Last week I had the only nasty encounter with British teenagers in the two years I have been living in Newcastle.
My sister-in-law and I were standing on a train platform to catch a train to city center when some loud teens walked up and called us "little rats" and asked if we were carrying "bombs" under our clothes. These boys were boisterous and having fun at our expense. My sister-in-law, who doesn't speak English and is in Newcastle on a brief visit, was terrified. I pretended not to speak English, hoping they would go away. When they became louder and bolder I asked a woman nearby to call the police.
The boys immediately stopped and attempted to explain they were simply joking. I found nothing to laugh about. I recognize that wearing the hijab draws unwanted attention. But I wonder why I should feel threatened wearing one in a country that prides itself on tolerance and democracy.
The unprovoked verbal attack has marred an otherwise wonderful stay in the United Kingdom. I enjoy a productive and rewarding collaboration with my teachers and fellow students whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim. I have been shown nothing but courtesy and respect. Perhaps the incident on the train platform was an aberration. It's hard to say. But it gives me pause to consider where British teens learn that intolerance is acceptable on any level.
The media, of course, fuel much of the attitudes young people have today toward minorities. To read the UK tabloids and billboards paid for by the British National Party, UK citizens must come to the conclusion they are under siege from the unwashed masses of Eastern Europe and Asia.
There is immense pressure today on mosques to teach tolerance in school curriculum, as there should be. Many Islamic faith-based schools are under scrutiny to eliminate discussion of jihad and other references to Christianity and Judaism in the name of tolerance. This is all well and good, but British public schools must be a part of the solution as well.
Certainly the boys so interested in what was under my hijab got their ideas from home. Ignorance breeds ignorance. Yet teaching tolerance appears to be an elective in the British school system. Many school districts refuse to teach cultural studies on the grounds that it's religious instruction. Parents and teachers have difficulty distinguishing the two.
The British Council reported last year reported that 3 percent of the British population is Muslim. That's about 1.5 million Muslims in the United Kingdom. Further, 23 percent of the UK's population declared no religious affiliation in 2001. And an estimated 75 percent of the UK's youths between the ages of 18 and 24 have no religious affiliation.
The British Council and a number of privately-funded UK organizations have teaching assistance material and curriculum for local schools on various cultures and religions. But it's unclear how many educators take advantage of providing classroom instruction. If indeed three-quarters of the country's youths have no religious affiliation, how are they educated about other religions if not in school?
Bradford, England, has a significant Muslim population and the nearby Rhodesway School has gone to great lengths to provide multicultural programs. School administrators have discussed how to better celebrate religious holidays of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus.
Unfortunately this is an initiative taken by Rhodesway and doesn't necessarily reflect the rest of the UK's school systems.
Part of the problem lies in fear. School administrators who see a need to develop multicultural programs and provide classroom lessons in tolerance are often the target of fringe groups and the tabloids. They face accusations of pandering to Islam or indoctrinating UK youths in the teachings of the Holy Qur'an.
By refusing to recognize that some of the UK's young people are blithely spouting racist, Islamophobic and truly hateful comments to strangers is no better than an imam encouraging jihad without proper context.
Ignoring the growing pervasiveness of public condemnation of minorities is in many ways another version of the "bystander effect." The more people witnessing an emergency the less likely they are to help. There's been a trend in the UK and the United States where people have become paralyzed or unwilling to stand up to abusive race-baiters and anti-reformers.
Here's an example: In Saudi Arabia there is an element of society that doesn't want reform and sees literature and the arts as a threat. Standard operating procedure of these groups is to lay siege to a book fair or stage play. They shout verbal abuse, toss chairs around and intimate attendees and organizers into submission.
Americans have witnessed this in recent weeks at their own community town hall meetings held by Congressional representatives. The men and women elected to represent their community are verbally abused and shouted down. In some cases the abusers incite violence because they oppose their representative's position on issues. Legitimate attendees are denied their right to speak.
The breakdown of public discourse on sensitive issues is redefining the bystander effect. Good-minded people who see a need to teach tolerance and engage in civil discussion are cowed into submission by the shouters. It's easier to stand by and witness the public demonization of minorities rather than confront and condemn people who use intimidation as a weapon in debate.
The hooligans on the train platform last week are another version of today's shouters and chair-throwers. Their behavior is endorsed by fringe media pundits passing themselves off as immigration experts. They are validated by the BNP, which disguises their members' racism in the cloak of immigration reform. These boys have been denied an education in the classroom on tolerance. Eventually the bystander effect will reach a level that will be difficult to turn back.