Bradford's culture clash

Violent confrontations between police and Asian youths at the weekend provoked widespread shock. Bhiku Parekh explains why Muslims feel so strongly about the threat posed by liberal values, while Yasmin Alibhai- Brown, below, gauges the mood in the city
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Although the political significance of the weekend events in Bradford ought not to be exaggerated, it should not be underestimated either. Over the past few years Asians, especially Muslims, have felt deeply uneasy about the ease with which the wider culture of drugs, petty crime, prostitution, and commercial exploitation of women, especially young girls, has invaded their residential areas and penetrated their own ranks. Drug-taking has increased within the Asian community, and so has drug-related crime. Asian Babe, a sex magazine involving Asian girls, has been in circulation for more than a year now and has overcome the initial problem of recruiting Asian girls. A gay magazine involving Asians has appeared recently and is apparently doing well.

All this has naturally worried the Muslim community. It undermines their traditional values, subverts their family life and heightens the inescapable inter-generational tensions within the Muslim community. The older generation fears losing its youth, and the dreams that drove it to Britain lie in ruins. Predictably, this has generated a climate of moral panic. Since the family is vital to the success and survival of the Asian petit-bourgeoisie, the moral threat to the family is also an economic threat. Asians living in inner-city areas also find that the value of their property declines once these areas become notorious for drugs and prostitution.

It is hardly surprising that Muslims living in inner-city areas have been campaigning against the invasion of their social space by the unsavoury features of the wider culture. The campaign began in Birmingham last year. Muslims in central and east Birmingham repeatedly complained to the police, local authority officials and the councillors. When these complaints proved of no avail they decided to set up vigilante groups to clean up the area by taking down car registration numbers, harassing pimps and driving away prostitutes.

Although the desire to assert the spiritual superiority of the Islamic civilisation and set an example to the decadent West was not entirely absent, the campaign was basically an act of moral self-defence. Muslims wanted to control their social and moral space and guard it against what they considered undesirable values and practices. They also thought that cleaning up their environment in this way was a matter of civic responsibility and deserved wider support. Birmingham Muslims were able to attract considerable support from several sections of the local community.

What happened in Birmingham last year has now spread to Bradford. And since the Muslims' struggle has deeper cultural, moral and economic roots, it is unlikely to stop in Bradford. As inner-city areas become cultural deserts and fall prey to commercial exploitation of drugs and sex, those condemned to live there feel beleaguered. Their struggle inevit-ably brings them into conflict with the dominant liberal orthodoxy. Liberals insist on freedom of trade, of movement and of self-expression, but they do not have to live with the consequences of these practices. Inner-city Muslims feel victims of liberal toleration, and their campaign against it exposes them to the charge of illiberal fundamentalism. The two sides get locked in an apparently irresolvable conflict of values and ways of life.

By itself, the Muslims' campaign to clean up and acquire control over their moral and geographical space need not lead to violence. However, it tends to do so when it occurs against the background of accumulated frustrations of various kinds. Once the campaign begun by the older generation is taken over by the new, it becomes subject to the new agenda set by the latter. Unemployment among Asian youth is quite high; many of them leave school without adequate qualifications, their job prospects are poor, and they continue to face considerable discrimination in all areas of life. Asian youth also feel picked on by the police, who often treat them in an insensitive and heavy-handed manner, as happened in Bradford. Indeed, relations between the two bear considerable resemblance to those between the police and Afro-Caribbean youth until recently.

Not surprisingly, young Asians take over the moral and religious campaign of their elders and give it a more muscular, economic and political orientation. The older generation is content to drive away prostitutes, pimps and drug pedlars. The youth redefine it to include both racism and preservation of cultural integrity. However, they define their cultural identity differently from their parents and stress such Western values as the equality of the sexes, greater freedom of choice in matters relating to marriage and occupation, and freedom of social dissent.

The political struggle in the hands of young Asians therefore acquires a complex form, primarily against the wider society, but secondarily against their own elders. Since it has a larger political agenda and is born out of accumulated frustrations and a deep sense of injustice it tends to become militant. And since it occurs against the background of inter-generational tension, it lacks the disciplining influence of the older generation, and its militancy turns into violence. As we saw in Bradford, the older generation started the campaign, but panicked when it took on an unexpected character at the hands of the youth. Their appeal for calm had little effect.

The writer is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Hull.