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Commission to Examine Ethnic Tensions in Britain

  • Gary Thomas

The British government Thursday announced the creation of a commission to examine issues raised by the explosive growth of ethnic communities in Britain. The study was sparked in large part by revelations that young British Muslims were participants in last year's London subway bombings as well as the terror plot against U.S.-bound airliners currently under investigation. Immigration and ethnic assimilation are very sensitive subjects in Britain.

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion hopes to examine why ethnic groups have felt increasingly isolated, particularly Muslim immigrants from South Asian nations. Announcing its creation, Ruth Kelly, the secretary for Communities and Local Government, said it is time for an honest examination of the situation of Britain's ethnic immigrant communities.

"I think the debate will have considerably more value if we can be open and honest about the challenges that we face," she said. "We must not be censored by political correctness, and we can't tiptoe around important issues."

The announcement comes two weeks after the revelation of a plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners. Eleven young British-born Muslim men have been charged in the plot, and others are in custody undergoing questioning. The suicide bomb attacks on the London transportation system last year were also carried out by young British Muslims.

Secretary Kelly acknowledged that terror attacks by radical Islamists have made life harder for some sector of Britain's ethnic communities.

"For some communities in particular, we need to acknowledge that life in Britain has started to feel markedly different since the attacks of 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, even more so since the events of two weeks ago," she said.

Contacted by telephone, Seyyed Serjani, a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, welcomed the commission's creation.

"Initially for us it is something which is positive," he said. "It is important that there is something, such a body or such a commission, although we wait and see what is the difference - is it going to make any difference for Muslims and for society at large."

Tahir Abbas, director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture at the University of Birmingham, tells VOA the issues of segregation and assimilation have been brewing for years, creating resentment among young Muslims.

"I think we're seeing this now because obviously the problems of the terror attacks on London last year on the back of issues of community cohesion that emerged in 2001," he said. "We've got a set of issues related to young British-born Muslims. But also in general the sense that there are pockets of segregation emerging which are seen as problematic. And, of course, notions of interfaith dialogue have been somewhat limited, too."

Abbas says the commission's first priority should be to look at how opportunities are limited for many of Britain's ethnic minorities.

"I think first and foremost it's economic and social mobility that is primary here," he said. "People need a sense of a good education, a sense that there's a job there, and that they have an opportunity to be good citizens by being taxpayers and voters, and therefore feeling part of a wider society. If people are socially excluded, economically excluded, it will encourage them to go in certain directions."

The commission is scheduled to submit its findings by next June.

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