‘Is this about that article?’ Didsbury locals dismiss ‘no-go areas’ claims

Walking down Burton Road on Monday afternoon, it is hard not to wonder if another Didsbury exists elsewhere after a report at the weekend described “no-go areas” where white people fear the threat of religious violence.

The Mail Online report claimed there were a number of towns with no-go areas for white people, and that Didsbury, along with Bradford, Blackburn and Bolton, was one of them.

But Didsbury on a sunny day is thoroughly pleasant. It’s affluent and the ward is 84.1% white, slightly more than the norm in diverse South Manchester.

“Didsbury is the most gentrified part of South Manchester,” says 23-year-old University of Manchester student Jacob Samuels. Speaking between sips of a cappuccino at Burton Road Bakery, he contrasts the feel and profile of Didsbury with Bradford – his home town and one of the other no-go areas according to the report.

Jacob Samuels and friend
Jacob Samuels, right, at the Burton Road Bakery: ‘Didsbury is the most gentrified part of south Manchester.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“Bradford is notably different. It’s a fair bit tougher and there’s deeply ingrained issues going back years, but still, I’ve never felt unsafe walking through it. I lived there for 19 years without hearing of one incident of white men being attacked [for being white].”

The consternation in Didsbury (the article is raised unprompted by many) primarily stems from confusion about how their cosmopolitan, leafy and increasingly expensive suburb could be held up as an example of looming religious apartheid.

“Is this about that article that’s been all over Facebook?” asks Les Leckie, 76.

Les Leckie
Les Leckie: ‘Friday prayers can be inconvenient sometimes because everyone drives into town.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Although originally, from Glasgow, Leckie has lived in Greater Manchester for decades and says his daughter lives “close by the mosque”. “Friday prayers can be inconvenient sometimes because everyone drives into town,” he said. “That’s the only time I’m even conscious of any particular religious community in Didsbury.

“I imagine there are such places [no-go zones], but Didsbury’s not one of them. It’s one of the most expensive areas of Manchester. It’s hardly likely to be a ghetto, is it?”

Simon Yarwood, owner of a local craft beer shop, The Epicurean, says: “I live in West Didsbury, I obviously have a business in West Didsbury, it’s a thriving community where people really support the indies.”

Simon Yarwood
Simon Yarwood: ‘It’s a thriving community where people really support the indies’. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The walk from The Epicurean to the mosque, the primary source of anxiety locally, runs near some of the most expensive houses in south Manchester, with £1m detached houses.

Actor Naveed Choudhry, 36 lives in Didsbury but chooses to attend the Manchester central mosque in Victoria Park and so cannot shed any light on Didsbury mosque’s mysterious “sharia department”. He says: “The kid who did the arena bombing might have gone to the mosque there, but I’ve never heard of any problems with white people.”

Naveed Choudhry
Naveed Choudhry: ‘I’ve never heard of any problems with white people’. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The Mail Online report, based on a forthcoming book by Ed Husain of Georgetown University, made a great deal of how the mosque was a church before it was purchased by “Syrian Arabs” in 1967, implying a hostile takeover of the town’s existing place of worship.

“We saved this building,” says Salah Elbeera, CEO of Didsbury mosque. “It was going to be demolished and turned into a Tesco.”

Salah Elbeera
Salah Elbeera: ‘It was going to be demolished and turned into a Tesco.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Over 50 years on, it still looks like a church from the outside.

Tracey Pook, community engagement coordinator at Didsbury mosque, says that article’s such as the Mail Online’s are part of a “common theme”, especially since the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. Suicide bomber Salman Abedi attended services at the mosque and the subsequent investigation into his crimes included a probe into a “military jihad” sermon at Didsbury mosque.

Tracey Pook in Didsbury
Tracey Pook: ‘We made a pact to start working together and being part of the community’. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“We’ve had this awful label over us. When somebody who attends church goes and becomes a serial killer, do you blame the whole church and the whole congregation?”

Even so, the mosque did take some responsibility for its part in the perceived breakdown in cohesion. “We knew we had work to do and we realised the wider community had been let down as well. So we made a pact to start working together and being part of the community.”

One detail still stands out however: the mosque does indeed have a sign in its main hallway clearly indicating the “Sharia Department”.

While acknowledging that it might sound nefarious to the uninitiated, Pook is adamant that it is not a court. She explains that while sharia refers to Islamic law, “the only court that is recognised in this country is an English court”.

The sharia department operates as something between a source of religious guidance and a community mediation centre in cases of divorce or internal dispute.

Jeff Smith, the Labour MP for Withington, which includes the suburb of Didsbury, says: “I’m glad to see the Mail Online article is being treated with the scorn it deserves. What it implies about Didsbury would be laughable if it wasn’t such a serious issue, and if it wasn’t aimed at driving social division. Didsbury is as cosmopolitan and welcoming as anywhere you’ll find.”

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