Ramadan ding-dong Foreign conflicts stoke sectarian squabbles among British Muslims
Safdar Shah, one of the husseiniya’s founders, says that 30 years ago, when most of the city’s Sunnis and Shias arrived from the Pakistani side of Kashmir, they often prayed together. But over the past year leaflets denouncing Shias have circulated on city buses, and Sunnis have launched a boycott of two Shia-owned takeaways in Little Horton, a neighbourhood where over half the population is Asian. A flurry of tweets enjoin Sunnis to “stay away from Shia”. Community elders fear the identity politics sweeping the Middle East are seeping into Britain’s school playgrounds, prisons and mosques.
“We all condemn atrocities in Palestine, but Sunnis just shrug when Shias in Pakistan are massacred in their mosques,” says a teacher who is Shia. He complains of heckling by Sunni students, including the 12-year-old son of one of three Bradford sisters who recently took their children to join Islamic State’s “caliphate”.
Some Muslim organisations like TELL MAMA, which campaigns against Islamophobia, have been quick to argue for a proactive response, but the largest are sluggish and reactive. The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group, released a denunciation of the Bradford graffiti only after a call from this newspaper.
Opinion is divided over the cause of the surge in identity politics. “When people are unhappy, have no jobs and are disaffected they need a pastime,” says Nussrat Mohammed, a Labour councillor. Unlike the gleaming glass towers of nearby Leeds, Bradford’s squat skyline of sandstone seems stuck in the time-warp of the Industrial Revolution (bar the minarets). Residents accuse the council, the government and above all Britain’s sometimes histrionic media for portraying the city as a trough of extremism.
Others say preachers stoke the division. Most of the country’s 27 Muslim seminaries are Deobandi, a purist form of South Asian Islam. Once a minority among Pakistanis in Britain, with the young this puritanical tendency is gaining ground against the Barelvi tradition, whose colourful customs reflect the popular religious practices of Pakistan.
Sectarian battles in Pakistan and the Gulf ripple back to Bradford. Outside the town hall, Sunnis and Shias have staged protests against rival factions in Syria’s civil war. “The politics there are played out here,” says Amjad Pervez, a leading local businessman, who worries that Kashmiri politicians join the campaign trail in Bradford’s elections. “The monsters fed from abroad have grown too big to be handled by one organisation—even the British government,” he says.
Tensions seem containable. Thousands of Shias from across northern England each year commemorate Ashura, the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, by marching through Bradford’s streets beating their chests, to only mild abuse from a few Sunnis. And in death more than life, Sunnis and Shias go side by side. The headstones and piles of flowers at the Scholemoor cemetery seem to get larger by the year, despite a Wahhabi rejection of the practice as ancestor worship.
But outside school gates Shia parents waiting for their children are worried. A seven-year-old returned home complaining that classmates had threatened to “slaughter you when you grow up”. Three of the four London suicide-bombers a decade ago came from Yorkshire; so did the 17-year-old who blew himself up earlier this month in an IS attack in Syria, worries a Bradford mother. She wants police to protect her husseiniya and wonders whether she should keep the felt stencil of Imam Ali, underlined with a sword, swinging from the car mirror. “We used to say the attacks sweeping the Muslim world could never happen here,” she says. “I’m no longer sure.”
Editor’s note: the Muslim Council of Britain has told us that it had drafted a statement condemning the vandalism before being contacted by The Economist, though it issued no statement until the following day. We are happy to clarify this.