Diwali celebrations
Kai Unzicker

International Research: Diwali Leicester – Embracing Diversity

As part of this year’s Reinhard Mohn Prize and in the tradition of Reinhard Mohn's vision of learning from the world, we’re searching the globe for urban settings where living together in cultural diversity is a proven success. The United Kingdom has considerable experience with multiculturalism and a long tradition of embracing diversity. We went to visit one of the UK’s most diverse cities – Leicester in the English Midlands. With its Community Cohesion Strategy targeting a “community of communities,” the city has taken a pro-active approach to fostering good relations between the various cultural and religious communities that call Leicester home.

As a majority-minority city, Leicester is a city in which no single ethnic community comprises a majority of the city’s 300,000 residents. The share of residents who self-identify as “White British” is 45%. Whereas migration from former British colonies accounts in large part for Leicester’s diverse population, more recent arrivals have come from war-torn and crisis-ridden countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

Indians from Uganda head for Leicester

Leicester’s largest group of residents with a migration background have Asian roots, primarily from India. However, Leicester’s residents with Indian roots did not arrive directly from India, but rather by way of Uganda in East Africa. As subjects of British colonial rule, they came to Uganda and helped drive economic development in the country until Ugandan dictator Idi Amin forced them out in the early 1970s.   

There is irony in the story behind Leicester becoming Ugandan Asians’ destination of choice within the UK. After the first wave of Ugandan Asian emigrants had arrived in Leicester, the city responded by placing an ad in the Ugandan newspaper Uganda Argus which was meant to send the message that Leicester was crowded and living conditions were poor. The goal was to discourage further immigration. However, the announcement had the exact opposite effect, drawing instead considerable attention to a city that would have otherwise been overlooked by the Ugandan Asians. “The ad was gloriously counterproductive,” jokes Leicester Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby today.

Decoration during the Diwali festivities in Leicester.

What at first seemed to be an undesired outcome has since proven to be a blessing for the city. As experienced entrepreneurs eager to invest, Leicester’s Ugandan Indian immigrants helped boost the city’s beleaguered post-industrial economy. Today, Indian cuisine and other Indian cultural institutions are woven into the fabric of the city’s identity. This is vividly apparent in October each year during the “Diwali Leicester” celebration of Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, which is celebrated not only by Hindus but the city as a whole. Wishes of “Happy Diwali” at this time of year are as common as "Merry Christmas” in December, and shops throughout the city feature both special Diwali offers and seasonal Christmas sales.

Embracing cultural differences

However, Leicester’s Indian immigrants from Uganda are no longer the only source of cultural diversity in the city. This is most plain to see along England’s most diverse street -- Narborough Road in southwest Leicester, where the city’s immigrants have opened their shops, cafes and restaurants offering specialties from around the world. The city’s diversity can also be seen in the fact that Christian churches, Hindu temples and Muslim mosques stand side-by-side. But Leicester also features several buildings and monuments that testify to the city’s history as one of the oldest in England, such as the Guildhall and the tomb of King Richard III in Leicester Cathedral.

As the location of King Richard III’s final resting place, Leicester honors the spirit of English medieval history. The remains of the monarch, who was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth Field, were found by archaeologists during an excavation under a parking lot and reburied in Leicester Cathedral.

How has the city managed to interweave the multiple legacies of English history, the impact of the colonial era and current developments resulting from globalization? A cornerstone of the city’s approach to diversity has been to accept the fact that culture "is an indispensable tool of human life" (Reinhard Mohn) and that people need to be able to express their cultural and religious identities openly. In Leicester, clear ties to a specific cultural or religious community are not perceived as a threat to the cohesion of the broader community as a whole. On the contrary: The city has implemented policies that create opportunities for everyone to practice their cultural or religious identity, which promotes loyalty to the city of Leicester as a community and fosters mutual acceptance among equals.

Intercultural dialogue in a context of globalization

As the differences inherent to a context of diversity are always at risk of generating misunderstanding, stereotypes and conflicts, Leicester has taken several measures to actively cultivate respect across communities treated as equals that live in peace together. This includes, for example, the City Mayor’s Faith & Community Forum, where the mayor meets on a regular basis with representatives from Leicester’s religious and non-religious communities. The city also sponsors a variety of other forums promoting dialogue between the city's diverse communities and city government, the police, local schools and the media. One such forum involves the local daily, the Leicester Mercury, as an adviser to the Leicester Multicultural Advisory Group, which emphasizes informed and balanced reporting as a means of advancing informed understanding and knowledge of Leicester's culturally diverse residents.

Councillor Manjula Sood is one of the city’s Ugandan Indian immigrants and acts today as a leader in fostering dialogue between the city and its civil society. In the photo above, she meets with Michael Lewis, member of the board of trustees of the Waterfront Sports & Education Academy.

Thanks to its Community Cohesion Strategy, Leicester has successfully transformed the city into a place where living in cultural diversity is a success. According to Professor Ted Cantle, a leading expert for intercultural relations and social cohesion in the UK, the city's next step involves adapting the community-oriented strategy to the current challenges posed by globalization. Indeed, now – more than ever before – cultural identities elude one-dimensional definitions. Constantly exposed to a variety of influences and subject to ongoing change, modern cultural identities have become increasingly complex and multi-dimensional.


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