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

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

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

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