Bradford, England

Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. Note the large mosque on the hill.

Travelers often strike up conversations with other travelers. In Venice we chatted about the U.S. presidential election with a left leaning American couple who makes (Republican) political ads, in Istanbul’s Sirkeci Railway Terminal about writing for the New York Times with a young woman who used to live in Indonesia and with fellow divers on Flores about teaching English in Korea. But the thing travelers like to talk about most is of course their travels, past, present and future. Many times on this trip we’ve outlined our journey through the Muslim world, what motivated us and what we hope to get out of it. And from Brits, we repeatedly heard in response the same suggestion: that if we want to visit places with large Muslim populations, we should be sure to visit the town of Bradford in West Yorkshire, which is over a quarter South Asian.

They were being neither cute nor facetious, and I had had similar thoughts at many points on our trip: To have as full as possible a perspective on the Muslim experience in the world today, it is important not only to visit historically and majority Muslim countries but to see something of the large Muslim populations in non-Muslim countries. I considered visiting Berlin, with a focus on the local Turkish community, the North African banlieues of Paris, Arab Marseille or the Iraqi and Afghani refugees of Stockholm. When it turned out that one of the best fares for us to get from southern Spain back to India was through England, I decided that Bradford would be our Western European Muslim stop.

We spent three days in Bradford, with a generous host who happened to be a Pamiri from Tajikistan. I cannot say that we walked away with any real understanding of Muslim or South Asian life in England, but some things we heard and patterns we saw are certainly representative of similar immigrant communities all around the world. Through the pictures, some thoughts on Muslim England.

Bradford is not so much a town with a large Muslim population as a town with a large South Asian population, many of whom happen to be Muslim but others of whom are Hindu, which leads one to wonder whether religious identity is even an appropriate prism through which to view the local population. Here, the friendly staff at Lahore restaurant, named after the culture capital of Pakistan.

But there is no doubt that religion is in fact a defining trait for the Muslim residents of Bradford. Without seeking them out, we ran into these two Muslim-oriented businesses–a supermarket and a religious products store. One could imagine similar stores organized by ethnicity rather than religion–say a store selling South Asian food products with a Hindu/Urdu name (rather than an Arabic one), or a store selling products particularly useful to all South Asians.

Similarly, this “Muslim Directory,” which we saw in the Living Islam store, was published according to religion, rather than ethnicity.

The Pakistani Community Centre promotes a campaign for Gaza. I find it somewhat peculiar that the Iranian government is so moved by the Palestinian cause, given general disrespect in Iran for many things Arab; that it moves Pakistanis who are even further geographically removed is a strong statement on the feeling of brotherhood fostered by Islam.

We were also told by a white resident of Bradford working in social services that great differences marked the Hindu Indian community and the Muslim Pakistani and Bengladeshi communities in England–the former has been much more successful in assimilating and achieving professional heights (apparently the Indians and the Chinese exceed the native white population in education rates), while the Muslim South Asians lag behind. We were also told that Bradford residents of Pakistani origin were almost bizarrely traditional, with over 90% of local imams and many marriage partners imported from Pakistan, despite the community’s decades-long presence in England. Is there something about their religious identity or practice that is holding this community behind or preventing better integration?

Two local mosques

Bradford is a university town famous for its School of Social & International Studies, where our host was a student in the Peace Studies program. Note the sign on the door for an Islamic study group.

A couple other funny local quirks. We don’t think these two items have anything to do with the relatively recent (postwar) Muslim South Asian community, but the principal theater in Bradford happens to be named The Alhambra and a local synagogue was of clearly Sephardic design, somewhat reminiscent of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (see post of 09.02.02).

The South Asian community has been in Bradford for decades, and are far from the newcomers. A Polish store (note, not a Catholic store) shows the effect of the enlargement of the European Union in even smaller towns in Western Europe.

Local family

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