On a beautifully warm early summer’s evening, as I sit watching passers-by in a fashionable bar, Brick Lane appears to be the epitome of everything that is celebrated about modern London. Diverse, vibrant, dynamic — all the usual words which despite their constant over-use seem inexhaustible.
This long and narrow thoroughfare in the borough of Tower Hamlets is certainly a hive of activity and business, with the ubiquitous “creative” types, alongside the younger city boys, mingling with the predominantly Bangladeshi population. A couple of camera crews — one, by the looks of its size and arc lamps, making a feature film — create excitement and add to the sense that this is what used to be called a happening place. I imagine that a few generations ago, this is what people would have got out of a visit to Carnaby Street, when it proudly welcomed the world to Swinging London.
But Carnaby Street wasn’t London of course, and Brick Lane certainly isn’t Tower Hamlets, which has gained some wider notoriety in recent years due to press reports of so-called Muslim vigilantes abusing gays and women drinkers, protests outside shops which sell alcohol and the sudden appearance of stickers declaring “Gay-free zones”. The borough sits at the heart of the capital, stretching from Tower Bridge, encompassing much of what people recognise as the East End proper, and going as far as the steel and glass canyons of Canary Wharf. On the way it takes in parts of Shoreditch, an area which is now so achingly trendy it virtually throbs. The mostly white, young and hip folk I saw thronging the new bars and queuing up for bagels on Brick Lane are, I imagine, largely oblivious to such worrying incidents, which in the usual course of events should press all their liberal buttons. Or, if they are aware, they choose to ignore them.
They might too be unaware of the chaos that surrounded May’s local elections, which saw the re-election of the controversial, extremist-linked executive Mayor Lutfur Rahman and his Tower Hamlets First party. The elections gave rise — and certainly not for the first time in the borough — to serious concerns about postal vote fraud, voter intimidation and other irregularities. It all certainly took long enough, with the results not being called until days after the rest of the capital. Last month this resulted in eight investigations and two arrests — reassuring in a small way perhaps, especially after some reports alleged that the police had stood by during the elections and done nothing. The Electoral Commission has weighed in and Labour is challenging the result in the courts.
However none of this stopped Kazim Zaidi, Rahman’s political adviser, issuing what seemed suspiciously like a threat of “civil war”: “If those who still seem unable to accept the result continue as they are,” he wrote, “it will spill out onto the streets where even the cleverest machine politicians will not be able to manage it.”
Allegations of corruption and misuse of funds formed the basis of a BBC Panorama programme about Rahman earlier this year. His links with the Islamic Forum of Europe, which believes in the creation of a sharia state and an “Islamic social, economic and political order” in Britain, have been admirably documented by the journalist Andrew Gilligan, as has the mayor’s preferment of the Bangladeshi community. As Gilligan pointed out on the eve of May’s election, Rahman appointed a 100 per cent Bangladeshi and Muslim cabinet, even though the population of Tower Hamlets is only a third Muslim; he has never appointed any non-Muslim to any cabinet post and has no non-Muslim councillors.
Such blatant sectarianism has led one of the area’s Labour MPs to attack what he called a backwards step into “race” politics. “The Trojan Horse in east London was a political one rather than an educational one,” said Jim Fitzpatrick, comparing it to the Trojan Horse allegation surrounding some Birmingham schools.
Needless to say, charges levelled at Rahman and his men are met with the customary accusations of racism or Islamophobia. Is this not the real problem, and the real reason that such toxic situations are allowed to arise and exist for years before finally being faced, if at all? That all expressions of concern are inhibited, stalled or indeed silenced in the service of an aggressive multiculturalist doctrine which seeks to brand any criticism of the thoughts or practices of any one culture as racist?
Certainly Zaidi’s statement displayed all the confidence of those who have fully realised the lack of resolve of those in authority. Efforts at segregation happen under our noses but so schooled are many of us in the supposed “correct” approach to these issues that we let it happen, or are fearful of voicing our concerns. We concentrate instead on the bars and bagels. But that is no longer enough to save the city we love.