Posted on February 13, 2013

London’s East End: A Melting Pot Simmers Closer to the Boil

Joe Shute, Telegraph (London), February 8, 2013


{snip} Nowadays [in the East End of London] the largest ethnic group are Bangladeshis, mainly from the rural Sylhet region, who embrace conservative Islam. But on the streets, men and women in traditional dress rub shoulders with a new and transient population of white, twentysomething professionals who pack out the hip bars of Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green every night of the week.

This is the coolest part of the capital — and a disturbing extremist undercurrent has erupted on the streets in response.

In the past few weeks, footage has emerged of gangs of vigilantes calling themselves the Muslim Patrol, prowling the streets and intimidating those who “disobey God”. In a series of shocking incidents filmed on mobile phones and posted on YouTube, the hooded extremists confiscated alcohol from residents in Whitechapel, calling it a “forbidden evil” and harassed a white woman late at night for wearing a short skirt. They also launched a tirade of homophobic abuse against a man who appeared to be wearing make-up, ordering him out of the area and calling him a “bloody fag”.

Some of the attacks took place on the weekend of January 12 and 13. However, it has emerged since that the week before, vigilantes confronted a group of white revellers in Shoreditch and assaulted a man in his twenties. Police, who have categorised the incidents as hate crimes, have so far made six arrests and are stepping up patrols.

Warnings, including from the Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks campaign, that the far Right was trying to exert itself on the streets in response, appeared to be confirmed last weekend when an anarchist bookshop on Whitechapel High Street was firebombed. Freedom Press, which was founded in 1886, was badly damaged. The bookshop was previously targeted in 1993 by the neo-Nazi organisation Combat 18. Its owners believe the latest attack, being investigated by the police, has again come from the far Right.

At a time when jihadist groups are fomenting violence in Algeria, Mali, Syria and Libya, the East End vigilantes have sparked headlines internationally. Journalists from Russia, Sweden and Germany have descended on the borough.

This is an area that has long celebrated itself as a melting pot. Residents embrace a diversity that dates back to the arrival of Huguenot Protestants from France in the 17th century. And it was on these streets that thousands came together in support of the large Jewish population and to see off Sir Oswald Mosley’s black shirts in 1936. In the 1970s, National Front intimidation of Bangladeshis culminated in the racist murder of a young man, Altab Ali, in 1978; a local park was named after him in 1998.

Events of the past few weeks are raising concerns among police and community leaders that fanatics are once again on the march.

Tower Hamlets is one of numerous areas in England — others include parts of Bradford, Dewsbury, Leicester and Luton — where Muslims Against Crusades, a banned extremist group that burnt poppies on Remembrance Day, has announced it wants to impose sharia law. Al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist group proscribed by the Home Office, is also said to be active here.

The vigilante patrols are the latest in a long line of incidents, which have included homophobic attacks and the appearance of stickers branding the area a “Sharia Zone” and “Gay-free”. Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, suggested last month that the “Muslim patrols” could be “a sign of things to come” as a pattern of extremism spreads across Europe.

“It is a tough time for the East End,” agrees John Fell, the 58-year-old landlord of the Old Ship, across the road from the Queen’s Head, which is also up for sale. Mr Fell, who has launched a petition against the closure of his pub, says he has eight years left on the lease agreed with the council.

“There has been trouble going on here from before those [YouTube] films. We have had people beaten up, and all that sort of stuff. The people who do this are just yobs, using religion as a shield to bully people.”

Clustering in the shadow of the Olympic stadium and the glittering monoliths of Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the country. Its population is young, and at a time of limited opportunities, increasingly frustrated. It is a fertile breeding ground for extremism.

Newly published census figures reveal Bengalis have now overtaken white British to become the largest ethnic group in the borough, comprising 32 per cent of the population, compared to 31 per cent. Muslims are the main religious group, making up 35 per cent of residents. Only 27 per cent practise Christianity — the lowest proportion in the country.

According to councillors, the local political landscape has become “poisonous”. The Respect MP George Galloway’s divisive election victory in 2005 — a feat he has repeated in Bradford — is blamed for stirring up hatred, the scars of which remain. There is real concern over council policies.

“I was appalled by the footage but not entirely surprised,” says Peter Golds, the leader of the Conservative group on the council. He is openly gay and says he has endured homophobic abuse inside the chamber. “I fear there is some evidence [that disparate groups] are growing because in some aspects of the community here, the integration is so poor. There are some people who are here physically, but not mentally, emotionally or anything else.”

In the wake of the “Muslim patrols”, much of the spotlight has focused on the East London Mosque and adjoining London Muslim Centre, which tower over the largely Bengali shopfronts of the grimy Whitechapel Road. It is where the IFE, which advocates turning Europe into a sharia state and has been criticised for inviting speakers with strong homophobic views, is based. Mosque leaders, and the mayor of the borough, have been quick to condemn the vigilante attacks. This hasn’t stopped hate mail being sent to the mosque.

Spokesman Salman Farsi, 27, says he believes the patrols are made up of fanatics coming into the area from other parts of London to stoke up tensions.

“There has always been a fringe minority of our community who clash with the proper teachings of Islam, as I see it,” Farsi says. “They have a more simplistic, literal interpretation of Islam. Clearly that is at odds with Islamic and British values and traditions.”

He adds: “I wouldn’t describe it as a fragile environment. There is a lot of co-existence and harmony.”

At the White Swan on Commercial Road at Limehouse, which has been serving locals for 28 years, a question mark hangs over the weekly gay strip night, also threatened with closure by the council. Police have urged manager Liam Bushell to report any instances of hate crime, but he is hopeful that these recent events are a one-off.

“It is a very multicultural place,” Bushell says. “We do get a lot of Asian people coming in here. I don’t think it will stop people coming to the East End.”

It is typically defiant talk in an area that historically refuses to be cowed. In the latest wave of extremism, however, it is hard not to wonder how long this slice of East End life will remain.