Paul Vallely: A community that feels under siege

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The Independent Online

The old lady's face lit up when she saw the young man. "There's a letter for you," she shouted across the car park. "Is everything all right with you, love?" he responded, crossing the open space to talk to her. They stood before the railings that had been erected in front of her house to stop local youths from congregating there. "They were smoking and urinating in the porch," she explained. "You have a youth problem. I have a youth problem. We have a youth problem," he sighed to her.

The elderly woman was white. The young man was Asian. The place, one of the most deprived wards in the UK, was a mixed community of terraced housing somewhere off Blackburn Road in Bolton, where a mosque was firebombed this week in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York. The world is everywhere changed since that cataclysmic event – or so everyone keeps telling us. But how? Revealingly, if you ask whites and Asians in this former mill town you get very different responses.

"There's no bad feeling between the races in this neighbourhood, it's just the youth," the old lady said. "We've lived together for a long time – we look out for each other," a middle-aged white woman in the same housing association estate said. "We know these people," a young blonde said, standing smoking outside the local post office. "They've lived here as long as I have. It's their country too. There's no rise in tension here."

It is not how the Asians see things. The young man on his way to collect his letter from the housing association office is Hanif Alli, who runs the local community centre where the old folk run coffee mornings and the teenagers congregate in the evenings for the youth club. (It's closed at present, following an attempt by local vandals to burn it down. He does, indeed, have a youth problem.) As he makes his way through the streets, local people stop him to exchange anxious news.

One man has been spat at. Another has had abuse shouted at him. One woman is worried about the local school, where 95 per cent of the pupils are Muslim; the head-teacher has twice this week sent worried notes out to all the parents. Worse still, a local private school for Muslim girls has received a frightening anonymous call threatening to kidnap 10 of the pupils and perpetrate upon them acts that it is best not to record.

"We've been told not to drop the children off in the playground but to take them into the building," one man said. At the after-school Koran classes at the local mosque, children are now being locked in. "We have to think twice about letting our wives and children go downtown on their own now," another man said. "We even got funny looks when we went to the local Asda to sign the book of condolences they opened to send to the American embassy."

So afraid is the local Muslim community that not one of the individuals we encountered was prepared to give me their name – not even those who spoke only of the awfulness of the attacks on New York. And the community has clearly been as shaken by the atrocity as the rest of the British public. "All those families whose lives have been shattered," one man said, shaking his full beard in evident disquiet. "I can't bear to think of the children sitting and hoping that their dads will come home," one woman said. "After all, those people had just gone out to work in the morning like we all do," another said. The sadness was vividly expressed, as was the apprehension of what the consequences of it all might be here on the streets of Bolton.

Today the simple wearing of the hijab, the woman's headscarf, or the kafni, the man's long tunic, is enough to provoke a hostile reaction in the town centre. "I went to the doctor's surgery wearing a white turban, as I usually do, and was set upon by three white lads who called me Osama bin Laden," one shopkeeper said. "Things have got so bad now that many Asians have stopped wearing a turban." Would he? "No, it's part of my religion to wear this," he said. "I'm not guilty of anything. So why should I change? It's their attitude that needs to change, not my appearance."

Surely such garb is cultural rather than religious, I said to Hanif. "No. Muslims have a duty to emulate the Prophet Mohammed, and many feel this means modelling themselves not just on his behaviour, but on his appearance, too," he replied. But his own clothes are Western. "There is a saying of the Prophet that God doesn't judge me on my clothes but on my heart and deeds," he said. "But if they want to wear the clothes too, then perhaps they are better Muslims than me."

His attitude is typical of the new generation of Muslims. His parents came from India but he was born, 36 years ago, in Bolton. "We of the second generation found ourselves caught between two cultures," he said. "As youngsters we wanted to be accepted by English society, so we discarded our culture."

His generation went clubbing and drinking, and followed the lure of secular materialism. "We tried it and saw it was not really us," he said. "We searched deeper and decided Islam is where we belong. But we bring with us many of the Western attitudes we learned at school.

"We are British Muslims, no contradiction in that – it's just like being an Italian-American. The third generation will feel even more comfortable in both identities," he said looking across at his 19-month-old daughter, Aaminah, who was trying out words in Gujurati with her mother while simultaneously watching Teletubbies on cable TV.

One result of this is that the number of young Muslims wearing traditional garb is – contrary to what might generally be expected – rising rather than falling. "For years I wore my hair free," Hanif's wife Nurzhan, who was born in Preston, said, "but then four years ago I went on pilgrimage to Mecca and when I came back I decided to keep wearing the hijab."

"There's a revolution happening in England at the moment," Hanif said. "The older generation, who were simple farmers from rural backgrounds, have their culture and religion all wrapped up together. But this is being challenged by the second generation."

Hanif, who was recently elected to run the mosque he attends, is introducing more English into a mosque culture traditionally dominated by Urdu and Arabic.

His peers have also challenged the practice of forced marriages, which he says are "contrary to the Holy Koran, which states that no marriage is valid unless both parties agree, from the heart, that it should happen".

Interestingly, it was not his mosque – in the heart of a mixed white and Asian community – that was firebombed. The attack was carried out on a mosque across town that borders an all-white area from which the arsonists are thought to have come. "It's what people don't know that they fear," Hanif said. "We have been making progress. But we have to be careful now, because we're on the brink of community relations being set back 30 years."