6 August 2001
Following the recent racial disturbances in the North East of England The Muslim Council of Britain held a National Conference which brought together a broad coalition of interested parties including young people, community leaders, politicians, the police and representatives from the public and voluntary sectors. The aim of the Conference was to examine the underlying causes of the disturbances, promote good practice and discuss practical measures that government and the community could undertake in order to prevent a reoccurrence.
The one-day Conference, themed Building Communities, Building Bridges held on Saturday 4th August at Manchester Town Hall gave young people centre stage. A number of young men and women from Oldham, Burnley, Bradford, Manchester, Sunderland and London spoke frankly and powerfully about their experiences of living and/or working in the affected communities. “Nobody is listening to the youth” was an oft-repeated comment representing a wide-spread feeling of disenfranchisement. There was sharp criticism of local politicians who as one participant put it “would not even give us the time of day.” A participant from Bradford expressed his concern that regeneration funds granted for the purpose of helping young people never actually reached them and were squandered instead on plush offices and bureaucracy. The police came in for heavy criticism from many of the delegates both for their handling of the riots and their perceived hostile attitude towards Asian Muslim youth generally. A local leader from Burnley, Nazer Elyas, spoke of his personal experiences of wrongful arrest and police harassment. Community leaders and national politicians were also seen as out of touch.
Suggestions for improvement included youth councils, greater consultation and greater accountability for bureaucrats responsible for regeneration budgets. Good practice examples were provided by Abul Khayar Ali from NAFAS, an innovative drugs rehabilitation/prevention programme in Tower Hamlets in London, and Shaykh Ebrahim Mogra, a young Imam from Leicester who spoke eloquently about the need for mosques to do more than just provide prayer facilities and the importance of connecting with young people. The determined mood was summed up by a young woman from Sunderland: “young people should not be underestimated – they will take action to protect their interests”.
Richard Leese, leader of Manchester Council opened the conference. Yousuf Bhailok, Secretary General of the MCB, welcoming the guests stressed the need to hear from the grass root communities of their concern. The keynote address was given by Rashida Butt Chair of Regen 2000 in Bradford. Other speakers and representatives included Tony Lloyd MP (Manchester central); Sally Keeble MP Minister at DTLR, Martin Pagel, Deputy Leader of Manchester Council; Councillor Azhar Ali, leader, Pendle Council; Shahid Malik, CRE Commissioner; Asst. Chief Constable Alan Bridges, Greater Manchester Police, Superintendent Keith Bentley, Sub-Divisional Commander at Oldham, Brian Pearce, Inter Faith Network. Other representatives included Duncan Edward of the GMB who emphasised the importance of tackling poverty and unemployment and Maqsood Ahmed, the Muslim Prison Advisor about support services for Muslim prisoners.
Commenting on the event, the MCB Deputy Secretary-General Mr Mahmud Al-Rashid stated “I’m glad the conference has been a success in attracting a wide variety of key people – especially the young. But this is only the first stage. The challenge for us and for the government now must be to tackle the root causes of the disturbances, regenerate our towns and cities and restore trust and co-operation between different communities in Britain”.
The conference concluded with three messages. The first of these was to the political leadership and ‘opinion formers’ – that Muslims must be seen as an integral part of British society, and that the recent disturbances were not just an Asian or Muslim problem. The second message was a reminder by the Muslim community to itself – that Islam was not about narrow self-interest, but that it stood for seeking the common good for every member of society. Moreover, the mosques up and down the country need to be more than just places of worship, but provide recreational, social welfare and educational facilities for men and women, the young and old. The third message was to the youth – that they should aspire and direct their huge energy towards excellence, finding their inspiration in the role models from Muslim history of all ages.
Notes to editors
- The conference follows a number of initiatives launched by the MCB in order to help the situation in the North West, some of which pre-date the disturbances.
- In July 2001 a fact-finding team from MCB visited the region in order to gain first hand reports and views, which were presented to the Home Office Minister Angela Eagle MP.
- In large part the conference reflects an unprecedented number of calls, emails and faxes to the MCB from individuals and organisations expressing concern at the disturbances and associated expressions of Islamophobia.
- The conference proceedings will form part of a wider report on the disturbances and practical suggestions, and will be published in the near future by the MCB.