April issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

Smashed windows, cars overturned, the smell of burning tyres, police in riot gear, the helicopter overhead and the secret service at her door.

Samina Sheikh couldn’t fathom how the sleepy city of Burnley had turned into a war zone overnight. “It was really strange. The MI6 wanted names. I have to live in this area, what names was I supposed to give them? Most of the young boys were rioting; were they going to arrest everyone? They just kept asking the same questions.”

The day after the interrogation, Samina’s cousin called to inform her that the MI6 had cornered groups of youth claiming Samina had “ratted them out.”

“Can you believe that? I didn’t give them nothing. All I saw was a lot of smashing; I was trying to note names. The police always try to use Bangladeshis and Pakistanis against each other and whites against Asians — it’s how they get information on drug gangs,” says Samina.

A series of riots in Oldham, Bradford and Leeds through June 2001 spread to Burnley after police took half-an-hour to respond to reports of extremist white nationalists beating a Pakistani taxi driver “to a pulp,” and almost a decade later, authorities are still dealing with the fallout. At the time it was easy to estimate physical damage at 10 million pounds.

“Tension is always heightened here when there is a racially motivated incident. Everyone starts talking about it, a mob gathers; you have poor, Asian deprived areas and poor, white deprived areas, a massive young population that is unemployed, and then it all comes to a head,” says a youth worker, requesting anonymity.

Walking through the streets of Burnley, past rows of boarded-up townhouses and abandoned factories, it is not hard to understand why the former textile industry centre is trapped under the strata of economic frustration and racial tension that explode from time to time.

Burnley was a thriving industrial town back in the ’50s and ’60s when the British government invited thousands of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to settle in the UK to fill labour shortages. Many of them found work as night shift workers in the grim warehouses that accounted for the burgeoning textile manufacturing industry.

“Those jobs are gone now; the entire industry moved abroad. The government didn’t even think of what would follow. The Asian men used to work hard and take on extra shifts — mostly work that no else wanted — but white-nationalist and right-wing parties used that hard work ethic against them saying they were stealing British jobs. Presently, there are no jobs to steal but the rhetoric is still the same, and now the two communities are so isolated from one another, they don’t realise that they share the same problems. And politicians are quick to play on their concerns for votes,” says Arif Aziz Khan, a peace activist based in London.

Pat Smith, 54, is from Baycop, a “white deprived area” with a lot of BNP [British Nationalist Party] activity. “You won’t find a lot of Asians here because the boys in the pub I work at promise to firebomb them out. I don’t know how serious they are but I hate listening to the endless jokes about Pakistanis. I attend a beautiful embroidery workshop with Asian women and it really saddens me,” she says.

Pat says she feels like a coward for not telling the youth to stop their racist banter and open their eyes and minds to a more complex reality, and to stop having their fears exploited for votes.

“It’s my area so I know some of the lads but it’s my part-time job so I can’t really say much. The talk is all about how the lads think the Asians are stealing jobs. That is the BNP propaganda. There was this time just before the elections when I told my boss I didn’t want to come in to work because I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut, but the next day when I went to work, my boss told me that some of the young white lads had stood up to the BNP boys. That made me feel like there still is hope,” says Pat.

Hope, for youth worker Awais Javed, is about cultivating a sense of identity for youth growing up in a polarised city. “You have young guys like me looking for a solid sense of belonging. Our moms go to Pakistan where I see people with servants and drivers, living a life of luxury, but I am British — my home is Burnley and I would rather struggle and work hard here than escape to Pakistan,” he says.

But the Asian youth grow up isolated from their white peers, listening to stories of racism and alienation from their parents. So then Bangladeshi and Pakistani children end up together in class, and then they hear different versions of 1971. So, eventually, they find themselves gravitating towards family friends.

There is a sense of rejection from mainstream society so the kids begin to barricade themselves at an early age, and by the time they are nearing graduation, they are suspicious of the white community and resentful of the racial slurs their parents endured.

“That’s when the problems start,” says Awais, as we walk past a brick wall with the numbers “1971” sprayed across it.

Awais and his friends have come up with a unique enterprise with which to dismantle the isolation and redirect the angry energy of the youth into positive activities that provide a sense of belonging and identity: football. “They are too young to remember the events of 1971; they cling to it to say this is how I am different and this is my identity. We say identify with a club that focuses on football and fitness, and make friends based on that.”

The Daneshouse Football Club takes its name from the area where it is headquartered. Afrasiab Ahmed, a sports coach by profession, started it when he realised that a disproportionately large number of Asian youth was turning towards drugs and crime because they couldn’t relate to their parents or peers. The club is run out of Ghausia centre, which is affiliated to a progressive mosque next door. “The youth come here because we don’t lecture them, we just listen and provide recreational facilities. The youth get to chill and just be themselves; they trust us, so when they start mixing with the wrong elements, they feel more comfortable about confiding in us,” says Afrasiab. “We talk about race issues, drugs and crime freely here, in a controlled environment, addressing issues as they come up. There is no father or imam to fear here and it is also a safe space.”

A youth in a hoodie with the roll call of hip-hop stars scrawled across it, explains: “Your father picks you up from school and drops you to the mosque. There you’re nodding at the imam, reading and memorising verses and then the imam tells you what he thinks of the issues from a religious perspective — do they really expect us to relate?”

So the youth end up on the streets, unable to “chill” at home with ultra conservative parents who are struggling to maintain the orthodox environment of their villages of origin. They hang around street curbs, vulnerable to young boys driving cars that they only see in video games and movies.

“Where does a 17-year-old get a 70 grand car? No one has a job. These kids on street corners don’t question; rather, they admire the guys behind the wheel. Those guys hold the car door open and tell the kids on the street they will buy them pizza. The kids don’t have a pound in their pocket so that sounds pretty good. Then they start hanging out and wondering how to get a car like theirs and the ability to treat their friends and family to meals. They are then handed a packet to sell, the packets get bigger and next thing you know, they are embroiled in a drug racket.”

Hassan, who serves as a volunteer coach at the Daneshouse Football Club, almost got sucked in himself.

“My girlfriend was into this gang that was all about drugs and that cut me off from my real friends who didn’t have anything to do with drugs. I was about to graduate to the next level and make a delivery but all my friends at the time got busted and were put in prison for a long, long time. One is still there, his girlfriend had his baby while he was in prison, I think they did a nikah. For me, it was all about being with this girl I loved, and about belonging. But for these other guys it was about the money so it’s hard for them to break out — they’re used to making 300 to 1,000 pounds a week even at the lower levels.”

“When I went to the Daneshouse Football Club, no one judged me, they just talked to me. There was no bullying; they had respect for each other. I was lucky to have my license suspended for reckless driving when the big deliveries were being made. It saved me. Playing football and just releasing stress and building relationships through sports has helped me. But those guys, my friends, it was their first time inside and now they won’t get a second chance,” says Hassan.

Hassan is referring to the fact that having a prison record means that integration into the ordinary workforce becomes near impossible, which means the youth are at a high risk of re-offending.

Today, Muslims are disproportionately represented in Britain’s prison population. Although they account for only 2% of the entire population of the United Kingdom, Muslims make up more than 10% of all the prisoners, according to prison service statistics.

“We know Hizbut Tahrir operates in the area, as well as other extremist elements and it is easy for them to get a hold of someone who has been in prison and is not being accepted back into the family or back into the workforce. They tell them, ‘If you have to go to prison, why not get paid to do it and do it for a greater purpose.’ Prison is an easy place to radicalise someone who is lost and cut off from his gang or his support system; the jihadis have a captive audience there,” says a police officer who cannot be named.

Mohammed Hadi has been down that route.

“They came to me after I came out of prison and they knew things about me, things I told other people in prison. I went to some meetings and heard their arguments. They like us ex-prison types because they tell us no one wants anything to do with you, no one respects you. They tell you they have a way for us to earn respect. I don’t know about respect. I know I lost my job, I lost my family and I need some money.”

But Hadi is afraid of organisations that promise to help him. He hasn’t gone to a homeless shelter for that precise reason. He wants to get his wife and children back and for that he needs to make some money soon. “But I won’t be photocopying bomb-making manuals to make money. I don’t want any more trouble.”

“The streets are bad,” says Shaheena Siddiqui, who has lived in the area for 30 years. “I don’t think it is that easy to clean them up. I see young kids doing deals early in the morning when I drive to work unusually early. The problem is huge; we need to find ways to talk these youth off the streets. Problem is, the parents are either in denial or not there; most dads work takeaway or taxi. Doesn’t give them much time to monitor their kids.”

A dangerous cocktail is brewing in areas like Bradford, Oldham and Burnley where there are young men, white and Asian, without jobs, without aspirations, without hope. When they express that frustration, it comes out in racist remarks directed at each other. On standby is a right-wing political party clawing to get some traction among a white electorate convinced that Asians are threatening their survival. Meanwhile, Asian parents in the area appear to avoid discussing these issues with their kids, dropping them off to the mosque to be lectured at instead. The youth take to hanging out on the streets where they are vulnerable to gangs looking for new recruits with which to beef up their distribution network. If they are arrested or imprisoned, they end up with a prison record, leaving them with limited options for employment. Enter the extremists, who are always on the look out for disenfranchised youth they can brainwash and use in operations.

But hundreds of thousands of pounds in aid and several government programmes aimed at mitigating the social isolation that Muslims, Pakistanis and other members of the British minority and ethnic population experience indicate that the problem has been identified. Social cohesion units at the municipal level have been created to ease ethnic tensions. An army of youth workers is ready to resuscitate the suffocated aspirations of kids as they approach adulthood in Burnley. An experiment within a long-term rescue operation has begun.