News from Nowhere: Parallel Lines
Two stories: the Liverpool attack and the cricket scandal that swept England, are not really related. These two stories are not entirely unrelated. They follow parallel paths, but never quite converge.
Two of the main stories to have dominated British news headlines this last month have been the self-immolation of an asylum-seeker outside a hospital in the north of England, and the racism apparently endemic to a cricket club also located in the north of England.
These two stories are not really related. These two stories are not entirely unrelated. They follow parallel paths, but never quite converge.
Azeem Rafiq was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to the UK at the age of ten. He was only seventeen years old in 2008, when he first played for the venerable sporting institution known as Yorkshire County Cricket Club. The club is renowned as a major cultural force in the region of England where he had made his home. In 2012, he became the youngest person (and the first person of Asian heritage) to captain the club. Eight years later, in 2020, he made a number of public allegations relating to racist treatment he had experienced at the club. The club commissioned an independent investigation into these allegations; it submitted its report in August this year. The club refused to publish the full report, but acknowledged that a number of Rafiq’s claims had been upheld, and therefore apologized for the ‘inappropriate behaviour’ of some of its staff.
A public, political and press backlash against the club’s apparent attempts to dismiss the use of racial slurs as merely locker-room ‘banter’ prompted the resignation of the chairman of the club’s board, who went on to make highly critical comments about the professional conduct of several of the club’s executives in relation to the case. On November 16, the 30-year-old Rafiq gave evidence to a British parliamentary committee in which he detailed the ‘toxic’ culture he had been forced to endure during his time at the club’s iconic Headingley Stadium in the city of Leeds. He said that he had made every effort to ‘fit in’ with the club’s culture, even drinking alcohol at the insistence of his team-mates, after having at one point had wine forcibly poured down his throat.
Another Muslim-born migrant to Britain, Emad Al Swealmeen is reported to have come to the UK in around 2014. He claimed to have been born in Iraq to an Iraqi mother and a Syrian father, and to have travelled to Britain from Dubai. His case for asylum was rejected by British immigration officials because they believed at the time that he was in fact Jordanian. Within a year, he was forcibly hospitalized in response to acute concerns regarding his mental health, after having been arrested in the centre of Liverpool for publicly brandishing a large knife and threatening to take his own life. He was thirty-two years old when he blew himself up with a home-made explosive device in the back of a taxi outside a hospital in Liverpool on November 14 – a bomb that didn’t so much explode as set fire to its creator. He appears to have made every effort to fit into his adopted culture, unwelcoming, unsympathetic and xenophobic though it often can be, calling himself ‘Enzo Almeni’ and even converting to Christianity. He had lodged for several months with a Christian couple whom he had met through his association with Liverpool Cathedral, and was said to have enthusiastically participated in their domestic acts of Anglican worship. It appears that, at some point earlier, as a result of his disqualification from benefit payments following the rejection of his asylum appeal, he had become destitute and was living rough on the streets.
In January this year, his latest appeal to stay in the UK had again been refused; three months later, he had started planning his attack.
In his 2008 study of Violence, leftist Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek attempted to address the causes of the riots of autumn 2005, riots which spread like wildfire from the suburbs of Paris to other French cities – major civil disturbances in which members of largely immigrant communities burned and ravaged the very streets in which they lived. Žižek did not try to rationalize these conflagrations; instead, he argued that they represented an irrational response to an unreasonable set of social, economic and political circumstances, an anger born out of the frustration of existence in society underpinned by the absurdity and hypocrisy of a fundamental, cultural and institutional racism. The violence which that anger generated was not only ultimately self-destructive; it was originally, directly and advertently so. It was an act of self-harm in the purest psychological sense.
The British media reacted to the death of Emad Al Swealmeen with some confusion and consternation. The British government responded by raising the UK terror threat level from substantial to severe. The British police swiftly arrested several of the perpetrator’s known associates and then just as quickly let them go.
The only person this apparent terrorist had succeeded in killing was himself (the driver of his taxi had narrowly escaped with his life.) As one BBC commentator noted, it was unclear whether his motives were political. He seemed to be acting like a terrorist, but he appeared to lack the essential ideological rationale: the intention to deploy terror to influence the mood of a civilian population in a bid to effect political change.
His actions appeared determined by a consuming anger rather than a coherent agenda.
He was said to have been profoundly exasperated and incensed by the British Home Office’s decision to refuse his asylum application. He was known to have suffered with serious mental health issues. He had slept on the streets. He had spent several months living in the company of some highly zealous members of the Church of England. His frustration would have been clear.
One local resident told the BBC: ‘It’s frightening that something like that is living right near you.’ She quickly corrected herself: ‘… or is happening right near you.’ Her uncertainty was revealing. Was this a man or a monstrous thing, a frightening something, a killer or a casualty, the victim of a tormenting illness and of a society which had simultaneously embraced and ostracized him?
We might never know Emad Al Swealmeen’s true motives. Who, after all, can ever see clearly into another person’s mind, especially a mind as broken as his own? Yet it remains important that we ask ourselves these questions, that we continue to have these doubts, these suspicions as to the precarity of our ingrained moral certainties. Was this man a villain or a player in a tragedy for whose authorship our own society bears some significant responsibility?
In 1990, Margaret Thatcher’s most loyal lieutenant, a Conservative politician called Norman Tebbit, had famously proposed that members of Britain’s immigrant communities – and specifically British people of South Asian and Caribbean heritage – should take what he called the ‘cricket test’ to determine where their national loyalties lay. Tebbit had suggested that if they failed to declare their support for the England cricket team they would not be capable of full integration into British society. (In doing so, of course, he wiped Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from the union in one fell swoop.) The following year, he added that ‘some of them insist on sticking to their own culture, like the Muslims in Bradford and so forth, and they are extremely dangerous’. Bradford is the second-largest city in West Yorkshire, after Leeds. No wonder certain members of the Yorkshire Cricket Club had been so ‘suspicious’ of Azeem Rafiq. Mr Tebbit’s prejudices were hardly unique. These hatreds had been burnt into their blood.
Three days after Emad Al Swealmeen’s death, the BBC reported that it had emerged that a thousand asylum-seekers had the previous week been forced to sleep on the floor of a tent without appropriate washing or toilet facilities. The same day, it was reported that the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had blamed the Liverpool bombing on what she called her country’s ‘dysfunctional’ asylum system – and had pledged to make that system tougher. ‘These people have come to our country and abused British values, abused the values of the fabric of our country and our society,’ she said, adding that ‘there’s a whole industry that thinks it’s right to defend these individuals that cause the most appalling crimes against British citizens, devastating their lives, blighting communities – and that is completely wrong.’ It would appear that Ms Patel aspires to weaken migrants’ legal rights to appeal against immigration service judgments (the judgments of her own government department), on the grounds that they are already somehow guilty of breaching the decent values of Britishness, even though they’ve barely as yet set foot on the country’s soil (or at least had time to be deported from it). Norman Tebbit would be proud.
There are those, however, who might imagine that neither Ms Patel nor Mr Tebbit would recognize the values embodied in British moral decency even if their lives depended on it (as many people’s lives of course do). On the same day as the Home Secretary uttered her latest set of politically inflammatory remarks, a report published by the Refugee Council contradicted a series of assertions that had been made by Ms Patel a month earlier – specifically, her claims that “70 per cent of the individuals who come to our country illegally via small boats are effectively economic migrants. They are not genuine asylum-seekers.” Based on the Home Office’s own data, the Refugee Council report observed that in fact 61 percent of those migrants are eventually allowed to stay in the UK following their asylum applications. It also showed that 46 percent of appeals against Home Office rulings are successful. This is the appeals system which Ms Patel seems to want to abolish.
Also that day, a number of senior Conservatives criticized their Home Secretary’s proposals to send asylum-seekers to offshore detention facilities while their claims are being processed. The following morning, it was revealed that talks had been progressing with the government of Albania to outsource the accommodation of those refugees to one of the poorer countries in Europe. These people had thought they were coming to London, that veritable El Dorado, its streets paved with the golden arches resplendent upon fast food cartons, the contents of the stomachs of its countless drunkards, and the prone forms of so many homeless souls; but, instead, they may get the historic city of Tirana, or Albania’s majestic mountains, or the unspoiled beaches of its sun-swept Adriatic coast.
This may simply feel like another characteristically maladroit move from the British Home Secretary; but it is also perhaps a timely reminder that the UK is not especially welcoming to those who seek sanctuary upon its shores, and that this divergence between some newcomers’ utopian expectations of a country which continues so loudly to boast of its values of tolerance and generosity and the harsh realities of life in modern Britain may prove catastrophic.
The French riots of 2005 were the result of long-standing tensions which had been ignited by the deaths of two French teenagers who were electrocuted at a power substation while fleeing from the Parisian police, after having been pursued - without any particular cause - by officers renowned for their tendency to arrest immigrant youths on the streets with no actual legal grounds for suspicion. The crisis which overtook Emad Al Swealmeen’s final hours may or may not have been sparked by similar patterns of malpractice or mistreatment – or simply by the indifference to his desperation of a nation and its bureaucracies. Of course, the understandable resentments provoked by the ostensibly xenophobic slurs, attitudes, and actions of such figures as storming Norman Tebbit, pitiless Priti Patel, certain members of the French constabulary and Yorkshire’s County Cricket Club do not necessarily always result in acts of extreme violence. But that does not mean that those individuals and institutions are not morally complicit in such atrocities, that they are not culpable for fuelling the fires of mutual hate. It does not absolve them – nor does it absolve the true terrorists – of their proper portions of the blame.