A protean riot requires a protean response

Britain’s societal discord revealed by the recent riots requires community and governmental efforts to restore harmony.

riot police in UK surround a guy
Rather than peeling back the complex layers of the riots like an onion skin, the UK government has instead chosen to respond as though the riots were a spontaneous exercise in criminality [EPA]

The riots that have engulfed London and other major cities in England over the past week have finally receded, but in the wake of the horrific scenes of violence, looting and arson that left people shaken, the real issues look set to take centre stage, especially as post-mortem examinations are carried out.

Yet while it would be easy for questions just to focus on the failures of the system, it would be a shame to simply gloss over examining the causes of the initial riot and the subsequent snowballing incidents of looting and criminality. The complication, though, is that the riot had multifaceted elements, and a proper approach to examining its causes is akin to the peeling away of the layers of an onion’s skin.

The government, for its part, is perhaps keen to highlight these incidents as “criminality” as opposed to anything deeper, despite David Cameron’s statement to parliament on its recall from the summer break, acknowledging the potential “context” of the riots. In a way, there is some justification to regarding some of the incidents as criminal, especially some of the copy-cat incidents that followed the initial wave of riots on Saturday night. However, to simply blame this on criminality is perhaps to be slightly naive, an attempt to put a Band-Aid on a very deep wound in British society.

Societal decadence

One should not underestimate the frustration felt by the social exclusion, disenfranchisement and wasted lives that an element of the people who rioted – especially on Saturday night – have. These people feel disengaged, not just from the political process – largely because politicians have also disengaged from them – but also from mainstream society (that constantly ignores them); who have no channel for their energy, anger and resentment; no sense that they can change society and no reason to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. These are people who suffer from a structural inequality which is all too obvious in the poverty you see in the communities where they live. They have very little currently in their lives and very little to look forward to.

It is also obvious that successive governments took their eyes off the ball with regards to this issue. For the past decade or so, there has been a focus on programmes which, based on a security agenda, concentrated a majority of resources on counter-terrorism measures that ended up scrutinising a certain section of the community.

Consequently, real social issues ended up being sidelined and opportunities to address them appropriately wasted. Thus not only did a majority of the counter-terrorism initiatives not succeed, but a greater sense of isolation, disillusionment and a decline in community cohesion was the result.

The riots around England display a more sinister and disturbing problem. They show a crass disregard for other people and property, and – judging from the wide cross-section of people hauled before the courts – those who did the looting are not confined to a specific class, race or even educational level. These events are symptomatic of an unsustainable need to consume and acquire in the face of “declining morals”.

It is no coincidence that these riots took place at the same time as a global financial meltdown. The corruption of the politicians, media and police, the recklessness that has condemned our economies to decline and the big companies that evade taxes might be different in appearance, but they all have a common denominator. As one commentator explained, the moral decadence of the criminality displayed on the streets is not that different to the moral disintegration at the “higher echelons” of society. The unequal consumer society that we have become obsessed with, leading to the desire to affirm our status with the constant acquisition of material things means that morals and ethics can be disregarded, and decency and humanity have been swapped for selfishness and greed.

In this regard, we as a society all are culpable as we have allowed markets to dictate politics and community life. The culture of our society has become one fed on individual achievements – influenced by social status and virtual friendships. We have devalued social interaction to “chatting” with so-called friends on Facebook; we have allowed smartphones to become an appendage of our bodies and we have become desensitised to violence as a result of the entertainment we are exposed to.

Fragments of a mirror

As we peer into the mirror to ask questions as to what went wrong, we are faced with a shattered mirror in the analogy of Sir Richard Burton in the The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi, who wrote: “Truth is the shattered mirror strewn in myriad bits; while each believes his little bit the whole to own.” Thus, parts of the truth are everywhere and the whole truth nowhere, and it is with individual pieces that we start.

From the government’s perspective, they need to quickly distinguish between political policy and lived experiences. They will have to stop developing a set of policies that put people into silos and that view things through a security lens in order to understand the diversity of a cosmopolitan society at the grassroots, where everyone actually knows each other and respects each other. If anyone thought multiculturalism at a practical level had failed, causing people to dislike the country that they live in, then the evidence of various immigrant communities who readily stood up to defend their neighbourhoods during the riots points to the contrary.

Yet, unfortunately, in the debate in parliament following David Cameron’s speech, MPs seemed to skirt around the issues of tackling the degeneration of moral values in society – instead choosing to talk about policy, funding and policing.

So perhaps it is us – as communities and society – who will have to swap markets for morals in politics, business and community life. We have to rediscover the moral agency that will allow us to develop a shared language of universal morals, ethics and values in our daily lives.

In essence, we will have to rediscover a concept of a spirituality, of commonality, which will allow us to recognise the common space and substance amongst all doctrines that will provide the fuel for social change and trigger action for the unity of humanity. This shared language will enable us to develop a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together, despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes this improbable experiment of reconciling and rehabilitation of vulnerable communities possible.

This concept that we need to develop as a society in response to the terrible incidents of the past week must be an awareness of the interconnection of all things to provide the fuel for social change. It has to be about a sense of duty and sacrifice on behalf of those who are voiceless. It has to allow us to value behaviour that expresses mutual regard for one another, honesty, fairness, humility, kindness, courtesy and compassion.

People might scoff at the naivety of this statement, but the point is that we have no choice. We have got to a position where something new needs to happen. For too long, narrow interests have vied for advantage with ideological minorities seeking to impose their own versions of absolute truth. It is time we reassembled the pieces of the broken mirror.

Soul food

In order for this to happen, we need to engage with each other. The Bishop of London talked about nourishing relationships in order to develop an understanding of right and wrong. I would go even further; an extension is needed that includes the concept of linking and partnership for mutual learning. What we need is a change of paradigm of the post Second World War twinning initiative between towns in England, France and Germany which was done as a means to prevent future conflict in Europe through international friendship and solidarity at community level. The development of partnerships (local, national and international) in solidarity between towns, local authorities, schools, hospitals, religious organisations and youth clubs is needed to not only understand each other, but to strengthen communities, add to social cohesion and to contribute to personal and professional development through friendships made and work undertaken.

The concept of community partnerships is important in this globalised age of virtual borders and free-flowing information, so that people can understand the cultural contexts of other countries. They can develop the social skills to interact with each other, which ultimately increases not only community cohesion within the UK, but globally.

Within this spectrum of partnership, we cannot disassociate ourselves from the role of faith. As we talk about the development of new morals, ethics, values and spirituality, we need to consider faith and the role that faith organisations will have in adding to this new paradigm. Faith provides a narrative and a space in which one can start to explore some of the discussions of ethics and morals. In many small communities, faith and faith organisations play a pivotal role in responding to demands and pressures where they operate with local knowledge to address specific community problems. They are highly active in many fields of social service, healthcare, education, human rights, youth development etc. They are self-reliant and capable of harnessing the power of communities’ volunteers, their skills and resources. They serve very often as role models and access points for communities. They are invariably unswerving in their zeal and commitment and many organisations work entirely voluntarily in a spirit of service. Though there is an undeniable quality in the religious playing field that complicates matters, we cannot ignore their voices and their role.

Tuning to the same frequency

Thus, it is against this framework of potential disagreement and division which we need to build and sustain links. We need to realise that each of us (with our own faith, culture and community spirit) have a bit of that shard of broken glass from the shattered mirror. Only by piecing them together can we ever hope to move out of our silos and attain a much more cohesive community that better understands, respects and accepts each other.

Linking, partnerships, engagement – all mean the same thing: a sense of cooperation that leads to better understanding which should be encouraged and supported. This is a powerful tool for the promotion of dialogue, tolerance and harmonious living. Existing initiatives need to be strengthened and new ones started that have sustainable footprints in the community whilst providing a space for all stakeholders of society to play a role. The concept of linking should be enhanced through a comprehensive education strategy, both formal and informal, that breaks down the seemingly insurmountable divide of “us” and “them”. This education should begin at home, within families and small communities, where the benefit of dialogue and linking can be seen and felt. It should roll through schools, institutes of higher education and ultimately politicians, legislators, governments and multi-lateral organisations.

Tan Sen, the master musician at the court of the Moghul Emperor, Akbar, had some fifteen musical instruments in the Emperor’s chamber, which he had tuned to one frequency. Upon playing just one instrument’s musical note, the other fourteen started to resonate, much to the astonishment and delight of the audience. Ultimately, this story can serve well as a metaphor for how communities can work in harmony to achieve an enlightened result.

Amjad Saleem is head of communications at The Cordoba Foundation, UK. The Cordoba Foundation is an independent Public Relations, Research and Training Unit which promotes dialogue and the culture of peaceful and positive coexistence among civilisations, ideas and people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent al Jazeera’s editorial policy.