by Soeren Kern
Leicester, one of the most rapidly Islamizing cities in England, has elected its first-ever Muslim mayor.
Abdul Razak Osman, an Indian-origin Muslim who was born in Kenya and who immigrated to Britain in 1971, was sworn into office during an elaborate investiture ceremony at the Leicester City Hall on May 18.
Osman’s election reflects the growing influence of Muslims on local politics in Leicester. At his swearing-in ceremony, Osman declared: “I’m proud to be the first Muslim councillor to hold the position. We’ve had Christian, Hindu, and Sikh and now I’m able to bring the Islamic faith to the office, which is a great honor.”
Leicester, an industrial city some 70 minutes north of London, is often promoted as Britain’s quintessential multicultural success story. Immigrants currently make up nearly one-half the city’s total population of 280,000, and Leicester is on the fast-track to become the first non-white majority city in British history. Many of the immigrants are of South Asian origin; and Leicester — once known as a center for manufacturing shoes and textiles — is now known for its many Hindu, Sikh and Muslim places of worship.
But a sharp rise in Muslim immigration in recent years is upsetting the city’s ethnic balance, and is casting doubt upon the city’s multicultural future.
After Christians and Hindus, Muslims are the third-largest faith group in Leicester. The city’s Muslim population is estimated to be between 11% and 14% (or somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 Muslims), which is well above the percentage (4.6) of Muslims in Britain as a whole.
The Muslim population in Leicester is made up mainly of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, as well as Turks, Somalis, Kenyans and Ugandans. According to the Ummah Forum, “you’d really like Leicester if you want to be around a large population of Muslims.”
Muslim immigration has led to the proliferation of mosques in Leicester, which now has more than 200 mosques and madrassas [Islamic religious schools] and hundreds of informal Islamic prayer rooms located in basements, garages and warehouses.
Leicester is also home to several mega-mosques. The Leicester Central Mosque complex has a capacity for nearly 3,000 worshippers. It also has a school, a community hall, a residence hall for imams, a mortuary and a guest house. The huge Masjid Umar mosque has four towering minarets and a grand dome that displays Arabic calligraphy from the Koran.
The most influential Muslim in Leicester is Shaykh Abu Yusuf Riyadh-ul-Haq, a hardline Muslim cleric who runs theAl Kawthar Academy, a well-known Islamic school in the city. Ul-Haq, 41, is also the leader of a new generation of “home-grown” British Islamists who loathe Western values, support armed Jihad and preach contempt for Christians, Jews and Hindus.
Ul-Haq, who preaches in mosques across Britain, outlaws television and music, and says football is “a cancer that has infected our youth.” He is appalled by young women who want to get educated and go to university. He regularly praises the work of the Taliban and their attacks against British troops in Afghanistan.
In a typical sermon, entitled “Imitating the Disbelievers,” ul-Haq warns British Muslims of the danger of being corrupted by the “evil influence” of Western culture. He also heaps scorn on Muslims who say they are “proud to be British,” and argues that friendship with a Christian or a Jew makes “a mockery of Allah’s religion.”
In another sermon called “Jewish Fundamentalism,” Ul-Haq says: “They’re all the same. The Jews don’t have to be in Israel to be like this. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in New York, Houston, St Louis, London, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester. They’re all the same. They’ve monopolized everything: the Holocaust, God, money, interest, usury, the world economy, the media, political institutions […] they monopolized tyranny and oppression as well. And injustice.”
Ul-Haq’s sermons are broadcast to thousands of listeners on Radio Ramadhan Leicester in Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, Somali, Arabic and English.
According to American diplomatic cables that were obtained and published by the website Wikileaks, Leicester is home to the most conservative Islamic population anywhere in Europe.
A leaked diplomatic cable recounts the October 2007 visit to Leicester by Farah Pandith, the U.S. State Department’s Senior Advisor for Muslim Engagement. The stated purpose of the visit was for the U.S. government to find ways to help Britain “update and improve” its approach to stopping “home-grown” Islamic extremists. The document says Pandith found the lack of integration of the Muslim community in Leicester to be “striking.”
Among other observations, the cable states that Pandith was shocked to find “girls as young as four years old were completely covered.” The document continues: “At a local book store, texts… seemed designed to segregate Muslims from their wider community, urging women to cover themselves and remain in their homes, playing up the differences between Islam and other religions, seeking to isolate Muslims from community, and feeding hate of Jews to the young.”
The cable also recounts a discussion Pandith had with religious and community leaders at an Ahmadiyya (an Asian Islamic sect) mosque: “Yaqub Khan, General Secretary of a local organization called the Pakistan Association, insisted that he had to teach young people in Urdu. When Pandith challenged him as to why he would use Urdu with children who were growing up with English as their first language, Khan insisted that there were no good books on the Koran in English.”
Leicester is also notorious for having the fourth-highest rate of unemployment in Britain. Moreover, the city has very high rates of illiteracy, and ranks as one of the worst five municipalities in England for education.
A recent survey, entitled “Muslims in Leicester,” says that Muslims in the city are especially prone to underachievement and unemployment. The report says the inner city Spinney Hills neighborhood, which has the highest percentage of Muslims in Leicester, is also the ward with the lowest rate of full-time employment, the highest rate of unemployment, the highest level of economic inactivity, the highest percentage of “no qualifications” for work and the highest level of social housing.
Muslims are now demanding political power within the Leicester city council, as well as the freedom to wear their religious dress at work and to have halal food in the city hospitals. They are also seeking their own faith-based schools.
One such school, the Leicester Islamic Academy — where female students wear the full-length dress and head-covering and the boys wear black robes and skullcaps — has been accused by the British government of promoting Islamic separatism. Another state-run Islamic school in Leicester, the Madani High School, has run afoul of government regulators for reneging on its promise that 10% of its pupils would be non-Muslim.
The British government has tried — unsuccessfully — to reverse the tide of Islamic separatism in Leicester. In June 2008, for example, the city hosted the first in a series of road shows designed to tackle the problem of honor-based violence. Leicester has been plagued by forced marriages, kidnappings, physical and mental abuse of women, and other honor-based crimes against those who have not, according to family and local community members, conformed to religious or cultural expectations.
Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, has warned that Britain is “sleepwalking to segregation.” In a speech in Manchester, he said: “Segregation is now so extreme in some schools that there is not much farther it can go. It does not help to prepare children in these schools for the real world.” Phillips also described cities like Leicester as “literal black holes into which nobody goes without fear and trepidation and from which nobody ever escapes undamaged.”
Alluding to the transformation of cities like Leicester, Michael Nazir-Ali, a former bishop of the Church of England, has lamented that Islamic extremists have turned parts of Britain into no-go areas for non-Muslims. Lashing out at the spread of religious separatism and the damage caused by the doctrine of multiculturalism, Nazir-Ali has also warned against the acceptance of Islamic Sharia law in Britain, and has criticized amplified calls to prayer from mosques, which he says are imposing an Islamic character on many British towns and cities.
Leicester’s motto is Semper Eadem: “Always the Same.” But Osman’s promotion to city mayor implies that life in Leicester is fast changing.
Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios