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In Nelson, Mosques and Immigration Aren’t Just White Nationalist Talking Points

More than half of the town of Nelson’s population is Muslim – yet a ‘lack of unity and tribal rivalry’ has split the community over who to vote for

Nelson is a town and civil parish in the Borough of Pendle in Lancashire. Photo: Shahid Khan / Alamy
Nelson is a town and civil parish in the Borough of Pendle in Lancashire. Photo: Shahid Khan/Alamy

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Nelson has too many mosques. That may well read as a neo-Nazi rant, Reform Party slogan, or a GB News headline. Except it’s a comment now frequently heard among many in the Muslim communities that make up the East Lancashire town.

A 37 year-old teaching assistant, born, schooled and who now works and raises his family there, makes the comment in casual conversation. He is visibly Muslim, wearing a thobe, beard, and skull cap.

Sixteen mosques now serve Nelson’s people, with another at the planning stage. For a town which once boasted of having just 13 pubs – the lowest ratio per head of population in the country, a 1998 report noted – this is quite the transformation. 

Jamia Ghausia Masjid was the first purpose built Mosque in Nelson – the town now has 16, with one more in the planning stage. Photo: Faisal Hanif

Waquas Ali, who runs an educational consultancy in Nelson, believes the number of mosques is “excessive”.

The 42-year-old told Byline Times: “Though it may sound idealistic, I believe that four to five high-quality institutions serving both Muslims and non-Muslims would better support the development of healthy individuals and communities.”

On the other side of Pendle Hill, lies the market town of Clitheroe, forming the parliamentary constituency now known as Pendle and Clitheroe.

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In Clitheroe, one mosque stands in an old disused church building, which the small Muslim community fought for 30 years to establish. Applications were met with cries of “go home P*ki” at council meetings where eight successive rejections were justified by reasons such as it would attract outsiders.

The authorities’ official reasoning for the rejections generally tended to be that a mosque would attract outsiders – “a veiled reference to Muslims”, a record of the meetings by non-profit educator, Facing History & Ourselves notes.


‘The Immigration Election’

Immigration has been a major election issue that has been further ignited by Nigel Farage assuming the leadership of the Reform Party and himself standing for Parliament.

Launching his party’s proposals last month, Farage suggested that this “should be the immigration election”, saying that Reform wants to “freeze” all non-essential immigration, which he blames for NHS waiting lists and the housing crisis.

While Labour is expected to secure a landslide victory, Farage has barely been out of the media spotlight. While the Conservatives have long been criticised for their Rwanda scheme, Labour Leader Keir Starmer has also faced a backlash this election after singling out the Bangladeshi community during a debate about immigration.

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But immigration is not simply the concern of white British voters or the pet project of the far-right, as it is often reported. In Nelson, immigration divides a community made up of immigrants.


‘Ineffective, Incompetent and Impotent Leadership’

The population of Nelson between the last two Census’ increased by 14.8%, double that of the wider Pendle constituency, and almost three times that of the wider north-west region. At the same time, on all indicators of safety and security and deprivation, as well as commercial vacancy rates, the town was trailing and, at times, significantly worse than English averages.

Census data shows how, in 2011, Nelson was 57.8% white and 40.4% Asian, almost all of whom were of Pakistani heritage. Ten years on, Nelson is a majority British-Pakistani Muslim town, with 43% of its population now identifying with a white ethnic group.

But, to suggest this is a tale of two communities, which the New Statesman did in categorising the towns folk as “fish-eaters and fasters” in May 2017, does not quite depict the reality on the ground today.

Ali Raza Ahmed, a 38-year-old freelance financial advisor who had a career in the City before returning to his place of birth, says the number of mosques in Nelson is an indication of the “lack of unity and tribal rivalry” within the Muslim community.

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More than half of the town’s population is now Muslim; with those identifying as Christians, coming in at less than a third.

Muslims ‘taking over’ is a constant theme of social media groups dedicated to the town. In 2017, Conservative councillor, and the town’s former Mayor, Rosemary Caroll, was forced to apologise after sharing a racist joke on Facebook comparing Asians to dogs. And in November 2021, charity Hope Not Hate identified Pendle as the tenth most vulnerable borough in England to far-right extremism.

Ron Gould, a retired dentist who no longer lives in Nelson, wrote for the Conservative Woman website in March about how immigration had led to the takeover of his town: “I had never seen an Asian face until the 1960s. Then the Pakistani’s began to arrive.” 

But, despite the racism that infects the politics of the town, Nelson offers more than just a microcosm for the central themes of immigration and a Britain in decline. 

The increase in the number of mosques has taken place at the same time as declining net social trust, high commercial vacancy rates, and lower than average attainment levels.

Independent candidate Zulfikar ‘Zulfi’ Khan, who attempted to run a high end clothing brand business in the town and sits as a governor on the local college board, places the blame with those he believes have run the town into decline – the town’s representatives.

Ineffective, incompetent, and impotent

Independent candidate Zulfikar ‘Zulfi’ Khan on the town’s representatives

Conservative Councillor Nadeem Ahmed agrees with the broader point saying that “people are fed up locally and they know voting for the same people over and over hasn’t made their lives better”.

But there is another factor which is widely discussed among the older migrant families who settled in the 1960s, 70s and 80s: new migrant families.

Before and after Brexit, migrants of Pakistani descent from the struggling economies of southern Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, found a home in the town. The older migrants blame them for the malaise that has now settled in Nelson.

One Nelson councillor, who did not want to be named, says he knows of entire families and extended families coming to the town, sometimes 20 to 30 strong, and suggests it has put a “strain on the housing and schooling, that’s self-explanatory”.

Zulfi Khan on the campaign trail in Colne Lancashire. Photo: Zulfi Khan

He cites electoral lists as evidence of the numbers, with migrants from Europe having a Capital G next to their names indicating they can’t vote in general elections but can in local ones. “It’s not just Pakistani ones but also those from Eastern Europe but the numbers in the last five to six years have definitely increased, I would say we are looking at numbers in the thousands.”

However, there is reluctance to place blame on the new arrivals given many have experienced the hardships of migration themselves, or are children and grand-children of
those who did.

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In one of the secondary schools a teacher, who declined to be named, observers how “lots of them now come in”. “I would say in classes of 30 at least 3-5 of the students are now Pakistani’s from either Italy and Spain.”

A child from Italy can be recognised in that some of the boys will have their mothers maiden names as surnames something that is not common in Pakistani culture but is a quirk of registering births in Italy where children now get both parents surnames.

Over 25 years ago, Javed Iqbal established a textile business in Nelson continuing the heritage of the area and the kind of work many of the first migrants did on arrival. His company designs and imports materials from South Asia and Turkey and its success means Iqbal often requires skilled workers and artisans.

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The former shoe factory worker turned businessman sees an imbalanced immigration policy which he feels penalises those delivering genuine entrepreneurship and opportunities whilst permitting those favouring idleness or working in unskilled low paid occupations.

“If I’m bringing people over they are coming through the proper channels to work and get a proper wage for their skills,” he explained to Byline Times, before claiming that “some of those who have come from Europe don’t work or work underhand off the books and this means there is an uneven playing field”.

The pay requirements since his last cohort made the journey have increased from £26,200 to £38,700 making it harder for Iqbal to hire the people he needs to meet demand. He believes immigration policies needs to be reconsidered, saying: “This might not be a bad strategy both for Nelson and wider Britain.”


British Citizenship Isn’t What it Used to be

Shahid Jaffery, a journalist from Lahore who migrated to Spain in 2005 for economic reasons and now resides in nearby Blackburn, says that the new arrivals do not deserve derision.

He cities economic and cultural factors for the migration as well as the opportunities afforded to children who have an English education as opposed to a Spanish one. Lower rents in areas such as Nelson and East Lancashire are a pull factor for those from sunnier climes as are better wages and earning potential, Jaffery says.

Spaniards and Italians, the Uber driver says, are not greedy for British citizenship.

I have kept my Spanish citizenship as in the future me and the kids have a choice of 30 countries to go to in the EU. Why would I give this up for having the choice of one?

Shahid Jaffery

Jaffery challenges what he calls myths about the European arrivals, saying the so-called systems and progress of the older migrants, which they are believed to have upset, is wide of the mark.

“Those that came in the 1960s and 70s, many of them still can’t speak English and those from Europe also have limited English skills so the transition has been easy,” he told Byline Times. “It’s not as if we have come into some majorly advanced society.

“But our children have an advantage, they can speak the languages of Europe and they learn English at school. If we are seen as backwards now then, in years to come, we have the skills to take the lead and advance.”

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As for the mosques, Jaffery urges his fellow citizens to count their blessings. He cites
the very basic religious instruction of European mosques, as well as a scarcity of
them, as a major reason for choosing the UK as home for now.

“In Barcelona we had to travel miles just to pray on Fridays,” he said. “Here, you can walk yards to pray all five daily prayers. We should count our blessings.”


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