There’s often talk of the ‘Muslim community’ in Britain. A community numbering in millions, scattered across the country, all the same. Everyone is the same, a massive group that thinks, speaks and looks the same.
The issue with this of course is that the Muslim community isn’t actually a single community, and more specifically, it’s debatable whether such a community really exists. The idea of different groups of Muslims, informed by regional and cultural experiences, bleeding into one group ignores the differences that separate a Sunni from a Shia Muslim. It ignores the cultural contrasts between Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Arabs, Nigerians and Somalians. It also wrongly paints the image that British Muslims only identify with faith and nothing else.
Whitechapel serves as the case in point, a melting pot of liberal hipsters, the old East End families, the Bangladeshi community and students. It’s a mix of everything, and from the outside curiously poised on some delicate edge of social tension. Outside perception and reality here differ. The idea that the people here are just Muslims is both flawed and inaccurate, serving up only an incomplete portrait of the community here. They are so much more than just Muslim.
On 4th May 1978 a young Bangladeshi textile worker called Altab Ali had been killed by a white supremacist gang on his way home. Today, there is a park named after him and every year the community remembers and mourns him, the struggle against fascist thugs on the streets that had characterised their lives for much of the seventies, eighties and nineties. For years, the Bangladeshi community had lived in fear of racist white gangs who roamed the streets taunting, threatening and attacking them, in flashbacks to when Oswald Mosley incited violence in the 1930s against the Jewish community living there. Bangladeshi children would be released early from schools so their parents could get them home safely, mothers walked in groups to increase safety, letterboxes fireproofed against arson attacks. They lived in fear, lived on the edge.
In the aftermath of Altab Ali’s murder, the youth in the Bangladeshi community across Tower Hamlets simmered with anger and fought back. By then, they had long since given up hope of any institutional support against racist gangs and began forming groups themselves to fight the racists. Shiria Khatun, a local Labour councillor, described this in a phone interview to me as, “fear of the National Front brought the Bangladeshis together. You think about this man on his way home and what happened, and just think, ‘my goodness what a long way we have come.’” For many Bangladeshis there is a pride in resisting the aggressive racism of those who tried to destroy them for their identity. And here is the crucial part. Then they were Bangladeshis. They were attacked for being brown, and they saw themselves as Bangladeshis. Religion was simply a part of who they were but it wasn’t all that they were.
The two mosques that stand there, the East London Mosque and the Brick Lane Mosque encapsulate the mix of religious zeal and cultural pride that paints the community. Historically, ELM has been supported by Middle East and Pakistan while the Brick Lane Mosque has its roots spanning back to Bangladesh, and thereby is often more supportive and tolerant of cultural customs and festivals in a manner that the East London Mosque generally isn’t.
Today this has changed somewhat and there are younger generations of British Muslims for whom religion fills the identity gap that culture cannot fully explain. A young British Bangladeshi is aware that he or she is different to wider society yet to say they are Bengali ignores that for most of them, Bangladeshi is as culturally distant as it is physically. There’s a gap there that has to be filled to imbue them with their own sense of identity and belonging. But it remains that identity is a complex thing, providing a sense of self and belonging, and cannot simply be reduced to faith.
For the Bangladeshi community of Tower Hamlets, reclaiming the narrative of who they are from outside assumptions is important. Their existence is proof that people who identify as Muslims aren’t just Muslims.