Oldham is not alone. Other communities are retreating into a form of apartheid

Young, alienated Asian youths in 'segregated' northern towns are ready to defend their homes and their culture
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"Some of the older boys are forming a mujaheddin group," said 16-year-old Ansar. "They're our role models, the Afghans." Another Asian teenager claims Osama bin Laden, the alleged terrorist mastermind, is his hero, but Amjad Zaman told both of them, in a Yorkshire accent as strong as theirs: "Stop talking such nonsense. You're just making it up."

We are in West Yorkshire ­ Devonshire Park in Keighley, to be precise ­ not central Asia, and it is easy to understand Mr Zaman's impatience with the posturing of youths who would get the shock of their lives if they ever met their supposed Taliban mentors. The Islamic zealots who run Afghanistan might want to know, for example, how these unemployed young men came by their designer sportswear, let alone the car radio being passed around.

But Mr Zaman nodded in agreement when the talk turns to the recent violence in Oldham, and 21-year-old Shihab said: "We are going to stand our ground. If anyone comes to this park looking for trouble, we're not going to phone the police, we're going to mash them ourselves. They think that because they did it to our parents, they can do it to us, but that's where they're wrong."

Devonshire Park looks well maintained, but immediately outside there are drifts of shattered car glass and discarded syringes. Ansar and his friends, second- and third-generation Anglo-Pakistanis aged from 15 to 23, spend their afternoons here, playing cricket or football.

Nearly all are past or current pupils of Greenhead secondary school, where Mr Zaman helps pupils with learning difficulties, but for some, attendance is mainly theoretical. One youth claims racism keeps him away, but again he gets short shrift from the older man. "If you turn up at 11am and get excluded, that's your own fault," he said. "That's not racism." Not that Mr Zaman is much older than the lads: he is 27. The gulf in attitudes, though, is deep and wide.

Last week Oldham's MPs and civic leaders came to London to meet the new Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Plans are being drawn up to tackle the causes of the violence late last month, when hundreds of Asian youths clashed with the police, and action is being promised within four months. It is already clear, however, that the rioting, and the jump in election support for the far-right British National Party, resulted from long-simmering problems.

The rest of the country learned for the first time of the creeping residential segregation in Oldham which has led to hardening attitudes on both sides. It also heard a new voice: that of disaffected, unemployed Muslim youths of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. They spoke of "defending" their communities against white racists, but appeared to have ingrained anti-white ­ or anti-Western ­ and anti-police attitudes themselves.

It is clear that Oldham is not an isolated case. All along the M62 there are depressed towns where white and Asian communities are retreating into a form of apartheid. Daily friction is reduced by greater separation, but flare-ups, when they come, are bigger. "For me," said Shihab, "contact with whites means only one thing: trouble."

Older Asians are disturbed. "Some of these people want to create a little Pakistan or Bangladesh," said Mohammed Sharif, a 41-year-old NHS worker in Keighley. "They don't want to mix with whites, because they see them as a bad, un-Islamic influence, but they say they wouldn't want to live in Pakistan either. My generation felt a bit the same way, but we still respected our elders. We have no control over these young people."

Dr Colin Webster, a criminologist who made a five-year study of racial violence in Keighley, openly predicts that there will be more unrest this summer. "Most small towns in the north have the potential to go the same way as Oldham, such as Keighley, Rochdale, Halifax ­ up to places the size of Bradford," he said. "The poverty is aggravated by a high degree of segregation which you don't find in bigger cities. Those who can, get out, making those who are left behind feel trapped." His words were echoed in Keighley by Shahid Ali, 22, who said: "As soon as someone gets any qualifications, they move out of town."

At the start of Dr Webster's study, most victims of racial attacks in Keighley were Asian families buying rundown stone terraces in areas such as Highfield, which incorporates Devonshire Park. "White flight" ensued, with the result that Braithwaite, the council estate neighbouring Highfield, is now seen as a "no-go area" by Asians. Dr Webster found that this separation reduced racial incidents ­ and that, by the end of his study in 1995, the majority of victims was now white.

West Yorkshire police do not keep figures for individual towns, but, across the whole region, reported racial incidents jumped sharply from a little over 600 in 1997/98 to 1,068 the following year, then doubled to 2,116 in 1999/2000. While some of this is said to be due to a greater willingness to report incidents, it lends support to Mr Zaman's view that after a significant improvement in recent years, race relations have taken a turn for the worse.

White racists have been blamed for raising tension in Oldham. At the annual Keighley Gala the weekend before last, the town was rife with rumours of troublemakers from outside. Mr Zaman said the police had told him they were bringing in reinforcements after finding far-right calls on the internet to infiltrate the fair. "Tension was sky high, but it passed off peacefully," he said.

For the bored young men in the park, however, it scarcely mattered. Rain forced us to shelter in a car with Ansar, Shihab and another 21-year-old known only as "Snoop". "My ambitions have all been destroyed," said Shihab. "I've been to 20 interviews or more, but they never give you the job. I went for a job at a chicken factory, but when they see an Asian they say there are no vacancies. All we can do is play cricket here and fantasise about being in the England team." Did he mean the Pakistan side? "No, we live here."

Snoop said he had worked at a hotel in Leeds, but was sacked in a dispute over time off for a Muslim festival. He attacked Keighley's MP, Ann Cryer, for taking up the cases of Asian women who alleged that they had been forced into marriage, saying: "How can she come between us and our sisters, encouraging them to go to court?"

Any hint of Islamic militancy was quickly undermined, however, when talk turned to drugs. While all said they would not touch alcohol, they saw nothing wrong with smoking cannabis. "If you've done a 13-hour shift, you have to have a smoke at the end of it," said Snoop.

Not all their views accorded with the most apocalyptic fears of their elders, but their attitude towards the police came close. "If we go to certain places, we get gripped straight away," said Ansar. "The police treat us differently, the schools treat us differently. Why is that? Because we are second-class citizens."

Many, however, question whether unemployed white youths have a much better time of it. Even in Devonshire Park, Shahid Ali said: "This is about class, not racism. We've got to live together. If we fight, nobody will win." Dr Webster also believed the two groups had more in common than either side might realise. "To a large extent young Asians are adopting white working-class attitudes," he said. "They have a loose cultural identity and very little political interest. It is mainly about defending turf."

For all the talk of mujaheddin and Islam, it is argued, young Asian males may be becoming more, rather than less, like their white and black counterparts. But when it comes to keeping the streets peaceful, that might not be good news.