Please join with me in commemorating a group of three British Muslim martyrs. Seriously.
Haroon Jahan, Abdul Nasir, and Shazad Ali died Tuesday night in Birmingham’s impoverished Winson Green area. After two days of rioting, looting, and casual arson, mainly by black gangs, the local community despaired of seeking help from a police force that was not making the slightest effort to intervene to defend them. As the small businessmen and shopkeepers of the area, the local South Asian community had most to lose. Organizing from the local mosque, they dispatched groups of young volunteers to patrol the area. A speeding car hit a group of these community defenders, killing three. (The driver is charged with murder). The victims were classic hard-working immigrants, one a mechanic, another ran a car wash. In the words of one observer, “They lost their lives for other people, doing the job of the police. They weren’t standing outside a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or a church – they were standing outside shops where everybody goes. They were protecting the community as a whole.”
If you have been following media coverage of the British riots, you have seen a great many explanations of the violence, including such classic theories as urban deprivation, youth unemployment, and anger at police racism, and all have some substance. What has been fascinating this time round is to see how even the most mainstream liberal outlets – even the New York Times – have focused on the vicious hooliganism and criminality driving the mobs, how they are driven not by an inchoate rage against injustice but by strictly rational desires for high-class consumer goods. Some even remark on the growth of “feral” gangs of white people, black and white.
What has been lacking in all this coverage, though, is the simple fact that the state and the police have failed utterly in their most basic duty to provide law, order and security, the fundamental justification for the existence of state mechanism. If there is no security and no deterrence, then there is no reason whatever why people should not do exactly what they want, grab whatever goods they happen to desire and, presumably, carry out whatever property or sexual crimes appeal to them. For honest city dwellers in poor areas, the right to property has been repealed.
You may think that’s an exaggeration until you see exactly how London police in particular responded to the riots, literally ceding control of large areas of the city to mobs for whole nights. Presumably they are too busy studying their manuals on community relations actually to get their hands dirty. Senior officers are meanwhile too heavily engaged figuring out how to sell details of the victims’ sufferings to the news media for the usual bribes. Everyone knows that no punishment will be inflicted on even the tiny minority of rioters who happen to get arrested, with the exception of two or three high-profile offenders.
If anyone suggests actually using force to suppress mob violence, the official response is one of appalled horror. When citizens demanded that police used water cannon – highly effective and non-lethal – British Home Secretary Theresa May explained, as to a badly behaved child, “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities.” (By the way, “communities” in this usage does not include people who obey the law: it is more or less synonymous with street gangs). Anyway, mainland British police don’t even have devices like water cannon: why on earth would they need them in London’s green and pleasant land? As riots and popular complaints mounted, the government finally conceded, and a news headline in today’s Daily Telegraph – too good to be parody – reads “Water Cannon Available At 24 Hours Notice” (“Excuse me, lads, can you hold on a while? The cannon will be here shortly”). Nobody, of course, is pointing out how differently the crisis would have developed in the US, where citizens would have access to firearms. How does that ”unhealthy American obsession with guns” look to you now?
So what do you do if the state no longer exists to provide its basic functions of public protection? We have in fact returned to the original world portrayed by Thomas Hobbes, who knew that “the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is nothing but a war of all against all; and that in that war, all have a right to all things.” To secure their safety in such an environment, people have to find alternative means of defense, and that is what they have been doing.
The most moving aspect of the recent British crisis has been the pictures of ordinary citizens who despair of the absent police and resort to their own means to defend their community. Overwhelmingly, the most active and effective groups have been Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants, who actually know from bitter experience how tenuous the state actually is, and who understand that they must rely on community and kin. Turks, Kurds and Sikhs have formed community defense groups that sometimes look more like militias than neighborhood watch groups, and the gangs, wisely, have learned to avoid those areas. If commercial life survives in the attacked areas, it will be entirely due to those defenders, whose contributions will be forgotten or maligned in the mendacious official reports that will appear in the coming months. All honor to those groups.
And that is why I say that Haroon Jahan and his friends were not just heroes but martyrs. They died for the cause of social order, and the safeguarding of life and property, the most basic human rights. May they rest in peace.