Ethnic tensions could become more widespread across the country
With today marking the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the ethnically and religiously-motivated Leicester disorder, it is worth asking what we have learnt from this watershed moment in British community relations.
It was on 28 August 2022 that there was a mass brawl in the Belgrave area of Leicester following an Asia Cup cricket match between India and Pakistan. The civil unrest came to a head with large-scale rioting on 17 September last year — primarily between Muslim and Hindu youths of South Asian origin in eastern parts of the city.
However — as pointed out at the time by Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police, Rob Nixon — the disorder was not exclusively sparked by Hindus and Muslims, with a number of Christians also involved. There were at least 150 arrests or interviews under caution connected to the disorder, leading to several weapons-related convictions. The riots were a surprise to many who had come to view Leicester as the gold-standard example of social cohesion in modern, diverse Britain.
One of the key fault lines missing from research and commentary on the large-scale rioting in Leicester is that between established Asian-origin communities and new arrivals from the subcontinent. In the 2011 Census, 11.3% of Leicester’s residents reported that they were born in India. This increased to 16.2% — nearly one in six people — for the 2021 Census.
Based on my fieldwork and interviews with Leicester residents for a forthcoming report, there is a trend of established middle-class residents (including first-generation migrants within Hindu and Muslim communities) primarily blaming the disorders on “younger”, “anti-social”, and “poorly-integrated” new arrivals from India who work in lower-paid manual roles and live in overcrowded housing. These intergenerational and socio-economic differences within Leicester’s religious communities have been somewhat overlooked as a result of the simplistic and persistent “Hindu vs. Muslim” framings.
Intergenerational dynamics are also relevant when considering the growing disconnect between traditional faith-based authority and younger populations seeking out religious inspiration virtually. This has left a vacuum for YouTube religious hardliners to exploit — such as Mohammed Hijab, who was in Leicester during the riots. Law-and-order responsibilities have been partially outsourced to ineffectual so-called community leaders, a high-risk security model which failed with devastating consequences in Leicester.
What last year’s events in Leicester showed is that diversity is by no means an unadulterated good in modern Britain, and its complexities are too often overlooked. As it stands, sociopolitical and intellectual leadership at national, regional, and local levels is virtually non-existent on these challenges — lacking the practical nous and willpower to rebuild community relations in a city that has seen its reputation as a paragon of British social cohesion left in tatters. Indeed, Leicester’s academic community appears more interested in “rural racism” than understanding serious tensions on its own doorstep.
“Fostering good relations” is not enough. In hyper-diverse places such as Leicester, public bodies should be legally obligated to produce robust strategies for the integration of newcomers socially, economically, and culturally, as well as carrying out assessments following their implementation. Established communities also have a responsibility to cultivate shared place-based identities rooted in civic pride: without this, social cohesion can quickly unravel.
While Britain may be one of the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, religiously diverse democracies, resting on its laurels risks communal disorder becoming a frequent occurrence across much of urban England. Leicester, if we’re not careful, could only be the start.
Dr Rakib Ehsan is the author of Beyond Grievance: What the Left Gets Wrong About Ethnic Minorities.