This is the question Haji Jaba challenges the right-wing factions of Britain. Jaba is the Imam at the Al-Madina Jamia Mosque on Waterloo Road, Middlesbrough. When I spoke to him recently he asked of those who are pursuing a mass exodus of migrants, amidst the immigration storm which has thrust into British politics this year, this question. Which leaves you to think, does racism still exist in society?
For whatever reason, and most would say because of UKIP's emergence to the scene, the debate on the UK's immigration policy has been omnipresent throughout the penultimate year to the general election. It has resulted in the largest parties such as the Conservatives and Labour into altering their immigration policies. If the debate is effecting the heavyweights to this extent, what precipitation is it having on the smaller parties such as the right-wingers? It seems to be having the desired effect as popularity for UKIP has soared and the extreme Britain First has gained notoriety.
The enduring problem in Britain that Jaba believes is that a “severely unenlightened minority feel like they must have a constant adversary, an ethnic or political group to differentiate from”. Over the course of the last thirteen years, it has shaped up to be the Islamic community to take the role of the antagonists in the UK. I say the last thirteen years because it appears this newfound hatred of Muslims among far right-wing sectors began to stem following the 9/11 attacks. However, over the last year or so events which have occurred have caused tensions to reach boiling point.
The first of which transpired on 22 May 2013. British soldier Lee Rigby was mowed down by a car and then stabbed and hacked to death in the street, by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, two British Muslim converts. The incident caused a nationwide uproar, with popularity almost simultaneously increasing for right-wing groups such as the EDL and BNP. On the day of the killing I visited a friend’s house as it was making breaking news, and his mother declared she was joining the EDL in protest to Britain’s stance on Muslims. This was also one of the first instances in which right-wing groups used events such as this as a totem to rally support against the apparent threat of ‘Islamification’ in Britain.
It is not out of the ordinary for sane people to lurch towards an extremist point of view, as a result of them being so shocked or frightened by the actions of other extremists. In the fifties, unions organised marches in London against immigrants from the Caribbean they feared would take their jobs. Admittedly, that wasn’t ‘Islamification’ but it was a protest based on race/colour. The film my beautiful launderette examined the racist attack on a Pakistani man in London and was made in 1985. The Jam’s anti-racism 1978 single “Down at the Tube Station at midnight” was about an attack on a Pakistani man by jack booted right wing thugs. Clearly racial divisions were an issue then just as they are once again now.
Racial tension which developed following incidents such as that last year only seem to have been exasperated in 2014. This boils down to two factors; the immigration debate and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. As already mentioned, this has led to a surge in fame for UKIP and smaller right-wing factions. Haji Jaba believes the media is partly to blame for this. He said that “After World War 1 the large German population in Britain came under heavy criticism and received lots of abuse from the British public; then when Hitler came to power in the thirties he used propaganda via the media to turn the population against the Jews; now the British media are doing this to Muslims.”
Jaba was born in Middlesbrough in 1961 and has lived in the town his entire life, but said he still gets called an immigrant and receives prejudice based on his appearance. It was at that point he asked “when does an immigrant stop being an immigrant?” He then added, “Unfortunately because some people always want to have an enemy or someone to oppose these national front groups will continue to exist, just as they have throughout the last few decades.”
Nonetheless he feels that racism is kept to a minimal in towns and cities, but on the outskirts of the towns in more rural areas racism is still very much alive. As well as being the Imam at his local mosque Jaba is also a landlord and a gas fitter. He therefore often has to travel to the likes of Brotton, Skelton and Guisborough on the outskirts of Middlesbrough for work. He said in these places the locals have a completely different attitude towards migrants. He is still subject to racial abuse when in the area, having being called “a member of Al-Qaeda” or “Bin Laden”. The only explanation he can give for this is that the people from these areas do not often come in contact with anyone of Asian descent, and so therefore stereotype him as the extremists that are depicted in the media.
However, those who are compelled to hold xenophobic attitudes are far from restricted to rural areas. Earlier this year it was revealed that 1,400 children were subjected to appalling sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013, by gangs of mainly Asian men. This inevitably and justly led to a media frenzy over the story and did nothing but expand support for the right-wingers, in particular the EDL. They were quick to demonstrate a protest which resulted in them attacking police and luring out the most intense of the right-wing factions; three different Nazi groups were spotted at the protest.
As well as Rotherham, the EDL have also conducted protests in Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Luton and Middlesbrough over the last year. During their march through Middlesbrough, certain members of the EDL contingent chanted “scum, scum, scum” at some passing Asian men. They were also spotted throwing glass bottles and a firework at another group of Asian men, one of whom had a child on his shoulders. Based on this one would come to the conclusion that these small-minded folk are far from confined just to seeing Muslims being portrayed on the television.
However, to get a balanced view on the situation I spoke to the Regional Organiser of the North East EDL faction. Although I asked them fairly judicious questions such as whether the party’s support has grown in light of recent event this year, and what their views on immigration are, he did not reply to them and merely outlined what the EDL’s ‘fight’ was. He said, speaking of a small group of Muslim extremists who mocked the sacrifices of service personnel during a homecoming parade in Luton that “these actions reflect other forms of religiously-inspired intolerance and barbarity that are thriving amongst certain sections of the Muslim population in Britain. These include the oppression of women, the molestation of young children and the committing of so-called honour killings.”
Baring the Regional Organiser’s comments in mind, I live in a predominantly Muslim area of Middlesbrough and I have seen no criminal activity in the time I’ve lived there, let alone heard about some of the accusations he has said are brewing in these communities. In comparison, the estate of Grove Hill located just a few hundred metres down the road, which has a considerable white population, is notorious for being a ‘rough’ place to live. I know where I’d feel safer.
The Regional organiser went on to say, “British Muslims should be able to safely demand reform of their religion, in order to make it more relevant to the needs of the modern world and more respectful of other groups in society.” Now I don’t know about you but I find this comment pretty disrespectful. Why should Muslims have to alter their religious concepts because it doesn’t agree with the intolerant? I’ve never heard a Muslim ask a Christian extremist to revamp his views because they don’t agree with it. The vast majority of the Muslim population are peaceful people who go about their day-by-day activities without affecting anyone.
I also asked them about the behaviour of some EDL participants during the protest in Middlesbrough towards Asian men, and whether are not they considered themselves to be a racist party. The Regional Organiser refused to comment on either, only stating that the group were not ‘political’ or a ‘party’. Whatever that means. In conclusion it would appear that, although the hierarchy of the EDL factions try to avoid causing offense in stating what their motives are, and not particularly well, racism is still piercing its ugly head through the surface of our society. Whether or not they only exist in certain contingents of right-wing groups is still to be seen, but there is no doubt that the xenophobes are still alive and kicking amongst us, and still do not understand when an immigrant stops being an immigrant.