When a Church of England vicar and a Muslim woman in a hijab began exploring one of Britain's most divided towns, it finally got people talking. Nick Ryan meets the unlikely pair, and reports on the dialogue that is helping polarised residents bridge a cultural chasm
The school assembly was crowded, the young faces gathered from across Blackburn, one of Britain's most ethnically divided towns.
Three hundred and fifty 11-year-olds looked expectantly at the woman dressed in the hijab, standing on the stage in front of their teachers. She was a peacemaker, brought in to talk to local communities that had been torn apart by race riots, mutual mistrust and rising tensions.
Just as she was about to speak, a white boy smaller than the rest stood up and hesitantly raised his hand.
"Yes?" said a smiling Anjum Anwar, a Pakistani-born Muslim who had called the Lancashire town her home for the past 40 years.
"Miss, are you... are you related to Osama bin Laden?" the youngster blurted out.
Without batting an eyelid, the woman replied: "Why, yes darling, I am. I am."
"You could have heard a pin drop," Anwar, one of the UK's top mediators in racially and religiously divided communities, now says with a chuckle. "You could almost hear the teachers go: 'Oh no!' But I took a deep breath and explained that as Muslims, we are all brothers and sisters: it is just that, like with any family, some brothers and sisters can go bad. 'What do we do about that?' I asked. And that's when we got talking."
Sipping a cup of tea in the home she shares with her son, Anwar smiles again at the memories of that day. "And do you know what happened? That little boy came up to me at the end of the assembly and said: 'Miss, I think I like you'. And I told him: 'I think I like you, too'. That's how we start building bridges: bit by bit, stone by stone."
Anwar is half of a remarkable duo that has been bringing peace to some of the UK's most riven communities. Where support for the far-right British National Party (BNP) has risen, and where young men of Asian descent are sucked towards gangs or radical clerics, Anwar and her colleague Chris Chivers, a passionate Anglican vicar who counts Desmond Tutu among his friends, step in.
Their organisation, Impact, is being launched in January. It will work on a national (and international) basis as a specialised "dialogue" service. The priest and the Muslim intend to step into communities where violent splits and mistrust occur and are striving to bring polarised groups together.
"Whether in schools, colleges, community centres, churches, mosques and synagogues, cafes... we're trying to show people how to have the conversations they need to reach across divides," Chivers says. The idea is to mentor leaders within these differing communities who can reach beyond their cultural or religious underpinnings and start "seeing the world standing in someone else's shoes, for once".
They have been so successful that they have already brought their work to Israel and the Occupied Territories, South Africa, Bosnia, Ghana and many other countries, calling on an ever-growing number of volunteers. It's all done on a shoestring budget funded out of their own pockets and with the generosity of a few supporters.
It all began hesitantly about six years ago.Just a few months after the July 7, 2005 terrorist bomb attacks in London, Chivers, 43, and Anwar, 54, who were friends, began walking the streets of Blackburn, in north-west England.
About 20 per cent of the town's 105,000 population come from ethnic minorities and UK PollingReport, an independent poll bureau, has described Blackburn as "a mix of deprived inner-city wards dominated by Muslim voters, white working class areas and Conservative voting suburbs". Moreover, a report compiled in 2001 by Ted Cantle, a leading authority on community cohesion, cited Blackburn as one of the most ethnically divided towns in Britain.
Professor Cantle led the UK government's review into that year's race riots in the towns of Oldham and Burnley, and the city of Bradford, where white and Asian youths had sent flames scudding into the streets.
blackburn had experienced bad economic times and its communities had grown up side-by-side, but rarely mixed. With its Pakistani youngsters alienated and confused, the town became a fertile ground for the race-haters of the BNP. Chivers was driven by the need to confront injustice. "As a Christian I see God become a human being and as Christians, we need to become completely embedded in human affairs," he had said when first entering the city. In his own words a workaholic, he also was a smoker who had suffered five heart attacks but never let his health problems slow him down. Having studied music at Magdalene College, Oxford, he eschewed a classical conducting career and opted instead for "the Cloth"; he then worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, helping children come to terms with the crimes of apartheid; officiated at the Queen Mother's funeral in Westminster Abbey; and parachuted into Blackburn via the Prime Minister's Office at 10 Downing Street with a special brief to work on community outreach.
Anwar, meanwhile, was a former banker and teacher whose family had emigrated from Pakistan when she was nine. The eldest child, she considered herself fully integrated into British life. But that life suddenly changed.
"The day after 9/11 I walked into the shops near my house - I wasn't wearing a hijab in those days, just jeans, - and they refused to serve me," she recalls. "I waited a full five minutes and I just couldn't understand what was happening. I walked home feeling homeless, stateless, countryless. I wanted to run, but I didn't know where."
Eventually she found work with the Lancashire Council of Mosques as an education officer, bumping into Chivers at Blackburn Cathedral in November 2004.
"I was called into the cathedral to be on a panel to talk about interfaith, and that's where I met Chris. He said he had never seen such a segregated community - and I said, 'Thank you!' Thank you that someone had finally said it."
The two became firm friends, their families and children inseparable. "We would walk in Blackburn's shopping centre, reflecting on the fact that we were the only people laughing. That seemed odd, sad almost," says Chivers, who has recently moved to a church in north London and presents BBC Radio 4's Daily Service show. "The town was really segregated. That was a massive problem. But we thought at least if we can get hold of a lot of those people and start to shift those attitudes and perceptions, that would be a good thing."
"We wondered how we could get people to talk," says Anwar, who became the first Muslim directly employed by a Church of England cathedral (she is now Blackburn Cathedral's dialogue officer, as well as working with Chivers on the Impact project). "There was no space in normal places - the pubs, bars, curry houses - there was nothing neutral welcoming everyone. We needed dialogue between our faiths, and peoples, so we said, "Let's try something'."
Chivers says: "We decided, in response to 7/7, that we would just walk in the community. Just walk. Like an old-fashioned priest. And we would show that by having a woman with a hijab, and a priest with a dog collar, that the world wouldn't fall apart."
It had a huge impact. They walked in Audley, an almost exclusively Muslim area. And then in Mill Hill, a mainly white neighbourhood. People came out to talk, amazed at their presence."They said we were crazy." Chivers laughs. "But after that: 'We need you to do this more', they said. 'We need people to listen. The leadership in the community is hopeless, spent, finished. We need new energy'. That's when I thought: why are people making religion the problem, when it's economics - poorly managed resources - to blame?"
Following the walks, they held a "Clash of Civilisations" discussion in the cathedral. "We had 250 people turn up, even just people off the streets," says Anwar. "A lot of young people, too, from Blackburn College. We were really surprised. I didn't expect more than a dozen. We had Muslims and non-Muslims, Asians and non-Asians. To get that number in London would be rare, let alone here."
Chivers calls the large turnouts to the weekly events they have held since, "a statement of need - we never had fewer than 70 people, and often more than 200". They were so successful that radio, TV and press descended on the pair, and they appeared on the BBC's current affairs show Panorama, took live services together on radio and - one of their major successes - got Blackburn's Muslims to enter the cathedral (it had been seen as "off-limits").
Of course, things didn't always go well. Anwar recalls: "One question I got was: 'Why do your lot fly planes into buildings?' But it's important say what needs to be said, before we can begin the healing."
chivers and Anwar reflect upon their time in Israel and the Occupied Territories, where they encountered all sides of the bitter struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.
"Anwar went to shake this one [Jewish] settler's hand, and the woman pulled it back instinctively," Chivers says. "Then she saw that we'd seen this, and reluctantly put her hand back out again."
Anwar smiles. "One of our sessions involved talking with a Jewish academic. She was coming forward with the most bitter remarks, talking about suicide bombers. I said: 'We have to talk about this: why do we have these bombers? And why do we have massacres on Palestinian lands, too?' Well, she lost it. She went absolutely wild. I think there were tears in my eyes. I said: 'I'm a woman who believes in justice. I would never knowingly harm a Jewish child or let them be hurt, any more so than one of my own children. Justice has to be for all, not just for me. And she just stopped. She put her arm around me and said: 'I think we can work together.' That was amazing."
Committed to their mission, Chivers believes that honesty is their most important ally.
"Be honest and say, if you're a white young person and you think Asians are getting more money from the council - which, by the way, is not true - let's have the guts to say it and have a debate about where that perception comes from and what we can do to overcome it. And we can change our local communities... people are starting to make that connection."
Anwar agrees. "We need to make this patch our home," she says. "That's the message we bring. There's no going back home somewhere else."
Chivers nods. "Each conversation is like a tiny drop of water, as the Africans say, wearing away the stone," he says. "That's what we're trying to build. We're trying to send forth those tiny ripples of hope - and we've noticed the difference."