Rejecting dark forces of division, strengthening the ties that bind us – the true North West

In a world marked by both diversity and polarisation, the United Kingdom stands as a testament to multiculturalism, bringing together people from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions.

But despite this rich tapestry – or perhaps because of it – there are those who are hell bent on driving division within and between our communities, raising fear and suspicion of our neighbours, and using slurs and untruths about the differences in our races and faiths to push us further apart.

Recent atrocities in Gaza and Israel have undoubtedly fanned these flames, providing those negative voices with fuel to preach and promote their hateful agenda.

Sadly, last month’s by-election in our neighbouring community of Rochdale saw high profile individuals with no connection to the region or the people of the area agitate on this issue and benefit from the worry and concern we all share over the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Bad actors on the fringes of British politics have always found racial tension to be the breeding ground for hate and anger.

One area where those who want to create disharmony are particularly focussed is on driving the Jewish and Muslim communities apart, just at a time when it is vital these two faiths work together for peace.

As the leader of a northern local authority, I am always reminded of the similarities in the shared history of migration and settlement of the Muslim and Jewish communities. 

Here in Oldham, on the northern edge of Manchester – workers and entrepreneurs flocked from across the world to be part of the great economic miracle of the Industrial Revolution and to seek their fortunes here in Cottonopolis.

Jewish immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe, were drawn to this thriving industrial landscape, seeking refuge from persecution and envisioning a safer and better life for themselves and their families. These new arrivals established close-knit communities and created synagogues and schools in the north, fostered unity and preserve cultural traditions.

In Oldham, some Jewish families settled in Glodwick. Generations later, immigrants from Asia, particularly Pakistan and Bangladesh, followed a similar path and Glodwick became heart of the Oldham Muslim community, home to mosques, markets and restaurants. It is where my parents settled, and I live today.

The two communities share so much in common – not just from our Abrahamic religious roots, but how both faiths recognise the importance of family, our respect for nature and duty of shared responsibilities to each other.

They have also both suffered from prejudice and unfounded bias.

But Oldham, like the rest of the UK, has changed. 

The textile industry has declined, and economic prospects are more challenging for residents. It is when times are tough, that the resilience and strength of a community is most important. 

My administration is focussed on building a better Oldham – providing new and affordable homes for all our residents, offering hope and aspiration for our young people through education and employment opportunities, and securing the vital services needed to care for and comfort the most vulnerable in our community.

Doing this against a backdrop of cuts is difficult enough – since I first became a councillor in 2013, Oldham has had to deal with almost £250 million in cuts.  But to then have outside voices looking to pit communities against each other makes the task even more difficult.

It is easy to understand why these negative influences are so active in areas where government cuts are biting, because, as history has shown us, where there is poverty and economic strife, racism, extremism and hate can thrive.

The dark forces of the far right have kept a shadowy presence in and around towns like Oldham for too long. They target cracks in our community and encourage blame and accusation between neighbours and communities.

As a female, Asian, Muslim leader of a local authority, I am often characterised by my race and faith rather the values I hold or policies I champion.

I imagine it plays into the narrative of those who want to sow discontent, but as a woman born in Oldham, I am determined to not allow them to succeed in defining me, our community or town.

While national and international politicians are charged with finding a resolution to the troubling situation in Gaza and Israel, it is beholden on all of us in positions of leadership – in our councils, schools, businesses, and communities – to focus on strengthening the ties and connections which bind us together and to challenge and reject the negative rhetoric of those who want to see us divided.

I regularly meet with members of my own Islamic community and representatives of the Jewish and Christian faiths too. We all share a commitment to tolerance and inclusivity, and some of the leading voices campaigning for fairness and equality, social justice and positive change are born from shared dialogue and faiths coming together.

In Oldham, we all recognise the strength of unity through diversity.

It’s time to stand up and remind people of this. Our history is shared, and we have long rejected division and those dark forces who seek to create it. It can often feel like we are in the darkest hour, but progressives the world over have always stood up for unity. We must do so more than ever right now.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out Community safety – How Barnet has responded to local issues over conflict in the Middle East.