Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs

About the author
Max Farrar is a sociologist at Leeds Metropolitan University.

openDemocracy writers including Scilla Elworthy, Amyn B. Sajoo and Turi Munthe discuss the implications of the London attacks. Also, Mohammed Sajid on being young, Muslim, male and Yorkshire-born.

The London bombings of 7 July 2005 have prompted many London-based pundits to pontificate about the exotic northern English redoubt of three of the young men involved. They seek, in the intimate local experiences of disaffected youth there, some clue that will illuminate grander narratives of “terrorism” and “Islam”. But if they spent longer in working among and listening to the inhabitants of cities like Leeds and districts like Beeston – as I have over several years work as a sociologist and community activist – they might discover different “universals”.

Riot or uprising?

One framework within which observers often see the social problems of Leeds, Bradford and other Yorkshire cities is that of “riots”. Leeds witnessed “Caribbean” riots in its Chapeltown area in November 1975, “multicultural” riots in Harehills-Chapeltown in July 1981 and Hyde Park in July 1995, and “Asian” riots in Harehills in June 2001.

It seems far harder to categorise the Beeston men who carried the London bombs: they are seen either as beyond understanding, a manifestation of “evil”, or as an alien aberration of Islam. None of these are adequate. In my view, the Beeston bombers should be understood in the context of the past thirty years of alienation in inner-city Leeds. In this perspective, both “riots” and the terrifying new turn to bombing, may best be analysed as an extreme variant of violent urban protest.

In making this argument in relation to “riots” ten years ago this week while reporting on the attack on police and the burning down of a pub in Hyde Park, Leeds, I wrote: “If ‘protest’ implies conscious and legitimately channelled complaint, and “riot” implies mere criminal violence, neither word quite captures the meaning of this event” (New Statesman and Society, 21 July 1995).

Since anyone who tries to discuss the political dimension of the bombings is ritually denounced as an apologist, I suppose I am forced to add that I seek only to find explanations, not justifications. Many young men of Muslim faith in Leeds and Bradford, just like past “rioters”, have deep-rooted grievances against the British state. They are socially and psychologically alienated; some have become nihilistic.

Those who have turned to suicide bombing have used a religious ideology to justify mass murder. This makes them very different from the “rioters”. But one thing that applies to both is the complete divorce between all these marginalised young men and the conventional political processes.

The young men – of all colours – who have taken part in the violent protests in Leeds since 1975 have another thing in common: although their anger only boiled over into organised violence for a night or two, that anger never went away. They all come from inner-city areas with much in common with Beeston: a significant proportion of non-white residents, much higher than average rates of unemployment, low educational attainment, and a housing stock that is the worst in the city.

But I don’t think any of these protests are stimulated by economic deprivation. When I analysed (as “uprisings”) the events in 1975 and 1981, I started from the politics, rather than the deprivation indicators, that are specific to the inner city.

I briefly worked in Beeston in the early 1980s, trying to help local Muslims whose homes were being attacked by white racists. The police response to my representations was lamentable. A Leeds Community Relations Council report for the year 1985-6 recorded 305 racist incidents in that area, and noted that male unemployment in Beeston was 14% in 1981. Almost half of the respondents had been forced to change their daily habits because of these attacks; one man said “we’ve got no real life”. The report seems to have led to improvement in some of the police and council policies, but there was no political response.

The male psychology of violence

Revisiting Beeston in recent days, I was struck both by visible improvements in some parts and miserable dereliction in adjacent streets. At a hastily organised “peace and unity” march in Beeston, two conversations with local white people took me back to the days of racist attacks. One man told me that he didn’t think there were racial tensions in the area, though he was aware that there had been rumblings among some white men: “If they were going to kick off, the whites would have done it by now”.

A woman told me how angry she was that white people couldn’t say what they thought without being verbally threatened by local Asians. As we fell into conversation, it emerged that she had mixed-race children and got on well with everyone most of the time, but that her (Muslim) corner-shop owner had become distant since the bombings.

I take both these responses – and the absence of reported complaints in recent years about racist attacks, at least until the identities of the bombers were revealed – as a small indication of long-term improvement in local “race” relations. A small street party where a white woman and an African refugee were on very good terms reinforced my impression that this was a neighbourhood where “race” was not a major problem.

But if “race” is no longer such a toxic issue, the peculiar social psychology of the young urban male may provide a useful insight in understanding what has happened in Leeds.

The violent urban protest in Harehills in 2001 started when young Muslim men wanted to stop the Leeds police from harassing them – being stopped and checked while driving, or being ejected from their parked cars when they were simply chilling out and smoking weed. Their white and Caribbean friends joined in the protest, but it was almost exclusively young Muslims – especially the less streetwise – who received draconian prison sentences. Shame descended on the Muslim community and the whole affair was quickly brushed under the carpet.

A Muslim youth worker in Harehills revealed to me the social psychology of the 2001 protests. These men, he said, wanted to prove by fighting with the police, that they were as hard and daring as the Caribbean men who previously had engaged in such battles in the adjacent neighbourhood. In 1995 I wrote about a stand-off between a policeman and a young man and his mother, at the centre of the Hyde Park violence:

“Male egos, one in an official uniform and another in the illegitimate garb of sculpted dreadlocks, confront each other with venom [these young men] have shown themselves, and their mothers, that they are men”.

Again, to explain that violence is one of the means by which men perform their masculinity is not to justify it. I simply suggest that we should look very closely at the social and psychological dynamics of the lives of all young men who are drawn to this mode of expressing themselves.

From polarisation to nihilism

To this “male” dimension has now been added the sense among a wide layer of British Muslims that the west is at war with Islam. It seems that they match from the opposite side Tony Blair’s implicit argument that there is a clash of ideologies pitting “British” against the “barbaric” values of a militant Islamic minority.

Even those Muslims who utterly reject the murderous means of the Beeston bombers, and who have no interest in al-Qaida’s goal of Islamic domination of the world, accept the jihadi assumption that the most powerful western nations (and their Israeli ally) seek complete control of the middle east and its oil resources through the complicity and subservience of its Muslim nations.

Many young British Muslims also concur with some of the “Arab” criticisms of “Pakistani” versions of Islam, and are critical of some of their parents’ religious practices. Many of these peaceful Muslims are also strongly opposed to the individualist, sexualised, consumerist society that modern capitalism promotes with such glee. They refuse to use anything other than conventional politics in opposition to this cultural “war”; but the Beeston bombers have taken the war quite literally, to murderous conclusions.

Cornel West, the African-American philosopher, has described the nihilism at the heart of gang culture in the United States as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness”.

Nihilism is the terrifying underbelly of the British inner city. For many, religious observance stems its invasion. But it is possible that the social division in many young male Muslims’ lives between their religious observance within their families and their secular, sexual and multicultural lives outside the home may be paralleled by an inner psychological split.

The thing that has caused the most dismay among British Muslims, particularly those who know the bombers, is that they appeared so kind, compassionate and “normal”. It seems incomprehensible that they could murder others and leave their own families in such trauma. Yet they may have been drawn to the most ascetic cults at the edges of Islamic culture as a response to their sense of the meaninglessness of everyday life, and a sense that their parents’ religion is insufficient. This – as in other cults – required them to detach themselves from their families and friends, whose love comes to mean nothing. Everyday reality is replaced by a longing for paradise.

The fundamentalist throwback

It is probably a symptom of the western media’s contempt for Islam that it continually refers to the myth of the virgins who await these young men in paradise, but it is worth considering this in the context of the sexual confusion that is characteristic of all men. Sexual anxiety may be made worse for young Muslim men who live simultaneously in homes where sexual modesty is the norm and in a culture where sexual openness and promiscuity is widely accepted.

For these young Muslims – and, I would argue for many other groups of men in Britain today – public life in the impoverished inner city of a capitalist society may be meaningless; home life may be at best paradoxical, at worst a lie; demonstrating masculinity and acquiring a fulfilling sexual life are fraught with tension; and neither the legitimate channels of politics nor the illegitimate “riot” provide solutions to all these difficulties.

Holy war unto death then may provide a miraculous resolution to a series of problems: it is the strongest bulwark against nihilism (even though it appears nihilistic to others); it substitutes God for the family (even though the disavowal of parents, siblings, wives and children, seems profoundly irreligious to others); it provides the role of heroic warrior as an antidote to the anxieties of manhood (though others regard this as an abrogation of the proper responsibilities of the man).

Karl Marx’s point that religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” applies well here. Militant, fundamentalist Islam, attempting to throw Muslims back over a thousand years of their history, may be understood as the most deadly and misguided protest against the depredations of capitalism that has yet been witnessed.