London riots: Has multiculturalism failed

Their vigilante stand in Birmingham’s west end saved a humble row of family-run shops and a red-brick mosque from the looters’ grasp — but at a terrible cost. A carload of rioters sped into a fleeing crowd of shop defenders, witnesses said, hurling three young men into the air and killing amateur boxer Haroon Jahan, 21, and brothers Shazzad Ali, 30, and Abdul Musavir, 31.

Wednesday’s 1 a.m. slaughter has laid bare racial tensions underlying this week’s riots in Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city and its most ethnically diverse. A fifth of the city’s 1 million “Brummies” are Muslims, most commonly of Pakistani origin. About 7 percent are black, mostly Caribbean, in background.

While the riots that have swept England this week have involved looters of every creed and hue, the street anarchy also sometimes has exposed the racial fault lines that run beneath the poorest urban quarters.

Resident after resident of Dudley Road and its surrounding Winson Green district commented pointedly to The media that the attackers were black and accused them of targeting Muslim shops. The passions echo streetfights from previous years, such as in 2005, when a neighboring Birmingham district suffered two nights of violence between Caribbean and Asian gangs over unsubstantiated rumors that a gang of Pakistani men had raped a 14-year-old Jamaican girl. Two men were stabbed to death, firefighters faced machete-wielding mobs, and Muslim graves were desecrated during those clashes. The west side also suffered riots in 1981, 1985 and 1991 fueled by minority hatred of white police and black resentment of the Asians’ dominant position as shopkeepers.

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We’ll hunt down these black men, cut off their heads and feed them to our dogs,” said Amir Hawid, 20, who lives just a hundred yards (meters) from the killing scene and heard the screams of the crowd at the moment of impact.

As forensics specialists combed the bloodied, rock-strewn pavement for clues, hundreds of local Muslims and Sikhs — some wearing ceremonial daggers at their waists — packed into a community hall Wednesday to confront three white police commanders who had come seeking to calm tensions. Twice as many Muslims, many in robes and kufi caps, stood outside.

The media found several witnesses outside the hall, who like the dead men had taken up crude arms and manned the sidewalks in hopes of keeping the invaders at bay. None expressed confidence that the police would bring justice.

“We will avenge our brothers. This is a tight community, and someone in their group will brag about how they attacked the Muslims,” said Waseem Hussain, 24, who joined the defense of the shops. Hussain said several carloads of would-be shop raiders began casing Dudley Road, driving cars up and down the road before midnight, as scores of locals were still in the mosque observing the night’s final Ramadan prayers.

He said one carload stopped at the local gas station and convenience store — which had been ransacked the night before and was now closed with metal shutters — and asked a few youths whether there was “anything new to rob.”

He said locals threw stones and bricks at the cars, whose occupants had their windows rolled down. The two sides traded verbal abuse as the cars repeatedly passed, Hussain estimating at least a dozen times. The Muslim crowd grew as prayers concluded around 12:30 a.m.

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After the cars canvassed the crowd once again under a hail of rocks, Hussain said, one of the occupants shouted a threat at them: “Are you asking for it?” Two of the cars did a U-turn at the top of the road, he said, and gunned their engines, shifting their gears rapidly as they reached a speed he estimated at 70 mph (110 kph).

“The first car cut extremely close to the crowd but didn’t hit anyone. We all were running for cover, but there were too many people and nowhere to go,” he said. “Some people didn’t see the second car coming. It went deeper into the footpath (sidewalk) and struck these three men, all standing in the same spot,” he said. “They must have flown 20, 30 feet. One, Shazzad, was dead when he hit the ground. All of them were bloody and unconscious. They never had a chance.”

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