On a rainy Monday afternoon outside Neeli mosque in Rochdale, the crowd heading to daily prayers is smaller than usual, and has been for the past few days. “The older generation have been too scared to come recently,” says Mohammad Khalid, a worshipper leaving the mosque. “I’m 50 and I’ve lived in Rochdale my whole life. I’ve seen it go from a white area to now being mixed with a large community of Muslims, and the racism hasn’t gone away.”
After the terror attack on Friday in Christchurch in New Zealand, where 50 people were killed while praying in two mosques, a number of hate crimes have been reported in the UK. On Saturday, a 24-year-old man from nearby Oldham was arrested for allegedly posting hate speech on social media and has since been bailed pending further inquiries. In Stanwell, Surrey, a 19-year-old man was stabbed in a suspected far-right terror attack, while in Rochdale on Sunday, a 38-year-old woman was arrested for online comments made about the shootings, and two people were charged for allegedly racially abusing a taxi driver while referencing Christchurch.
“I’m always worried about how what I say might get misinterpreted,” says Shakil Hussain, a Rochdale taxi driver. “I never talk politics because a lot of people keep their racist thoughts bottled up and you don’t know when they might snap. So I wasn’t surprised to hear about this abuse to another taxi driver on Sunday.”
Hussain says that he was also racially abused in Rochdale only the day before his colleague. “I was parked by the clubs in town on Saturday night and this well-dressed looking white guy comes along and shouts: ‘Where are all the white taxi drivers?’” he says, “and then he spat on my car and called me a Paki. I was worried he was going to try and get in. A bouncer outside told me he would report it to the police, but the man disappeared and I’ve heard nothing since.”
The leader of the local Bilal mosque, Imam Hassanat Ahmed, believes it is the media and political narratives that spur on such incidents. “There are pockets of these issues in Rochdale, especially because we’re such a diverse community, but this is whipped into a frenzy by the media,” he says. “The national narrative doesn’t build good relationships between the communities, but on a local level there is a positive – we are coming together and grieving as a whole.”
The local response included a vigil outside Rochdale town hall on Sunday to mourn the Christchurch victims. Ahmed was an organiser. “The turnout was wonderful: leaders of all faiths and people of all races came together to show solidarity,” he says.
Saiqa Naz, who also attended the vigil, says the atmosphere was uplifting. “Many members of the community are scared – Muslim or otherwise,” she says, “but these events really help; they show Rochdale as a cohesive community.”
Rochdale is home to an unusually high concentration of asylum seekers – one for every 200 people – and coupled with the fact that almost a quarter of the town’s population are of Asian descent, it has made the area a target for far-right demonstrations in recent years. “We get fed up with the bad press,” says the Rev Mark Coleman, the vicar of St Chad’s and St Mary’s in the Baum church. “We need to draw people into conversation with each other more, to take apart misconceptions, because we can’t fight hate but we can spread love.”
In Rochdale high street, a throng of people are buying their lunches and peering into shop windows. “I’ve never noticed any problems with integration here – what happened in Christchurch was horrific, but we all get along in Rochdale,” says Amanda Chay. Another shopper, Claire Lord, disagrees. “It’s all segregated groups here. The Muslims stick with the Muslims and the whites with the whites. We need to mix more, otherwise these kinds of racist incidents will keep happening.”
With opinion clearly divided, a sense of tension prevails for the Muslim community of Rochdale. “There’s a real ignorance here about people who aren’t white,” says another shopper, Tahira Javeen, on overhearing Lord’s comments. “Just because I wear a hijab and I’m brown, people think I can’t speak English. While that’s frustrating, it also shows you that I’ll always be seen as a foreigner, as someone different, and that’s scary.”
For Hussain, life must continue as normal. “In my local mosque, the imam just said to keep going about our daily business,” he says. “I can’t afford to stop working just because of a couple of attacks.”
And for Khalid, the recent news is a worrying sign of progress stalling. “There needs to be work done on both sides” he says. “Otherwise people will keep writing and saying hateful things and, God forbid, committing these acts of violence.”
Rochdale council declined to comment on the alleged racial abuse of the taxi driver, but issued a statement in response to the Christchurch attack, saying: “These were appalling and sickening acts of unfathomable malice carried out by a coward who targeted innocent people in the most appalling way imaginable”.