A car full of rioting thugs struck and killed three men in Birmingham, England, during last week's mob violence there, sparking fears -- happily unrealized -- of race riots. Why? The drivers were black, and the dead men were of South Asian descent. The trio, who died while trying to protect local businesses, has been described by neighbors as hard-working, socially responsible Muslims who were a credit to their community.
"These were bright young guys we've lost. They knew the meaning of work and got themselves decent jobs," one resident told The Guardian.
It is especially disgusting to see the dregs of society destroying the lives, literally and figuratively, of ordinary hard-working people. Yet one highly significant aspect of the staggering UK violence has been the response of Muslim communities to the anarchy. In London, Turkish and Kurdish men banded together to protect Muslim businesses and mosques, and reportedly drove mobs of looters away. Media reports have revealed that Muslim men across Britain haven't waited for the impotent state to rescue them, but stood together to protect their own.
It is hard to know to what extent this is a matter of ethnic solidarity, religious solidarity, or (most likely) a combination of both. But it is impressive, and praiseworthy. And it is not surprising, either, given the far higher levels of community cohesion and socially beneficial values held by the UK's Muslim community.
In 2009, Britain's Learning for Life project released a study of the beliefs and attitudes of 14-to-16 year olds living in the impoverished Hodge Hill neighborhood of Birmingham, Britain's second-largest city and a target for looters. The contrast of views of Hodge Hill's Muslims and non-Muslims is remarkable, and instructive.
Though everyone studied lives in the same neighborhood, and in relative poverty, the character profile of Muslim kids was far different. The report found that Hodge Hill's Muslims took religion seriously (unlike the others, who had no real engagement with religious thought or practice), and come from strong families guided by engaged fathers. Among the Muslims, parents and children alike are optimistic about their futures, with their aspirations "often centered around responsibility to the family."
The Learning for Life researchers found that Muslim students were more engaged with their communities, "get on better with their neighbors," and that "there is a strong sense of Islamic solidarity within the community."
And there's this, from the Learning for Life report:
Muslim students tended to think that Britain was fairer. One remarked that 'it's what you make of it innit? Seems fair to me' -- suggesting that they had a higher level of self-control than other groups. Non-Muslim students were more critical of Britain, commenting that it had done little for them.
As close observers of British culture know, Christianity has largely evaporated as an effective social and moral force in that country. Islam, however, is holding its own. If media reports are accurate -- and we must wait until the smoke clears to know for certain -- Muslim Britons may have retained enough self-confidence and communal cohesion to protect their own, or at least to have mounted a meaningful effort with their own little platoons instead of waiting for the authorities to arrive. What's more, I doubt that the future inquest will discover a significant Muslim presence among the looters.
It hardly needs pointing out that there are beliefs and practices within the UK's Islamic community that are inimical to Western values and liberal democracy. By no means should these should not be overlooked or dismissed -- nor should the 2001 mass Muslim riots in England's north be glossed over.
Still, England's Muslims have great strengths -- including a belief in authority and binding moral truth conspicuously lacking from the lives of the feral looters, as this interview with Manchester yobs reveals -- that should not be minimized out of justified repugnance at illiberal features of their way of life.
As James Arthur, the Birmingham University professor who was the lead investigator in the Learning for Life project, told me last week in an interview England's economically disadvantaged Muslim youth have a much clearer understanding of virtue, and a far stronger hold on it than their peers.
"[W]hat they have is family stability. They also have religion to back them up. They have clear family values. They have a code of honor and a morality that recognizes all the virtues that we were looking at in Hodge Hill," Arthur told me. "They could recognize these virtues more readily because of the way they were brought up and because their religion brought them up in the discourse of these values."
That is deeply admirable, especially considering that these communities have managed to maintain their moral and religious integrity in the face of a ferocious secularism and consumerism that has almost completely corroded English Christianity.
With English leaders from across the political and cultural spectrum calling for national introspection into what Prime Minister David Cameron calls his country's "moral collapse," England would do well to ask what it can learn about life and how to live it from its Muslim population. It is interesting to contemplate the lessons that may be learned from the riot aftermath, and where they might lead.
Five years ago, American writer Robert Ferrigno published a novel about life in an America that has largely converted to Islam as a response to civilization-shaking catastrophes. Why? According to one character, "Muslims were the only people with a clear plan and a helping hand."
A clear plan and a helping hand. Do not fail to notice that, as sociologist Rodney Stark has shown, it was precisely this that the minority Christian cult offered to pagan Roman society as it descended into its final decadence. The early Christians succeeded because they offered a way of life that was a clear alternative to the dominant paganism: a community of charity and meaning.
In the social breakdown shaking ancient Rome, the early Christians found opportunity. Perhaps their latter-day heirs might also rally contemporary Britain. As a Christian, that is certainly my hope and prayer. Yet amid the moral and civil anarchy of secular, welfare-state England, might this be Islam's moment? It is hard to imagine the land of Bede, More, Cranmer, and Lewis embracing Islam, but no society can tolerate indefinitely a moral and spiritual vacuum.