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12. Nationalism, Community, and the Islamization of Space in London

John Eade

The focus on Islam in certain London locales has been strengthened during the past five years by national and international events such as The Satanic Verses controversy and the Gulf War. The appearance of mosques and community centers has visibly reminded non-Muslims of the expansion of Muslim settlers in certain urban neighborhoods. The construction and use of these buildings has been part of a process of making new demands upon public space, a process that has become embroiled with non-Muslim concerns over a visible and audible Muslim presence. Although both sides have concentrated on religion as a basis for community identity, non-Muslims have sometimes referred to other notions of belonging that are, even if implicitly, racist through their construction of a British or English nation whose cultural heritage is threatened by Muslim “outsiders.”

In the debates described below, the same Muslims who took sides over religious issues had previously united in other contexts around other symbols of identity—as Bangladeshis, for example (see Eade 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992). Although it is not surprising that a Muslim identity has been preeminent in conflicts over mosques and other Islamic spaces, that identity has, in general, been emphasized in recent years, rather than secular, nationalist identities. Non-Muslim opponents, meanwhile, have developed notions of belonging based on an urban, secular, national heritage sometimes linked to a “Christian tradition,” a process Bloul refers to as dual ethnicization (cf. Bloul, this volume). These attempts to co-opt Christianity in an exclusive formulation of local and national belonging have, ironically, been repudiated by at least some representatives of the established church. The debate over the Muslim presence in London has operated across local, national, and international levels. The process has encouraged people on both sides to prioritize certain identities as authentic.

Tower Hamlets and the Establishment of Mosques

The borough of Tower Hamlets adjoins the City of London, the famous square mile of international high finance. Tower Hamlets has until recently been a predominantly working-class area heavily dependent on the docks and associated industries, as well as the garment trade, brewing, paper manufacture, furniture, and other specialized crafts. The borough has been intimately associated with the settlement of overseas settlers—Calvinist Protestant Huguenot silk weavers during the seventeenth century; Irish Catholics during the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth; Russian and Polish Jews, as well as Chinese, at the end of the nineteenth century. More recently, the area has attracted settlers from Malta, Cyprus, the Caribbean, Somalia, and, most significantly, Bangladesh. Today, Bangladeshis constitute by far the largest ethnic minority in Tower Hamlets—according to the 1991 Census, they comprised 22.9 percent of the population, or 36,900. In some western wards, the proportion of Bangladeshis ranges from 30 to over 75 percent.[1]

The establishment of mosques in the borough has been heavily influenced by these Sunni, Hanafi Bangladeshis. Not surprisingly, the well-established mosques are based in the western and central wards, which form the heartland of the “Muslim community.” The first building to be used for congregational worship, the East London Mosque, was on the Commercial Road near the docks. The mosque served Bengali lascars who had jumped ship during the interwar years and stayed on in Britain, finding work in Midlands manufacturing, traveling as peddlers, setting up the first “Indian restaurants,” and working in London’s major hotels (see Adams 1987).

Like so many mosques across the country, the East London Mosque was initially based in private accommodation. However, during 1965 it moved to a purpose-built construction nearby on Whitechapel Road. The new center provided facilities for a large congregation, as well as a bookshop, school, administrative offices, shops, living accommodation, and funeral service (cf. Haider, Slyomovics, this volume). During the past five years, the mosque’s prominent location and the diverse activities within its walls have enabled its leaders to gain a high profile, at least among non-Muslim outsiders such as central and local government officials, politicians, teachers, and welfare workers.

A second mosque, now known rather grandly as the London Great Mosque (Jamme Masjid), uses a building on Brick Lane, Spitalfields, that symbolizes the area’s intimate association with overseas settlers. The building was constructed by the Huguenots for religious worship and opened in 1742. It was later used as a Methodist chapel, and in 1895 it was leased to an ultra-orthodox Jewish society, the Machkizei Hadtha, which worked among the rapidly expanding population of Russian and Polish Jews. During the 1970s, the no-longer-used synagogue was bought by a group of Bangladeshi businessmen to use for congregational prayers. Inside, the building was still recognizably an eighteenth-century Protestant chapel, with the original gallery and wall paneling intact, although in a poor state of repair.

The two mosques developed contrasting and competing styles, whose origins lay in divergences between religious leaders during the late nineteenth century in British India. The Brick Lane Mosque recruited mullahs aligned with what is known as the “Barelvi” orientation, which emphasized the role of custom and shrines. Religious leaders at the East London Mosque, on the other hand, were influenced by the rival “Deobandi” teachings, which fostered a more self-consciously reformist tradition and criticized devotions around Sufi shrines (Metcalf 1982).

The differences between the mosques were also deepened by political cleavages. The Brick Lane Mosque was closely associated with the Bangladesh government and the Bangladesh High Commission in central London—an association celebrated by official visits to the mosque by President Hussain Muhammad Ershad during the 1980s. The East London Mosque, with its more “scriptural” religious style, was more closely aligned with Arab states in the Middle East and with Pakistan. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, for example, contributed £1,100,000 of the £2,000,000 total cost of building the new center, while ambassadors from Saudi Arabia and Egypt were members of the mosque’s management committee.

Different strategies toward links with community organizations further sharpened the differences between the mosques. Religious leaders at the Brick Lane Mosque did not establish many ties with Bangladeshi community groups and non-Muslim outsiders partly because that role was performed by the Bangladesh Welfare Association (BWA). The offices of the BWA were in a neighboring building, and its business leaders played a key role in the establishment and the management of the mosque. The leaders of the East London Mosque, with no such community organization as ally, encouraged Muslim youth groups on the one hand and international organizations on the other. The East London Mosque established a close alliance with the Young Muslim Organization (YMO), for example, which rented offices in an adjoining street. The YMO was linked to the Da’wat ul Islam, a missionary organization based in Bangladesh and Pakistan but active across Britain. The East London Mosque’s funeral director and one of its oldest members was involved in another missionary organization, the Tablighi Jama‘at, which occupied a former synagogue in nearby St. Katharine’s ward, while the secretary of the East London Mosque’s management committee was a leading member of the Council of Mosques U.K. and Eire, a national pressure group supported by Saudi Arabia and located in central London.

The organizations and individuals associated with the East London Mosque gave the new purpose-built center a range of contacts at local and more global levels that were more cosmopolitan than the predominantly Bangladeshi ties established by the Brick Lane Mosque through the BWA. Furthermore, the East London Mosque encouraged a more literary approach toward Islam through its bookshop, which stocked devotional and educational books in English, Bengali, Urdu, and Arabic. The bookshop attracted the interest of non-Muslims from schools and colleges, who were also encouraged to visit the mosque. The custodians of the Brick Lane Mosque, in contrast, have made no effort to encourage non-Muslim visitors, although outsiders are welcome to come and go as they please. (The London Tablighi mosque, in further contrast, welcomes outsiders only once a week for the evening public meeting held in its building. See Metcalf, this volume.)

Although other mosques had emerged during the settlement of Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, the Brick Lane Great Mosque and the East London Mosque were the main focus of public debates about the presence of Islam in the borough during the 1980s. Those debates entailed factional struggles among Bangladeshi community leaders and organizations, as well as concerns of outsiders such as local government planners, politicians, businessmen, and residents.

The Brick Lane Great Mosque and Architectural Conservation

The Brick Lane Mosque occupies an eighteenth-century site, “listed as a building of architectural and historical interest” (fig. 41).[2] It is located in a conservation area that began to be “gentrified” during the 1980s—a process that entailed the “decanting” of Bangladeshi garment factories, shops, and residents and their replacement by well-heeled white owner-occupiers, City offices, and up-market shops. These changes, largely to the west of Brick Lane, rapidly transformed the character of the area known as Spitalfields. For some white outsiders, the mosque building was a physical expression of both a local English heritage and a gentrified, Georgian present. For the Muslim congregation, the mosque’s main attraction lay in its proximity to their council estate homes. For the mosque management committee, the building, while convenient, was a source of concern because of its need for renovations consistent with Muslim ritual requirements.

Figure 41. Brick Lane Mosque, Spitalfields, London. Photograph by John Eade.
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The mosque committee did little to change or Islamize the exterior, merely posting a list of prayer times on its main door and a large notice in Bengali, Arabic, and English on the building adjoining the former chapel. The exterior was recently refurbished and still appears to the non-Muslim visitor to be a plainly decorated eighteenth-century chapel.

Internally, however, the committee undertook substantial modification, reasonable to mosque members but offensive to local conservationists. The changes were stimulated by the 1985 visit of President Ershad and subsequent contributions from the Bangladesh government to finance a new floor to accommodate an additional six hundred worshippers. The refurbishment entailed the elimination of the dilapidated gallery and wall panelling.

No planning permission was required from the local authority for these renovations. Conservationists, however, were quick to protest. The architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, features editor of Architects’ Journal, a prestigious national weekly, and a leading member of the local conservation movement, was quoted in the local newspaper as saying: “What is so terrible is the way in which it was done. A lot of people are renovating houses in that area and they saw panelling being smashed. It was carried out brutally.” The president of the mosque management committee, however, insisted that concerns for the historical character of the building were in fact taken into account: “We are taking out a gallery, but the historical things are not being touched, they are being preserved.” Most important, he explained that the extra space provided by the refurbishment would alleviate a situation where “people are praying in the streets outside now” (East London Advertiser, October 17, 1986).

Both sides in this exchange appeared to agree on the importance of conservation of historical sites, but they differed over standards and procedures. Dan Cruickshank’s protest expressed the concern of the locally influential Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, of which he was “an indefatigable member” (Girouard et al. 1989: x), which condemned changes of a sort that at an earlier period would have attracted little public comment. Internal modifications of the Brick Lane site by its Jewish occupants during the late nineteenth century, for instance, do not appear to have caused concern (see Jewish Chronicle, July 3, 1973). Now, however, the conservationist lobby clearly regards the Huguenot refugees’ chapel as a vital expression of an indigenous urban culture and landscape. Whatever may have happened in the past, a wide constituency considers both the exterior and interior of the building as part of the local heritage.

The dispute highlights a fundamental problem at the heart of the conservationist project. What should be preserved as an authentic expression of England’s urban heritage? Raphael Samuel, a social historian and local resident, has made a powerful critique of the Spitalfields conservation process:

Is it a real historical past which provides the point of reference—or an imaginary one, of grandiose or gracious living? Where, if anywhere, is the line to be drawn between repair and reproduction, the authentically old and the contrived replica?…What alterations and additions are to be respected—the 1780s fanlight? the 1850s fireplace? the 1920s bracket lamp? the 1940s radiator?—and what removed as alien grafts? (Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989: 161)

The mosque management committee succeeded in solving the problem of the overcrowding during religious festivals while avoiding drawing further attention to the building’s Islamic function. It thus deflected what would presumably have been an even stronger reaction from outsiders.

The changes taking place in Spitalfields call into question the continuing effectiveness of this low-key strategy. The movement of City businesses and wealthy owner-occupiers into the ward has been accompanied by the migration of Bangladeshi firms and residents from West Spitalfields as the garment trade has shifted its center toward the south and east of Brick Lane. Bangladeshis still dominate council estates in the central and eastern areas of the ward, but they have begun to search in larger numbers for employment outside Spitalfields. The industrial and commercial character of the ward is being radically changed by forces beyond Bangladeshi control (see Forman 1989; Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989). Indeed, Samuel even speaks of “a holocaust which is about to wipe out their [Bangladeshi] tracks”: a transformation that conservationists have unwittingly encouraged and that now “threatens to engulf Spitalfields in a sea of Georgian fakes” (Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989: 170). Of course, the leaders of the mosque management committee may well believe that they can use this process to their material advantage by selling out and moving to an imposing, purpose-built center that might rival the East London Mosque. Through such a move, they would be able, perhaps, to escape the limitations of the present site and the debate about conservation and urban heritage. In the process, they might, of course, exchange one set of problems for another, as the experience of the East London Mosque in fact suggests.

Members of the mosque defended the Islamization of the site on the opponents’ own terms, insisting on their respect for “historical things” and denying “brutality.” The debate was, however, about more than wood panels. Architectural conservation is part of a more general, ongoing discussion about what it means to belong to the nation, whether defined as “England” or “Britain.” This discussion incorporates questions about the plural character of that nation and the part played by “ethnic minorities” in shaping that plural character as Britain engages in a rapidly changing Europe. If the former Huguenot chapel needed to be carefully preserved as a particular expression of a national heritage, how did that “sacred” imperative relate to another sacred imperative, the desire of those from an ethnic minority to adapt the building for ritual purposes? Issues of cultural pluralism have been equally at stake at the rival East London Mosque, whose leaders adopted a strikingly different strategy toward representing their Islamic presence in the borough.

The East London Mosque, the Call to Prayer, and Urban “Noise”

A London firm of architects designed the East London Mosque with Middle East models in mind. Its tall minaret is similar to those overlooking the “holy of holies,” the black rock, or Ka‘ba, in Mecca; its golden dome and high main entrance accord with popular concepts of what a mosque should look like (fig. 42). The mosque is intended to make a visual claim on “public space.” The mosque committee was determined from the outset, moreover, to remind local people of the building’s religious function as loudly as possible. As one of the few mosques in Britain permitted to broadcast calls to prayer (azan), the mosque soon found itself at the center of a public debate about “noise pollution” when local non-Muslim residents began to protest. The issue was eagerly taken up by the media at the national level, with reports in the Daily Mail (March 4, 1986) and the Daily Star (April 14, 1986). The controversy was fueled locally by an item in the weekly East London Advertiser that claimed that the mosque’s leaders wanted to increase both the volume of calls to prayer and their frequency from two to five daily, including “one in the early morning” (May 2, 1986). According to the article, the mosque request was supported by local Muslims. A “devout Muslim” in a neighboring street, for example, was reported as claiming that he could not hear the azan. He also wanted the call to be made five times “like in other Muslim countries” (ibid).

Figure 42. East London Mosque, Whitechapel Road, London. Photograph by John Eade.
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The reference to “other Muslim countries” indicated that some local Muslims did not locate the issue within a debate concerning “noise pollution.” Rather, they regarded it as an audible expression of their Islamic presence in the neighborhood, as well as of their links with the Muslim world at a more global level. Some felt, moreover, that opponents of the azan were in fact racist. Some letter writers to the East London Advertiser certainly expressed an intolerance associated with racial prejudice. Thus a writer, responding to a mosque representative, who mentioned the noise of local church bells, declared: “What bells? You hardly ever hear them these days. I’m sure I would sooner listen to the tolling of church bells than someone screaming out words I cannot understand and don’t want to” (East London Advertiser, April 25, 1986). The reference to “screaming” supported derogatory images of Muslim fanaticism, while a clear distinction was made between acceptable and unacceptable noise. Church bells were preferable because they were an expression of “our” cultural tradition—a tradition audibly challenged by the broadcasting of alien formulae. As in the debate on conservation, the conflict provided an occasion for constructing a definition of what was authentically English.

Yet this highly exclusive presentation was rejected by those whose churches were the symbols of the English national heritage. A group of local Church of England clerics wrote to the East London Advertiser (April 25, 1986) in support of the azan: “We have no complaint against their ‘calls to prayer’ and given all the other sounds of traffic, sirens, bells, people, trains and life in general [we] think that two short periods each day…are entirely reasonable.” The letter moved the discussion away from different types of noise to noise in general. Since the East London Mosque was located on a busy main road linking the City of London to the vast metropolitan eastern sprawl, the azan made only a brief, if novel, contribution to the buzz of inner city life. Of course, what the clergy considered “reasonable”—two calls to prayer during the working day—fell far short of the demand by the Muslim correspondent for the complete cycle of azan both day and night “like in other Muslim countries.” The borough council, the source of permission to the East London Mosque, had not extended that right to the other mosques in Tower Hamlets. Now, in response to the public furor over the broadcasts, it proved unmoved by arguments favoring the azan and neither extended the right to the other mosques nor allowed the East London Mosque to implement the full daily sequence of calls to prayer.

The opening of the highly visible and unmistakably Islamic East London Mosque thus very quickly resulted in a dispute articulated as “noise pollution” in a crowded inner-city neighborhood and focused by local government officials on presumably “objective” criteria, such as an agreed level of acceptable noise. Again, however, other issues were at stake. The letter writer who criticized the broadcasting of azan as alien, yet accepted (while noting its virtual disappearance) the tolling of church bells, was motivated by cultural exclusivism. This exclusivism was ironic given the ethnic history of Tower Hamlets and doubly so since it made the church bell a symbol of indigenous culture for an area whose predominantly working-class population had been either indifferent to religion or Nonconformists, Roman Catholics, and Jews. The only non-Muslim religious defenders of azan to find a voice in the local press were Anglican clerics, who were evidently unmoved by the nostalgic appeal to a symbol associated with them.

The controversy about “noise pollution” entailed issues of what was culturally acceptable. The leaders of the East London Mosque wanted to establish the azan, and the Muslim settlers, as part of the local culture. To this end, they were far more willing to engage openly in local politics and media controversy than their co-religionists at the Brick Lane mosque. Yet local politicians largely ignored their interests in order to reassure critics of azan. There are clearly powerful external constraints on Muslim self-expression in Spitalfields, as well as in other neighborhoods within the borough.

Among Muslims themselves, one might note, the new East London Mosque stimulated another debate, in this case about the building’s exotic design. (Some white residents may also have reacted to the new building on these grounds but there was no public debate.) K. Manzoor, features editor of a new journal, MuslimWise, argued that new mosques in general showed “little respect for the time-honored Muslim tradition of appreciating indigenous art forms in the attempt to ‘Islamize’ them…when the consummation of the ‘Islamic’ and the ‘regional vernacular styles’ took place it gave birth to new and exciting art forms that practically reflected the beauty of both.” He proceeded to exonerate “indigenous non-Muslims who look in horror at the dome-capped buildings we are erecting as they are as alien to them as they are to Islam. A good example of such monstrosity is the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. It is a cold, characterless, and impractical ‘wordprocessor,’ which is neither aesthetically nor spiritually attractive” (MuslimWise, December 1989). Manzoor included the most imposing and celebrated Islamic center in London—the Islamic Cultural Centre in Regent’s Park—in this charge.

Another Muslim critique questioned any concern with buildings at all. Indeed, according to Hajji Taslim Ali, the East London Mosque’s funeral director, who also undertakes missionary work for the Tablighi Jama‘at based in a former synagogue nearby, the attention paid to material objects such as mosques represents so much wasted effort. In his 1989 talk to a group of my students in the mosque’s prayer hall, he claimed that it was not important to have a beautiful building to pray in—rather one had to be a Muslim “from the heart.” As he showed us around the center, he drew attention, with a wry smile, to the building’s various defects and the costs involved in correcting them.

This issue was articulated at the Aga Khan Awards for architecture—meant to identify buildings that utilize a Muslim tradition yet relate to their specific context—held in Cairo during October 1989. The distinguished Egyptian architect Abdel Wahed el-Wakil discussed the “principle of sacred architecture” in the context of Islamic architecture and the “growing spiritual lack and need in the West.” At this point, a Moroccan economist, Professor M. Emandjara, “who had been swelling up with outrage finally blew up” and accused “El-Wakil of trying to transplant Western and Judaeo-Christian ideas about ‘sacred art’ into Islam. The whole point was that Islamic architecture was not sacred; the mosque was just a place for praying and teaching” (Observer, October 22, 1989). His, however, is a minority voice.

Mosques have clearly become places not only for prayer but for representation of the Muslim presence. The mosques in London’s East End have, in this regard, stimulated a wide-ranging debate. The debate implicitly addresses the symbolic significance of Islamic buildings in a predominantly non-Muslim country. Whether Islamizing a historic building or using a purpose-built center, Muslims have found themselves severely constrained by local economic and political forces beyond their control. Yet they did succeed in creating mosque congregations and, in the East London Mosque, a site that physically and audibly asserts the Muslim presence. Muslims outside the core areas of settlement in London have, however, faced forces arrayed against the establishment of an Islamic presence that sometimes proved more formidable.

Dawoodi Bohras in West London: Finding a Home

The borough of Ealing possesses a much smaller Muslim population than its East End counterpart.[3] Most Muslim settlers reside in the Southall area and originally came from Indian Punjab, Pakistan, and East Africa. The Sunni majority established two mosques during the late 1960s and early 1970s in Old Southall, and, during the early 1980s, the small business community of Dawoodi Bohras (a Shi‘a sect whose heartland lies in Gujarat) took over a former Jewish youth club in neighboring Boston Manor for its religious and cultural activities. The Bohra activities triggered off a series of events that exposed the racist nature of some white residents’ opposition to Muslim centers.

The Bohras’ use of the former youth club, which they renamed Mohammedi Park, soon led to protests from white neighbors about noise and parking during religious celebrations. At informal meetings between senior Conservative and Labour councilors and planning officials, it was agreed that the Bohras could use the site for social and religious functions. This consensus was, however, destroyed by pressure from white residents, who were supported by their local councilor (the chief whip of the Conservative majority group).

A new Labour administration took over the case after the 1986 elections and offered to buy the Boston Manor site in exchange for a more appropriate location. The Dawoodi Bohras eventually chose a disused industrial site in Northolt, several miles north of the Southall area. The site had been derelict for over five years and was spacious enough to allay any objections about noise and parking. The Bohras proposed to build a center for religious, educational, and social functions, as well as a number of houses—once again an indication of the wide range of activities associated with Muslim religious buildings in the diaspora in contrast to most South Asian mosques.

The plan again met with fierce opposition from white residents, however, as well as from local businesses using the industrial estate, their employees, and at least one real estate agent. Protests by white people at public meetings were so intense that there were councilors, officials, and Bohra representatives who left feeling physically intimidated. Nonetheless, in December 1988, the Bohras were given planning permission to develop the site.

Local press coverage of the Northolt development dispute made clear the racism in the opposition. A garbled report titled “Islamic Ghetto Worries” referred to a planning committee report that described local objections “to the ‘alien’ nature of the plan” and described the local claims about the area’s character: “Northolt is a ‘garden suburb’ and should not become another Southall. This is an alien development—an Islamic ghetto—and will lead to a racial imbalance. Integration, not separation, is required” (Ealing Gazette, November 25, 1988, p. 27).

The report sharply distinguished a green and pleasant Northolt and a ghettolike Southall. Northolt was purportedly at risk of becoming an alien “Islamic ghetto.” The opponents saw themselves not as racist but as proponents of a racially balanced, integrated society. As in the debates concerning conservation and noise, opponents believed themselves to be taking the moral high ground.

Yet hostile local residents in fact sought a racial imbalance in Northolt to keep the area exclusively or at least predominantly white. A local real estate agency colluded in fears that nonwhite settlement in Northolt would lead to a fall in property values by displaying a poster exhorting people to sign a local petition against the plan. The National Front and other ultra-rightist groups long active in Northolt also encouraged white hostility to “alien” settlers, and their supporters attended the public meetings that experienced serious violence. White protesters made the familiar claim that they were the ones suffering discrimination. As one protester put it: “They [the council] have called us racist but we are the ones being discriminated against. The council has treated us as second-class citizens” (Ealing Gazette, December 2, 1988, p. 7).

The local Labour leader, accused of betrayal (Ealing Gazette, November 18, 1988, p. 4), insisted that the Bohra proposal be dealt with in the context of bureaucratic and legal procedures. Again, the Anglican minister of the church distanced himself from local opponents to the Bohra scheme, saying, “The proper Christian response is to make welcome those from different cultural and religious backgrounds coming into the area” (Ealing Gazette, November 25, 1988, p. 27)—despite the fact that the residential association fighting the proposal had used a view of the church in its logo. Many local white residents ignored this liberal plea for tolerance and have continued to fight the redevelopment of the Northolt site through letters of protest to politicians and the Ealing Gazette and public demonstrations, particularly after the Conservatives regained control of the borough council in May 1989. A typical argument was that the mosque was proposed “on a job site in an area of high unemployment.” The Muslims were, moreover, outsiders, since “very few” Dawoodi Bohras “live locally and [they] have made it clear that they do not wish to be part of our close and friendly community” (Ealing Gazette, April 24, 1991).

Since I live very close to the Burhani Centre in Fulham, I have been able to observe local reactions to the Bohra presence in a different location. The center is close to a private housing estate in a predominantly white neighborhood, and judging by the odd broken window, it has not escaped damage in a relatively quiet locality. However, during the summers of 1989–92, when the Bohras used neighboring secondary schools for the kind of lengthy and lively celebration that caused so much hostility in Boston Manor, the events passed by without adverse local comment. Their presence in the Labour-controlled borough of Hammersmith and Fulham did not play a significant role in local politics, although it might well have done had they envisaged the kind of major redevelopment proposed in Northolt.

The position by early 1995 is that the development of the site is in full swing. Most of the main building has been constructed and the shells of the surrounding residential block are also complete. The High Court decision in November 1989 appears to have been decisive, and the Bohras’ strategy of working through the planning and legal process has been successful. The public protests, the ministrations of Conservative councilors, and legal action by Gallaghers, a tobacco company, which used an adjacent site on Rowdell Road, delayed the scheme for several years, but the sect has eventually been allowed to go ahead with building what was advertised as an “Arabic Academy Campus Project.”

Although local opposition has not prevented the Bohras from eventually developing the site, developments at a more global level have conspired to halt the completion of the project. Difficulties in collecting adequate resources have meant that there has been sufficient money available only to fund the completion of the foundations and the shell of the mosque. Work at the site ground to a halt during 1992, and the available money has been spent on the refurbishment of the Fulham Burhani Centre (fig. 43). In 1992, I met the leader of the Bohra community, who expressed satisfaction that at least the first stage of the Northolt development had been completed. The next step was to engage in a vigorous campaign among Bohras across the country to raise the millions of pounds needed to complete the grandiose Northolt scheme and to bring the Syedna, the leader of the Bohra community worldwide, from India to open the Arabic Academic Campus in full pomp and majesty. As of spring 1996, the site has not been completed, but its rose-pink domes and minarets are now visible; town houses have been built close by for community members; and the Prince of Wales, wearing cap and shawl, has planted a ceremonial tree (Guardian, March 20, 1996).

Figure 43. The Burhani Centre in Fulham, London. Photograph by John Eade.
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Islam and Definitions of Community in Local Political Arenas

The disputes described here represent a shift in the local politics of Tower Hamlets and Ealing. In the early 1980s, “white,” “black” and Asian activists united to seek community needs defined in secular and class terms—housing, education, jobs, and amenities. Now we find leaders focused on a range of needs specific to Muslims and establishing Muslim ritual and community space. The defeat of the Labour Party in the 1986 borough election and the abolition of the Greater London Council and Inner London Education Authority were massive blows to the alliance between secular Bangladeshi activists and white radicals. Meanwhile, the growing shift to the deployment of an Islamic vocabulary in Bangladesh politics, particularly under Ershad, also fed into this new orientation.

In East London, debates in the local newspaper made Islam more visible to all. The debates strengthened the position of Bangladeshi activists who had criticized Bangladeshi Labour Party candidates in the 1986 borough elections for ignoring Islamic issues. Those claiming to represent “the Bangladeshi community” were under increasing pressure to declare at least a formal concern for the provision of Islamic facilities, as well as the championing of the rights of Bangladeshis in the areas of public houses, state education, jobs, and amenities.

In Ealing, the public debate about the use of space for Islamic purposes did not involve substantial numbers of local Muslim residents. The Dawoodi Bohras, a minute Shi‘a sect, were scattered over the metropolis and possessed no local political power base. Throughout the controversy, they refused to be drawn into making any public statements and relied on the operation of legal and bureaucratic structures and their informal links with powerful local councilors. It was therefore white activists rather than Muslims who used Islam, describing it as an alien invasion of local space and calling on Labour and Conservative political leaders to respond to what the activists claimed were the interests of local (white) residents.

Despite the differences between the social and political dynamics in two London boroughs, the media debates revealed a common theme—Islam as an alien threat to an indigenous, non-Muslim urban community and culture. The theme could be defined in terms of architectural heritage, the design of a building, or the call to prayer, and could engage both well-heeled gentrifiers and working-class “Cockneys” in a defense of “tradition.”

With the appearance of more purpose-built mosques and the articulation of “Islamic” needs in London and other urban areas, the kinds of issues described in this chapter may well become more common, and “Islam as alien threat” may well play a more significant role in local urban politics. The Islamization of local urban space is only one element in the public debate in Britain’s media about Islam, which The Satanic Verses controversy raised to a national level. Yet as the intensity of the feelings raised by the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book fades and Iran tentatively approaches Western powers, the public, physical manifestation of Islam at a local level continues to remind the non-Muslim majority in London and elsewhere of the Muslim presence and to provoke among some members of that majority at least a conscious reflection on local community and culture—a reflection linked to the articulation of identity, community, and culture at other levels, in particular to what it means to be “English” or “British” at the national level. As Bloul (this volume) suggests in the French case, there has been a process of double ethnicization here, of “Englishness” on the one side and “Islam” on the other.

Two points must be stressed: (1) the process is partial, and many people do not share in it, and (2) Islamic identity expresses itself in ways that are new, using new arguments (whether those of conservation or of British legal processes) and creating new kinds of institutions, such as centers. The mosque itself takes on new meanings, thanks in part to the political debates around its establishment and use in London. Outsiders unwittingly encourage those Muslims who wish to give the mosque, in Emandjara’s view, “a significance it shouldn’t have.” The local political arena therefore plays a key role in the construction of a range of meanings associated with being “Muslim” in London today—meanings that engage ethnicity, “race,” class, and national ideology, as well as Islam.


This essay is partly based on an earlier paper of mine, “The Political Articulation of Community and the Islamisation of Space,” in Religion and Ethnicity: Minorities and Social Change in the Metropolis, ed. R. Barot (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1993).

1. The Census confirms earlier estimates showing the rapid increase of the Bangladeshi population during the 1980s and its concentration in the western wards (Census Update, October 1992). See, e.g., Tower Hamlets 1987; Rhodes and Nabi 1992. [BACK]

2. See the East London Advertiser, November 27, 1970. The newspaper noted then that the alteration of the interior was already an issue. The reporter claimed that the “Pakistanis wanted to pull down the three inner galleries and Tuscan columns to provide the open space needed for their services.” However, it was also noted that the Greater London Council was “unlikely to favour this alteration to such an historic building.” Significantly, perhaps, the refurbishment took place after the demise of the Greater London Council. [BACK]

3. Local estimates claimed that of approximately 40,000 South Asian / East African settlers in a borough of over a quarter of a million residents, only about 5,000 were Muslims. Two mosques had been established in Old Southall, one of which has recently been refurbished and expanded in a more demonstrably Islamic mode. [BACK]

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