Paul Vallely: Coming to terms

'We've kept things together in Leeds. It's a multicultural city facing challenges with strength'
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The Independent Online

But there is no sign of that kind of tension in the red-bricked terraces of Beeston, which is still coming to terms with the fact that it was from here that two young men left to travel to London to plant the bombs that caused such carnage last week. Rather, all the locals say it is a model community where black and white have lived together harmoniously for decades.

Yesterday afternoon, Muslim leaders had a meeting with police, local councillors and MPs, and key figures from the area's other religions, to consider how the community should respond. They held a press conference afterwards at which they expressed their shock and sadness, offered their sympathies and prayers to the victims, and said that such outrages have no sanction in Islam and no part in the British way of life.

"So what are you going to do about the radical element in your community?" asked an American reporter.

One of the most striking features of the horde of journalists crawling all over the story in Leeds yesterday was that the majority of them seemed to be American. There were camera crews from major US TV networks with satellite vans in the streets, and reporters from Washington and New York newspapers, and countless US radio reporters. They seemed determined to view 7/7 as the sequel to 9/11.

"I can honestly say," said Hanif Malik, the Muslim community leader chairing the event, "as a lifelong resident of Leeds, and someone fairly active in the Muslim community, that I've never come across any of these radical elements whatsoever."

"Believe me, these people are there," said another US journalist. "We're not aware there is a radical element at all in this community," said Dr Hassan Alkatib, chair of the Leeds Muslim Forum.

"There are radicals," said a third reporter. "We know that."

"Those of us who live here don't," said Hanif Malik.

Quite how journalists with a two-day acquaintance with a place can purport to know better than someone who has lived there for 40 years is one of the mysteries of contemporary journalism. What struck me was the sheer ordinariness of the place and the extent to which cultures live together with unremarkably normality.

The meetings took place in the Hamara Health Living Centre, a joint Muslim/Christian project run by the area's multifaith umbrella group. Across the road, the shops testify to the multi-cultural nature of the place, with Ahmad Bros Fashion Cloth House cheek by jowl with Nash's Bargain Basement and Decent Auto Spares. Outside, a mixed gang of Asian and white youths were teasing journalists by pointing them to "the real story" in a massage parlour up the road.

A white man leaning over his garden wall was a testament to the balanced way in which local people are coming to terms with the shock. "They're a respectable family, and they're very distraught," he said, peering up the road to where the police had cordoned off one suspect's house. "Of course the Muslim community has to educate its youth that this isn't the way to go, but I hope there won't be any reprisals."

Muslim parents feel they have already done that. The Muslim community in Leeds was one of the first to issue a statement after the London bombs, sending a copy to Prime Minister and to the national press. It "strongly and unequivocally" condemned "these barbaric actions which are an attempt to damage our democracy, freedom and community relations."

"We were shocked when it landed on our doorstep," said Councillor Mohammed Iqbal, who represents the ward where two alleged bombers lived. "I've been on streets all day and everybody, without a single exception, is fully supportive of the police and the job they're doing."

"This is nothing to do with religion," said Zaher Birawi, chairman of Leeds Grand Mosque. "They are terrible crimes, and should be treated as such."

And yet, contrary to some reports, Leeds is not a city of fear. It is a place of sadness, of bewilderment and of anxiety.

"We're downcast, concerned, but not fearful," said one of the city's MPs, John Battle. "We've never had race riots like other places. We've kept things together in Leeds. It's a multicultural city facing great challenges, but with great strength."

That can be seen north of the city centre in Burley, where more than 500 residents were evacuated after police found what they believe to be the bombers' factory. The authorities opened a sports centre for them to sleep in, but only 30 turned up. The rest had been offered beds by other families in this close-knit community, where whites and Asians live side by side.

The evacuation is a precaution, because forensic scientists and bomb experts are working to dismantle dangerous devices, rather than disposing of them, in the hope of finding the thumbprint of an outside mastermind. That is certainly what everyone is hoping for to assuage the thought that local lads have become the first suicide bombers to strike Britain.

"These guys are pawns on a chess board," said a friend of one of the alleged bombers, who did not want to give his name. "We need to find the players who are moving these pawns - whoever it was who did these lads' heads in, in Pakistan or wherever."

None of which is to say that Muslim youth does not have problems. "The third generation have been educated here," said one Leeds social worker yesterday. "So they have a sense of what they're entitled to and what they're excluded from, economically and culturally.

"In part that is about high rates of unemployment. But it is also about how their refusal to drink alcohol excludes them from going downtown drinking with the lads and lasses they went to school with. They are left hanging round on their own on the street."

Many in the Muslim community, like Hanif Malik, are impatient with such mitigation. "Clearly there are issues in the Muslim community, but there is no suggestion that those factors are responsible," he said.

Whatever is the cause, the time has come for a gear-shift in Muslim responses, believes Shahid Malik, the MP for Dewsbury, home of a third suspected bomber. "In the past, wild talk outside the mosque was tolerated or dismissed as vile rhetoric."

Older people wanted to avoid confrontation, shied away from being told they were not good Muslims, or were reluctant to create a fuss which could be exploited by far-right groups.

"But everybody now realises this can't be allowed to go unchecked," says Mr Malik. "We have to go beyond condemning and into confronting. There must be zero tolerance of views we know are wrong."

The key thing for the white community, believes John Battle, is "not to start getting suspicions and fearful of your neighbours. We must remain solid as a community."

Compared to the mood of previous summers in former mill towns like Burnley to Bradford, the atmosphere feels positive. There is a paradox in that. It does little to solve the riddle of the past few days, not just for the people of Beeston and Dewsbury, but for the rest of British society. What turned four lads from Leeds into suicide bombers? For the answer, we may well have to look beyond the streets of Leeds.

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