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Paul Vallely: Meanwhile, on the streets of Leicester

23 September 2022

Hindu-Muslim tensions have unsettled a city, discovers Paul Vallely

DISORDER on the streets of Leicester at the weekend offered an unhappy counterpoint to the harmony on the streets elsewhere as people came out to pay their last respects to the late Queen. In Leicester, 25 police officers were injured, and 47 people were arrested, after gangs of Hindu and Muslim youths confronted one another on the streets.

The day when the violence began, Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, the British-born cleric who ran the Vatican department that promoted dialogue with other religions, gave the 2022 Newman Lecture in Manchester. Cardinal Fitzgerald was Rome’s leading scholar on Muslim-Christian relations, but he was removed from his post by Pope Benedict XVI for being too sympathetic to Muslims.

The Cardinal was speaking on the joint declaration onHuman Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”, signed in 2019 by Pope Francis and perhaps the highest authority in Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar (News, 8 February 2019). It reflected on “the joys, sorrows and problems of our contemporary world”, in which technological progress was balanced with moral decline.

The document condemns the powerplay and nationalist extremism that arise from the fanatical manipulation of religion. It calls on “intellectuals, philosophers, religious figures, artists, media professionals and men and women of culture in every part of the world” to adopt “a culture of dialogue” to “rediscover the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence”. The under-reported document, the Cardinal said, was a powerful tool for change.

At the back of the hall, a parish priest from Oldham was unconvinced. Such idealistic statements hardly address the reality on the ground, where religious and cultural conflicts were governed more by the politics of Kashmir or Palestine than by theological disagreements. Events in Leicester two days later underscored his point, with violence between Hindus and Muslims in the wake of an India v. Pakistan cricket match.

So, what is going wrong? Leicester has long been one of Britain’s great melting pots. More than 70 languages are spoken in the first British city where the white population became a minority. Inter-community relations among immigrant populations have generally been good for decades.

These new disturbances have been little reported in the media. Where they have, the portrait has been painted of an even-handed conflict. Yet something new seems to be about. It is a style of politics directly imported from the behaviour of extreme Hindu nationalists in India.

On Saturday, a large group of Hindutva-inspired men, wearing masks and balaclavas, were filmed marching past the Muslim-owned businesses in the Green Lane Road area chanting “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Ram”) — a slogan that has become a murder cry among Hindu nationalists in India. They also shouted “Pakistan Murdabad,” a Partition-era slogan roughly meaning “Death to Pakistan.” The videos are chilling.

These gangs had been assembled — large numbers brought from outside Leicester — by wilfully inaccurate messages on social media: a technique common among Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist BJP party, which has been exported to the Indian diaspora. Videos showed the police struggling to keep the two crowds apart.

Talk of a culture of dialogue is all well and good. But community leaders on both sides need to offer actions rather than words if the conflict in Leicester is to be allayed.

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