I’ve been sitting on an exciting piece of personal and professional news for some time, and have been a little nervous for various reasons to shout about it. The senseless murder of the courageous and fearless mother and campaigner Jo Cox, has given me the courage to make this public. It is so important to stand up for what you believe in even if it scares the crap out of you!
A few years ago, on the quiet and diverse council estate that I live on in north Leeds, a muslim organisation bought an old derelict pub, with plans to turn it into a mosque/local community centre. After the purchase what followed was a shock. We had right-wing propaganda posted through the door, with words like ‘muslim gangs’ and ‘Sharia law’ emblazoned on the front. Weeks later, the EDL marched past my front door, throwing dead pigs heads at the police, shouting abuse and fighting, while my kids peaked through the curtains watching them. It was one of the most frightening things I have witnessed. Frightening because of two things; Seeing that level of anger and blind hatred towards a group of people first hand and on your doorstep, and not being able to find the words to explain it away to your kids. Secondly, and most importantly, I watched how quickly events can divide a community. I watched neighbours and mums and dads I’d seen in the playground marching along with them, eyes all ablaze with hatred, angry and violent.
The vocalist of the band I was managing at the time came along and witnessed the march with my husband and I, and he wrote a song about it. We used some of the footage of the EDL marching past my house to make a music video. It was a quick decision, and I put little thought into the repercussions of making that video. Soon after it was released, the band recieved death threats on Facebook and twitter. They may have been empty threats, but they were bad enough for us to re-think the way we managed our social networking pages. It’s something I will always be incredibly proud to have been a part of, and so glad that we made that small stand in the face of something so ugly and divisive. It was an angry knee-jerk reaction to the situation, but for me it wasn’t enough.
In the three years since the EDL march, there has been a tension on the estate. Murmuring in the local shop, conversations in the playground. There is a clear divide. An unspoken but obvious worry among both local muslims and among those who opposed the muslim community centre and mosque.
Last summer, the majority of the building work had been carried out and the centre had an open day and invited everyone locally to come along. My husband, my two boys and I went along to show a bit of support and to have a look. We left the house with some trepidation, what were we heading in to? As we arrived we were greeted by a couple of little old ladies with leaflets. They were visibly shaken. A couple of cars had just driven past the building and they’d had abuse shouted at them. ‘Muzzie lovers’. The ladies were locals, and had taken it upon themselves to get involved in the centre and show a bit of solidarity.
The building inside is beautiful, all marble with chandeliers. There were children running all about, a flurry of activity and cooking, tables full of food and a bouncy castle. We were greeted so warmly by several very kind and exuberant people from the centre. We had a guided tour by an very funny and animated older man. He was so proud and pleased that we had come. After our tour I was collared by a well to-do looking lady, who immediately told me of a community group that had been set up by locals who were worried about the divisions in the area. They were working in partnership with the centre, running events and trying desperately to restore some kind of balance locally. After a long chat, I decided that I had to help in some way.
I’ve been involved with the group now for a year. The centre had it’s official opening in April and was attended by several hundred people. The day was amazing. I’m not a religious person, I’d describe myself as an agnostic for the most part, but I couldn’t help be in awe of people that hold such high values and have such dedication to something they believe in. I was sat in between a lady in a burqa and small little girl of about 4 years old. They had lots of prayers, and lots of talks about the future of the building and the journey that they had been on to open the centre. The little girl next to me got bored and started fidgeting. Her mother was sat not far away and could see her daughter was about to go off on one, so she scooped her up and plonked her on my lap. She smiled and the little girl started playing with my necklace and was occupied again. The lady in the burqa next to me made eye contact and smiled. It was a lovely day, I met so many genuinely open and passionate people. We sat on the floor and had food and chatted after the talk, the older ladies from our community group were given chairs and had food brought to them. Was this really what all the fuss had been about? All that division and anger and hatred, over this? I don’t know all that much about Islam, I have no first hand experience of it other than this day, but as I write this I am reminded of Jo Cox’ maiden speech to parliament last year:
“Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
For the last six months or so, our community group has been working on opening a community hub opposite the centre. The row of shops opposite has had a vacant shop for a while, so we have been working with the council, submitting business plans and all sorts of complicated and drawn out paper work in order to secure it. Our plan was to work along side and in partnership with them, holding clubs, groups, coffee mornings, curry cooking classes, gaming sessions, music classes, fish and chip afternoons and computer clubs, it’s an exhaustive list! We are at the start of our journey, bridging a cavern of intolerance, but desperately hoping that we can find a way to show that hope and not hate wins through in the end. These are small gestures. Sharing food, finding a common ground and learning from one another.
We have had to be incredibly secretive, so as not to stoke unwanted opposition. It has been a tough one to keep quiet, especially when being drawn into conversations with people about ‘It’s bloody awful, it shouldn’t be allowed, don’t know what the world’s coming to’.
Several days ago, our bid had been approved, I’ve picked up the keys, and there is a long road ahead! In all honesty, after what has happened, there is a tiny part of me that is a little afraid, I have seen the anger and fear in peoples eyes first-hand. But, more than anything, I am determined that our little band of ‘do-gooders’ will make a small but significant difference to the lives of the people that live here.
I may have a utopian view of multi-cultural Britain, there are of course challenges and things to over come, but what is the alternative? My children are still young, they have a host of battles ahead of them, I want to make sure that the community and wider world they grow up in is as tolerant and fair as possible. Things are hard enough for a lot of people, we are living in a time of uncertainty, and that breeds a culture of blame and fear. I beg all people in positions of power, and all of us with a social and moral compass to not play on peoples fear. Whether on the left or the right, anger and hatred of anyone for any reason is not the answer. We are at an important crossroads, we can choose to fight one another and apportion blame, pointing out our differences or we can choose to focus on the things that make us all human. This is our Britain, all of ours, we can choose to make it what we want, for the benefit of everyone that lives here.
We absolutely have to learn from the last week. The wonderful and moving statement from Jo Cox’ husband Brendan, is something that I will try to live by. What a wonderful woman, I hope that she continues to inspire future generations as much as she has inspired me.