LEEDS, England — Young men wear tight jeans and T-shirts, their black hair gelled. The heavy and distinct Yorkshire accent — gruff with flat vowels — may be just as deceiving.
Despite their outward Western appearance, the second and third generation Muslim Asian community in this northern town has barely integrated into British society — although many have never visited their ancestral homes of Pakistan, Bangladesh or Kashmir either.
The working-class neighborhood of Beeston, which came to world attention after at least two of its sons were involved in the July 7 suicide bombings in London, is one of many districts here where Asians from the Indian subcontinent have settled in the past 40 years.
While young men have largely chosen Western attire over traditional clothes, most young women prefer to wear shalwar kameez — loose trousers and a tunic — and hide their hair under loose thin scarves.
But it’s not only the clothing, the complexion or the food, language or even religion that separates Beeston’s Muslim Asian community from its English and black counterparts. It is their distinct Islamic values and shared homeland ties that they cherish so much and fear losing.
Lahore in Leeds
Walking in their section of the neighborhood — the typical English red-brick row houses notwithstanding — feels like being in Lahore or any other town in Pakistan.
In fact, the Asians here may even be more attached to their Pakistani values than many back in their ancestral towns. In a way, time seems to have stopped.
Elders — many of whom do not speak English well even though they have lived here for decades — maintain their strict customs. Perhaps more so as they regard the society here as alien, immoral and corrupting for their children.
They rarely mix with the English, even with next-door neighbors. Each sit on their porches, hardly communicating with one another, according to residents.
“My parents forbade me to speak English at home,” Tanver Akhtar, who was born here 33 years ago, said in her strong Yorkshire accent. Her parents still have difficulty speaking the language of their adopted country.
A life apart
Akhtar wears a shalwar kameez because “I want to be like others. I feel more respected by my community.”
When she finished high school, her parents told her she could not go to university. “They thought I might get off track,” she said. Because she was brought up to obey her parents, she consented.
And now, she says, she is expected to obey her husband, whom she married out of love after struggling for years to get her parents’ approval. They had wanted her to marry a cousin, a tradition in her community.
Akhtar said she feels half British and half Pakistani. Then adds: “My parents were very strict, so I guess I feel more Pakistani.”
She was not allowed to go out very much on her own, socialize like her English classmates or neighbors. She was to pray five times a day and cover her hair.
She speaks Urdu to her neighbors, to the local butcher and grocer, and even to her 4-year-old daughter, Suman.
She said she would certainly allow her daughter to go to university, but not to date boys or marry an English man. “It’s totally wrong because he won’t be a Muslim,” she said.
No English friends
Like Akhtar, 22-year-old Amer, who did not want to give his last name because he wanted to avoid the public spotlight, was born here and has no English friends.
As a second year computer science student at a technical college in Leeds with a part-time job, Amer has very little time to socialize. But the few hours he’s free, he chats with his Pakistani friends on the Internet, or plays cards with them at home or cricket at a park. “We keep ourselves busy,” he said.
He said he does not drink alcohol because it’s forbidden in his religion. Nor does he go to the disco.
“We’re not used to doing these things,” he says. “First of all, for religious reasons. If you go to a pub or disco, it’s mostly to look for girls. If I do that, then my sister would want to go to disco too.
Protecting honor of women
“Obviously, we don’t want our sister to be half naked in a disco,” said Amer, the youngest of three brothers and a 22-year-old sister.
Such sentiment — about protecting the honor of sisters and female relatives — was widely expressed among Asian youths in Beeston.
But not all of the community’s youths stay on track.
It’s not uncommon to see youths — who look more like thugs — roaming the garbage-strewn streets of Beeston. Drugs are consumed in the open. Many utter foul language and are hostile to outsiders.
But this isn’t unique to the South Asian youths. English residents and others have complained about English thugs making trouble more than other ethnic groups.
Zack Hanif, 32, says there’s very little the young can do in Beeston, where a youth center only opened two years ago.
Police raided the Hamara youth center Thursday where Beeston’s two bombers — Shahzad Tanweer, 22, and Hasib Hussein, 18 - went frequently. Another bomber, Mohammed Sidique Khan, 30, worked there. In all, four bombers blew themselves up on three subway trains and a bus during morning rush hour in London, killing at least 55 people, including the attackers.
Beeston, said Hanif, is one of the most deprived areas in Leeds: “One of the bottom three.”
“So you can imagine there are a lot of disaffected and bored youths,” he said trying to analyze why two of its young men — Britons of Pakistani descent — were driven to carrying out the London attacks, the first suicide operation in Western Europe.
He describes his own youth to prove his point.
When he was in his teens, Hanif quit school and “went into crime, selling hard drugs — class A drugs — that’s heroin,” he said as he rolled a marijuana joint on a street less than 50 yards from a group of policemen cordoning off a block of streets in Beeston as they searched the area for evidence of the London bombings.
To support his drug habit, Hanif stole and robbed. He spent two years in jail. When he came out, he continued taking and dealing drugs and only stopped when his mother died.
“I imagined she’d see me from Heaven,” said Hanif, as he took a long drag from his joint.
Now, with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s global appeal to wage jihad — or holy war — against the West, the attention of some youths may have turned to more extremist matters, said Hanif. Since the first Gulf War in 1990-91 when militant Islam started taking root, anger against Western policies has been felt in his community.
But no one, he said, had ever approached him or tried to indoctrinate him.
'Someone brainwashed them'
Amer, 20, and his brothers said they had not been approached by militant recruiters either, even though they live only a few blocks from Tanweer’s affluent home in Beeston.
“We think it’s political and nothing to do with religion,” said Amer. “Someone brainwashed them.”
Why did Tanweer and Hussein apparently fall prey to the recruiters while the brothers did not?
“Because they are nice and agreed to listen to them, thinking they might be right,” he said.
A community worker who worked closely with the Hamara youth center said their project dealt with young dropouts or unemployed — people on the fringes of society.
The worker, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said a few years ago, Beeston was regarded as a heroin gateway. The community had been able to clean up to a large extent. He said several of the suspects connected to the bombings used to gather there, sit together and talk.
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