In the aftermath of the bombings most people locally came together to refute the allegation that the bombers somehow represented Beeston, or that Beeston was an “Islamic slum” as one of the international papers put it. We started going to each other’s places of worship, mixing and properly trying to understand each other. In the years since we seem to have lost that energy and fallen back too often to leading parallel lives.
I was at a meeting recently where people from various local organisations (I was representing Beeston Festival) were discussing with Inspiring Communities their plans for a centre on the Ice Pak site on Barkly Road in Beeston. This is a contentious issue. Beeston Community Forum formally objected to the proposals at an early council planning meeting. We get more comments on South Leeds Life on this subject than almost any other.
One person summed up the problem for me:
“There is a lack of trust. There is fear, otherwise a £5m investment would be welcomed.”
The plans are for a large youth club with added facilities. It’s the added facilities that are causing the problems. I don’t think anyone seriously objects to the sports hall, classrooms and workshops, or the proposed programme of activities and classes for young people. It’s the sort of thing the Hunslet Club does and everyone loves the Hunslet Club.
The add-ons, a prayer room and funeral facilities are included in the scheme because the people who set up Inspiring Communities are motivated by their faith and that faith happens to be Islam.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m an atheist. But can I reassure you that I’m an equal opportunities atheist. I have no truck with any of them: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, you name it. I recognise their contributions to human culture, but also the wars fought in their name. They’ve all produced their own zealots and fundamentalists. I found Blair and Bush just as scary as Osama Bin Laden.
One other thing that unites them is that their various creeds are very similar. They are all very strong on peace and of helping other people.
When I look around South Leeds I see that many (most?) of the activists running community projects are people of faith. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t judge on motivation, but on what is delivered.
So now we have another faith-motivated group, Inspiring Communities, who want to invest serious money in a project to work with young people. A group that wants to break down barriers through common activities. What’s not to like?
Well, apparently architecture and traffic are the problem.
I heard an interesting programme on Radio 4 this week looking at British mosques from an architectural perspective. There is a change in aesthetics, driven by the fact that the Muslim community in Britain is more settled – most Muslims in Britain were born here. Architects are finding other ways to reflect Islamic values in the buildings than just replicating eastern designs. Personally I like minarets and domes – they break up the uniform blocks of houses, or factory / retail sheds.
So the problem for the Inspiring Communities design is that incorporates narrow windows and a tower/minaret. Rather like Kings College Chapel in Cambridge. No really, go and look at it – lots of narrow windows and a minaret at each corner. Just saying.
Traffic is a real issue, but it is for any development these days. The best you can do is follow planning guidance on car spaces and use a green travel plan. This seems to be what Inspiring Communities are doing.
Actually I don’t think Inspiring Communities’ problem is architectural or a traffic issue. I think it’s something different. I think it’s Islam0phobia. We have seen a growing tide of subtle and not so subtle messages that Muslims are different from the rest of us, they are “other”.
“I’ve got nothing against Muslims, but can’t they stay on the other side of the park?” Well no they can’t. Like everyone else they live in the British housing market. If they can afford a house in a “nicer” area, they will move. And whilst we’re at it can we break a few myths?
It is not true that that most people living “below the park” (ie Beeston Hill) are of South Asian heritage. It is not true Muslim people do not live “above the park”. And it is not true that “the Asians” have created a divide between the two halves of Beeston – the park has been a community divide for generations.
So whether it’s the extremism of the English Defence League, or Jill and Joe Public worried by something they read in the paper, Islamaphobia is a real issue. Hamara’s Building Bridges project has made a start to break it down, but we all need to do our bit.
My advice to Aspiring Communities (for what it’s worth) is to get on and build your project. Jump through whatever planning hoops you have to. Prove through your activities and programmes that you are an asset to the community and not a threat.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.