This piece was published in The Big Issue in July 2013.
History is full of echoes. Some return as whispers, some shout in your ear. In 1903, an East London MP called Major Evans-Gordon moaned that “east of Aldgate, one walks into a foreign town”.
The major, a supporter of something called the British Brothers’ League, fretted over “foreign invaders”: Jewish families supposedly having so many kids that they were a becoming a burden on the British state.
Earlier this month, English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson and his deputy Kevin Carroll arrived at Aldgate East, believing they too were entering foreign territory, a zone of so little whiteness it must surely pose an existential threat.
They wanted to reach the East London Mosque, a symbolic staging post for their favourite summer pastime: a shit-stirring street march. But Tommy and Kevin were so loud and aggressive they were arrested for obstructing police officers only a couple of minutes after leaving the station.
Why here? Why target Tower Hamlets? Looking on from the outside, the EDL must see a strange, frightening beacon of multiculturalism gone mad. The square mile at the centre of the borough is home to more than two dozen places of worship – mosques, churches, synagogues, a Sikh gurdwara, a Buddhist centre and a Hindu temple – making it the most diverse and densely packed area of religious observance in Europe.
I wanted to get a clearer sense of what multiculturalism means in practice, how people of different origins actually talk, trade and work alongside one other.
I also wanted to know whether religion might be the thing which divides us, that tells us we are separate and always will be, or whether it might be the thing that teaches us to respect inevitable differences and go about shared business in peace. Tower Hamlets seemed the right place to come.
I paid a visit to every place of worship in the square mile of faith, drank a lot of tea and ate a lot of biscuits (best cuppa award goes Mrs Hore at the Hindu temple on Rhondda Grove). One minor thing I discovered: there are no quiet parts of Tower Hamlets, and Whitechapel is the loudest.
To stand at any of the junctions near the East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road is to be drowned in a great sea of noise.
The call to prayer sweeps down from the mosque’s huge loudspeakers but quickly becomes just another sound, one more swept up by a great cacophonous swirl: ambulance sirens wailing out from the Royal London Hospital; flash cars full of white, black and Asian lads pushing souped-up speakers to breaking point; market men rattling big metal trolleys through the crowds (“Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me”); huge, squirming African catfish lifted out of plastic tubs of water to cries of “£5 each! £5 each!”
Leon Silver, the 64-year-old president of East London Central Synagogue, has been weaving through the rush since he was a boy. Leon still remembers when this area – Whitechapel stretching through Stepney – was full of kosher bakers, poulterers, garment manufacturers and small synagogues.
“There was practically one on every street corner,” Silver recalls. “A lot of synagogues were converted workshops or just a room in a house. Such was the demand.”
The Jewish population has long since scattered north and west, but Leon doesn’t mourn the changes in ethnicity. “No, no, you can’t do that, because it’s an enriching area, an area that’s always changing,” he says.
“Many of the problems the Bangladeshi community have faced are the same as the Jewish community. Some of the things said before the First World War – that the Jews somehow get by on very small incomes so they undercut wages, the smell of their cooking is offensive – these are the kind of things said about more recent immigrants.
“Most people are basically interested in making a decent life – finding a decent job, a decent house, education for the children,” he adds. “When people from different backgrounds get to know each other they find this out.”
One warm Monday evening a few weeks ago I watched Leon stand up at a post-Woolwich meeting at the East London Mosque and declare his solidarity – to loud applause – with Muslims feeling pressured to explain themselves on a near daily basis: “I’m from a community that knows what it is to be demonised. I come here as your neighbour, your friend and your brother.”
The meeting was not a one-off. Leon is part of Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum, a group of religious leaders meeting regularly since 2006. According to the Reverend Alan Green, the Church of England vicar who chairs the forum, it’s been an exciting, occasionally difficult education for everyone involved.
“I actually have no great interest in dry, theological dialogue,” says Rev Green in his small vestry office at St John on Bethnal Green (a Liverpool fan, he keeps a framed photo of Bill Shankly next to an image of the cross). “What’s really brought us together, and what’s kept us in very close contact, is working on the practical problems the area faces, trying to work out ways the faith community can really be of use.”
The early days of the ambitious venture were not without problems. There were incidences of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-Christian graffiti in church graveyards to acknowledge. The group had to engage with the true scale of problems involving Tower Hamlets’ restless youth, the postcode gang grudges and lack of work.
The faith leaders also had to overcome the anxieties of some secular types – political campaigners, police and health professionals worried the vicars and clerics were only getting behind projects in order to proselytise.
“A lot has changed in recent years,” says Rev Green. “I think people of no particular faith here now recognise the symbolic power we can have, and as an issue comes up they also want to know how we can practically contribute.”
And so when problems arise – as they have during this feverish summer of attacks on mosques and potential flash points with the EDL – Rev Green usually picks up the phone to call Dilowar Khan or Shaynul Khan at the London Muslim Centre (adjoining the East London Mosque). “It’s been important to stand together so Muslims are not left to face the cameras or feel they’re having to defend themselves alone,” the vicar explains.
One of the London Muslim Centre’s leading figures, Shaynul speaks highly of Rev Green, Leon Silver, Buddhist leader Jan McHarry and others in the forum. He sees the “relationships with friends of different faiths” as simply a natural part of living in East London.
“I think the diversity here actually makes it one of the world’s most amazing places,” he enthuses. “I really do. If you walk around you can sense how much good will those connections bring about.”
One of contemporary Britain’s big fears, found even among lefties comfortable with diversity and keen to believe in the benefits of immigration, is that Muslims are susceptible to a degree of insularity, failing to fully invest in the future of the nation.
Having spent a lot of time in Tower Hamlets (a borough in which almost 35 per cent of residents are Muslim), it is impossible to miss how closely the lives of all races and religions intersect. Mixing happens everywhere – by market stalls and school gates, in shops, parks, libraries and day centres.
It happens at the Royal London Hospital where, shifts over, colleagues spill out together and chat about what they’re doing with time off. It happens on the steps of the Salvation Army hostel where motley, multi-coloured crews of addicts waste away their days together.
Shaynul, a second-generation British member of a Bangladeshi family, dismisses the idea Muslims could possibly be cut off from all this. “When I was a student I had my student friends, wherever I worked I found friends, and you also have your religious circle of friends at the mosque. I think that’s increasingly the way for young people now. They find a balance. They can be many different things at the same time.
“Young people here really don’t want to be on the unemployment line – their aspirations are high,” he adds. “This idea they’re stuck in a ghetto – that’s not their mentality. The internet generation, they seek to be socially and economically mobile, because it now comes more naturally to them than perhaps it did to their dads and uncles. It’s up to my generation to help them find those opportunities and make the most of them.”
I meet 18-year-old Kamrul Hussain on the Collingwood Estate, halfway between Whitechapel and Bethnal Green. A regular at the East London Mosque, Kamrul is bright, energetic – excited about the sports charity he is starting up while assessing university options.
“My religion is important to me, but personally speaking, I don’t like to be forward facing about it,” he says. “I think you’d get the wrong idea if you think it’s the only thing that’s important. People my age are focused on work and what they want to do in life.”
As we talk about some of the local grudges among young men in different parts of the borough, Kamrul makes clear the rivalries are not based on race. What about friendships in school? “Oh, it’s totally mixed, totally. White, black and Asian. In school these days, everyone is involved with everyone else. Who you’re close friends with can depend on whoever’s in your neighbourhood.”
A close friend of Kamrul’s was stabbed and had to go to hospital over a year ago after a dispute with nearby Globe Town got out of hand. The Osmani Trust – a local charity where Kamrul now volunteers – stepped in to mediate and establish a truce.
“It was mostly postcode stuff between estates,” the teenager recalls. “It can start with silly things, a fight, and then it escalates into being very serious. It took a while to calm down, but it has now. It took people realising it’s not worth getting revenge. There’s no satisfaction in that.
“A big part of the problem is the young ones look at the older ones in the parks drinking or taking drugs,” Kamrul adds. “They think, ‘Yeah, that looks cool.’ I wanted to help tackle that. If you want help, or do something more positive, I want to be able to show you where to go. So I suppose the good things in your religion can teach you get involved in your community – it’s definitely not about shutting yourself off.”
There are other struggles to be overcome on the Collingwood Estate. I meet Audrey Aymer, a spirited woman in her early fifties who lives alone in a small first-floor flat after her son got married and moved away. It means she’s been hit by the bedroom tax, forced to find an extra £15 a week. “It leaves you with, well, nothing. Once you pay the electricity and gas, there’s really nothing.”
“I’ve been so stressed and tense lately,” Audrey tells me. “So I literally stood up in church and said: ‘I’m not going to be pulled down by this… the devil is trying to pull me down.’ I think it was the first time some people realised what I was going through. It was a release. And instead of carrying the weight, I let others at the church help me carry it.”
“I don’t know where I’d be without God,” she says. “God’s done so many amazing things in my life. And it’s really because of the support of the church that I’ve been able to handle this.”
Audrey is determined not to leave this part of London. She loves her church and her neighbourhood. “We might all come from different backgrounds or places, but everyone just wants to get on with things in peace, don’t they? To live their life without all this fear. Underneath we’re all the same that way.”
Life is suffering, so the buddhists says.
Jan McHarry, who has been going to the London Buddhist Centre on Bethnal Green’s busy Roman Road for more than 20 years, says religion is never an escape from the world. “This is an area that makes the teachings all the more real because it’s right in the nitty gritty,” she explains. “You can’t go into a bubble of ‘everything is wonderful’ because you walk out the door and you see people in pain.
“Some people meditating might hear the fire engines go past and say ‘Oh, I wish it wasn’t like that here’. But I think it’s grounding. There is unsatisfactoriness all around us, everything is in flux, and suffering is there too. Either you are overwhelmed by that, or you find a path and a place within in it.
“My religion is kindness. It can be a simple as a smile. I suppose the challenge is to feel like a smile, to feel that compassion when you are met by difficult things.”
London is seen as a city of money, a place to do deals and make things happen. It is also a city of faith, a place where prayers are offered up from every quarter.
At this time of year, London is hot, noisy and crowded: a modern-day Babylon. Yet we live on a hot, crowded planet and Britain’s very own people-pulling megacity is not going to get any quieter. A place like Tower Hamlets offers a semi-hopeful glimpse of the human future, some way of carving out peace in turbulent times.