The news this week that authorities in the English city of Bradford had apparently banned a St. George’s Day parade by schoolchildren because it might offend local Muslims appeared at first sight to be yet another example of timid British officialdom caving in to the demands of extremists.
We English don’t usually make a big deal about celebrating our dragon-slaying patron saint, and a survey showed that fewer than one in five people planned to mark the occasion on Wednesday. St. Patrick’s Day, on the other hand — giant green hats and buckets of Guinness — we can do that! But, on the off-chance that we did feel like celebrating, being told that we can’t do so for fear of upsetting members of an ethnic minority is, not unreasonably, guaranteed to get our backs up.
The parade story was reported by several UK newspapers, and picked up by the blogosphere. The response was predictable: “Disgusting that we cannot walk in safety in our own country in certain areas because we’re scared of the Muslims that live there!” raged a reader in the comments thread for the Daily Mail’s story. “Good job it wasn’t a Muslim march!” said another.
American commenters on the blogs were even more outraged — you could have been forgiven for thinking that Osama bin Laden himself was parading down Whitehall on horseback, on his way to take the surrender of Gordon Brown and the Queen. Several accused the English of being “spineless” or “lily-livered.” Others bemoaned the fact that the country was becoming an “Islamic republic.” One was at least more sympathetic, suggesting that the English “don’t deserve slavery.”
While we’re grateful for the concern of our cousins across the pond, we’re not done for just yet. That said, my own reaction on first seeing the story was along the same lines as those Daily Mail readers. I might well have fired off my own indignant “offended Muslims” blog post, but because Pajamas asked me to write about the story I spent some time reading the various reports in detail, and particularly reports from Bradford’s local media. And a rather different picture of events emerged.
The parade — billed as an event designed to boost community cohesion — was expected to attract around 10,000 people, and was to feature up to 2,000 schoolchildren from all sections of the community. Organizers had been planning the event with a local police team for some months, but last week the city council, citing police advice from higher up, said the event could not go ahead as planned because of “health and safety” concerns. In true Hillary Clinton fashion, they added that the decision had been taken “in the interests of the children.” Specifically, officials expressed concerns about the planned route of the parade, and suggested an alternative. The organizers decided that, given the restrictions, the event would no longer be viable and called it off.
The original route of the march passed through a largely Muslim area of the city, and along streets that were at the center of race riots in 2001. It’s not hard to see how some people came to the conclusion that the council and police were concerned about Muslims being offended. However, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that the local Muslim community as a whole, or even a significant minority of it, was likely to be “offended” by the parade, or objected to it in any way.
Outside of the more lurid UK tabloids, the words “Muslim” and “Islam” are nowhere to be found in any of the reports that I’ve seen, although the mention of race riots and “Asian” communities invites the reader to draw their own conclusions, and those were the elements that many bloggers latched on to. The local Council of Mosques supported the event, as did Muslim councillors. It has been reported that one of the community police officers who was involved with planning the event is a Muslim. Many of the children due to take part in the parade were Muslim. Imagine how all of these community-spirited citizens felt when, for their troubles, they were rewarded with headlines such as “St. George’s Parade Scrapped … In Case It Upsets Muslims” (on the website of one of the aforementioned tabloids).
What appears far more likely — and what the parade organizers are saying — is that senior police officers failed to communicate with their colleagues who were involved in planning the event, and when they learned of the proposed route they became concerned that troublemakers, whether Muslim extremists or members of far-right groups, might have taken advantage of the parade to stir up trouble.
It’s hard to see what kind of nightmare scenario the fevered imaginations of police and council chiefs cooked up. The event was taking place in broad daylight, and the participants were mostly local children and their families. Anyone planning on causing trouble would have had to do so in full view of parents, kid brothers and sisters, and neighbors. The parade was also taking place on a weekday, and even extremists have jobs to go to.
But if the police really feared violence they should have supervised the parade in sufficient strength to ensure that they were able to deal with it. Instead they gave in — not to extremism, and not even to the threat of extremism, but to the mere notion of extremism — causing disappointment for thousands of law-abiding people so that their officers could enjoy a quiet life. As one of the parade organizers, local vicar Tony Tooby, said: “This is saying that the thugs are winning everything and that the community has not got over the riots. Are we a community gripped by fear?”
The irony, of course, is that one of the aims of the event was to bring young people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds together, with the aim of eradicating the distrust that leads to the kind of trouble the police apparently feared. Bradford has had its problems with racial tensions, but a lot of people have worked hard to improve relations between communities. Just a few days before the row over the St. George’s Day parade erupted, thousands of Sikhs marched through the city to celebrate the festival of Vaisakhi without a hint of trouble. (Among other things, the festival celebrates the martyrdom of a guru who was tortured to death by Muslims in 1606 — clearly no one told the local police, who would probably have launched a “cold case” investigation.)
There’s a legitimate debate going on in Britain about the failure of Muslims and other immigrants to assimilate, but it’s not helped by the authorities, or the media, looking for problems where they don’t exist. By scuppering the parade at such short notice, and failing to give a plausible explanation for doing so, Bradford’s leaders allowed a sinister narrative to develop. They’ve caused more harm to community relations, and to their city’s reputation, than could possibly have been done by a few thugs trying to disrupt a parade.
Overexcited reporting by the mainstream media stoked passions, which were further inflamed by the Chinese whispers effect that’s an inevitable consequence of bloggers reporting on a story third, fourth, or fifth-hand. There’s an argument to be had as to whether bloggers should be held to the same standards as the professional media operations they often criticize, but those who aspire to promoting honest debate, rather than just pandering to the like-minded, ought at least to beware of crying wolf.
Unfortunately we live in times where fear and mistrust all too often trump good sense, and the mentality that prevailed in Bradford isn’t confined to police chiefs and council officials. At the end of a report on Wednesday’s St. George’s Day celebrations, the BBC News website invited the public to send in photos and video of events — street parties, fancy dress parades, and the like — with the following disclaimer: “Do not endanger yourself or others, take any unnecessary risks or infringe any laws.”
Mike McNally blogs at The Monkey Tennis Centre.