LEICESTER, England – As Europe gropes for answers to the recent surge of questions regarding its large and growing population of immigrants, many of them Muslims, one place to look might be this slightly down-at-the-heel town smack in England’s center.
Leicester, surrounded by rolling fields, was historically a small, prosperous manufacturing town rooted in the traditions of the English countryside. Farmers brought their cattle and sheep to be sold near the cobbled medieval heart of the town, where red-brick Victorian buildings hark back to a less complicated era.
The picture has changed, however. Leicester today is a multicultural city of 300,000 where descendants of the textile workers and farmers share the streets with Hindus, Sikhs and, increasingly, Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, East Africa and the Balkans.
Over the past 30 years, immigrants poured into Leicester – and were welcomed thanks to the progressive policy of city elders, who convinced local people of the value of a multicultural future. The newcomers established peaceful lives, turning Leicester into a model for the rest of Europe of a mixed city that works.
Yet Leicester is now being challenged by troubling new dynamics, officials admit, one of which is a growing Muslim assertiveness. The city’s success with multiculturalism is being put to the test by ethnic tensions between Muslims and Hindus, fresh Muslim immigration from countries like Somalia and Bosnia, and a simmering resentment among the city’s poor white groups toward the immigrants. This last factor has assumed a darker meaning in Britain’s charged atmosphere since the Islamist terrorist bombings in London in July.
The local government, meanwhile, projects that Leicester – whose white population is now about 65 percent – could become the first city in Britain with a nonwhite majority by the start of the next decade.
That would make Leicester a still more prominent battleground in Europe’s struggle to sketch a blueprint for multiculturalism with a place for Islam in Western society.
“What you see on the surface is quite fragile,” warns Manzoor Moghal, a prominent Muslim leader in Leicester and a self-made businessman who arrived here from Uganda in the 1970s. “There are different currents running that threaten to split this asunder.”
Moghal, chairman of the Muslim Forum, an umbrella group dealing with Muslim issues in Leicestershire, is one of many who worry that Leicester’s tradition of peaceful coexistence is threatened by the pace of change.
Leicester’s racial transformation has been breathtaking. The town of 30 years ago, where a boy could sit with his grandfather beside the cattle and sheep stalls at the market, has segued into a city where offices and shops cleared at sunset in October for Ramadan and Indian districts prepared for Diwali, the Hindu winter festival of light.
In Leicester today, northern districts like Melton Road have a profusion of Hindu temples, Muslim centers, halal butchers, and Indian and Pakistani restaurants, jewelers, banks and clothes stores. In the 700-year-old covered vegetable market, a multiracial mix of shoppers pick through piles of mushrooms and papayas, jumbled tables of belts, underwear and Chinese kites. The cattle market went under concrete years ago and is now a supermarket.
Local opposition to this transformation peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, when nationalists marched through town. But Leicester’s leftist local government, declaring that the city’s future was multicultural, successfully responded with a progressive policy that is still finely attuned to the cultural sensibilities of the newcomers.
“We don’t talk about what the immigrants have to do to fit in with us,” said Trish Roberts-Thomson, a policy officer at Leicester City Council. “Leicester has a very softly-softly approach.”
The council embraced ethnic leaders in a multiplicity of race committees and interfaith councils. This civic integration was combined with economic integration as Leicester got a willing pool of labor to work in its textile and shoe factories, hospitals and other areas of the public sector. There was soon a prosperous ethnic middle class of entrepreneurs who now have begun to move into the city’s leafier outer suburbs.
“Some have gained a lot of wealth, and bought hotels and property,” said Jiva Odedra, chief executive of the Leicester Asian Business Association.
The result of civic and economic integration is that Leicester is without the edginess of its bigger Midlands neighbor Birmingham, where clashes between Asian and Afro-Caribbean gangs this month ended with two people dead and left officials and leaders asking why.
When race riots broke out in a string of northern English cities – Bradford, Oldham and Burnley – in the summer of 2001, Leicester stayed peaceful.
“Leicester is successful,” said Robert Colls, professor of English history at Leicester University. “People of many ethnicities have come to live here in less than a generation, and there is no civil disorder and never has been – in spite of early attempts in the 1970s to foment it.”
Hindus traditionally dominated the city’s ethnic politics, but the Muslim population has grown in recent years through a higher birth rate and immigration; each of the two groups now accounts for about 15 percent of Leicester’s population.
Muslims “are becoming more articulate,” says Paul Winstone, an officer with the council who came to Leicester in the 1960s, worked against the early racist backlash and has been an important witness and guide of the city’s multicultural transformation.
Muslims are demanding more on a number of fronts, such as their own faith-based schools and the freedom to wear their religious dress at work or to have halal food in the city hospitals, as well as broader political power within the city council. Winstone says the change is leading to “the perception that Hindus could leave the city – and Hindus have been Leicester’s economic motor.”
A further challenge to Leicester’s equanimity is the risk of the re-emergence of white opposition toward the immigrants.
In 2002, in the wake of the northern riots, Leicester’s council commissioned a report that found hitherto unnoticed and worrying levels of hostility among people in poor, white working-class districts toward their ethnic neighbors. This was mainly caused by resentment about the perceived generosity of public resources being channeled to the Asian districts. “The biggest threat to multiculturalism is from the white working class because multiculturalism gets the attention the white working classes don’t,” said Roberts-Thomson.
Asian leaders fear the resentment could be inflamed by antiterrorism legislation being put forward by the British government that is designed to crack down on Islamic extremism. Among other steps, the government proposes banning some Islamic groups, but Muslim leaders fear such action would encourage the white British public to view them as foreign rather than British.
Leicester’s reputation as a strife-free city was not helped when two Leicester men originally from Algeria were arrested in the city and jailed in 2003 for providing financial support for Al Qaeda. Another was deported to France.
Even today, officials like Winstone report occasional attempts by Muslim extremists from nearby towns like Nottingham or Derby to infiltrate Leicester’s mosques, “although they were roughed up and sent back,” he says.
Colls, of Leicester University, says that in his experience there is a thirst among younger Leicester Muslims for more enlightened teaching and a rejection of the hard-line Islamists: A lecture at the university by a Muslim teacher on the need for a Muslim enlightenment drew in hundreds, he said.
One reason why Leicester’s multicultural experiment has worked so well in the past, experts say, is that many of its Muslims and Hindus arrived indirectly via East Africa, from countries like Uganda or Malawi, where their families had settled in earlier generations. When they reached Leicester, they were already urbanized entrepreneurs used to British administration.
In contrast, English cities like Bradford took in thousands of Muslims directly from Pakistan’s rural hinterlands, Leicester officials say.
But Leicester’s newest wave of arrivals – Somalis, Bosnians, Kosovars – represent a new type of immigration: smaller, diverse groups in contrast to the Hindus and Muslims who had arrived en masse.
The biggest new group is from Somalia, a Muslim country. More than 10,000 Somalis have moved to Leicester over the past two to three years, according to city officials. Many have come from the Netherlands, where, they complain, they could not find work and faced dispersal under the strict housing policy.
Some of the Somalis are highly skilled professionals and are integrating well into the business community, according to Odedra of the Asian business group. But others have moved into the poorest inner-city districts, such as the tatty streets behind the city railroad station, the usual destination for the poorest new arrivals, and where, according to Winstone, some have clashed violently with West Indians.
According to Roberts-Thomson, who has worked with the Somalis, many are still deeply affected by the Somali civil war, which makes integrating harder.
In the newly febrile atmosphere, a debate has begun – even here in multicultural Leicester – about the degree of assimilation required by immigrants.
“When you want to live in a society, when you want to be part of that society, you have an obligation to blend in,” says Moghal, who dresses in an impeccable business suit.
Others, like Ibrahim Mogra, a younger Muslim and one of Leicester’s leading imams, take a stricter line and believe Muslims should be allowed to live and work in Britain on their own terms.
“I do not want to live in a Britain where my culture is second-class,” said Mogra, who greets visitors to his small terraced home in one of the heavily Asian districts of Leicester in turban, robe and full flowing beard. “I have integrated as best as I could. I have done almost anything.”
Mogra, who was one of a small group of Muslim leaders called to meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair after the July bombings, believes businesses should accommodate Muslim dress in the workplace. But his views are not limited to clothing: He calls Blair a “tyrant oppressor” for his policy in Iraq and is equally scathing about the West’s policy of restricting Iran’s nuclear program.
Such conflicting views on assimilation reflect the current questioning and probing of Western Europe’s multicultural model that is going on across the Continent.
It is an open question whether the experience of the past three decades will protect Leicester as a beacon for the rest of Europe, or whether the jolts of colliding populations will inevitably bring conflict to this once-tranquil place.