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A Note on the England Riots

There will be no cheap political point scoring here. What I am about to say are my sincere views and advice concerning what occurred across England during the riots. Rioting spread across London, with unrest flaring up in other English cities including Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, and Nottingham. A man in Croydon was shot, houses were reduced to ashes, livelihoods were destroyed, and local family run businesses were ruined. Police were attacked and injured, cars were burnt and people were scared to walk the streets of London. In light of this we need to answer two fundamental questions: why has this happened and what can we do to make sure this never happens again?

Why Has This Happened?

There is no right answer here, but we can get close to the truth. The answers from some commentators and politicians so far have been to blame the rotten apples of our society, the criminals, and the minority youth who will always seek to do bad things. Frankly, these answers are irresponsible and fail to understand the dynamics of social influence. These answers are also fallacious, if these youths, come from, and are a product of our society, then why just simply blame the product? This is simplistic and is tantamount of expelling all the pupils of a high school without trying to reform teaching practices. Simply put, it means we are always going to throw away the rotten apples of a bad tree, in the hope of growing good tasty apples. If we don’t deal with the roots of the problems, we will always get bad apples. So why has this happened? Well, there are many reasons and we can’t elaborate on all them here, but one thing we have to take seriously is the failure of the government.

  • Firstly, there is an element of disenfranchisement of British youth, half of all 18 to 24 year-olds are not even registered to vote and just over a third believes that politics is a waste of time.[1]
  • Secondly, drugs and alcohol abuse is common, a staggering 25% of the UKs school age children have tried drugs, with 10% of them using drugs regularly with cocaine consumption rising to levels unheard of elsewhere in Europe.[2] Younger people are more likely to drink heavily, with 48 per cent of men and 39 per cent of women aged 16-24 drinking above the daily recommendations.[3] [4]
  • Thirdly, violence and criminal activity has become somewhat of a social norm for British youth, young people think that the outlook for knife crime is bleak with 25% of people knowing someone who has been a victim of knife crime. The Youth Justice board has found that one in three young people carry a knife or gun and a crime is committed by a young person every two minutes.[5] Almost 75 per cent of young offenders were reconvicted within two years, and 12.5% percent were reconvicted within 3 months.[6]
  • Fourthly, there is a lack of education. 30,000 young people leave school with no qualifications each year and a tenth of 16-year-olds left school in 2005 with poor literacy or numeracy skills. Official figures show that about 60,000 16-year-olds did not pass GCSE English or Maths, and one in 20, almost 32,000 teenagers, failed to gain a GCSE in both subjects.[7]
  • There are other issues facing British youth including homelessness and prostitution, at least 75,000 young people have experienced homelessness in the UK between 2006/7[8] and of the estimated 80,000 people involved in prostitution in the UK, up to 5,000 children may be involved at any one time, with a female to male ratio of four to one.[9]

In February 2009, the Children’s Society launched a report entitled ‘A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age’ and it presented evidence that may be the underlying reason for the above reality of British youth. The report focused on children, and one can argue that if the situation of British children is quite bad, then it will effect later years,“Britain and the U.S. have more broken families than other countries, and our families are less cohesive in the way they live and eat together. British children are rougher with each other, and live more riskily in terms of alcohol, drugs and teenage pregnancy. And they are less inclined to stay in education. This comes against a background of much greater income inequality: many more children live in relative poverty in Britain and the U.S.”[10]

Mr Justice Coleridge, a Family Division judge for England and Wales, comments on the issues raised by the Children’s Society report, describing social breakdown and fragmentation as a “never ending carnival of human misery – a ceaseless river of human distress.”[11]

Why is the Government to Blame?

Simply put, liberal values are to blame. The Prime Minister’s recent call for a “muscular liberalism”[12] is indicative of why the government has failed. They do not realize that liberal values, which emanate from the disputatious doctrine of liberalism, are the cause of the problem. This is because liberal values emphasise on the priority of individual rights and emphasise on individual freedoms, as the ‘Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics’ states that Liberalism is “the belief that it is the aim of politics to preserve individual rights and to maximise freedom of choice.”[13] So it can be clearly seen that these values are excessively individualistic, and individualism is a major cause of the problem for various reasons:

  • Firstly, individualism is the consideration that individual human beings are social atoms abstracted from their social contexts, attachments and obligations.[14] This view of the human being is not based on reality, for instance there are dynamic links between society’s values and behavior, and it is not just individualistic, as social constructionist Vivien Burr concludes that key features – or values – of a specific society will affect an individual’s personality. She uses competition as an example, “For example in a capitalist society competition is fundamental; society is structured around individuals and organisation that compete with each other for jobs markets etc…so that where competition is a fundamental feature of social economic life, what you will get is competitive people.”[15]
  • Secondly, these liberal values which are based upon individualism are non-cohesive values, it is no wonder the Children’s Society report concluded that our social problems are due to “excessive individualism”[16]

But it not just about values. Political liberalism has created this problem due to its principle of neutrality. This principle means that liberal nations do not, or in theory, should not promote any conception of the ‘good life’. In other words liberal nations must allow a ‘market place’ of conflicting and competing conceptions of the ‘good life’. According to this principle, the best conception of the ‘good life’ will emerge due to the assumption that individuals will make the best choices on how to live their lives. The main issue with this is that it does not take into account the effect of influential structures in society and ignores the influence of those who have the power and resources to propagate their version of the ‘good life’. The implications of this are that a negative conception of how to life our lives can become the norm due to these influential structures. For example the materialistic, “bling bling” and “what’s in it for me” culture dominates the market place of competing values that our youth immerse themselves. So in absence of the government advocating a version of the ‘good life’ that will influence our youth in a positive way, they just reiterate the problem by saying we need more liberal values. The point to take here is that materialism usually ties in with identity, if the youth have been influenced by this materialistic social norm; it would affect their sense of self, because they would define themselves by what they own, and what they wear. Therefore, if they cannot afford these things, it would be tantamount of stripping them from their constructed identity, which it would inevitably lead to looting, because they would be trying to get back their identity, which has been falsely constructed by avid materialism.

What can we do to make sure this never happens again?

The answer is simple. Advocate a conception of the ‘good life’ that creates a cohesive, peaceful and harmonious society and by doing so it will create a social norm where the youth can feed into to nourish their need to conform. Youth, just like the rest of us, have a need to conform which facilitates the creation of a social norm. But this begs the questions: what conception of the ‘good life’ can create a better society? Well, there are some conditions, the first condition is that it must transcend social and cultural relativism, meaning what is good is really good, objectively good, so that our youth do not suffer from cognitive dissonance every few years due to the radical changes in social norms. The second condition is that the conception of the ‘good life’ must be based on cohesive values that bring people together and give us a sense of responsibility. Finally, there must be a form of moral motivation and accountability.

In my view the only conception of the ‘good life’ that fulfills these conditions is Islam,

1. Islamic values have a metaphysical grounding that makes them objective. The reason for this is that God is the only concept that transcends human subjectivity, therefore breaks the confusion emanating from social and cultural relativism. In the minds of the youth, they will know what is wrong today is wrong tomorrow because God, who transcends our human difference, said so.

2. Islamic values are cohesive and give us a sense of responsibility, for instance,

  • Compassion: “What will explain to you what the steep path is? It is to free a slave, to feed at a time of hunger, an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those who believe and urge one another to steadfastness and compassion.”[17]
  • Tolerance: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”[18]
  • Justice: “O You who believe! Be upholders of justice, bearing witness for God alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives. Whether they are rich or poor, God is well able to look after them. Do not follow your own desires and deviate from the truth. If you twist or turn away, God is aware of what you do.”[19]
  • Distribution of wealth: “Feed the indigent, without wishing any return from them, not even a word of thanks.”[20]

3. Finally, Islam provides that framework for moral motivation and accountability. In our ever increasing secular and godless society, there is no divine lawgiver, which has taken away our sense of meaning as Richard Taylor, an eminent ethicist, explains, “The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well.”[21] Taylor concludes that without any reference to religion talking about moral obligation “amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning.”[22] Therefore, bringing back that divine command would give meaning to our sense of moral obligation, which would lead to a greater sense of moral motivation. Also, in our increasingly irreligious society, there is no moral accountability for one’s actions. The attitude these days is that if someone can get away with it then it is ok. But the reality is that morals are meaningless without accountability. If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference whether one lives as a Stalin or as a saint. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky rightly said, “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”[23] However, with a belief in the hereafter and divine accountability, these will provide the motivations to do greater good and provide the psychological barriers to prevent immorality.

In light of the above, it is clear that Islam is our only hope. We need to propagate this message in a positively assertive, but humble way, to win hearts and minds, and at the same time mould our communities to be the embodiments of these timeless, transcendent values.

[1] http://www.v3.co.uk/v3-uk/news/1993977/bcs-warns-politically-disenfranchised-youth

[2] Institute of Alcohol Studies, Alcohol Alert No.1, 2009

[3] http://www.ic.nhs.uk/webfiles/publications/drugmisuse09/

[4] http://www.ic.nhs.uk/statistics-and-data-collections/health-and-lifestyles/alcohol/statistics-on-alcohol:-england-2006

[5] http://www.crimestoppers-uk.org/crime-prevention/latest-crime-statistics

[6] TES, 9 June 2006

[7] Centrepoint Youth Homelessness Index, 2004

[8] http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/youth-homelessness-uk

[9] Home Office (2004), Paying the price

[10] Richard Layard and Judy Dunn. A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age. Penguin Books. 2009, page 4

[11] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7331882.stm

[12] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12371994

[13] Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics. Oxford University Press. p. 309.

[14] Marilyn Friedman ‘Feminism and Modern Friendship: Dislocating the Community’ in Shlomo Avineri and Avner deShalit. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. 1992. p 101

[15] Vivien Burr. Social Constructionism. Routledge. 2003. p 33.

[16] A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age. Penguin Books. 2009, page 4

[17] Qur’an Chapter 90 Verses 11-20

[18] Qur’an Chapter 49 Verse 13

[19] Qur’an Chapter 4 Verse 135

[20] Qur’an Chapter 76 Verses 6 – 9

[21] Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), pp. 2-3.

[22] Ibid page 7

[23] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. C. Garnett (New York: Signet Classics, 1957), bk. II, chap. 6; bk. V, chap. 4; bk. XI, chap. 8.