We're all in this together: How Leicester became a model of multiculturalism (even if that was never the plan…)

'The original idea was that they would stay two or three years, make enough money to buy a tractor, then go home. But they got into the rhythm of life here'

You couldn't ask for a better symbol of the present, paradoxical state of multicultural Britain than Jawaahir Daahir.

She is a vigorous example of female empowerment: a Somali refugee in the Hague, she learnt Dutch and studied for seven years to become a social worker there, while bringing up her six children. She is also a conservative Muslim, like most of her compatriots. She combines the two – feminism and religious piety – with no apparent strain. And it was because that combination is one that Britain can deal with, while the Continent finds it unacceptable, that she is now happily settled in Leicester.

Daahir is under no illusions about what she left behind in Holland. "Holland is a lovely country," she says, "and in terms of housing and health, the system it is much better than here. And the standard of education is not lower."

Yet, after 10 years living with her children in The Hague, she chose, like thousands of other Somalis settled in Holland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, to move to Leicester.

"When the Somali community came to Leicester there was a sense of support and a welcoming environment. For example, now there are lights, welcoming Ramadan. When I registered my children for school, there were welcome signs in so many languages, including Somali. It was a culture shock, because you don't expect a Western city to welcome you in your own language. In Holland, even though I participated actively in all sorts of different areas, I still felt separate, different. But here in Leicester you feel a sense of belonging. You are not a foreigner, you are not an outsider. The society and the system acknowledge you and consider you."

The murder of Private Lee Rigby two months ago was a watershed. Today, British multiculturalism is under assault from all directions.

Attacks on mosques and marches by the English Defence League are warnings of worse to come. The Coalition's attempt to bring down immigration rates is one of its most popular policies. Local authority provision for ethnic minorities has been torpedoed by the cuts. In an authoritative new book, David Goodhart, founding editor of Prospect magazine, asks hard questions about the economic and political rationale for the mass immigration that has transformed the ethnic profile of so many of our towns and cities. He finds an explanation for it in official absent-mindedness: happy to welcome immigrants from Australia and Canada after the war, it only dawned slowly that the door had also been left open for 400 million imperial subjects from the Indian subcontinent.

Britain obtained its dazzling array of new citizens with little conscious planning. And, as Goodhart describes, in places such as Bradford and Tower Hamlets, the mixture of declining local industry and a large, tight-knit population of immigrants from rural parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh has produced severe social tension, culminating in the mill-town riots of 2001.

But as Jawaahir Daahir's story reveals, that is not the whole picture. Slap in the middle of England there is a city where an improbably rich mix of people and religions seems to be working rather well. Leicester was a stronghold of Cromwell's side during the Civil War; the short-lived Commonwealth saw the blooming of 100 dissenting religious sects. Unlike the peoples of countries whose history is dominated by a single hegemonic religion, we became accustomed to the idea that there might be 100 versions of the truth, and that civil peace depended on letting them alone: live and let live. Something very similar is happening now.

Nobody planned for Leicester to become the most multicultural city on the planet. It just happened that way. And for the early immigrants, too, there was little thought that they might make their lives here.

"The original idea was that they would work for a bit then go home," says Surinderpal Singh Rai, a Leicester Sikh whose father was one of the first arrivals. "That's why nobody bought houses. My father's generation thought, we'll stay two or three years here, make enough money to buy a tractor – they were all farmers from the Punjab in India – then we'll be set up for life. But they got into the rhythm of life here, and the families started coming over in the 1960s. We were the sixth or seventh family to come over in 1963."

In 2008, Manjula Sood, a primary-school teacher and city councillor, became the first Asian woman in the country to be elected Lord Mayor. But when she first arrived in Leicester nearly 40 years before, she wanted to turn tail and run.

She came with her husband, an Indian engineer who had a job with Marconi. "I arrived here on 18 December 1970," she says. "From Heathrow right up to Leicester it was snowing and so dull and dark. We had a small flat in Highfields, a very old Victorian building and when I climbed the stairs, I thought, 'God, is this England?' There were no carpets, no heating in the flat. So I told my husband, 'I'm not staying here.' I phoned my grandfather and said, 'I don't want to stay.' He shouted at me: 'Don't you dare say that, you can only come back with your husband.' I said, 'There's no money.' He said, 'Why did I give you an education? Do something!'"

New arrivals sensed this was a land of opportunity. It was rich, the heart of the empire. But it was also cold, uncomfortable, unwelcoming. "When my father first arrived, he shared a house with 48 people," says Surinderpal Singh Rai.

In 1972, the dictator Idi Amin ordered Uganda's large Asian minority to leave the country within 90 days. For most of them, the imperial "motherland" was the most obvious destination. And Leicester, where Manjula Sood and Surinderpal Singh Rai were already living, was one place to aim for – so much so that the city council took out advertisements to try to stop it happening.

"PRESENT CONDITIONS IN THE CITY ARE VERY DIFFERENT FROM THOSE MET BY EARLIER SETTLERS," screamed Leicester's ad in the Uganda Argus. In particular, it went on, there were "several thousands of families on the housing list", "hundreds of children… awaiting places in schools", while social and health services were "already stretched to the limit".

"Leicester is full up," was the message.

Leicester in 1972 looked into the crystal ball and did not like what it saw: that within a generation or so it would no longer be a city dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon Christians.

But the city fathers' efforts to stop this change had the opposite effect. "The ad was gloriously counterproductive," says Sir Peter Soulsby, the city's mayor. "It brought Leicester to the attention of people who had never thought of coming to the city." As a result, 5,000 Ugandan Asians poured into Leicester, nearly one in five of the 27,000 who came to Britain.

And the Asian immigrants from East Africa – affluent professionals and businesspeople – were better equipped to prosper than any before or since. "While others came to Britain from villages in Bengal or Kashmir," says Suleman Nagdi, who arrived from what was then called Rhodesia, "we had been immersed in Britishness – Jane Eyre and all that – from our school days, and that immersion helped us integrate more quickly: we were familiar with the education and legal systems and everything else."

When the Ugandan Asians arrived, much of Leicester's traditional industry was on its last legs. "Through the 1970s and 1980s, you saw the collapse of the big family firms that dominated Leicester," says Soulsby, "in hosiery and shoes and light engineering, companies such as Imperial Typewriters. All of these were collapsing. And the large factories and the machines they used were becoming redundant."

But the new arrivals grasped that this disaster was also an opportunity. "What we had were some very brave Asian entrepreneurs moving in, buying the buildings and some of the machinery and recycling it," he goes on. "So Leicester still remains a city that does a lot of manufacturing, it just does it differently. And the old slogan 'Leicester clothes the world' is still true."

In the 40 years since, Leicester has become the poster city for multicultural Britain, a place where the stunning number and size of the minorities – the 55 mosques, 18 Hindu temples, nine Sikh gurudwaras, two synagogues, two Buddhist centres and one Jain centre – are seen not as a recipe for conflict or a millstone around the city's neck, but a badge of honour.

But in the 12 years since the attacks on America, punctuated by 7/7 and the Woolwich atrocity, Britain's faith in multiculturalism has begun to erode. After every act of Islamist terrorism, there has been a spasm of revulsion. The average white liberal finds his brain hijacked by unexpected emotions. What exactly are these people doing here? Why did we let them in? Why do some of them – even if only a tiny minority – hate us so much?

As the city's advertisement in the Uganda Argus brings home, creating a city in which (according to the 2011 census) white Britons would constitute only 45 per cent of the population (the figure for 2001 was 61 per cent) was certainly never a political goal. In historical terms, it is just as unprecedented a social experiment as the emancipation of women and gay people. And while the rest of Europe may be on the same page as us with women and the gay community, or even a page or two further on, when it comes to immigration, Britain is now in a league of its own. And that's because, while "coloured" immigration was for a long time seen as a question of race, it has long been clear that it is much more significantly a matter of religion.

Jawaahir Daahir is clear that it was attitudes to religion that persuaded her to come.

"My motivation to move was religious freedom, cultural and religious freedom," she says. "My worry was how my children could keep their identity as a Muslim, as a Somali. In Holland there was anti-Muslim feeling from 9/11, but even before that it was a closed institutional system. The expectation there is for new arrivals to assimilate, not to integrate while retaining their own identities. And for the younger generation, it is very difficult because there is no acceptance or tolerance of differences."

This is one of the conundrums of our age, one which laid-back, permissive Holland epitomises: how are the super-tolerant children of the European Enlightenment to react to the arrival of newcomers who refuse to adopt the uniform of secular liberalism? How far do you tolerate those who themselves have strict limits on what they will tolerate?

Daahir's experience was that the Dutch were intolerant and rigid towards her religion. "If you are wearing a scarf, it's very difficult in Holland. My daughter – her school principal said she will be the first and only one wearing a scarf. She went to the school and had a very tough time from students and even teachers with their comments. They mocked the different dress code."

And Dutch secularism made no concessions to religious practice. "There were no facilities k or understanding for Muslims," she goes on, "for example in terms of having praying facilities."

Despite the lower standard of social provision here, she has no regrets about moving to Leicester. "It's great here. I heard these stories about Leicester and decided to visit after my friend came and I thought, 'Wow, it's true.'

"It's about how you go about being multicultural. Leicester has managed over the years to have leadership policies and procedures in place that embrace and celebrate diversity.

"I'm not saying everything is smooth and fine – obviously there will be issues and concerns and because of human nature there are always things that need improvement – but I think in general it is well ahead in terms of making it inclusive for religious communities. You feel it."

As atheists – who account for 23 per cent of Leicester's population – like to point out, religion is not a reliable recipe for communal harmony. Quite the reverse: as every religion enshrines an exclusive explanation of the world, each has the potential to oppress and persecute those who think differently. And often that's how it works out. Muslims are often treated like second-class citizens in India, Christians in Pakistan, Hindus in Bangladesh and Muslims in Burma.

Muslims and Sikhs lived in close proximity in the Punjab for centuries, but it was not an easy cohabitation, and it ended in the horrendous blood-letting of Partition. And as Surinderpal Singh Rai points out, the relationship was never an easy one, with conversion to Islam – including conversion by force, with the threat of death for those who refuse –at the heart of the tension.

"It was because of forcible conversion by Muslims that Sikhism came into being," he says. "The Mogul invaders of India in the 11th century forcibly converted Hindus into Muslims. The Ninth Sikh Guru sacrificed himself for the sake of Hindus, to prevent them being converted."

In Leicester – as in the Punjab before Partition – the Sikh and Muslim communities are closely intertwined: the huge Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurudwara on East Park Road is surrounded by four large mosques. "One of the things we Sikhs don't do is convert," he says. "We don't proselytise. We can't say my religion is better than yours. But Muslims convert, by every means. Through literature and financial inducement, and especially with children. There have been instances of this. It has been a worrying trend at times. Because we don't do it ourselves. We find it very irritating… If anything was going to make everything explode, that would be the one issue."

Aware of that danger, both communities are working hard to defuse the tension. "After a recent attack by Sikhs on a Muslim-owned restaurant, we all got together," he goes on, "Muslim, Sikh and Hindu and condemned the attack and managed to keep the lid on it. There was a real, real fear that it could explode… but we are all united together. We've had quite a few meetings with Muslims, the Bishop of Leicester has been very active, we also visit each other's places of worship; recently we had one meeting in a mosque, there is a meeting planned for here. We work closely with the police as well.

While the mill towns of Burnley, Oldham and Bradford experienced race riots in 2001, Leicester has ridden out its multicultural decades in considerable peace and harmony. The white population, guided by the likes of Peter Soulsby, has responded with maturity and imagination to these epochal demographic changes. And while there will always be grumbling about the "cosseting" of immigrants, the facts speak for themselves. In the mid-1970s, the National Front was active in Leicester, and on one occasion came close to winning a single council seat. But since then, they and their successors have been notably unsuccessful in the city. If the minority of British whites are seething about the way the city is changing, they are keeping it very much to themselves.

The Hindu festival of Diwali, the festival of Lights that takes place every October, has become the city's biggest party, and the biggest such celebration outside India. In Delhi and Bombay, Diwali is a Hindu affair; Muslims and others tend to stay at home. In Leicester, by contrast, all communities turn out for it. Religion, which can so easily poison communal relations, can also galvanise them, too.

"Leicester is more than just welcoming," says Claire Jackson, a Jewish teacher who moved here from London 25 years ago. "I think you could go round all these different faith groups and find they've all got a sense of belonging. There's tremendous loyalty to the city. People actually do feel that they belong here and are happy here.

"I got a teaching job at Moat Community College in the city which has 95 per cent Muslim students, some Hindus. I loved being among those students. Being the only Jew there was interesting. Some of them had never met a Jew. Some had found anti-Jewish propaganda online, so I thought it was my responsibility to tell them who I was, because we got on fine. They were really lovely people. They accepted me completely and the parents were very hospitable. It's the first time I felt I belonged anywhere."

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