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 muslimsingles.com 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 lies: how politicians hide behind statistics

Perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two.

The small slabs of crude election soundbites, with extra ornamentation in the form of half-true and meaningless headline statistics, clunk across the airwaves, and we grimace. The dead prose reaches us umpteen times a day – “an economy that works for all”, “the many and not the few”, “work is the way out of poverty”, “more being spent on our schools than ever before”, “the NHS is treating more patients than ever ­before”, “fastest growth rate in Europe”, “the national interest”, “the most ­important election in my lifetime” – and yes, let’s hear it for “strong and stable leadership”.

On 30 April, Andrew Marr tried a little witty and civilised pre-emptive mocking to stop Theresa May using soundbites in his interview with her, but it did not work because it could not work. Embarrassment about clichés and almost idiotic numbers is not what democratic politicians worry about at election time. Many of us may pine for the old American game-show device – where, for failing to amuse and divert the audience, contestants are removed from the fray by a man hammering a gong – but that is not on offer and, in election mode, the politicians will do as they have long learned to do. They will listen to the Lynton Crosbys and Seumas Milnes of this world and plough on – and on.

The soundbites are largely vacuous and we are more noisily sardonic about them than three decades ago (hooray for media literacy) but they aren’t worse than normal. There is no point expecting the debate to run on the lines of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign 140 years ago, when he charged around Britain giving five-hour speeches – richly informed by Liberal philosophy – which did the trick for him and his party.

The clichés are, naturally, often interchangeable. Everybody running for high political office could quite contentedly utter any or all of the above phrases, though I concede it doesn’t require an inspired analyst of modern British politics to know what Theresa May is trying to do with her leadership riff – nor Jeremy Corbyn with his “rule for the many and not the few”, a phrase that has been used religiously since the adoption of universal suffrage. Only Jacob Rees-Mogg would put it to one side.

I spent almost 30 years at the BBC – working with a cadre of (mostly) hugely talented and impartial presenters and editors trying to find ways of injecting a bit more surprise or rigour into political interviews. (Surprise and rigour are often not the same thing.) I recall David Dimbleby reducing Alastair Campbell to semi-public fury in 1997 by excavating Tony Blair’s early political career and finding, neither surprisingly nor, in my view, particularly reprehensibly, that he had said Michael Foot-like things in a Michael Foot-like era. Oddly, nobody had thought to do this after he had been elected leader three years earlier, so Dimbleby’s approach to Blair had an element of ­surprise. And then there was John Humphrys’s relentless needling of Gordon Brown for his comic refusal after the 2008 financial crash to use the word “cuts” to describe what might have to happen to reduce the budget deficit, or even to agree with his own chancellor, Alistair Darling, that the global economic outlook was very bad. Brown had an on-air mega-curdle.

We know the score – the politicians find the rhetorical and statistical position that provides the best short-term defensive crouch, while the interviewer at least wants to make sure that the audience knows the question posed is relevant, fair and, if need be, that it has been dodged. Time presses on both participants – but the impact of the compression is unequal. The interviewee usually has the upper hand. In her early period Margaret Thatcher, who was a good deal more nervous than her subsequent reputation for clarity and authority would suggest, might well have been the all-time queen of interview delay tactics. However, most interviewees know that once they have found an answer to a question the first thing to do is to pad it out in case the next question is a little more difficult.

I am not outraged by any of this; nor do I believe these encounters should be dismissed as sterile, or that we should be contemptuous of the skills involved on either side of the exchange. The sort of one-sided triumph enjoyed by LBC’s Nick Ferrari with Diane Abbott is rare, and her numerical amnesia over policing made a whole argument go kerplunk – but even in more orthodox interviews you can often detect at the very least a broad weakness in a broad argument.

To my ear Corbyn sounds perpetually unsteady on defence policy (see his Marr interview in the first week of the campaign) and public finances, and neither May nor David Cameron before her manages much fluency on the impact of cuts on the working poor once they have uttered that threadbare soundbite about work being the route out of poverty. Would that it were so simple.

Our willingness to dismiss as boring these interviews, the staple of daily current affairs programmes, is overdone. And we have been a little graceless about the extent to which senior UK politicians do – or did – engage in at least some forms of public debate. Anyone who follows the US media will know how rare it has always been for senior members of the administration and White House staff to expose themselves to the sort of scrutiny still supplied by the Sunday political shows, Radio 4 current affairs programmes, Newsnight or Channel 4 News.

For decades, senior politicians in the UK turned up in the studios – often with scarcely concealed irritation – but they went through with it. In part because it was expected and in part out of self-interest. Good interview performances could lead to rapid promotion. Iain Duncan Smith was (you may be surprised by this) particularly effective in his early years at advocating his causes, and his party’s, in front of a microphone. But the studios did for him when he became Tory leader. As it turned out, his failings were more obvious when confronted by a skilled interviewer than in the House of Commons. His nervous coughing finally caught up with him one morning on the Today programme, and that was that.

Duncan Smith and Abbott are far from alone in seeing their currency plummet as a result of losing the plot in an interview. Harriet Harman, normally a highly fluent and agile politician, was sacked as social security secretary in 1998 after a grim outing, at least for her, with John Humphrys – caused not by his abrasiveness nor by any Abbott-like forgetfulness, but by her almost tangible unhappiness with a New Labour policy she was defending.

Even now, on BBC Question Time, some heavyweights will turn up only to be mauled by the voters on topics a long way away from the heart of their portfolio. Yes, they get copious notes from party researchers and have endless rehearsals to minimise the chance of saying anything too intellectually lively: but they should nevertheless get credit for risking it in the first place.

However, outside election time this tradition of broadcasting interrogation and debate, not much more than 50 years old, is under stealthy attack. The presenting team on Today is seriously good, but it is hard not to notice that the heavy hitters turn up less often for their ten minutes of duelling; similarly with Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

The Prime Minister’s Olympian approach to this sort of public engagement aggravates what was already a problem. The broadcasters may be losing ground. In this election there will be no head-to-head leaders’ debates featuring Labour and the Conservatives, and there is no great uproar about it. As it happens, I don’t believe that their absence is a disaster – not least because the format of individual leaders confronting an engaged Question Time audience one at a time (a “tradition” that began in 1997) provides far more substance and revelation than the 2010 or 2015 leaders’ debates did.

In the meantime, what can be done to the interview to improve the quality of public debate? Forcing out the clichés is not a realistic goal. Yet perhaps it is time to combine our Trump-era, heightened sensitivity to untruths with a new broadcasting technique or two. The BBC Trust (which I was part of for two years until it ceased to exist in April) commissioned its final independent editorial report on the BBC’s use of statistics from a panel of experts chaired by the former UK chief statistician Jil Matheson.

It is a superb piece of work. Above all it pleads with the BBC to do more to put statistics in context. The work was largely complete before the EU referendum so it did not pass judgement about either the veracity of the Brexiteers’ “extra £350m for the NHS” claim or the BBC’s coverage of that claim. I listened and watched a lot and, contrary to the views of many leading members of the Remain campaign, the BBC seemed to me to have consistently signalled to the audience the risible nature of the figure, if not as rudely as many would have liked.

Yet there is a different perspective on that cause célèbre. Only very rarely did the BBC on air (or anyone else, for that matter) compare the sums involved with total UK public expenditure: a net annual payment to the EU of about £8.5bn, compared to public expenditure of about £785bn. This £8.5bn is not a trivial sum – and it is likely to sound gargantuan to an unskilled worker on low wages in Hartlepool – but it hardly threatens the nation’s existence. We will have to think about that number all over again when the EU divorce bill gets paid.

In the past few years there has been a welcome growth online of fact-checking websites that get to grips with some of the half-sense or nonsense uttered – sometimes deliberately – in public debate. Among the broadcasters, Channel 4 News got in first with “FactCheck” and deserves great credit for having done so. The BBC has Reality Check; there are also the non-aligned Full Fact and others. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) sits as a mega-authority when it pronounces on individual economic statistics. (It was a particularly dispiriting episode when the IFS took a pounding during the EU campaign.)

The good newspapers and the broadcasters have correspondents who can – and do – understand the context in which statistical argument takes place. They know the difference between a big number and a not-so-big number, the difference between an aggregate spending figure and spending per head of population, the difference in importance between a one-month figure and a trend – and a trend that does not change much over time.

This is all good, and better than it used to be. But perhaps more of this rigour can be woven into what is still the dominant form of political accountability in broadcasting: the interview.

So let us try a thought experiment. Imagine (though we don’t really have to imagine) that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, comes into a studio to say, surprise, surprise, that more is being spent in real terms on the NHS than ever before. Imagine that he is told there will be no questions on anything else until he can answer, let’s say, two obvious supplementary questions: in the course of the past 60 years how often has his assertion not been true? (Answer, says the IFS: four times, one of which was 2011/12.) And what has been the growth in per capita NHS spend, in real terms, since 2009/10, compared to the previous 15 years or so? (Answer: 0.6 per cent, as opposed to 5.4 per cent.) Answering these would show that his boast is one that almost all of his predecessors could have made, and also that the Conservative-led coalition was less generous to the health service than the preceding Labour government. It would be absolutely fair for Jeremy Hunt to respond vigorously about the need to cut the deficit or even to make points about who was in government when the crash happened – but he could not be allowed to get away with statistical near-rubbish.

Similarly, the mantra on English education (“Our schools are getting more money than ever before”) is a waste of air. It’s not that the cuts are “vicious” – just that the assertion when put in context is gibberish. The economy is growing and the school population is growing, fast. So if we were not spending more in total, and in real terms, then the cuts would be vicious. And yet, per head, there will be less in real terms for pupils. Period.

The front-line interviewers I know best are very skilled journalists and they often do try to get a jab in when the numerical nonsense gets going – but they have to move on, whether to other urgent matters or to seek a news headline from the interview, and there is not enough jeopardy for the press officer or spin doctor who wrote the politician’s brief to desist from writing the same stuff next time around.

There may be other ways of levelling up matters. The interview could proceed as normal; but at the end of it up could pop, say, Tim Harford (of the brilliant statistics programme More or Less on Radio 4) to put in the necessary corrections. It would have to be done within a few minutes or else the impact would dissipate. From time to time, Harford or his equivalent does appear after a political interviewee has spouted statistically illiterate twaddle – but not often enough, and usually this happens long after the attempted mugging of intelligent debate. Too little, too late.

It would be obligatory to ensure that this type of treatment, particularly at election time, was meted out to all the parties – but outside the election it is the government of the day and its news departments that are going to have to face most of the music. Fair enough.

My suggestion is not put forward because I am advocating a particular party’s reading of the state of the nation (or nations). There is no monopoly on vice. We should not forget Labour’s “triple counting” of health service spending after 1997 even if Blair/Brown subsequently, in benign economic circumstances, did indeed put their foot on the health-spending accelerator.

Rather, when the election dust settles and the media seminar post-mortems crank up yet again – about the level of turnout, political ennui, the particular disengagement of the young, the coverage of the leaders, the role of opinion polls and other staples – we need to keep working on how to improve the quality of public debate. It is not all awful, and a stylised contempt for what is good is itself corrupting of democracy. But the numbers nonsense needs fixing. 

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and was the controller of BBC Radio 4 from 2004 to 2010

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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