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Suburbanize at our own peril

The East London borough of Barking and Dagenham is witnessing a frenzy of election campaigning. At stake is the rise of the BNP, the British Nationalist Party. In an area synonymous with immigrants, including many from Pakistan, the rise of a fascist party whose manifesto includes the promise to repatriate non-white immigrants; one would easily jump to conclude that immigration explains the BNP’s rise.

However, a recent study published by the Institute of Public Policy Research argues that exclusion and marginalization from wider society, rather than immigration explains the raise of the BNP. The paper argues that socially resilient towns, who are able to withstand changes due to immigration, unemployment or unexpected events display features evident in areas with high levels of interaction. There is great communication between members of the community or unlike each other ethnically, linguistically, religiously, economically etc.

Similar studies conducted on the basis of the 2008 United States election results finds that in states such as Kansas, Kentucky and Arkansas where community members were ethnically, financially and educationally similar were more conservative and unlikely to vote for a black presidential candidate. Members of such communities had little or no interaction with people dissimilar to themselves.

Individuals living in cities are more likely to interact with people from a variety of backgrounds and as a result tend to be more tolerant of alternative views which they may or may not themselves agree with. Those living in or raised in suburbs or homogonous communities display greater wariness and intolerance of people from alternative faiths, educational levels, financial background etc.

A vibrant, integrated society is important to build tolerance and community cohesion. It is important that the communication lines between different social groups remains open with no individual ethnic, religious or economic group given preference. The same argument may be extended to Pakistan today, and in many ways helps explain intolerance in our society.

Take Islamabad for example, considered as one of the more liberal cities on the one hand, while on the other it also has one of the highest concentrations of Madrassas for any urban centre in the country. These two worlds hardly ever meet. One would be hard pressed to find children from Islamabad’s Madrassas interacting with children beyond their compounds walls. Stereotypes are reinforced due to a lack of any interaction. Intolerance is built on heresy and speculation rather than first hand experience or fact.

The Red Mosque affair is an example of where the wider community remained oblivious to the concerns raised by members of their own community. In a visibly divided community it may as well have been a foreign invasion. The inhabitants of the Red Mosque and students of allied Madrassas may have been resident in Islamabad, however they could as well have been aliens, as they had never themselves nor had they any incentive to interact with their neighbours.

At present this trend is intensifying. Given the current security scenario, demand for housing and the proliferation of housing developments our cities are being extended to suburbs

As advertised these communities are gated and walled off to keep intruders out. The exclusiveness that they offer highlights the lack of interaction which would be required if one was to move there. Individuals are in effect able to isolate their lives and the upbringing of their children and marginalize those who they may ideologically disagree with or feel that their lack of economic or financial stature is dissimilar. The long run effect is not only to keep unwanted elements out, it also keeps residents in. Members of these communities seldom feel the need to interact with wider society.

We can draw some parallels between the rise of the BNP and increased conservatism in the US with Pakistan today. This marginalization process across urban centres will intensify intolerance in the future. Already the ghettoization of Karachi where prominent localities are synonymous with individual ethnic groups have witnessed untold violence. In Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the walled suburbs of Bharia Town and DHA keep riffraff out, but they also keep people in.

Today, with layers of security and walled communities separating one strata of society from another the seeds of future intolerance are being sown. We are creating an intolerant society forcing upon ourselves social exclusion and isolation. With communities homogenised they are more fearful of those who do not share their educational background, financial status or professional affiliation. Physical and mental walls must start coming down.

This post was submitted by Nadir El-Edroos.