The mosques aren’t working in Bradistan

Bradford's Pakistani community predominantly originates from the Mirpur region. 

The far-right English Defence League plans to march on 28 August through Bradford in West Yorkshire, a city still largely segregated along lines of race. Local residents are agitated and fearful that the march could reignite the tensions of the 2001 race riots. According to the last census, 22 per cent of Bradford's population is of Asian origin, mostly Pakistani. As I walked among the sari shops and supermarkets in the Horton area, it was obvious why the city has earned the name "Bradistan".

Altogether, there are nearly a million people of Pakistani origin in Britain, and an estimated 70 per cent of these have links to Mirpur or the surrounding area. Mirpur, located in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (known as Azad - meaning "free" - Kashmir), is one of the country's least developed regions.

There is little education, and it was the last part of Pakistan to be connected to electricity. Before mass immigration in the 1960s, many relied on subsistence farming. As they moved from a rural region to the industrialised cities of northern England, villagers attempted to re-create their old lifestyle. Ishtiaq Ahmed, spokesman of Bradford's Council for Mosques, says: "As a minority, you close ranks and don't move forward so fast for fear of losing or diluting your identity."

The Mirpuri community particularly emphasises clan loyalty, or biraderi, manifested in marriage to first cousins. Studies suggest that 60 per cent of all Mirpuri marriages are to a first cousin, with a substantial proportion of the remainder being between more distant relatives. While other south Asian immigrants tend to work outwards from the family unit through marriage, Mirpuris reinforce existing connections, producing intensely bound communities. The notion of honour, important to many cultures, is reinforced by double or triple ties of obligation - a potential mother-in-law could also be an aunt. This can lead to forced marriage and, in extreme cases, honour killings.

In Mirpur, such marriages secure the status of the biraderi against other clans, and also allow the family to retain its land and property. In a transnational context, they permit people to give their families access to better opportunities. "It's really one society that exists between the two places," says Sean McLoughlin, senior lecturer in religion, anthropology and Islam at Leeds University. "There are constant circulations of money, people and ideas."

Data suggests that up to 10,000 transnational spouses enter the UK annually. Significantly, this means that even in the fifth gene­ration, many children have one parent who is non-English-speaking. "These two people essentially come from totally different worlds," says Zaf Shah, a young Mirpuri professional from Bradford whom I meet at a coffee shop in the centre of the city. "It's difficult to make a happy union. What is Mum going to teach the children about the culture here, when she knows nothing about it?"

School's out

Shah draws attention to educational underachievement. While other Asian immigrants excel at school, Pakistani teenagers - particularly boys - struggle. "The first immigrants were people with low skills, from a farming background," Khadim Hussain, a local coun­cillor in Bradford, says. "They were more concerned about making a good living through hard work than education. That continued, though it's changing now."

Valuing immediate earning power above staying in education to secure a better-paid job is a familiar narrative, as much tied to deprivation as to ethnicity. However, it does mean that Mirpuris have remained primarily concentrated in the lowest tier of jobs and housing, though many of those to whom I speak in Bradford stress the emergence of a professional class.

The transnational connection extends beyond marriage; there is a culture of importing imams from Pakistan. For young people born and brought up in Britain, it is a struggle to connect with Urdu services or religious instruction that consists of rote-learning Quranic Arabic.

“I'd like to ask these imams: 'How do you understand a society that you've never identified with?'" says Shah. "How can you understand the challenges young people are facing, or help them to become more involved as Muslims in their societies?"

Phil Lewis, a lecturer in peace studies at Bradford University, expands on this. "The mosques aren't working for them, home isn't working for them. These kids are in moral free fall - who are their role models?"

The same frustration is expressed by some young, tracksuit-clad Mirpuri men on a run-down street in Bradford. "I'm a Yorkshireman," Saeed, aged 19, tells me. "I get angry with my parents when it's all about 'back home' and sending money there. I'm proud of my heritage, but this is my home. I've only been to Pakistan twice."

Another risk - though one that must not be overstated - is extremism. All four bombers behind the London attacks on 7 July 2005 were from Yorkshire, and three of them had Mirpuri backgrounds. "These recruiters use your weakness - and that's Islam," says Shah, who works with the police on counterterrorism.

Honour crime

It's no less complex for young women. Other Pakistanis frequently accuse Mirpuris of confusing culture with religion. Stemming from a lack of education, this manifests itself in cultural norms - such as the primacy of honour, or the mistreatment of women - being accorded religious significance. I speak to Khadijah, 18, in an empty playground as she looks after her younger sister. She hopes to enter Bradford University this year. "I can make the distinction between Islam and patriarchal culture," she says. "But your average lad on the street won't worry about which bit comes from scripture. It's loaded in his favour."

These concerns are common to many British Asians. So, what makes other British Pakistanis view Mirpuris as a distinct group? Those from Karachi or Islamabad use the term "Mirpuri" pejoratively, and adverts on online dating sites such as often stipulate "No Mirpuris". Many Mirpuris prefer simply to call themselves Azad Kashmiri.

These attitudes can be explained by the huge disparities in development between urbanised and rural areas in Pakistan. Lewis points out that Mirpuris might struggle in Lahore, never mind British cities. Their achievements here - inroads into government and the law, a measure of success in business - are therefore notable.

But as a generation of Mirpuris entirely socialised in Britain reaches adulthood, the community faces a crisis of identity. Traditions are evolving gradually, but change is painful. And integration is never a one-way street; a woman casually called me a "Paki" when I asked for directions, a small example of the white population's hostility. Yet as Shah points out: "Social exclusion exists, but it's not an excuse. We need to understand our own community before we start blaming society."

Samira Shackle


The Mirpur migration to Bradford

Mirpur, with a population of roughly 96,000, is the biggest city in Azad Kashmir, a rural region that suffered enormous bloodshed during Partition and was left without any proper water supply. So, how did so many people from this impoverished region come to be living in the UK?

Britain enjoyed a long economic boom in the period following the Second World War. During this time, there was an acute shortage of labour in the textile mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire and the foundries of the Midlands. The British government encouraged cheap, unskilled migrant workers from the ex-colonies to come to Britain to bolster industry.

Then, in the late 1950s, the Pakistani government began building the Mangla Dam - a huge project aimed at solving the problem of Mirpur's water supply. However, the dam flooded much of Mirpur District, submerging the arable land that farmers relied on. Thousands were evacuated.

By way of compensation, some of the displaced were offered passports, and many more people travelled to Britain. More than half the population of some villages moved to settle in British industrial towns. This history of dispossession was compounded in the UK in the 1980s with the collapse of manufacturing industries in which the first generation of immigrants had worked.

Samira Shackle


Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood