as mobile phones, computers, TVs and other gadgets decreasing the need for physical communication, people are being kept apart. The loss of childhood innocence and loneliness is becoming the norm. Its impact in schools, in terms of discipline and poor performance, is causing concern in the world of education. With the weakening of family values and discipline and lack of proper direction from society, drugs, sex and criminality are becoming prominent. The cost to the nation in terms of NHS, police and social services is enormous.
As children grow and their formal education starts, schools and neighbourhoods should gradually play a vital role. But by that time their home education and environment has given them a good anchor to withstand any social challenge: schools, community and society can build upon this.
We have been overwhelmed with scandals involving corporate greed in the banking systems, MPs' expenses and phone hacking over the past few years. But, to me, these mindless August 2011 riots on our streets are worse and a wake up call for us as a nation.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a parenting consultant. He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.