Biryani for the racists

As I wrote last week, several hundred men and women from the English Defence League (EDL) arrived in the quintessentially English city of Cambridge on Saturday, to march through the streets in demonstration. Cambridge is a hotbed of ‘Islamic terrorism’ they say – they carried signs that read “no more mosques”.

Despite a huge turnout for the “Unite Cambridge” counter-demonstration, the photographs of the event, which you will find on the internet, were largely of the EDL. We see images of drunken, flag-waving, skin-heads being manhandled by the police, as bemused foreign students looked on in disbelief. But this, in no way represents what happened that day. These images not only undermine the phenomenal unity that emerged in the city at the weekend, but it also sensationalises the grievances of the EDL.

Talking to members of the EDL on Saturday, I soon learnt that many of them had served in the military or had members of close family or friends who had been killed or injured in conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq. Wars that they had been led to believe, were all about protecting Great Britain from Islamists. Re-integration into civilian life is tough at the best of times, but with a shifting ethnic demographic back home, and an economic downturn, it is not surprising that many of these people have difficulty managing change and understanding where their identity fits in with this. Whilst their ethos was undermined by foul language and cheap larger, their pain and anger was clear to see. Money is spent on listening to the grievances of young British Muslims for fear of them becoming radicalised, I couldn’t help wonder whether anyone was listening to members of the EDL?

But whilst some middle-class Cambridge people were shouting abuse down megaphones at these wounded souls, one group were embracing the visitors to their city with moving courage. I spoke with members of the local mosque a few days before the rally – people were scared they said, they felt unprepared for confrontation. I encouraged them to see this event as an opportunity. Within a few days they had completely turned the situation around. A decision was taken to open the mosque to the public to coincide with the Asian Mela that was happening in the city on Sunday. Leaflets were printed and Biryani for 400 English Defence League protesters was prepared.

One member of the Cambridge Muslim Council posted on his Facebook, “What a great favour the EDL did us today; we got to make so many new friends, people who visited the mosque, shared a meal, and had lots of interesting conversations”. And I agree with another member of the community who said it was right that the city should reject what the EDL stands for, but that this alone is not enough, “it needs to be combined with dialogue, and listening to their grievances”. The Muslims of Cambridge even managed to address aggressive behavior from fellow Muslims.

Cambridge residents were horrified to see gangs of young Asian men arrive in Cambridge to “defend” the Muslims. Their demeanor was much like some of the EDL – aggressive and loutish. But they were swiftly pulled aside by the Cambridge community – and although they had been up for a fight, some returned to the mosque later that day to shakes hands and apologise. “It is great what you guys are doing”. The Cambridge Muslim Council believed that what really changed their minds was that they saw the huge non-Muslim turnout at the mosque; they saw people who were not Muslim but came to show their support.

And perhaps because bizarrely, my life’s work appears to be about showing commonality between Cambridge and Karachi you might have guessed that I would be looking for a situation in Karachi that might resemble what happened in Cambridge at the weekend.

In a week that has seen Karachi fraught with violence, and media channels announcing the rising death-tolls like a cricket-score on Twitter, it might be worth remembering the “unity” that can exist in the city. In October last year the day after a particularly foul attack on a Sufi Shrine in which six people were killed, approximately 3000 young people – individuals and members of over 20 civil society organizations gathered together for Chal Utha Pakistan (Rise and Walk Pakistan). The walk raised over five Lac Rupees for flood relief and a further Rs1.6 million in sponsorship from the private sector. Like the Cambridge demonstration of unity, attendance at the event was boosted by Facebook and other social networks. And like the Cambridge event, it turned something ugly into an opportunity to celebrate unity.

“It was intended that the event be postponed because of the security situation”, said Faraz Khan who runs Stimulus in Karachi, “this was a testament to the spirit and resilience of people of Karachi and Pakistan. The youth turned up, we played music, they were laughing. Youthful, happy, educated, loving girls and boys…true Pakistan …it was lovely…” Unlike many Pakistanis I have met, Faraz truly believes that it’s only a matter of time before, what he calls “the fabric of goodness” resurfaces in Pakistan through the true spirit of communication.

The huge population of young people (over 50 per cent under 20) provides hope to Faraz and another well known activist – Junooni Salman Ahmed, who has recently launched a social awareness campaign A.R.T – Aman (Peace and regional harmony), Rozi (economic security) and Taleem (Education). He writes that this is a non-political, non-partisan and non-violent movement which Pakistani women and men of all ages and inclinations can agree upon.

“Our goal is to bring about a fundamental change in the contract between the individual and the state” says Salman, and interestingly, he is not the only one to contact me recently to mention that hope for Pakistan lies in the individual.

Perhaps we need to hear more about events like Chal Utha Pakistan, which demonstrate resilience and the turning of something negative into an opportunity to show unity. And I am certainly moved and engaged by the story of the Muslim community in Cambridge this weekend. I will never forget a show of unity in Tel Aviv I attended some 20 years ago. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs turned up in their thousands, but the media only covered the angry shouts of a handful of right-wing Jews as they counter-demonstrated. As a young woman, I was angry and confused.  So once more, I call on media channels to focus on dramatic examples of cooperation, and not go for cheap sensationalism. Last week I complained at the Cambridge News irresponsible headlines, but this week I congratulate them on their balanced content “English Defence League march ends after failed bid to target mosque” which shows images of both demonstrations and a positive video.

Sadly the EDL never got their Biryani, but the thought was there, another member of the mosque said that “there is some positive relationship with them because of this gesture”. Unity is one thing, reaching out that step further is to be applauded.

Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy.  She writes regularly for Muslim Voices and the World Bank blog, and a book about her time in Iraq is being launched in October 2011.  More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found on

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