Posts Tagged ‘Islamophobia’

Read a Religion and a Town Part 1 & Part 2

The issue of Islam in Dewsbury is one which inspires debate around every corner. The recurring presence of these two words, a religion and a town, alongside each other in national newspaper articles, blogs and political propaganda is testament to the significance the issue will play in the future. With incident comes opinion, analysis, new ideas and sometimes the re-enforcement of old ones.

Danny Lockwood was one of the founders of ‘The Press’, a newspaper which covers Dewsbury, Batley and the other districts sandwiched between Huddersfield, Leeds and Bradford. His weekly column ‘Ed Lines: Life in Black and White’ frequently addresses the role Islam plays in the town and indeed the country. In the 12/09/08 edition, Lockwood expresses his frustration at exceptions made for Muslims who “go to school looking like Zorro” in response to news that a local alopecia sufferer was told to remove his baseball cap by teachers. The guidelines an alopecia suffering student was made to adhere to and the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women are not related in any way but it is comparisons like this one that are made around the town by non-Muslims who are displeased with the “special treatment” local followers of Islam are said to receive.

The Hijab often provokes debate

The common theme with many of these opinions is that, conversely, the local non-Muslim British population are treated like second class citizens. When examples of religious dispensation are brought to light, the stories are often inter-laced with tales of the local white population suffering a perceived injustice – even if it isn’t necessarily related to, or the fault of, the religion in question, as seen above.

The wearing of the hijab, particularly in instances when only the eyes or less are visible, is probably, along with the town’s iconic Mosque minarets, one of the most recognised symbols of Islam on a local scale. MP for Dewsbury Shahid Malik advised Aisha Azmi, the hijab-wearing teaching assistant who was sacked, to simply “leave it alone and get on with life”. An acknowledgement by the Muslim politician perhaps, that the wearing of the veil can and will, on occasion, conflict with life amongst non-Muslims and that, in such instances, the needs of the many outweigh the customs of the few.

There are, considering the diversity of Dewsbury, very few examples of culture clashes of this nature. This can be explained, in part, by the isolated nature of the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. The concentration in population of both races is a result, according to many, of the ‘ghettoisation’ of several of the town’s sub-districts. Ghettoisation refers to the idea that social groups, particularly ethnic minorities, take residence in sub-dstricts as a result of social, religious or economic pressure. As identified, much of the Muslim population of Dewsbury live alongside each other in Savile Town, Ravensthorpe and parts of Thornhill.

Don Pryke, 51, is a local self-employed businessman who was brought up in Ravensthorpe, he recalls the initial years of Muslim settlement in his locality: “The general feeling was ‘blimey! who are these People? and why have they come to Ravensthorpe?’ “In the early days, the two communities never mixed or talked at all so one side’s knoweldge of the other came from within their own community.”

The council houses of Chickenley, Dewsbury Moor and Thornhill were built to accomodate the ‘baby-boom’ post-WWII generation but the “homes for heroes” scheme failed to foresee the demographic shift about to change the face of much of the nation. What resulted was Muslim families moving in to the cheapest houses available to them, local jornalist Danny Lockwood adds: “It’s normal for any migrant community to gather together for lots of understandable social, family and cultural reasons. People of any relgion are generally motivated by the same human needs. This is a social phenomenon, not a religious one.”

Carl Morphett is a member of Kirklees Unity, a group founded to oppose the BNP on a local level. He belives that there are more serious contributory factors: “Islamophobia, intolerance and ignorance on both sides of one another’s lifestyle and culture contribute to the trend of ghettoisation. With Islamophobia in particular on the rise, the pattern will continue, which can only be a bad thing.”

Yakub Sultan is a Muslim working part-time in Dewsbury and studying at the University of Huddersfield. The lifestyle of a typical university student, many would say, is not compatible with the lifestyle of a follower of Islam: “Religion very much plays a major part in my life but I don’t feel the two conflict with one another. This is because as a Muslim, my faith guides me through many of the choices I make.” It’s clear from what Yakub is saying, that the society he lives in presents few obstacles for him to overcome as a practicing Muslim: “I feel very comfortable as a Muslim in the area I live in, the common traits of Muslims and non-Muslims away from religion are becoming more similar making life for everyone easier”. It is the common ground shared between the religiously devout and apathetic, those optimistic of true integration and co-operation believe, upon which we can lay the foundations of a truly diverse and peaceful community.

This is a view also held by the Bishop Anthony Robinson who has been the co-chairman of Kirklees Inter-Faith for over a decade: “Great strides have been made over the last five years between Christianity and Islam, based primarily on values the two religions share. “The Muslims of the local area need friends from across the community and the religious buildings of both faiths are shared for community projects” Kirklees Inter-faith, although independent from Kirklees council, serves as a key component of the area’s strategy to build bridges between religions. The group meets and discusses issues concerning all religions and organises projects involving local mosques, churches and synagogues. Kaushar Tai was the founding chairman of the group: “We are a voluntary organisation which promotes harmony between faiths. One idea which was put into practice was to take religious learning out of the classroom and into the places of worship themselves”.

We have seen evidence that compatibility, despite the cohesive setbacks the town endures, is possible and already a reality for many. But what can Dewsbury, as a diverse town, do to develop this ideal? We have already examined the isolated nature of Muslim and non-Muslim communities and what led to their being but, like the Irish migrants of over a century ago, what hope is there of future generations of communities living in harmony with each other?

Kirklees Unity’s Carl Morphett suggests: “As I grew older and wiser I realised that the local Asians were no different from me. I am keen to learn about cultures other than my own and believe that the school curriculum should encourage this from an early age” The idea that progress relies heavily upon knowledge of the beliefs of one another is shared by local businessman Don Prkye, who despite rating his current knowledge of Islam as ‘4/10’, has a desire to learn more: “Incidents like 9/11 can create a lot of distrust between communities which often manifests itself as resentment on a local level. “A Q&A column in the local newspapers, for example, would be of interest to many people and would help those outside the Muslim community learn more about their neighbours.”

Local journalist Danny Lockwood is optimistic about the future: “History shows us that in time these communities disperse gradually into the mainstream and there is already evidence of that happening in Dewsbury. “Progress is not helped though by international political pressure between Islam and western democracies.”

Clearly, the international turmoil Muslims around the world find themselves in, not least of all its conflict with the west, do little for towns like Dewsbury. But what of the obstacles that exist on a local level? Are there people in the town who don’t want multi-culturalism or integration? A song entitled “Savile Town: Where’s it Gone?”, penned by then-BNP candidate Colin Auty, alleges that the Asian sub-district is rife with drug dealers and paedophiles and decries the closure of churches, pubs and butchers in the area. Fellow BNP counillor Nick Cass defended these sentiments: “We make no apologies for this song as every word is true.”

The BNP’s popularity hinges on the level of conflict between religious communities. The closer Dewsbury gets to being a peaceful, religiously tolerant town, the less votes the party will receive. So, naturally, its in the interests of BNP members to associate society’s ills with the ethnic minority community, usually without any consideration of contributory factors or statistics. If one of the mainstream parties expresses its displeasure at the lack of something, it will look at how to correct the problem. In the case of the British National Party however, its displeasure at the alleged lack of religious understanding is supplemented not by a desire to build bridges between faiths, but to heighten tension at every opportunity. Dewsbury is home to the highest BNP vote in the country, a sign perhaps that not everyone within the town is comfortable with the idea of sharing their neighbourhoods with, or eager to learn about, other races, religions and cultures.

Tom Coates

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