Sunday, August 14, 2011

UK Looting: Connectedness, Circumstances, Multiculturalism, or Faith?

you will have will become (be percieved as) ancient
The chaos in various cities in the UK is firstly a tragedy for five people who lost their lives. Haroon Jahan, 21, Shazad Ali, 30 a father-to-be whose new wife Khansa is four months pregnant and Abdul Nasir, 31 killed on Dudley Road in Birmingham trying to protect their neighbourhood, Richard Bowes 68 who died from his injuries after he was beaten by rioters in London and Trevor Ellis, 26, father of four. It is also a difficult time for the wounded citizens and police officers, the traumatised and the robbed.

In Sydney today, I joined over 80,000 people in the streets for city2surf, running and walking 14 km with a great feeling of togetherness, the police preoccupied with traffic, and the chaos half a world away hard to imagine. What does it mean?

Loss of Faith
It has been argued that it is at least partly about the loss of faith. It is far more socially acceptable to mock religion and any earnest expression of old fashion values than to celebrate these. The Israelites are repeatedly warned that abandoning God will result in utter destruction[1]. Bob Carr, former premier of NSW has argued against this view, citing Dickens’ Englandwhere religious belief was universal. But human behavior was wicked”[2].

Of course, many religious people over time have chosen to perpetuate injustice, including slavery and oppression of the poor. Religious institutions are tainted by their complicity. It is also true that there are atheists who are great humanitarians. Despite this, there is merit in the advice of Maimonedes to travelers to choose a religious guide to take him through the desert because the fear of retribution from his god will act as a deterent to criminal activity.

Fear of Government
In the absense of the fear of God, we are taught to pray for the welfare of government because if not for the fear of it, each man would swallow the other man alive[3]. It was staggering to hear some of the looters explain their behaviour based on their assessments of the governments chances of catching them or that ‘the prisors are overflowing so they can’t lock us up’. In finding the balance between showing humanity to criminals and protecting the community, there is an ethical argument that “all who are merciful in the place of the cruel, in the end are made to be cruel in the place of the compassionate[4]” or that in being kind to the cruel is to be cruel to the kind.

This argument has been articulated as follows, “Let's make no bones about this. Most police officers are desperate to take a more robust approach with these lawless thugs. ..The sad reality is, officers feel unable to take a strong line with criminals as they don't feel supported by the government or certain sections of a vocal community who insist on a kid gloves approach. Lets hope that we shall finally have a political and public debate on the future of British Policing so that officers can feel emboldened rather than vilified by their Government and certain sections of the community[5]”. I am not across all the evidence and argument on this issue. I think there are reasonable restraints on some police action, some people in the community either because of color or class are harrased and there is a whole lot on this issue that I simply don’t understand. Still, in the wake of lawlessness, the discussion should also question if there are some restraints that are not appropriate.  

Circumstances and Choice
Some have called for understanding for the poor young people, one of the looters complains about his prospects for getting a job and his trip to the city with his CV and his rejection. In Tanya, it makes a powerful argument in support of considering the circumstances of offenders, to fulfil the teaching of being of lowly spirit toward every person[6].  It makes the point that “we should not sit in judgement of anyone until we are in their place[7]because their place causes them to sin”. It talks about those who sit on street corners and are exposed to temptations, but it could just as well talk about people who don’t have the great opportunities some of us enjoy with parents who read to us and gave us a strong sense of right and wrong, an educaiton and economic opportunities. How do we know if we were in that situation we would act any different?’. Still, it insists that despite circumstances,  “he has no excuse whatsoever for his sins and is called a completely wicked person for not having the fear of God before his eyes” we all have free choice and are responsible for our moral choices[8].

Multiculturalism and Muslims
Facebook has been buzzing with suggestions that blamed “those people” for the violence, with posts linking the violence to immigration. From reports I have seen the looters came from a various backgrounds. On the other hand some of those defending communities from looters were Muslim including the three men killed in Birmingham.
The argument against turning this into a racial issue has been made movingly by Tariq following the tragic death of his son “Today, we stand here to call to all the youth to remain calm, for our communities to stay united. This is not a race issue. The family has received messages of sympathy and support from all parts of the communities - from all faiths, all colours and backgrounds. The argument is also made quite provocatively and problematically in a piece titled “Immigrants love this country more than we do”[9].  While very complimentary toward 1,500 Muslim men – mostly Bengali, but also Somalis – emerging from the mosque after evening prayers that help back rioters”, there is clearly an assumption of an “us” or a we as in “more than we do”, and them in the title.  Who exactly is the “We”- white people?

One argument that resonates strongly for me is the idea of disconnection. As Farida Montaz a resident of Tottenham stated “I've heard a lot of people say “How can people destroy their own community?” But I don't think some of the people that have been, you know, doing the extreme violence feel part of the community.[10]” At leat in part, this is a failure of society to commit deeply to the idea that regardless of class, income, culture, colour or faith we are all one.

In the wording of the warning to the Israelites about moral decay it states “When you will give birth to children and grandchildren, and you will become ancient in the land”. This has been interpreted as follows. If young people, see the values and principles of their parents and grandparents and “ancient” and old hat, that is a sign that the young generation is corrupt[11].  We need connectedness to each other, to the wisdom of parents and grandparents, and to a moral code that prioritises love, discipline and community over self indulgence, being cool and questioning everything.

[1] Deuteronomy 4:25-26
[3] Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 3:2
[4] Kohelet Raba,
[6] Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 4:12
[7] Pirkey Avot Ethics of the Fathers 2:4
[8] Tanya Chapter 30
[11] Pardes Yosef, quoted in Greenberg, AY, (1992) Torah Gems, Y. Orenstien, Tel Aviv, Brooklyn

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