Since late August, the city of Leicester in England has seen violent confrontations between groups of Hindu and Muslim men. The situation escalated on September 17 when about 200 Hindu men marched through a Muslim-majority area of east Leicester. Wearing masks, hoodies and balaclavas, they chanted “Jai Shri Ram” (meaning “Hail Lord Ram”).
In response, groups of Muslim men gathered in the area. A flag was forcibly removed from a Hindu mandir. Bottles and other missiles were thrown. Further violence ensued the following evening when the outer wall of a mosque was graffitied and a Hindu flag was burned.
Soulsby reportedly expects the review to make immediate headway. My research into unrest in Bradford in 2001 shows that an official response that sacrifices complexity in favour of quick solutions only serves to attribute blame at the expense of real understanding.
I investigated the 2001 disturbances in Bradford, when up to 1,000 young men of South Asian and Muslim heritage battled hundreds of police officers, following a banned march by the far-right National Front in the city earlier in the day. Not only was there pressure to explain why the disturbances had happened but also pressure to find solutions. This resulted in the disturbances being largely blamed on the city’s Muslims, the lives they lived and the values they adhered to.
The sustained and deliberate provocation of white far-right groups, meanwhile, was overlooked. So too, like almost every other disturbance involving minority communities, a host of social, political and economic factors.
In Leicester, no single group has, as yet, been blamed. However, there is a similar reluctance to dig into the complexity of the situation. Though proactive in communicating information about its policing of the disturbances, Leicestershire Police has referred, not specifically to Hindus or Muslims, but to “the community”.
Temporary Chief Constable Rob Nixon has variously thanked “the community for their ongoing support”, made reference to a “community meeting”, expressed gratitude to “the community who have joined us in calling for calm” and reiterated his commitment to working “alongside community leaders” to find solutions.
Political geographer Arshad Isakjee has shown applying the notion of “community” to ethnic and religious minorities makes the lazy assumption that ethnic minorities have more in common with each other than white or Christian communities do.
What’s more, it homogenises all people deemed to be within the group in question, thereby “othering” them as distinct from anyone outside that group. In other words, the problem becomes “their problem”, not “ours”. The onus is put on them to provide “solutions” to what is actually a vast array of social problems.
Community groups and community leaders do of course exist, in Leicester as elsewhere. But it is entirely possible that they may be oblivious to what is happening or out of touch with those outside of their immediate circles of influence. This is especially true of religious leaders who are unlikely to engage those who do not attend the same places of worship or who practice their faith differently.
On September 20, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders issued a joint statement, describing Hindus and Muslims as “a family” who share a city that is “a beacon of diversity and community cohesion”. It echoed the increasingly popular explanation that the trouble was instigated by outsiders, bolstered by media reports that eight of the 18 people arrested on September 18, 2022 did not reside in Leicestershire.
“We together call upon the inciters of hatred to leave our city alone,” the joint statement said. “Leicester has no place for any foreign extremist ideology that causes division.” Soulsby made the same point when announcing the inquiry, saying that it would be necessary to investigate whether the disturbances were “motivated by extreme ideologies imported from elsewhere”.
Some will assume this to be Islamist extremism. Despite there being no evidence to support such an assumption, research shows that a key trope of Islamophobia is the conflation of all things Islam with extremism. The mere involvement of Muslims will be evidence enough for some to jump to such a conclusion.
However, it is necessary – given the slogans chanted in Leicester and wider concerns dating back to 2019 – to also examine the extent to which Hindu nationalist ideologies or “Hindutva” is causing tensions outside of India’s borders.
Despite this, local media has begun to distance the city’s established Hindu communities from blame. Instead it cites wide claims that Hindu nationalism has been imported into the city by recent migrants from India.
For two decades, Leicester has presented itself as the most ethnically harmonious city in Britain. This differentiates it from cities such as Birmingham or Bradford, which have seen disturbances involving ethnic and religious minorities. Blaming outsiders and imported ideologies has the potential to protect Leicester’s reputation.
Soulsby has reportedly said to be baffled by the violence. To believe that such things could never happen in Leicester suggests either wilful ignorance or collective denial at the level of the city’s leadership. To ensure that all the different people that make up the city, as well as the problems they face, can be both understood and responded to, this needs to change.
The review offers a crucial opportunity to actually understand what is happening. There needs to be a full recognition that communities are not homogenous. Whether in Leicester or elsewhere, neither Muslim nor Hindu communities are one-dimensional or singular.
There also needs to be a recognition that the problems experienced by religious communities are not necessarily religious. Their lives are impacted by socio-economic and socio-political factors that transcend ethnic and religious identities.
Further, the impact of the global on the local cannot be overlooked, as the influence of Hindutva in Leicester, as elsewhere in Britain demonstrates. To take this into account is not to apportion blame. Ignoring it, however, won’t help us fully understand what is happening.
Finally, the review cannot be premised on the basis that the solutions to the disturbances can be singularly found within Leicester’s communities. This is a collective issue that has the very real potential to have a detrimental impact on our collective futures.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.