An Islam of slogans fed the riots, so did white Islamophobia. Paul Vallely reports

Kinship and pride: Bradford's Asian history
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The Independent Online
Time and again, walking round the streets of Manningham in Bradford, where men are still hammering boards up to the windows smashed in Saturday night's riots and where patches of melted tarmac show where cars were set alight by angry gangs of Asian youths, the eye is caught by a single word. There it is, painted on walls, on garage doors or sprayed across advertising hoardings - the single word, Hamas.

Can the extremist Palestinian organisation really be a factor in the conflict which has erupted on the streets of an industrial town in the north of England? "No. Not at all," says Ishtiaq Ahmed, the director of the Bradford Equality Council and spokesman for the city's Council of Mosques. "It's just the work of some mischievous bugger."

The words fall oddly from his lips. Until now his speech has been characterised by that quaint, peculiarly cadenced, polite and proper English which is still the hallmark of the official language of the Indian subcontinent. It is the tongue that is the post-colonial legacy of the older generation of Asians who live in Britain today. And it is the single most immediate distinction between those over 35 and the generation of young Asians who were born and bred here.

It is more than a cosmetic difference. The broad, flat Yorkshire vowels of Asian youths indicate a whole attitudinal difference. Their approach is as blunt, direct and attuned to the manners of contemporary Britain as are their colloquialisms.

"Let's get this straight," says Ibrar Ahmed, a 26-year-old self-employed property manager who has lived in Bradford for more than 20 years. "This whole thing is about just one thing. It's not about prostitution. Or unemployment, or about all that nonsense of the chief constable's about a gap between youth and age. It's about the way two police officers treated one of our women. That's all."

That morning's papers had been full of quotes from the West Yorkshire Chief Constable, Keith Hellawell, who had spoken of how the clash between 300 youths and 200 police in riot gear had its roots in a widening cultural and generation gap within the Asian community. "There's no gap between old and young. It's untrue," says Ibrar, "though there may be a gap between the elected councillors who say they speak for us and the real leaders of the community." It is almost all there, in that brief exchange: prostitution, unemployment, distrust of the police, a generation gap and a power struggle. Almost all. For, as well as unemployment which is treble that of the white community, and the fact that the city's red light district is in the heart of Manningham, there is also in the Bradford equation crime, drugs and the bogeyman of Islamic fundamentalism.

What is it like to be a young British Asian today, caught in that eddy of uncompromising influences? Even to ask that question reveals what a false homogeneity we perceive among the Asian community. What do most of us know of Asians in Bradford? Book-burning over Salman Rushdie, unpatriotic protests during the Gulf war and now petrol bombs against the police. And therein lies the problem.

"The homogeneity is entirely specious," says Philip Lewis, the adviser on race relations to the Bishop of Bradford and author of a recent book, Islamic Britain. Close study of the Asian community reveals widespread differences. Members of the Indian community are far more successful, financially and academically, than are Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, he says. "The East African Asians in Leicester brought with them English, professional skills and capital. The 50,000 Pakistanis of Bradford came almost entirely from Kashmir, one of the most underdeveloped regions of Pakistan."

There are wide differences within the Pakistani community in terms of how its members relate to British society. There is a group of perhaps 10 per cent which has integrated thoroughly. There is a group, slightly larger, which has made English its first language and culture and "who are at home with the majority community and with other young Asians, but who have lost their common ground with the Asian elders." Then there is the vast majority, which has not done well academically. Many are unemployed, have developed a relationship of mutual suspicion with the police, and now feel under threat. "If you are articulate you can translate anger into argument," says Lewis. If not, what are the options?

One is crime. "It's not racial, it's directed against anyone - car theft, burglary," says Ishtiaq Ahmed. Another is drugs. At night Asian youths can be seen openly dealing in cocaine in the streets. Yet another is Islam. Which explains the slogans for Hamas.

"It looks like Islamic fundamentalism," says Lewis. "It's a reactive identity - it is one thing they perceive the whites do not have. So they become assertively Muslim." But it is a DIY Islam, an Islam of slogans rather than of substance. And it is fed by the Islamophobia which it in turn generates. "The Rushdie affair and the Gulf war were watersheds in community relations in Bradford," says Lewis. "People felt that their loyalty as Britons was being questioned, so they became defensive. Bosnia has only served to reinforce the question of what is their future in Europe."

But it serves only to divide rather than to unite Bradford's Asians. Splits and mistrusts are everywhere. Local politics is riven with accusations of corruption and self-seeking. "There is a real anger too among some youngsters who feel that the older generation have let them down," says Ishtiaq Ahmed. "They say: 'You should have done better economically and sent less money back to Pakistan.' And they say that the adults have been too polite, that they have not stood up for their rights."

The result is unexplored territory for young Asians - adrift from the values of their elders, immersed in an Islam which is essentially a reaction, out of step with the liberal values of secular society, and yet enamoured of the product of its amoral materialism while being denied the means to fulfil the modern dream.

Yet whatever the differences, the sense of indignation, impotence and anxiety is common to all sections of the community. It is growing too among the white population, in a city which was once the model for good race relations. "Our kids won't go to the corner shop alone in the evening now," said one white teacher. "They have been threatened too many times by gangs of young Asians. On a couple of occasions they have been kicked. Last week one was threatened with a knife waiting at the bus stop. It's been like this for about 12 months."

Ibrar Ahmed stood outside Toller Road police station yesterday afternoon as he waited for a meeting between community leaders and the police over how to diffuse the present crisis. "This is just about the one issue," he said. "I've lived here 20 years and always got on happily with everyone - Asian,white, and West Indian."

Around him older Asian leaders remained silent. Down the road the workmen continued to sweep away the debris.

Out of approximately 470,000 inhabitants in Bradford, 64,000 are of Asian origin. In the mid Eighties the city had one of the highest rates of population growth in the country.

The first Asian settlers arrived in the Forties, mostly ex-seamen who found work in the wartime industries in Bradford and Leeds. Their economic success attracted others from Azad Kashmir, a disputed area between India and Pakistan, and during Partition a place of terrible poverty and devastation. The flow increased during the Fifties and early Sixties as the demand for labour in the heavy industries grew. British manufacturers advertised for workers in Pakistani newspapers and those already in work were encouraged to bring in more of their relatives.

By the Seventies, these industries had died and unemployment in the community began to soar. It is a trend that has accelerated. There is a huge disparity bertween white and Asian unemployment and employment, particularly among the young. Education achievements are appallingly low, particularly when compared to Indians in Britain. But it has been a solid community with strong kinship links and common values based on a mixture of cultural - often rural - traditions and Islam.

Bradford has been a touchstone for many of the most significant cultural encounters in Britain in the past decade. Events there have tested the patience, commitment and strength of this multi-racial society and some would argue the city has instigated some fundamentally important debates which have influenced policies on the left and the right.

1983

The local authority, with strong Tory support, introduces halal food in schools and allows Muslim girls to attend gym classes wearing long trousers; it is one of the first authorities in the country to introduce such measures.

In the same year, the Ray Honeyford storm breaks over Bradford. The white head of a predominantly Muslim school upsets parents by publishing articles which are not only critical of multi-cultural education, but also of Pakistani people. Campaigns on both sides drag out for a year. He is finally forced to resign - the first indication of the cohesion and power of this community when provoked.

1989

Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses is publicly burned in Bradford. The image horrifies even liberals and the city unfairly begins to be seen as an enemy within, a place of untamed barbarism. In time the challenges raised are taken seriously by some people, among them the controversy (still unresolved) about the limits to freedom. Bradford at this time is also associated with the fatwa, which was issued by a Shia leader in a foreign country and not by the Sunni Muslim people of West Yorkshire.

The event exposes fundamentalist tendencies among Muslims and liberals.

In the same year, campaigns begin for the right to separate schools for Muslim girls in West Yorkshire, with many of the most persuasive arguments emerging among the protesting Muslim groups and intellectuals - some who emerged during the Rushdie crisis - in Bradford and Dewsbury. Muslim candidiates win local elections and gain influence.

1991

Well organised protests against the Gulf War are launched in Bradford by Muslims who decry the hypocrisy and selective morality of the Western powers. Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) is among those leading the Bradford protests. Radicals demand the immediate withdrawal of troops from the Gulf.

1993-94

Women's groups sprout across Bradford. Some organise around an attempt to establish their rights through a proper reading of Islam, others work for Bosnian Muslims. Social and economic conditions deteriorate and young men turn towards drugs and petty crime. Prostitution is a growing problem and the youth is increasingly alienated from the traditional leadership.

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