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Minding The Gap

Wednesday 17 September 2014



My daily commute from North to East London is an often interesting and strange affair. The mode of transport chosen brings out different sides of the many contradictions of Inner London’s hyper gentrified neighbourhoods. As you traverse the edges of London’s financial and trade hub, the ‘Square Mile’, you also traverse the brazenly obvious social and demographic problems that have been brewing since the Thatcher years. It’s a side of London that many in Whitehall would love to see gone and it’s one that continues to generate problems for the city. Major urban plans are well under way, but is it causing more harm than good?

I’m standing just outside Finsbury Park station about to hop on a bus to trendy Brick Lane. A mere feet away stands London’s infamous Finsbury Park mosque where several 9/11 bombers passed and half a dozen other would-be jihadis were indoctrinated and eventually caught and jailed. Just opposite me I notice another mosque concealed behind a tiny gate. Five bearded men of Sub-saharan African origins dressed in traditional Islamic black clothing are in the vicinity. This is not an uncommon sight in this part of London; religion of all sorts is ubiquitous here as orthodox Hasidic Jews intermingle with women in full niqabs. But something felt eerily unusual about them.

The men are in a quite heated debate as they make their way to the bus stop. One of them eyes me; his momentary blank stare is unsettling. But he looks away and continues his approach. They stand on the opposite side of the stop and continue their discussion. The words ‘Iraq’, ‘Islamic lands’, ‘caliphate’ and ‘hijra’ are tossed around as I nonchalantly eavesdrop. One of the men, seemingly in his early 20s, gets animated. He pulls out his phone angrily and plays a video. It’s not clear what the content is, but Islamic chants that I’ve heard on countless Islamic State and Nusra videos are evident. Suddenly things get very clear as a man in a strong London accent addresses anti-US messages to Obama. It was the same voice that had given me a few sleepless nights recently. It was that of the man from the James Foley and Steven Sotloff execution videos, the man we’ve come to know as ‘Jihadi John’ and who many believe to be British rapper ‘L Jinny’. I’m desperate to hear his thoughts but my bus arrives. I hop on and we take off leaving them behind.

Throughout the journey to Shoreditch, I’m thinking of my brief encounter. I can’t help but wonder what justification or not the young man was about to explain to his comrades. Was he about to quote one of the many Quran verses that when taken out of context can be used to justify these acts? Perhaps he was about to make a comparison with Islam’s long and rich history which much like that of any other religion in the region has a horribly bloody but equally thought provoking past? Or maybe he was just about to tell them that such acts of extreme violence go in stark contrast to Islamic teachings?

As these thoughts race through my head, the bus is making its way through Holloway Road. Council estates are dotted throughout. Not too ago several men from Islington estates like these were rumoured to have been killed in action in Syria. No one likes to discuss this out in the open, but London’s inner city estates have been quite the resource to the recently established Islamic State. Some weeks ago an ISIS flag rose over an estate in East London causing community social tensions. It isn’t just limited to troubled councils though, leafy suburbs have featured in headlines too. And if L Jinny is indeed the voice in the IS video, a man who owns a million pound house in Maida Vale and often sang about alcohol and cannabis consumption, wouldn’t the British public be well within their rights to question the entire premise of a multi-cultural Britain?

More men in traditional Islamic clothing hop on the bus, this time an even younger bunch. They’re wearing colourful headphones and sneakers, but they’re also making a bold statement. Islam is very obviously the identity of choice above all else in these parts. A culture of violent video games and gangster hip-hop strangely intertwines with Islamic pride and gang affiliation to create a very dangerous demographic tangent.

How could this have happened though, how can such a liberal place where wildly diverse people from all creeds, walks of life and backgrounds intermingle in harmony generate such a breed of youth willing to die thousands of miles away in the name of Islam? Most of these young men and women have attended public schools where they were supposed to have been moulded into individuals with high civil awareness and a healthy respect for the other. Their economically deprived backgrounds should have made them ambitious for life, to go out and better themselves and their families. Islam should have been a driving force for good in their lives and communities. But most importantly, London and the west should have been a place of belonging, a place that gave them a chance many of their peers back home yearn for every day.

Yet instead the reality is starkly different. Young Muslims from London (mostly from South Asian and Sub-Saharan African backgrounds) increasingly find themselves having to make a morally corrupt choice. Either pledge flagrant allegiance to a brand of Islam promising to return to Muslims some form of a twisted glorified era or accept a Western lifestyle that goes against much of what they’ve been brought up on.

For many Muslims, it is evident that their allegiance cannot be to Britain, not to their community, and not even to their home countries. Their allegiance can therefore only be to Islam. But when did Islam become such a powerful identity? A brief historic overview shows that though battles were often fought in the name of Islam, they were linked to ethnicity and tribal affiliations. Whether it was Abbasid, Persian, Ottoman, Ayubid or Mamluk conquests, they were never solely Islamic, and more often than not Muslims battled each other in the name of a wider ethnic cause. The phenomenon of Islam as an identity is therefore quite recent and ties in directly to the meteoric rise of Islamist ideologies in the mid-to-late 20th century through the inception of Sayyid Qutb’s Muslim Brotherhood and later the Islamic revolution of Iran.

Back in London the bus continues its journey. We’re now on the borders between Islington, the City and Hackney as we cross City Road. These are crossroads that a mere two decades ago were withering away and suffering near planned neglect. They are also traditionally working class areas that have long formed the backbone of London’s socialist landscape. But as the bus traverses borough boundaries, very little of that past remains. Cranes are sprouting everywhere as trendy bars, cafes and the odd Michelin starred restaurant line the streets.

The direct result of the economic boom and growth years of the 90s and early 00s, hyper gentrification has come with a dangerous side-effect, the marginalization of the working class. The problems have manifested themselves in a myriad of ways as disenfranchised youths try to find escapes. For many, this was through gangs and crime (the 2011 London riots being a good example). For Muslim youths however, this was always a murky option, particularly those who found a clear contradiction between gang culture and Islam. The ISIS breed of Islamism therefore represented the perfect marriage – a rebellious and violent escape but one which can lead to heaven. And as L Jinny’s case shows, pivoting between the gang affiliated persona to an Islamist one is not a difficult task.

I’ve once argued with a friend that the Middle East does not breed extremism, the West and other places where Islam is not native do. My reasoning was that a culture of coexistence between the hundreds of denominations of Islam on one side, and the Muslim group at large with the ‘people of the book’ on another, has existed for centuries. Because of that, the areas where Islam once ruled have always been a melting pot of fringe ideas and philosophies which were widely tolerated. Many Muslim caliphs were known for their love of alcohol, while in Toledo Jews under Muslim rule held important governmental and societal positions.

In the West however, many Muslims immigrants in the tail end of the 20th century, particularly those of south Asian origins, conglomerated in insular social clusters around inner urban areas (much like Islington and Hackney) and kept to themselves. This is particularly evident in the outskirts of cities like London and Paris where many migrant Muslims formed their own societies, built their own madrasas and Sharia courts (often with the blessing and funding of the state) and rejected the notion of assimilation.

Perhaps Margret Thatcher was thinking short term when she invited Islamists to settle in London a bid to strengthen her and Raegan’s alliance with the anti-Soviet movement in Afghanistan. She probably didn’t think that one day Muslims from her capital city would blow themselves up on the city’s underground. She certainly didn’t think there would be groups led by lawyers educated on her home soil calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in the United Kingdom. But it was partly her policies coupled with the failures of Labour’s multi-cultural approach that have largely been responsible for the state of disillusion that British Muslims are now in.

The bus reaches its destination and I’m now on Brick Lane, often called “Curry Mile” due to the abundance of Bengali curry houses. I make my way through the weird and wonderful world of Spitalfields. Upscale fashion houses, gay bars and hipster coffee houses seamlessly fuse with urban graffiti, the odd Islamic library and a myriad of south-Asian supermarkets. Bearded folks are throughout, some religious, some self-expressionist. I am quickly reminded why extremism cannot win here, Londoners as a collective have indeed made a conscious decision to create a city where everyone is accepted for who they are. But while this has largely worked so far, the fear is that deep problems brewing in the background continue to threaten the entire social fabric of the city. There is no one clear cut solution, but the long term goal must be full assimilation and social cohesion by Muslims. Everyone else has done it. In the mean-time, most of us will continue moving through London’s extremities while minding the dangerous socio-demographic gaps and hoping things don’t get any worse. It’s the British way.

khawaja.firas@gmail.com


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