Tower Hamlets Taliban: Death threats to women who don’t wear veils. Gays attacked in the streets. And all in a borough at the heart of Britain’s capital…
When will the UK government start to address these issues openly. After all, the Muslims of Tower Hamlets have no problem expressing their thoughts.
“His promise to turn last month’s Royal Wedding into a ‘nightmare’ may not have materialised — but that won’t stop Richard Dart from peddling his views about Britain’s monarchy online.
‘Prince William, Prince Harry and the Queen of England are guilty of funding and supporting the terrorist attacks that take place in Muslim lands,’ he says adamantly in an internet video broadcast.
A Briton from Dorset who converted to Islam in 2009 and renamed himself Salahuddin (the son of teachers), Dart is one of several extremist Muslim preachers operating in the Tower Hamlets area of East London.
This vocal minority, who are causing increasing concern in the area, have lent this corner of the capital a new nickname — the Islamic republic of Tower Hamlets.
The Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets: Veiled women pictured in the London borough which has seen a rise in extremism
Recently, it was reported that a 31-year-old Asian woman who works in a local chemist’s had received death threats for refusing to wear a veil, even though she’s not a practising Muslim. Four weeks ago, the woman’s boss was apparently approached by an Asian in his 40s who told him his employee must cover her head and wear longer robes.
‘If she keeps working here and continues to dress like that, we will boycott you because this is a Muslim area,’ the shop’s owner was told.
Subsequently another, younger, Asian man came into the pharmacy and started shouting at the employee.
‘He said: “If you keep doing these things, we will kill you,”’ recalls a Bangladeshi-born man who witnessed the scene.
It is not the first time such death threats have been issued, and nor are they confined to issues of dress and deportment. In behaviour that some have compared to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan, homophobic abuse and physical attacks against gay men and women are also reported to be on the increase.
Those familiar with life in Tower Hamlets are not surprised. They say that such attitudes are commonplace. Residents have grown used to the fact that the council-run libraries are stocked with books and DVDs containing the extremist rantings of banned Islamist preachers.
There is a Muslim faith school where girls as young as 11 have to wear face-covering veils. There are plans to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of municipal money to build a set of Islamic arches — the so-called ‘hijab gates’, which would look like a veil — at either end of Brick Lane, which is packed with Indian restaurants and clothes shops.
And there have been allegations of corruption during council elections, with the names of hundreds of Bangladeshi ‘ghost voters’ suddenly appearing on the electoral register.
But what many struggle to understand is how mainstream politicians are ignoring the corruption that is going on in the heart of our capital.
Powerful: Mayor Lutfur Rahman has promised to work with ‘every member of the community, whether they are Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian or people of no faith’
In October, Bangladeshi-born Lutfur Rahman became the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets. He originally stood as the Labour candidate but was deselected by the party amid allegations about his links with an organisation known as the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE).
The fundamentalist group believes in jihad and Islamic sharia law, and wants to turn Britain and other European countries into Islamic republics. Last year, a Labour minister said the organisation had infiltrated the Labour Party and accused it of ‘corrupting our politics’.
Leaders of the group want to impose hardline views on local communities. With bitter irony, it is said to have pocketed £10 million from the taxpayer by attracting state grants designed to ‘prevent violent extremism’.
Dumped by Labour, Mr Rahman ran as an independent (allegedly with the help of the IFE) and romped to victory in what the London Evening Standard described as ‘one of the nastiest campaigns in recent London political history’. Now in power, he has control over a £1.3 billion municipal budget.
‘You basically have a large umbrella Islamist group that appears to have almost a stranglehold over a major council in the East End of London,’ said one local resident.
‘The concern is that this Islamist group has an “us versus them” mentality. Their ideology is basically that Muslims are in the trenches, being assailed by the rest of the world. But they are convinced the Muslims will ultimately triumph. It may sound dramatic, but they are trying to impose Islam on Britain.’
Like a number of London boroughs, Tower Hamlets is a multicultural mix. But more so than in other areas, for one ethnic minority — the Bangladeshis — heavily outnumbers the others. They arrived in the UK in large numbers mainly during the Seventies. The largest concentration settled in East London, with Tower Hamlets becoming a focus for the community.
As a result, the borough has a 49.4 per cent Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population — with 33 per cent Bangladeshi. Soon, the borough will become one of a handful of council areas where the BAME grouping will outnumber the white population.
On their own, the figures are not exceptional. But what sets Tower Hamlets apart is the huge amount of political power wielded by the minority.
For several decades, Bangladeshis have been heavily involved in local politics, particularly in the ruling Labour Party.
While democracy should be open to anyone who wants to be involved, concerns have grown recently that Islamist groups have begun to dominate the political process. The fear is that instead of governing in the interests of the whole community, power is being used to promote sectarian interests.
In a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary last year, an IFE activist and Tower Hamlets councillor told an undercover reporter: ‘We’ve got a lot of influence and power in the council — councillors, politicians.’
In view of some of IFE’s more extreme policies, that ‘influence’ is worrying.
For example, IFE leaders were recorded expressing opposition to democracy, support for sharia law and mocking black people. According to one of its leaflets, the IFE wants to change the ‘very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed . . . from ignorance to Islam’.
There are plans to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of municipal money to build a set of Islamic arches ¿ the so-called ‘hijab gates’, which would look like a veil ¿ at either end of Brick Lane
One of its members was recorded by an undercover reporter, saying: ‘Democracy, if it means not implementing the sharia, no one’s going to agree with that.’
In the past it has organised meetings with extremists including allies of the Taliban and a man under investigation by the FBI for his links to the September 11 attacks.
Further, moderate Muslims told how the IFE and its allies were enforcing their hardline views on the rest of the community, cracking down on behaviour they deemed ‘un-Islamic’.
Dispatches also claimed that the IFE had helped Lutfur Rahman become leader of the council. He was voted in on a paltry 26 per cent turn-out and has an all-powerful role as a directly elected mayor, similar to that of a traditional council leader, with almost total control over a council’s finances. Most worryingly, he cannot be called to account or sacked by councillors.
Councillor Peter Golds, leader of the Tory opposition in Tower Hamlets, says that since Mr Rahman’s election there have been worrying changes in the way the council is run.
‘When we submit our routine members’ inquiries, which should be confidential, they are being leaked,’ he says. ‘I have had telephone calls and solicitors’ letters threatening me with legal action after making perfectly proper inquiries that have an Islamic angle.’
On the streets, evidence of Muslim extremism is not difficult to find. ‘Sharia law for the UK’ is a slogan popular with the extremists, who also hand out leaflets proclaiming that, in the name of Allah, the area is a ‘gay-free zone’.
Fears over the number of homophobic incidents in Tower Hamlets at the hands of Islamic extremists have grown in recent years. But there is also the concern that no one is prepared to speak out about what is happening for fear of being branded Islamophobic.
Paul Burston edits the gay section in the London listings magazine Time Out. ‘In the past few years there have been more and more reports of homophobic incidents in Tower Hamlets, often involving attacks on gay men by gangs of young Bangladeshis,’ he said.
‘A large number of people have contacted me to tell me about all kinds of incidents, ranging from being stopped outside mosques and handed literature that is really horrible, to being verbally abused and physically attacked. But if you talk about it publicly then you are accused of fuelling Islamophobia. It is the idea that a potential thought-crime trumps a real crime that I find difficult to understand.’
Everywhere you look, you can see advertising hoardings ‘censored’ with thick black paint — particularly those that show women in swimwear or people kissing. But it is the cases that involve the intimidation of individuals that are of most concern.
Shiria Khatun is a Muslim Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets, and has endured a similar experience to the one faced by the chemist’s assistant who was threatened because she refused to wear a veil. Last year she, too, was subjected to a barrage of threats relating to the way she dressed.
‘They would talk about my Western clothes, my tight jeans and my body,’ she says. ‘There were also some very, very nasty leaflets distributed about me to the mosques and to key community households. They were saying people should not vote for me because I was not a good role model for their daughters.’
British Muslims line up each day for Al-Aser or afternoon prayer at the East London mosque – there are fears Islamists have begun to dominate the local political process
Mrs Khatun says that, subconsciously, she found herself dressing more conservatively — wearing loose-fitting, traditional Asian clothes. ‘If you are subjected to any type of intimidation for a lengthy period of time, you end up adjusting your behaviour without realising it,’ she said.
‘My advice to any women facing intimidation about the clothes they wear is to report it to the police immediately.’
Some say such incidents are rare and that the cases highlighted are simply evidence of a few wrong-minded individuals. However, others warn that if the perception grows that an extremist agenda is being followed in Tower Hamlets, Far Right groups such as the British National Party will use it to appeal to the non-Muslim vote.
‘To an extent, the IFE and the BNP are mirror images,’ explains James Brandon, director of research at Quilliam, the counter-extremism think-tank.
‘Both aim to represent one community to the detriment of all other groups. Both have a deeply ambiguous attitude to minorities such as Jews and homosexuals. Both feed their followers propaganda that only sows suspicions between the UK’s different communities.’
Following his election as mayor, Lutfur Rahman promised to work with ‘every member of the community, whether they are Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian or people of no faith’.
But this pledge is being jeopardised by evidence of threatening behaviour directed at the non-religious, discrimination against women and gays, hostility to whites and censorship of Western fashion — all of which is to be expected in Islamic areas of Afghanistan run by the Taliban, but not in a borough at the heart of Britain’s capital.”