The unfortunate riots in Tottenham in London tell us a great deal about the problems of immigrant communities, and what they say to us most eloquently is that people want to be treated with justice. They want to be treated in accordance with a rule of law, and not singled out for extra policing on the basis of racial profiling. The demonstrations were set off by the police shooting of an African-Carribean man, and came in part in protest against the constant pat-downs to which African-Caribbeans are subjected by police.
African-Caribbeans are the least organized ethnic community in the United Kingdom, as Paul Gilroy has also noted, and are the least represented in politics and in the media. They suffer from high unemployment, and are particularly youthful (most of the some 200 demonstrators who have been arrested are teenagers).
Muslim-haters, exemplified by Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, have long attempted to conflate immigration issues with Islam and culture. In essence, they have a “clash of civilizations” theory of why immigrants are, as they insist, unassimilable into white, Christian, European societies. Muslims, they charge, are committed to un-Christian values and their own code of law, the sharia (which they will, the haters argue, attempt to impose on white Christians). In fact, large numbers of European Muslims are de facto secular, and even among the religious there is no appetite for having non-Muslims live by Muslim law (many would find that idea sort of blasphemous, since Islam makes a place for religious pluralism). And, besides, 2-5% of the population, many of them without citizenship or unused to voting if they have it, cannot impose anything on anyone. The sharia hysteria is a deliberate ploy to stir up hatred by well-funded bigots.
When riots broke out in Paris in 2005, the Muslim-haters, such as Fox Cable News, blamed Islam. But there too, the issue was not religion, as almost all French recognized immediately. The issue was youth unemployment.
Likewise, the Tottenham riot was not about culture. African-Carribeans are Christians and are not pushing for a Talmud or a sharia. (Some Muslim communities may get caught up in the wave of rioting, but as I will argue, it will be because of issues other than their religion).
It is not completely clear what is driving the looting that has come in the wake of the rioting. It could just be opportunism (a wave of looting once swept New York City just because the lights went out because of a problem in the electrical grid). Some of the arson seems mindless, but then the US saw similar things in the late 1960s. When people hate their lives, they sometimes lash out, even at the few nice buildings in their neighborhood. The looting may also be organized crime (and some of the arson and sabotage may be intended to cover for looting and burglary by these gangs). The looting is not the main issue, in any case; it is rather the demonstrations and riots that have created the conditions of which looters have taken advantage.
Muslim immigrant communities are not distinctive in their problems (nor in their successes) from other immigrant communities. It isn’t about a clash of cultures or civilizations. It is about access to the mainstream economy, employment, and, as I said, a feeling of being treated fairly by the government and the society–a feeling that the law applies equally to everyone and is applied in a transparent and even-handed way.
Britain is capable of achieving the rule of law for all its citizens equally (the rule of law is something the British have been especially good at through history, and they have bequeathed the world many good institutions and much good thinking on this subject). African-Caribbeans maintain that they haven’t been equal before the law with other Britons. Of course, they also need jobs, and job training. But the problem of equal treatment under the law is the one that needs to be addressed most urgently.