Monday, 28 September 2009

Being human

posted by kathy

I first came across Amnesty International when I was a student. My college adopted a prisoner of conscience in Chile. These were the days of the Pinochet regime and he was a student and anti-fascist. He had been tortured, which was routine in Chile's jails - many supporters of Allende had been killed and others simply "disappeared." Eventually we were told that the prisoner we had adopted would be released if we could find a country to accept him. Of course, we wrote to the home secretary - it was Roy Jenkins, I believe. Britain said no on the grounds that the country was too small. We wrote to other countries. Canada said yes and so did Luxembourg. The student was set free. I don't know what happened to him after that - I wasn't the one writing all the letters but just a member of the college students' union committee. However the events taught me that writing letters could make a difference to someone's life and could even save a life.

Since then, I've occasionally sent cards to prisoners or written hasty emails to governments on behalf of prisoners. I've never managed to do enough. So I was pleased to meet someone involved in Beeston's local Amnesty International group at Meeting on Sunday. The group has monthly meetings in the local library as well as letter-writing sessions in the Commercial Inn. The group is also looking for help in their street collection on Saturday, 10th October. Click here for details of forthcoming of events with contact details. According to the Beeston Express there will also be a letter-writing session in the Commercial Inn from 7.30 p.m. on Monday, 5th October.

If you would like to be involved in Amnesty and don't live anywhere near Beeston, a web-search will help you find either a local or national group. It's possible to support Amnesty as an individual as well as through a group.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Book review: Kundnani, The End of Tolerance

posted by Rhiannon

As so often, I missed International Blog Against Racism week this year, due to a combination of holidays and volunteering work. However, as oyceter notes, "blogging against racism should not be contained to a week" and so I thought I'd go ahead and blog against racism now.

As some of you may be aware, I've worked with City of Sanctuary in the past, and grew up in a strongly Muslim area. This gave Arun Kundnani's book, The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain (London: Pluto Press, 2007) a personal edge for me: without having really been aware of the patterns and historical causes which Kundnani discusses, I had begun to see in some places the evidence to which he refers. As you'd expect, my middle-class white privilege shielded me a lot, but like many people I had been worried about whether the causes of terrorist attacks (9/11, 7/7, etc.) were really as simple as made out, and I'd been nursing a concern that our asylum procedures were racist as well as inhumane. This book essentially confirmed some things I was already thinking, therefore, and added some extras about policing, the economic system, actual statistics about the treatment of people seeking sanctuary here, and the biased presentations of history given by government and many media outlets. By outlining more clearly the situation in the UK, it also points up some of the differences between the situation here and the situation in the US which many anti-racist bloggers are discussing - though perhaps I feel that the tendency to deaden and flatten cultures when selecting pieces to teach as 'multiculturism' in schools is a British phenomenon only because I was educated in the UK and saw it in action.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in human rights, the causes of migration and 'terrorism', or who is trying to understand how racism comes about. (I trust this makes it clear why it is of interest to Quakers.) I'd like to leave you with two paragraphs from the book which I found especially telling.
In Chapter 8, Kundnani discusses the way that 'British values' and 'Islamic values' have been framed as in opposition to one another (despite the fact that neither is clearly defined). On page 129, he writes:

"The White Paper [Secure Borders, Safe Haven- pdf] shattered the framework of official tolerance of cultural diversity that Roy Jenkins had inspired with his 1966 definition of integration. The Jenkins formula had been based on a balancing act of integration (defined as equal opportunity and cultural diversity) and immigration, in which the existing non-white population was to be peacefully integrated while potential new 'coloured immigrants' were to be excluded (see Chapter 1). For most of its life, this formula had been made to work by not allowing the official endorsement of tolerance for 'ethnic minorities' to get in the way of the barely concealed racism that underlay immigration controls against non-whites. With a degree of separation introduced between race and immigration, an important concept of being black British or British Asian could emerge. In the normal course of events, race policy was discussed as a separate area from immigration policy; home secretaries could be outspoken in their tough lines on immigration and, at the same time, adopt a tone of multicultural tolerance with regard to settled non-white communities. Of course, the contradiction was always precarious - it was family members of the existing non-white population who bore the brunt of state racism in immigration controls - but, nevertheless, it made possible a multicultural society in which it was unlawful to exclude Asians and blacks from pubs but essential to exclude them from the country. The state licensed one form of racism while nominally outlawing the other."

There are other, similarly strong, sections throughout the book.

The other paragraph is the final one of the book. In Chapter 12, Kundnani concludes by examining the 'secularism' which demands that people leave religion behind when they enter the public sphere, contrasting it with the US (where church/state separation clearly does not demand that politicians be arreligious) and India (where the key principles are those of religious freedom, the government's "celebratory neutrality" between religions, and government intervention operating only to ensure human rights). The final lines, pages 187-8, give some pointers at where future anti-racist work in the UK may need to go:

"In the final analysis, the test of a secular society is whether it is capable of safeguarding freedom of belief and eliminating racisms based on religious difference. Today, driven by the attempt to legitimise a deeply unequal global order, racism has taken on new forms, at present directed specifically at Muslims and others perceived as 'alien'. Ultimately, the struggle against these forms of racism is not a fight for a particular religion or culture but a fight for universal human rights and against the vast economic and political inequalities of our world. It must involve a battle of ideas, in which alternative narratives - rooted in the experiences of migrant and Muslim communities - of the origins of terrorism, segregation and migration are advanced. At the same time, it must involve the building up of independent community-based organisations that are capable of empowering victims of racism, taking up cases, raising issues, and creating a movement for justice based on real solidarity, rather than imposed and divisive identities. It is only through such a struggle that genuinely integrated and cohesive communities with emerge."