Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Nationalism, Community, and the Islamization of Space in London

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.

Nationalism, Community, and the Islamization of Space in London

Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.