Posts Tagged ‘Religion and Spirituality’

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

Read A Religion And A Town – Pt 1

Liverpudlian solicitor W.H.Quilliam converted to Islam in 1887 after returning from a trip to Morocco. He was made Shaykh al-Islam for the United Kingdom by the Sultan of the Ottoman empire and converted roughly 150 British people to the faith. There is earlier evidence of an Islamic presence in the UK and whilst this particular chapter of history is not directly linked to the Muslims of Dewsbury, I feel it’s important to recognise that the migrancy trend of the mid-twentieth century is not the first example of South Asian culture in England.

WH Quilliam

The vast majority of the Muslims who arrived in Dewsbury in the 1950s, 60s and 70s were Sunni Muslims. The Deobandi-Tablighi Muslims arrived from the Punjabi region of India, whilst the Barelwi are originally from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The differences between the two groups within Islam are established but largely irrelevant in the modern day and based primarily on geography. Much of the modern symptoms of confict between the two sides is little more than ‘mud slinging’ between elder members, passing judgement on the cultural traits and habits of each other.

The first significant example of tension between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities came in 1978. A decaying building had been purchased by a group of local Muslims and converted in to a Mosque. Opposite the Dar Ul Ilm, however, stood The Albion, a well established pub. One early evening, a pig’s head was thrown through the mosque door and into the presence of the people assembled inside. ‘The siege of the Albion’ was the first manifestation of the underlying tension and resentment felt by the indigenous population towards their newly settled neighbours. What followed was a confrontation between the two sides. On one was alcohol fuelled disdain and on the other, a religion just finding its feet. The aftermath would see a slight swell in support for the National Front but also resistance to this act in the form of a protest organised by students, both Muslim and non-Muslim, at Dewsbury College.

The jobs that the Muslims did during the 60s, 70s and 80s a were predominantly the ones that were not being filled by the indigenous population. Many left skilled employment in their home countries to take up unskilled jobs in the UK. Clearly, the citizens of the south Asia saw a greater quality of life for their families and children in western Europe. Muslims practicing their religion at this time did so the humble form of a prayer mat in their bedrooms. As the number of Muslims in Dewsbury grew though, there was enough concentrated support in areas like Savile Town and Ravensthorpe for the first Mosques to be built. As we have seen, the first attempt at this was met with hostility but that didn’t alter the fact that progress had been made and the followers of Islam in Dewsbury had somewhere to congrergate and practice their faith.

In 1982, the Markazi Mosque was established in Savile Town. It can accommodate 4,000 worshippers and is the European headquarters for the Islamic organisation Tablighi Jamaat, a movement centred around the Deobandi tradition. Coverage of the organisation in the national press alleges links with terrorism and, in particular, Wahabism (the central Islamic ideology of Saudi Arabia) which is acknowledged by British Muslims and non-Muslims alike as a dangerous and warped interpretation of the Muslim faith. The organisation defends against accusations of this nature, stating that it is a spiritual organisation with the aim of uniting Muslims around the world spiritually.

1987 saw a further sign of defiance from the white European population against what they saw as ‘enforced multi-racialism’. During the school summer holidays of that year, 26 children were withdrawn from the application process for their new school. Their parents refusing to allow their children to attend a school whose intake was now overwhelmingly Muslim. What resulted was the 26 kids at the centre of the row receiving school lessons in a local pub, ironically now a madrassa, from sympathetic retired teachers.

The accusation leveled at the council from the parents was that they were attempting to artificially redress the racial imbalance in the school. This was denied strongly by the council. The fact of the matter was, however, that the parents of these children weren’t prepared to send their children to a school attended by a large percentage of Muslims.

By now, the presence of Islam in Dewsbury was apparent not only by the Muslim people but also by the specialist shops, tcurry houses, madrassas and mosques that had sprung up around the town. Of these shops, the most prominent was, and still is, Mullaco. Salim Mulla opened his first shop in Savile Town in 1981, it sold halal meat and other asian products that the local Muslim population found hard to come by in England.

The shop still exists today but the bulk of the operation has been moved to a large stock warehouse and a newly opened Supermarket in Thornhill Lees. The sign on the building, previously occupied by Kwik Save proudly states “Mullaco of Dewsbury” and Mulla’s business competes admirably with nearby supermarket giants Asda, Lidl, Netto, Tesco and Sainsbury. Mullaco’s strength is in the specialist product it offers but, where previously it attracted a clientele made up primarily of local Muslims, much of it’s custom now comes in the form of curry fanatics, both Muslim and non-Muslim from all over West Yorkshire.

Of course, there are dozens of other shops and mini-markets around Dewsbury run by Muslims selling anything from Carling lager and con-doms to parathas and henna. One of the larger companies operating here is Appna. Appna is not a local firm but sells a similar range of asian ingredients and foods from a large retail unit on the outskirts of the town centre. Many of the businesses operating within the town centre and on the market are run by Muslims – these include shops selling traditional clothing, Bollywood DVDs, jewelery, gifts and western fashion.

The entrepreneurship of the Asian shopkeepers led to a fundamental shift in how the neighbourhood store was run. For the first time, local shops, albeit with reduced hours, would remain open on a Sunday. The view held by the English shopkeepers was that Sunday is traditionally a day of rest but this a sentiment not recognised by followers of Islam. Nevertheless, the non-Muslims of Dewsbury and indeed the rest of the country took advantage of the stores’ extended opening hours and these days the practice of opening for long hours and on Sundays has been adopted by shops, large and small, around the UK.

In 1989, what is remembered by some as a race riot took place in Dewsbury. The confrontation was a result of a clash between Asian youths and BNP supporters. The BNP had organised a “rights for whites” march and attempted to continue activity in Savile Town, well aware of the fact that Savile Town was a predominantly Asian community. There were met by Asian youths and the violent conflict that followed was dealt with by Police.

As the Islamic population of Dewsbury grew, the ethnic make-up of some of Dewsbury’s sub-districts began to change. The overwhelming majority of Muslims arriving in the town found homes in close proximity to one another. This resulted in Savile Town becoming an area where over 95% of the residents are Muslim. High concentrations of Muslim households also appear in parts of Thornhill and Ravensthorpe.

The decline of employment in the mills, and of the mills themselves, meant that it was less of a necessity for the people of Dewsbury to live in the ageing, cramped neighbourhoods built originally for workers. This mass upheaval left homes empty and, with council houses unavailable to migrants, the white working class community was gradually replaced by the Muslim community. The houses the Muslims moved into were cheap and, due to their close proximity with one another, a new community was quickly established.

Islam was slowly developing a presence in Dewsbury. internationally however, the religion was becoming entrenched in a battle between the oil rich states of the middle east and the neo-imperialist west, this conflict landed on the town’s doorstep on July 7th 2005, when Mohammed Siddique Kahn, who lived and worked in the town, led a group of 4 radicalised Muslims in an attack on a London underground train and a bus in an act of terrorism, blowing themselves up and killing 52. Naturally, an incident of this magnitude shocked the world and many in Dewsbury who’d worked hard to bring communities together were fearful of the impact it would have on relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in the town. The men who carried out these atrocities claimed to be acting on behalf of Islam as well as in protest against “Injustices perpetrated by the British against Muslims across the world”. Kahn, a “quiet” teaching assistant in Thornhill left behind him a wife and child who were forced into hiding following these events*.

Later that year, in November, news broke of the sale and free availability of DVDs and video cassettes promoting terrorism and opposing integration outside the Markazi Mosque – a story which put Dewsbury in the national news again. Thankfully, vigilant residents, who purchased the offending material under the impression it featured prayer citations, informed the police.

Less than 12 months later though, the town became the home of the youngest ever terrorist suspect. Hammaad Munshi, then 16, was returning home following a GCSE exam when he was arrested on suspicion of posessing material linked with an online terrorist network. It emerged that Munshi, whose grandfather is one of the town’s religious leaders, had been groomed by two other men, both 21 and of Bradford, Aaabid Kahn and Sultan Muhammad. All three men were sentenced to imprisonment.

2006 saw teaching assistant Aisha Azmi sacked from her job at Headfield Church of England School for refusing to remove her veil. This was a story that captured the attention of the country and the name ‘Dewsbury’ was once again on the lips of every journalist in England. The school claimed that, whilst ever she wore the veil, which left only her eyes visible, the children could not understand her. The decision went to the Employment Appeals Tribunal which found in favour of the school and Kirklees council, albeit with Ms. Azmi receiving “victimisation” compensation of £1,100, in what many consider to be a “trade-off” to end the saga quickly.

'The Press' - at it again.

By now the media, and particularly newspapers like the Daily Mail and Express, saw Dewsbury as a reservoir filled with newspaper selling stories of religious turbulence and Islamic ‘colonisation’. When the big stories dried up however, efforts were made to find controversy at any cost. This would ultimately result in a story claiming that NHS nurses were being forced to pander to the wishes of Muslim patients and carry out duties including providing fresh bathing water and turning beds towards Makkah five times a day. The story, carried in the Daily Express, was challenged by Dewsbury MP Shahid Malik and it emerged that the wishes of Muslims were only fulfilled if they were terminally ill and close to death.

Another example came earlier that year, a story also published in the Daily Express, this time expressing its outrage at a Sharia Court operating “above British law” in Dewsbury. The article told of the “wail of the Mosque signalling the end of British justice”. The ‘court’ is based at a former pub, which perhaps helped to fan the flames of sensationalism even more furiously. The reality of the matter was, and remains, that the Sharee council which operated from within the building welcomed local Muslims who wished to settle civil disputes such as martial seperation, child custody issues and other civil squabbles in a manner morally compliant with Islam. It has no jurisdiction over British law and instead provides an alternative to often lengthy and expensive court battles. Despite there being very little factual substance to these stories, the influence they can have on non-Muslims living amongst or alongside Muslims and, subsequently, the detrimental effect they have on community cohesion should not be overlooked.

As stated, the MP for Dewsbury and Mirfield is Burnley born Muslim Shahid Malik, a member of the Labour party. He was elected representative of the constituency in 2005 with 41% of the vote. As we have seen, Mr. Malik has been quick to defend the town when it has received the wrong sort of media attention but has himself attracted negative media attention, particularly from local newspaper ‘The Press’, the MP even took the newspaper to court in 2005 over letters the paper published which alleged that one of his campaign team had racially intimidated a rival election candidate. The case was settled out of court but Malik’s rough ride with the that particular newspaper continues. Shahid is also the Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice making him the first Muslim to be made a minister under any British government.

Malik’s closest rival for the Dewsbury seat in the general election of four years ago was Sayeeda Warsi. Despite missing out by 12% of the vote, Warsi has since risen through the ranks of the Conservative party to become Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion. Sayeeda was born and brought up in Dewsbury, attending Birkdale High School, and was the first Muslim woman selected to represent the Conservative party in a parliamentary election. In 2007, she was made a working a peer, becoming Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of Dewsbury as well as the youngest member of the House of Lords.

Tom Coates