The Community Leader: Ishtiaq Ahmed

Ishtiaq Ahmed is a well-respected leader in Bradford who pioneered community development work for the local authority in the 1980s and became a key figurehead for the Bradford Council for Mosques.

Ishtiaq Ahmed outside the mosque. By Lucy Ray

What is the extent of your work as a community leader in Bradford?

I’m part of the Khidmat community centre here in Bradford, and I also work very closely with the Council for Mosques. I remember coming to Bradford vividly. It was the winter of 1967. That first evening, it was cold, it was raining, it was pretty bleak! I had travelled here with my father from Pakistan, who had himself arrived in the 1950s. It’s fair to say that it took some time for me to adjust to life in Bradford.

At what point did you become active in the community?

Well I started working for Bradford Metropolitan Council as a community development worker, straight out of Bradford College and into first full time employment.There were not many people from our community in that role, so it gave me an opportunity to try new things, to develop new projects and new ideas, and to start having a vision for Bradford, and for the people who had settled here from all over the world.

Did that mean you suddenly found yourself thrust into the public eye?

Yes, and throughout the 1980s in particular, I lived through campaigns around things like halal meat provision, the Honeyford affair, and then the campaign around the Satanic Verses book.

So I lived through some of the most symbolic, or even iconic, community campaigns. But it was always very important that people were being introduced to the these aspects of peaceful civic protests. These felt like very creative years for me as an individual.

During some of these iconic campaigns you mention, how do you feel the national media was portraying your activism?

Bradford, throughout the 80s, was perceived nationally as a leader when it came to equality of opportunities, when it came to campaigning for social justice, and so we were making a lot of positive headlines it wasn’t it until. It wasn’t until the Honeyford Affair and then the Satanic Verses that Bradford became synonymous with the muslim community and this idea of public protest. There was suddenly a great deal of interest in what we were up to, and this intense international media scrutiny. I think that the book burning in particular that the secular, liberal lobby found very difficult to stomach. As far as the media were concerned, it was abhorrent and went against this idea of hard-won freedom of expression.

At the time, did you feel like members of the press were interested in your reasons for protesting?

I think they were more interested in demonising the Muslim community and our campaign. The press took the view, ‘how, how dare you! You have taken taken taken an action which goes against everything in terms of of freedom of speech’. So Muslims are being accused of taking the nation back to the dark ages.

At the same time as these campaigns, you were working closely with West Yorkshire Police on community engagement. What can you recall about that?

Yes, locally, in Bradford we were just much more comfortable with the relationships between communities and institutions, including the police and the local authority, who I worked very closely with.Martin Baines was a leading community police officer at the time who worked with us and used local media to reach out to the community. I remember setting up the Police Community Liaison Forum together, which did very good work. We were very creative and constructive, but the image outside Bradford was almost as if we were engaged in some kind of civil war!

What sort of positive messages were you trying to promote within Bradford’s different communities?

We were saying, particularly to minority communities, that these institutions are as much as ours as anyone else’s. So we have a claim on City Hall. We have a claim on the National Health Service. We pay taxes, we are working, and we have contributed to the very existence of these institutions, therefore it’s only right for us to question and hold people accountable.

How do you think people view Bradford in 2019?

I have five children and eight grandchildren, all born and Bradford. Bradford is our home, and many people like us would never even think of leaving Bradford. For us, Bradford has given us a lot of happiness, a lot of opportunities. But I think the city is still struggling to make a positive impact as far as national media is concerned. Bradford doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I think one of the great things about  the spirit of Bradford is that we are always trying new things. A lot of times we get them wrong, but we are always trying. When we fail, people are very quick to use that and say, ‘I told you so!’ When we are successful, which we are most of the time, we don’t get credit.

What do you think the city should be getting more credit for? 

Well, if you look at whenever we face a significant threat, the city and its institutions, its mediators, are very good at coming together. I always say that we are like a family. We quarrel, we bicker, we have our differences, but when a family is threatened from outside, it comes together. That’s the spirit of Bradford. For me, the image of Bradford is City Park on any good day, when the sun is shining… families, people of all different backgrounds, faiths, cultures… actually putting a claim on Bradford city centre and saying, ‘This is our space, we are going to enjoy it’.

And what would your message be next time the city finds itself in the media spotlight?

Come and spend some time with us in Bradford. Look at how we go about it. Try to capture the spirit of Bradford, the passion people have for the city and the district. It’s those human stories, the spirit of Bradford, and the very positive feel that communities have about life here. Capture that. Don’t just go for quick, sensational soundbites.

Posted by:Helen Graham