Philip Lewis arrived in Bradford 30 years ago when the Honeyford Affair was polarising public opinion, not just locally, but nationally, the newly-appointed inter-faith adviser to the Bishop of Bradford was invited to a public meeting at the Pakistan Community Centre.
Also in attendance were members of the group who wanted the then-headteacher of Drummond Middle School, Ray Honeyford, sacked for making what they said were racist comments in an article entitled Education and Race – An Alternative View, in The Salisbury Review magazine.
Dr Lewis said: “That meeting encapsulated for me the precarious relationship between the political Left in Bradford and Muslims: it was a marriage of convenience that was blown apart by the Rushdie Affair five years later because the relationship was not based on knowledge, mutual understanding.
“I still think too many policy makers do not have levels of religious literacy necessary in a place like Bradford. This was illustrated in the proposal to put a meat processing plant next door to a Sikh Gudwara or temple near Leeds Road. Sikhs don’t eat meat, the smell of meat would have been offensive to them near a place of worship. As a city, we cannot afford that.”
In this particular instance, the decision to grant approval for the factory by Bradford Council planners was challenged unopposed in the High Court, thus cancelling the decision.
Philip Lewis, who retires from his inter-faith post in November, has talked publicly before about the importance of greater knowledge of faith matters, a subject he will be revisiting tomorrow night at a public meeting in Ilkley.
At his instigation, all Church of England clergy coming to Bradford go through a two-day training programme. They visit other faith communities and in turn are visited by others.
A young Muslim talks to them about inter-generational tensions, for example; a Muslim woman discusses gender issues and a Muslim elder outlines the impact of large geo-political tensions in the Muslim world, between Sunnis in Saudia Arabia and Shias in Iran and inter-sect conflicts in Pakistan.
“To pretend you can inoculate Bradford Muslims against the impact of these large tensions is just naive. That’s why the Council for Mosques and their willingness to talk publicly about issues such as sexual grooming is so important,” he added.
Migration creates tensions for both incomers and established residents, he said. And while it has become a cliche to talk of this as a grieving process – for places left behind and for places changed out of all recognition by new arrivals – the three stages of denial, anger and acceptance have characterised race relations in Bradford since 1984.
Philip Lewis believes that a new generation of community leaders is coming through, due in part to significant investment by the Church of England in inter-faith matters, and in part to people like Council for Mosques vice-president Zulfi Karim.
Mr Karim was in his young teens when Philip Lewis arrived in Bradford. Like his Christian counterpart, he emphasises the importance of informed leadership if, as he says, Bradford is to take its destiny in its own hands and control the way its wants to go.
He said: “Historically, there have been incidents that have changed the way we think about each other and how we live with each other. The 2001 riot was one of them. It’s gone away now, but it had an effect on the community – people moving out to leafy parts of the district.
“What’s left in the inner city? Remnants of poverty and deprivation. When the well-off have moved away, who is left picking up the pieces in Bradford? Where is the investment to come from?
“We need good understanding, dialogue and strong leadership – civic leadership, religious leadership and community leadership: a joint approach so that we don’t go from crisis to crisis.
“We’ve been in denial. We cannot always be defending something that is wrong. I think that’s the change. When there are serious issues we have to tackle them head-on. We don’t shy away. It is progress. You will find a couple of good leaders coming through to help Bradford to the next stage.”
Hopefully that next stage will be acceptance; then Bradford will be ready to stop grieving for the past.
Philip Lewis’s talk on Christian/Muslim relations in the Bradford district takes place at Ilkley’s Christchurch, The Grove, at 8pm tomorrow.