“My only love sprung from my only hate…” Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
Call me an old romantic but rarely is the beauty and tragedy of love more perfectly captured than in Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’. However recent events in Birmingham have forced me to reconsider the impact that love can still have in today’s multicultural society. What then are these momentous events to have plucked my heart strings, I hear you ask…???
Well just last week, a young Sikh woman was having to be guarded by police following claims that she had been forced to convert to Islam. The girl was understood to have been reported as being missing from her family home in West Bromwich at the end of last month. It is alleged that this then prompted a gang of armed Sikh men to smash their way into a house in Erdington following a tip-off that the woman was being held there. Around the same time, anecdotal evidence was circulating in Birmingham to suggest that tensions between young Sikhs and young Muslims had nearly reached boiling point a few weeks previous at the City’s Vaisaki celebrations where small numbers of Muslim men had been distributing leaflets about Islam and why Sikhism was wrong.
Conflicting stories abound concerning the woman who is believed to be a student at Sutton Coldfield College. First, it is alleged that she – like many other young Sikh women it is also alleged – was forced to convert to Islam. Second, stories suggest that she converted to Islam of her own freewill and choice. Finally, other stories suggest that she converted to Islam having fallen in love with a young Muslim man – himself a convert to Islam – with whom she had had a relationship with. Little clarity exists but it does seem that somewhere in this story is a young woman who – for whatever reason and whatever story you choose to believe – is in some way suffering. Given that last Saturday saw more than 100 Sikhs marching from the Handsworth area of Birmingham to the city centre would seem to be further evidence that this suffering – and the tensions associated with it – are not going to disappear too quickly.
It is interesting therefore that a report by the Commission on Integration & Cohesion that was published yesterday suggested that tensions in Britain are now primarily played out on an extremely localised backdrop and rarely ever the national one. This is interesting and maybe even quite accurate given that it was little more than 18 months ago in Birmingham that local disturbances began in Nechells and played out over a couple of consecutive nights.
Maybe then we have a report that has for the first time, ‘got it right’?
I hasten to add however, I only said ‘Maybe’…
The reason I say this is because whilst the report may have quite rightly identified that such incidents are increasingly localised, they fail to recognise the drivers behind the tensions: the tensions between different minority communities. So in Nechells for example, tensions were between young black and Pakistani (Muslim?) men. In Birmingham more recently, these tensions have been between Sikhs and Muslims.
Failing to recognise this therefore could result in very serious tensions emerging on the ground.
This is not mere speculation…take for example how a few years ago the far-right British Natiuonal Party were able to recruit fringe Sikh and Hindu groups to support its campaign to get ‘Islam Out of Britain’. Going beyond the simplistic politics of hate usually peddled by those such as the BNP, here Sikhs and HIndus were recruited to provide an ‘insiders’ point of view: a view that it was put forward as being more valid what with Sikhs and Hindus having lived on the Indian subcontinent with Muslims for numerous centuries.
What about after 9/11, when young Hindus in Manchester were so concerned about being mistakenly identified as Muslims, to avoid being caught up in any unwanted backlash they began to outwardly voice their Hindu identity over and above their ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ equivalents as had been historically the norm.
What about following 7/7 how young Sikhs in London wore badges stating “Don’t Freak, I’m Sikh” when using the London Underground as a way of ensuring fellow passengers didn’t get scared travelling alongside them. In putting a clear distance between themselves and Muslims, young Sikhs saw this as a way of avoiding the staring, uneasy shifting and general harrasment that some Muslims experienced.
And what about in recent weeks when doing field work in Wolverhampton where I had to visit various Sikh Gurdwaras and Hindu Mandirs. At one place I was repeatedly told by the informant that: “We’re British, you know…we want to be here. We don’t cause trouble, we work hard, we like being here…there’s some who don’t, you know. We’re not them…we’re peaceful, we don’t cause trouble…we’re not like the Muslims, you know”. The problem is, in EVERY Mandir and Gurdwara I visited, the same message was aired again and again.
On the ground therefore, the tensions appear to be real. Given this, the potential for inter-community conflict must also be as equally real.
Politicians and policy-makers have so far failed to recognise this or if they have, then they have chosen to merely ignore it. But as in Birmingham last weekend, slowly but vociferously these tensions are creeping more and more into the public domain.
Government unfortunately continues to perpetuate its short-sighted approach wher more and more policy and initiatives are based on markers of ‘Islam’, ‘Muslims’, ‘radicalism’ and so on. In doing so, the politicians and policymakers believe – or at least tell themselves – that they are ‘solving’ the ‘problems’ across today’s British society. Increasingly, these approaches are reinforced by Muslim organisations and talking heads that seem prepared – somewhat unscrupulously – to follow the Government line no matter where that will take them or indeed anyone else.
Overlooked in these approaches are the disaffected Sikh, Hindu, White communities amongst others that are being forced to repeatedly question themselves against what the ‘Muslim community’ is being alleged to represent. This, unsurprisingly, reinforces misconceptions and misunderstandings, accentuates hostilities and tensions, reinforces legacies and stereotypes at the same time as creating a tinderbox climate. A climate on the ground that is desperately awaiting the right spark to start the fires raging.
What better then than a moment of unrequited love as that spark. Whilst men may have marched the streets of Birmingham, whilst families may have been terrorised in their own homes, underlying these tensions seems to me to be little more than a classic story of forbidden love.
Picture the scene: a young woman from one family (faith?) falls in love with a young man from another. Unfortunately for them, the two families (faiths?) despise each other and have a history of dislike dating back far too many generations. For the woman, she runs away to be with her loved one. For the young man, he awaits the arrival of his loved one so that they can finally steal some time together. And away from all this, the two rival families continue to exact revenge against each other always oblivious of the two young figures and what they, as human beings, really want.
Forget forced conversion, forget inter-community tensions, forget community cohesion…for me, what is going on here is all about love and nothing more. For the youngsters, this is clear. For the rival ‘families’, maybe this doesn’t matter: maybe doesn’t even figure in their thinking.
As Shakespeare put it in Romeo & Juliet, “These violent delights have violent ends”.
What worries me is that what we currently have in Birmingham – and indeed way beyond – has a great potential for those “violent delights” to ultimately have “violent ends”.