Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

5. Memorandum submitted by Zafar Khan

  This is a timely inquiry into terrorism and community relations in Britain.

  Stakes are high since 9/11 and the subsequent events that continue to unfold at home and abroad which have impacted on the current debate, both on the threat of terrorism, and community relations in this country.

  Highly charged political language and rhetoric that informs the public debate on terrorism and the incidence of 9/11, in my view, has impacted on community relations in Britain. The world-view with which the threat and question of terrorism, and the concerns about their safety and security is seen by many people in Britain and elsewhere has inevitably changed.

  Whether concerns and threat of terrorism in Britain are real or perceived, the government, quite rightly, cannot afford to take any chances, since it has the duty to ensure safety of its citizens and stability in society, which is contingent upon good and harmonious community relations.

  The heinous act of 9/11 and how it has been seized upon by many (quite rightly to some extent), especially across the Atlantic, reinforced some entrenched attitudes and perceptions.

  These attitudes and perceptions inevitably have a bearing on, for example, how Muslim minorities are seen in the midst of British society.

  The questions that we might ask on this matter would be, on the extent to which responses, both legal and political by the government are:

    (a)  Appropriate and:

    (b)  Their impact directly and indirectly on community relations in this country.

  My own view is that, despite its relatively positive and enlightened espousal, and fostering of community relations, government's legal and political responses since 9/11, have given rise to difficulties up and down this country.

  Of course one would want the government to take appropriate actions in meeting of its obligations and exercise of authority, to ensure public safety, law and order for the benefit of all sections in society.

  Important too, is the duty of the government to ensure that extremist forces in society do not exploit public's fear of terrorism to target minority groups such as the Muslims as scapegoats.

  A vast majority of Muslims, like many fair-minded people in Britain abhor and condemn terrorism. Many in the Muslim communities prior to 9/11 felt discriminated, marginalised and alienated. Sections of the community especially the young manifested their alienation and discontent during the so-called "summer of discontent". All of us were confronted with the very considerable challenges of the issues emanating from the disturbances in 2001, and the events leading up to it, when the Twin Towers incidence occurred.

  In my view this dealt a body blow to the tremendous good work that had been going on, and the vision and spirit of co-operation which had become the new civic imperative, to ensure that no new summers of discontent occurred again in our communities.

  But 9/11 created a fresh and more sinister climate of fear, suspicion and defensiveness among many people. New strategies and thinking had to be put in place to combat the most negative of the consequences that directly resulted from the effects of the events of 11 September 2001.

  Media at national and local level became constantly preoccupied with the "war on terrorism". Many inferences and implications of its coverage of events and analysis continue to give rise to a sense of "despair" among Muslim minorities. Some aspects of the media coverage, quite clearly, are thoughtful, considered and objective, while others are opportunistic, populist, and eager to play on the fears and anxieties of ordinary citizens. This in no way is a positive contribution to good community relations in society, nor is it a constructive and effective way in which to combat the "threat" of terrorism in Britain.

  Within such a framework, it is not unfair to suggest that fear, anxiety and uncertainty among many Muslims, is seen as a more tangible phenomenon since 9/11, and the community is seen as one whose loyalty to Britain and the British way of life is perceived to be in doubt.

  It is imperative that those with responsibility in public life adopt, considered, objective and enlightened approaches to governance and public affairs.

  Good community relations and communal harmony has been a central theme in contemporary British social and political life. Over the years this area of public policy has posed real challenges, which successive governments, it has to be said, have addressed with positive and constructive intentions. Britain has led in the field of community and race relations in comparison with many of its partners in the European Union.

  Most effective work in building good community relations however, has always taken place at the level of local communities in this country. Local communities over the past 45 years have gained considerable first hand knowledge and experience of life at the receiving end for many of the minorities that have settled in their midst. Some of the most acutely felt effects of diversity and coming to terms with it have informed policies and nature of interaction with minority communities on countless local authorities.

  It would be overly optimistic however, to suggest that solutions to all problems in the area of community relations and effects of the fight against terrorism would be found in local communities.

  Nevertheless it is an appropriate place to start from. It is in the localities within our communities that a sense of belonging can be meaningful, and can be fostered. It is also here that ruptures and fissures in social fabric of our communities have to be healed. Bridges across "communal" or ethnic fault lines can be built in an environment of mutuality, socio-cultural and religious tolerance.

  Solutions to some of the more pressing issues as well as long term problems are being worked out by local communities through interactions with each other. Many faith organisations for example, are proactively engaged in dialogue, not only with each other, but through their collective inter-faith organisations and faiths councils, with the wider community, the media and local and national institutions.

  In our own case in Luton many such organisations are actively engaged in forging partnerships for effective and positive community relations and tolerance. In fact they have led the way in identifying potentially difficult areas of engagement for local and national policy makers.

  Many people at local level recognise that they have a common future and common destiny in this country. It is this sense of being a part of the wider community, which should get a wider exposure. Media can be a help in this, by reinforcing the agenda of individuals and groups who work for wider understanding and community cohesion.

  In my view effective and meaningful work can only be done by local communities themselves. This can come about if people in our neighbourhoods feel confident, secure and as citizens, in solidarity and with a sense of obligation and trust toward each other.

  The state both at national and local level must enthuse, empower and support good practice in our localities through community groups with proven and enlightened leadership. Principle of partnership and mutuality should be fostered in practical and effective manner through open debate and empowering of minorities. Many local communities lack effective as well as competent leadership. This should not remain neglected any longer. Good leaders inform, empower and carry communities with them. In trying nay turbulent times enlightened and inspirational leadership must be given to building solidly good community relations and defeating terrorism.

7 February 2005

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