Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Talking About the Elephant in the Room

My week-long program of talks, workshops and consultations in the UK continued in Bradford. Here are more notes from the road:

Bradford's magnificent town hall features a 220-foot clock tower modeled on the Campanile of the Palazzo Vacchio in Florence. In its heyday as the center of the wool trade, Bradford shared with Florence the distinction of being the only European city to sustain a fifty percent compound growth rate over two decades. It was the Silicon Valley, or Shanghai of its time. Ninety-five percent of the world's wool crop was traded here and much of it processed in its thriving mills.

When we arrive, my colleague Mike Smith, whose great-grandfather was a mill owner and served two terms as Lord Mayor, arranges a private tour of the town hall with its ornate council chamber paneled with Peruvian mahogany.

Today Bradford is a much different place. The industry is long gone but the city is expanding. A population of 3000 Muslims from South Asia in 1961, invited by Britain to work in the mills, had grow to 75,000 by 2001 and is projected to have increased by another fifty percent by this year.

My host, Philip Lewis, an adviser to the Anglican bishop on interfaith matters, teaches South Asian Islamic studies at Bradford University and serves on national interfaith and social justice commissions. The challenge in Bradford, says Lewis, is not the number of South Asians but the fact that the vast majority has origins in very underdeveloped rural Pakistan, particularly in Azad Kasmir.

The "elephant in the room," that is not much discussed says Lewis, author of Young, British and Muslim is that eighty percent of marriages are transcontinental (often among relatives). Even after three generations many young people have parents both of whom were born overseas. Extended clan networks and feuds are imported into the Bradford community, including the city council.
With Lewis we hold a discussion with leaders of the Bradford Council of Mosques that represents the city's eighty-six mosques. Lewis is an active partner with the Council in efforts to promote community harmony and understanding. In sharing some of Richmond's ongoing efforts in honest conversation, I comment that the big challenge for us to is to be willing to ask, "What is the conversation that is not taking place and what are the topics we fear to put on the table?" One younger Muslim leader responds, "We don’t just need prayer. We have to talk about the issues that tend to be swept under the carpet." Topics such as the generational divide, school catchment areas (many schools are almost 100 percent Asian) and the white and Asian underclass begin to emerge. "There is too much political correctness," says one person. Someone else mentions "blame." "We need to be prepared to take responsibility."

Bradford University is home to a world famous center for peace and conflict studies. My co-facilitator, Willemijn Lambert, has just completed her degree there and we meet several of her friends. I am honored to be asked to speak at the dinner for Rotary Peace Fellows and their sponsors. Perhaps the university can play an even more vital role in addressing tensions in the community. 

I leave Bradford increasingly thoughtful about the particular challenges facing UK cities and how this country can address new realities in a constructive way. But I am encouraged by chatting with my taxi driver. He is from Kashmir and he tells me his neighbor is from the Dominican Republic. “But we get along very well and we exchange presents at Christmas time.”


  1. I am touched to read Rob's evaluation of our visit to the city of my birth. Dr Philip Lewis was grateful that we got 'beneath the surface' in our round-table honest conversation with the executive members of the Bradford Council of Mosques. And I was glad to renew friendships with them, first made on previous visits.

  2. It is great to see the Muslim community in Bradford thinking about the hard, often inward looking, questions that need to be asked. I wish them well and hope that they can constructively address and overcome some of the issues they have identified.

    Philip Lewis' book is fascinating and covers issues that th leaders of Britains Muslim communities really need to think about. A discussion of some its main themes can be found here :