Vexed question of the veil divides town gripped by racial suspicion

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw has found allies in some of the most unlikely parts of Lancashire by asking if his female constituents will remove niqab, not least the residents of Fishwick Parade, on Preston's Callon estate.

"Of course he's right," said Steve, one of the many 16-year-old white youths who while away their hours here racing bikes up to the pub and back. "It does make you wonder what they've all got to hide."

The niqab is a common sight here, a few hundred yards from the Fishwick district, home to a large proportion of Preston's Indian and Pakistani Muslim community, which makes up 8.6 per cent of the population

Steve's opinion on the issue moved seamlessly into a diatribe on how those of ethnic extraction ought to "behave" in "our country". He is perhaps not the kind of backer Mr Straw will welcome. But his words reveal the kind of racial suspicions which, statistically, make Preston one of the most racially divided places in Britain and which may have prompted Mr Straw to tackle such an issue now.

In 2005-06, there were 3.82 racially motivated incidents per 1,000 people in the city, the highest rate in England. This was, in part, a result of the local police force's attempts to encourage locals to report incidents, but the racial conflicts that play out are an ongoing source of tension.

The latest trouble came last weekend. On April 6, Grand National Day, a Ladbrokes betting shop was raided by thieves in Preston's Frenchwood district. Four Asians witnessed the raid and gave evidence which resulted in the arrest of two local white men.

Somehow, word got out that they had co-operated and 10 days ago their homes were attacked. The reprisals escalated last Saturday when a local imam's house was attacked by a white and black youths.

The group was seen off but at 9pm on Sunday they were back again with weapons, including a machete, and throwing stones and rocks at the cars of worshippers inside the Jamia Masjid mosque. About 200 worshippers emerged to confront the stone-throwers and 100 police defused the situation. An Asian man was stabbed.

The confrontation has created a sense of anger and insecurity among some in Preston's Asian community, still emotional about the death of 20-year-old local man Shezan Umarji in a stabbing two months ago.

"The men who testified [to the robbery] want to know how their names became known," said Michael Lavalette, their local councillor. "It has made them disinclined to provide statements about the attack on the mosque."

Though Preston's problems have placed it in the spotlight, racial intolerance is also pronounced in east Lancashire towns such as Accrington and Burnley where post-industrial decline has left a more impoverished white working class full of anger for those of ethnic extraction who, the believe, have "taken" their jobs.

Blackburn, Mr Straw's constituency is less volatile. But the town's education system is divided more or less on racial lines, creating the kind of parallel communities which, in the aftermath of the 7 July bombings, the Government is now increasingly concerned to tackle.

Though Mr Straw's comments seem to form part of the "new and honest" debate on diversity promised recently by the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, when she launched a Commission on Integration and Cohesion, to examine how communities in England tackle tensions and extremism, they illustrate how difficult that debate will be.

"The women see the hijab and niqab as a signifier for their pride in being British Muslim," said Laura Penketh, a Manchester University social scientist who has spent two years researching the experiences of Preston Muslims who wear the veil. "They are now asking,'Why do people have such a problem with this?'"