Crime and Muslim Britain: Culture and the Politics of Criminology among British Pakistanis

A fresh approach to a 'taboo' subject raises more questions than answers, says David Gadd

October 15, 2009

In Crime and Muslim Britain, Marta Bolognani addresses the "intertwining of inter-generational, formal and informal debates as they figure in the conversations of Pakistanis in Bradford", a population apparently "less angry, 'other' and disenfranchised than most of us would expect".

Bolognani's approach is anthropological, utilising participant observation and in-depth interviews to counter the "taboo" of addressing ethnicity within British criminological research. Inspired by the anthropological genius of Pnina Werbner, Bolognani seeks to avoid essentialism by conceiving community as a "kind of argument through practice" between "friends" over "visions of what their community should be like". Whether Bolognani achieves this is more questionable.

In chapter three, which charts the history of migration to Bradford, her analysis is inspiring. Here we learn why Pakistani migrants, predominantly from the district of Mirpur in Azad Kashmir, came to the city, and how the notion of biraderi - meaning "brotherhood", "extended family" as well as "community" - featured prominently in their thinking.

Having been compensated with vouchers for land losses, Mirpuri families living near the construction site of the Mangla Dam sent men to work in Bradford's textile industries. These men sent remittances home and fostered a process of chain migration. For them, living conditions were poor, houses were crowded and beds had to be shared, but there was camaraderie between these first-generation migrants whose efforts were regarded as heroic by their kith and kin. They assumed they would return home eventually, and a culture of relying on one's own people emerged, as women joined the male workers and families became established.

The enduring reciprocity, companionship and entrepreneurialism at the heart of this historic struggle renders the racism and distrust that marred relationships between white Britons and British Asians all the more unfathomable. But now, if Bolognani's analysis is correct, Pakistani Britons are more consumed by fear, not so much of racism and its effects, but of the drug dealing, gun crime, gangs and domestic violence they believe young Asian men are liable to get involved in.

I do not want to suggest that these fears are entirely misplaced - most parents fear for the wellbeing of children and we all ought to worry if the proceeds of illicit activity are buying influence in community-based and religious organisations. But the evidence Bolognani presents leaves more questions than answers with respect to the knowledgeability of her sample, its representativeness and the impact of her "reciprocal-exposure" method on what was disclosed. To what extent was crime perpetrated by Asian men presented to participants as inherently problematic? Were they told that rates of engagement in crime and illicit drug consumption among Asian young people are demonstrably below the national average? If they were, how did they respond?

Had the anthropological elements of the research brought us closer to the men and women alleged to be trading drugs, the families reliant on the proceeds of this trade or the children and parents struggling with addiction, I might have been less troubled by these issues. Unfortunately, these are never discussed. Most of Bolognani's interview transcripts document experiences gained second-hand, that is, tales about people loosely known to her participants for compromising other families' izzat (honour or reputation).

The reflexivity needed to make sense of these tales is not always in evidence. Chapter six, for example, implicitly endorses a threefold typology of Asian youth "torn" between Pakistani and British culture. The meanings of gossip and speculation are ultimately reviewed more critically by Bolognani in chapter seven, helping the reader comprehend why some parents send their wayward children to Pakistan. But what is odd about the discussion here is that it takes little account of what worried parents might know about the workings of the British criminal justice system: the heightened risks of being stopped and searched if one is young, male and Asian; the brutalising effects of imprisonment and their impact on recidivism, not to mention the racialised violence and radicalisation that pertain there.

Bolognani is of the view that Bradford's Pakistani community tends to regard prison sentences as "effective, if not always durable" means of "changing deviant individuals" through "reconversion"; a claim she uses to pave the way for a widened notion of biraderi that incorporates multi-agency partnerships within the criminal justice system.

I cannot claim to know the Pakistani population of Bradford as well as Bolognani and may be misjudging them, but it is hard to imagine that, after the killings of Shahid Aziz in HM Prison Leeds and Zahid Mubarek in the Feltham Young Offender Institution, as many Asian parents are as persuaded of the positive benefits of imprisonment as Bolognani implies.

She is certainly right that British criminology needs to look more closely at issues of ethnicity and crime, but whatever their failings, few criminologists would leave unchallenged generalisations as broad as these, given the data presented in the book.

Crime and Muslim Britain: Culture and the Politics of Criminology among British Pakistanis

By Marta Bolognani

IB Tauris Publishers, 288pp, £52.50

ISBN 9781845118334

Published 30 August 2009

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