Outsiders in London


Muslims in Britain ( ‘Clash of Civilisations ?’ )

The 2011 Census indicates that Islam is undoubtedly London’s largest and most significant minority religion, with over 1 million persons describing themselves as Muslim (this figure was just over 600,000 in 2001).   This is just under 13% of the population of the capital though in Tower Hamlets,  the home of the Bangladeshi community, that figure rises to more than 30%.   Over 40% of Muslims in England now live in London.

Some of the first Muslims to settle in London in the 19th century were Somali and Yemeni sailors and in the century to follow, these were joined by Muslim soldiers, mainly from Pakistan and India, who served in the British Army and the British Indian Army during the First and Second World Wars.   During the 1950’s and 1960’s, a large influx of Muslims arrived from what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and, as many earlier immigrants had done, they settled in East London.   Of course, there have also been large numbers of Muslim settlers from other countries too:  from Cyprus, Turkey, North Africa (including Egypt and Somalia) Malaysia, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya and, more recently, from Bosnia.

While all Muslims follow the teachings of the Quran, its interpretation differs vastly from one part of the world to another.   It would therefore be wrong to assume that all London Muslims are the same and follow identical religious practices and traditions.

Where Muslims settled in large numbers, like the Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, they had a significant impact on the ‘feel’ of the local area.   As with other immigrant communities in the past, these forms of dense, local settlement generated some resentment, leading to tension and sporadic conflict with nationalist groups, such as the British National Party and later, the English Defence League.   Conflict tended to be focussed on East London, especially in East Ham, and Barking & Dagenham.  But generally speaking, the integration of these new arrivals followed established patterns:  as people put down roots and prospered, those who became affluent, and who could afford it, gradually dispersed to London’s outer suburbs, with the second and third generations melding into London’s glorious mix of race, colour and creed.

Although, in out lifetime, the West has become markedly more liberal and secular, the forces of reactionary Christian conservatism within societies have also gained momentum, largely in opposition to what they perceive to be assaults upon traditional values.   These forces have been particularly prominent in the USA, a country now notably more devout than what was once thought of as ‘Christendom’, where they have managed to influence, in a major and prolonged way, not only that country’s internal politics but also its foreign policy.   Concurrently, Islam is experiencing a similar trend towards fundamentalism, with the promulgation of Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam (the dominant faith of Saudi Arabia) causing similar tensions and conflicts within the heterogeneous community of Muslim believers throughout the world.

The War in Afghanistan, launched by the USA in the Autumn of 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, was presented ostensibly as an initiative to unseat the Taliban and to extirpate Al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11, whose leadership and training camps the Taliban were seen to be hosting.   The real reasons for the conflict were more complex, of course, and some observers have argued convincingly that what was described in certain quarters as a ‘clash of civilisations’ was actually a clash between two equally charged and polarised forms of religious fundamentalism, both Muslim and Christian.   In any event, all this was perceived by some Muslims in the UK and elsewhere in the West as an all-out attack upon Islam and, indeed, upon every Muslim.

Inevitably, new resentments were generated amongst Muslims in Britain and numbers of angry young Muslims - almost without exception, young British-born Muslim men - were subsequently radicalised, with individuals deciding to join the fight against the West in Afghanistan or to retaliate against Britain at home.   The brutally successful, coordinated attacks on ordinary civilians, of 7th July 2005 (known as ‘7/7’) shook London to its foundations and made very uncomfortable the lives of most of the Muslims living there - every Muslim, especially the young man with a rucksack, was seen as a potential terrorist - ‘the enemy within’.

While we seem to be witnessing some loss of vigour on the part of the religious right in the USA, extreme fundamentalist forces continue on the rise within the Islamic world.   Several major conflicts have now arisen, with a number of Arab and Muslim states deteriorating into major sectarian violence, with Muslim ‘brothers’ killing each other in unprecedented numbers.   The future is looking decidedly bleak.

The cold-blooded and brutal murder of a British soldier in Woolwich by two almost certainly deranged but nonetheless radicalised young Londoners, both ethnically Nigerian, has engendered a  new wave of counter attacks by the English Defence League.   Once again, most of London’s Muslim community see themselves as under suspicion and feel very uncomfortable indeed.   Even so, at the very same time, we have witnessed young Muslim radicals in the Whitechapel district of Tower Hamlets (where Muslims are not far from being the majority of the population) who have set up ‘Muslim Patrols’, basically vigilante groups which target and attack gay men, and seek to chastise any women whom they perceive to be ‘indecently’ dressed.

London is truly an extraordinary city:  for centuries, it has been a melting-pot of cultures, faiths and peoples from all over the world, peoples who have largely managed to coexist, sometimes harmoniously, and while occasionally faced with threats from the outside, such as the Blitz, the real threats to tranquility flow from the conflicting forces within.   Once fundamentalism, in its many shapes and forms, is effectively counteracted, equilibrium and peace are likely to return to this great city of ours.

Updated 6th August 2013

The purpose of these notes is, in the spirit of education, to provide the reader with some additional information about specific topics covered in the sitters’ interviews and to draw together statistical, sociological and other relevant data which could not easily be incorporated into the records of the interviews themselves.

The notes are largely constructed from widely-available published materials on the topic in question and every effort has been made to exclude material which could be seen as spurious or contentious.   Of course, though care has been taken to draw only from bona fide sources, it cannot be claimed that these notes are authoritative;  for those who are already expert or who wish to delve further into a specific subject, cross-referencing with other reliable references is recommended.

While no material has been consciously included that might be deemed sexist, racist or offensive in some other way to a particular minority group or to individuals adhering to a particular religious creed or moral code, it is hardly to be expected that everyone will agree with every observation and conclusion.