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The heart of Muslim Britain

IN NORTHERN mill towns such as this, you can see into the heart of Muslim Britain. The industries that once flourished have gone, but the migrants who filled the mills, their children, and their children's children are still here. There is Mustafa's Food Shop, and Kharri Shalif's on the Whetley Hill Road, if you are hungry. And the shops are full of clothes familiar in Karachi or Lahore.

This was a wool-weaving town, and immigrants from Pakistan filled a labor shortage following World War II, feeling the push of poverty at home and the pull of jobs here. But the woolen industry is gone now. A sign on the handsome façade of the gutted Lister Mills proclaims a ''regeneration," which means nothing will be made here anymore, and that the building is being turned into flats that the people who worked here will not be able to afford.

It is a story familiar to an American. Industries come and go, immigrants come and huddle together in inner cities for spiritual and cultural warmth in a strange land, and then are, hopefully, absorbed into the mainstream of national life. Some find it harder than others. In America, race has always been a problem. In Britain, it is more recent.

When I first came to live in Britain for a while 45 years ago, Britons used to shake their heads at America's racial problems, as only a comparatively homogeneous people could. Even then, at the end of empire, her majesty's subjects were flowing from all corners of the world into this green and pleasant land. Although Britain has absorbed them and put its faith in multiculturalism, this has not gone as easily as Britons had hoped.

Bradford and other northern towns have experienced race riots in recent years. Commissions and tasks forces have been assigned to discover what went wrong, and one conclusion has been, according to Ted Cantle, who headed one inquiry, that racial disturbances are more likely to happen ''in those areas where diversity really hadn't been valued and seen as a positive force. It had been allowed to degenerate into segregation and polarization."

Britain has traditionally been a live-and-let-live country in which there is less pressure to conform than in France, where the ideal is for immigrants to assimilate into French culture. There is, people say, more public space for religious and ethnic differences in Britain then in many countries. But race riots have alerted people that all is not well, and when Muslim boys born in Britain became suicide bombers back in July, there has been even more soul searching.

First generations have enough to do making a living, but second generations look around and demand equal status and recognition of their identity. Second generations can fall into an identity hole in which they are no longer of the old country, and not yet completely accepted in their new land. ''We are as British as they are, but you wouldn't know it," says Sediq Khan in his Yorkshire accent. In the next breath he says he wouldn't live anywhere else. Yet British intelligence estimates that 70 Britons have joined the Iraqi insurgency in the past two years.

Britain has several Muslims in Parliament, and Muslims have achieved more acceptance in top jobs than in most European countries or the United States. But still, as professor Humayun Ansari, director of the Center for Ethnic Minority Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, says: ''We had nonwhites in Parliament in the late 19th century, but the established order, the hallowed institutions of society, are still monolithically white."

Ansari believes that ''multiculturalism is crucial to establishing a national bargain" between the majority and minorities, but even multiculturalism has come to be questioned in the anguish that has followed the suicide bombings.

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, recently put the cat among the pigeons by saying that a generation of pupils of different races were growing up to be ''strangers to each other" because of attending separate schools. ''Sleepwalking into segregation," he called it. Such a division provided a ''fertile breeding ground for extremists."

Where once Britons were put off by what one letter writer to the liberal Guardian called America's ''obsessive saluting of the flag and other ostentatious demonstrations of national unity," now many are wondering if more of that might help. ''Teach our children what it means to be British," thundered the right-of-center Telegraph.

This debate, too, will be familiar to Americans.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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