Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
HARUN RASHID KHAN (# 14)
Harun Rashid Khan
Born in London, England
Father & Mother both born in Bangladesh (East Pakistan)
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Bangladeshi
Throughout its history, East London has accepted wave after wave of immigrants. The French Protestant Huguenots in the 17th century were followed by the Irish in the 18th century, and by Ashkenazy Jews escaping from pogroms in Eastern Europe towards the end of the 19th century. The immigrant Bangladeshi community settled there from the 1960s. Each of these waves of immigration added another dimension, another layer of culture and history to East London and to the metropolis as a whole.
Harun was born in Stepney, the heart of the East End, to Bangladeshi parents - they were observant Muslims. His father had arrived to the area in 1958 and was both well-known and had high standing in his community. Harun says: “I consider myself an East Londoner and had an enjoyable early life there. I have many vivid memories, memories of playing in the streets and feeling very loved and safe. It was the best part of my life, growing up.”
He went to primary school locally and, perhaps unusually, continued his education at the Church of England Raine’s Foundation School in Bethnal Green. Being a Muslim in an Anglican school in the 1970s does not seem to have presented him with any major issues: “I attended evening classes in the local Mosque to learn the Quran but being young and energetic, enjoying myself in outdoor pursuits was more important to me than worrying about being a Muslim. Later on, the Muslim life did become more and more the norm for me, as I grew up in an observant household.”
Harun’s family was quite traditional: respect for one other and for the community was paramount and was seen as essential for personal happiness and for harmony with others. Harun had three sisters but was the youngest in what was a devout family; his father prayed the prescribed five times a day and attended the by now famous East London Mosque in Whitechapel. “Probably around the age of 14 or 15,” says Harun, “ I started to associate with friends with whom I shared an interest in learning more about Islam and my own faith, and this had a profound effect on my life.”
“Even as a young man, I was guided by the fundamental tenets and did not drink alcohol, smoke or take drugs; socialising in bars and clubs, or having a girlfriend, these were off-limits too and that was not always easy - there were a lot of temptations out there. But I felt that by abstaining and by exercising self control, I would get stronger; and I thought that God would provide me with a partner for life.“
“I found that my religion made me feel more positive about myself and the world I lived in: it helped me in striving to be fair and just; it made me more aware of my own community; and it grounded me in the notion of social justice. All of these things have helped make me who I am today - my religion and the Quran form a sort of supporting framework around my life. The entire system of belief and values that I espouse is based upon Islam and it ties in with everything I do in my daily life - in the workplace, in connection with the people I meet, and in all my interactions with the world at large.”
In a society where traditional values are often seriously challenged and sometimes dismantled before our eyes, Islam helps Harun to identify guiding principles and helps him to understand the ever-changing events around him. Harun recognises that, in striving for modernity, contemporary British society has discarded some of the more traditional social norms and values that once cemented it together. He believes that some sections of society have been so destabilised that people may look occasionally with envy towards the more traditional Muslim family structures and values, with their greater respect for parents, teachers, authority and for each other. As a father of three, Harun now strives to instil these essential values into his own children.
From school, Harun continued his Sixth Form education with two years at Lime Grove College in West London, which at that time specialised in Construction and Engineering, and went on to take up his first job as a trainee Civil Engineer at Tower Hamlets Council. This was very much his local patch. He worked there with five other engineers on road maintenance and road safety schemes, studying Civil Engineering part-time at the University of East London. Following his graduation, and having spent 11 years at Tower Hamlets, he was able to move on in his career, and to progress. Harun joined Transport for London when it was was formed in 2001, and he has worked there until today where he is now a senior manager responsible for road planning.
In 1994, at the age of 25, Harun followed the well-established tradition of his family and entered what is known as an arranged marriage. Born in Bristol, his wife also came from a practising Muslim family, though they were less strict. Harun now has three daughters, one of whom is already a bright teenager.
Because of his long-term association with the local mosque and the wider Muslim community in East London, Harun became involved with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) when it was formed in 1997, following the stormy time that came after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989. Some would argue that this was a pivotal point for the Muslim community; many felt that there was a great deal of anger and a lot of foolish and provocative language on all sides; but it became clear nonetheless that there was a need for the Muslim community to be more organised, and to find a more consistent and coherent way both of dealing with the media and also engaging positively with government. “In those early days, I had only a loose association with the MCB,” says Harun, “But with over one million Muslims now living in London, the work of the MCB was to become very significant indeed.”
Harun became the Chair of the Council’s London Committee, which engaged directly with City Hall and with the Mayor. As one consequence of this liaison, Harun took on the role of chief organiser of the first three annual Eid Celebrations in Trafalgar Square. This was to become a major event in the capital, open to everyone, and helped to showcase the positive engagement of Muslims with life in London and in Britain as a whole.
Once the world had become embroiled in what some describe as a ‘clash of civilisations’, a conflict between the West and the Muslim world, Harun says: “I became very self-conscious, of who I was and how I would be perceived and treated by others. I knew that I would henceforth be viewed in a different light, that suddenly I might have become an outsider in my own town.” Of course, not wearing overtly Muslim attire (Harun dresses conventionally) reactions to him on public transport and on the street didn’t differ much from before but, as soon people became aware that he was a practising Muslim, their reactions changed. Harun says: “I strongly believed that my character and my behaviour were the things that should reflect upon me and, I hoped, be a positive influence on others, on how they perceived Islam. I expected to be judged according to my character and my behaviour - that is a core principle of the Prophet - and I do not wish to be judged on the way I dress. Being seen as an enemy is never comforting, even to the strong, but suddenly all Muslims had begun to be perceived as a potential threat. They all now felt like outsiders, despite many having been born in the UK, knowing little or sometimes nothing about the country of their forefathers.”
Just when the Muslim community thought that some stability, some sense of harmony was returning to London’s streets, a young soldier was brutally murdered in Woolwich. Two clearly unstable young men carried out this so-called ‘act of revenge’, in the name of Islam. Yet again, members of the English Defence League and others on the nationalist far right felt they had a cause to march, and mosques were torched. The Muslim communities were again under attack. “To be honest,” says Harun, “while very sensitive to all these goings-on, most of the time I try to continue as normal. I am part of the Muslim community but I also feel myself an integral part of London society; having to carry the label of ‘potential terrorist’ is hard to bear and the normalising of this kind of provocative language is becoming difficult to live with.”
Asked about the disadvantages of being labelled as an outsider, Harun says: ”The disadvantages are going to be significant and will be felt not only by individuals but also by the community as a whole. It is hard to be labelled an outsider when one is always striving towards positive engagement, to being very much a part of society. One strives to be an example to the community and, going forward, one seeks always to engage with democratic processes, at the local and national level, as the only sound way of bringing about positive change in the long term. To achieve that, one has to be active in society, something which is hard to do if one is perceived to be a ‘non-belonger’, an outsider. Without involvement, one has no voice, whereas activism and participation in the democratic process demonstrate to doubters that one is definitely not an outsider.”
Speaking to Harun, it is obvious that he is aware of those Muslims who have a utopian vision of an international Islamic State - a new Caliphate - and they are prepared to sacrifice almost anything and anyone to achieve it. While dreams have their place, he believes that the government of the real world has in many ways to be the pragmatic management of imperfection, extraordinary diversity, and often conflicting interests. “One can have one’s religion, one’s personal vision of the ideal world, but ultimately, one has to live alongside those whose lives, beliefs and expectations are very different from one’s own,” says Harun. “My own children visited Bangladesh recently but they don’t see themselves as anything but British; they wouldn’t identify themselves as anything else. My aim is to do anything within my power to make my children feel safe here, Muslim by religion, Bangladeshi by ethnicity, but British citizens; above all, I never want them to be seen, or to see themselves, as outsiders.”
Interview Date: 17th June 2013
Updated: 4th July 2013
Harun was born in Stepney, the heart of the East End, to Bangladeshi parents - they were observant Muslims. He is a member of the community of over one million Muslims now living in the capital but, as an East Londoner, he also thinks of himself as an integral part of London society. In the context of what some have described as a ‘clash of civilisations’, he feels that he has been subsequently viewed in a different light, that suddenly he might have become an outsider in his own town. Harun’s aim is to do anything within his power to make his children feel safe here, Muslim by religion, Bangladeshi by ethnicity, but British citizens; above all, he never wants them to be seen, or to see themselves, as outsiders.
Photography: London 17th June 2013