Throughout our research project on the UK thus far, we have attempted to gradually move from a rather general perspective of that country’s society to a more concretely defined examination of its socio-cultural formation. Our first step had been to examine that socio-cultural formation in terms of its relative “racial polarization” [Paper 2a]. We had then proceeded to examine the impact of such “racial polarization” on certain segments of White Britons – in so doing, we had focused on the phenomenon of “decamping” and the role of the UK State [Paper 2b]. That had enabled us to investigate the more concrete case of the Borough of Newham [Paper 3]. Our study of that borough now allows us to zoom in on one of its most interesting of districts – viz. that of East Ham, also referred to as “Little India” [and especially with respect to its High Street]. This present paper, therefore, will attempt to delve into the socio-cultural and socio-economic practices of East Ham at a very concrete level of analysis. Our first-hand experience of this locality has been of much help in such an endeavour.
East Ham is about 8 miles [13 km] from central London. K.S.S. Seshan, writing for The Hindu, tells us that this well-known locality – a residential and shopping district – “extends to nearly 20 square miles and is largely self-contained” [cf. “Asian locality in London city”, 10.08.2015, updated 29.03.2016, my emph.]. East Ham’s description as a “self-contained” locality seems to more or less confirm our suggestion – made elsewhere – that such types of localities maintain a certain socio-cultural autonomy vis-à-vis the “global” social formation of a particular country [cf. “A Tentative Sociological Examination of the ‘Political Economy’ of the Muslim Ghetto in the Western World of the 21st Century”, https://www.gslreview, 15.02.2018]. That, of course, remains to be verified in what follows below.
The case of East Ham also seems to belong to that type of “inner city” area characterized by a tripartite social history. Three general phases have come to mark its development, all three of which have been evident in at least some of the “cultural clusters” we had examined in dealing with the Borough of Newham [Paper 3]. By way of a reminder, we may summarize these three phases as follows:
- Phase 1: a socio-cultural conjuncture wherein a dominant White British working class “cockney culture” clearly prevailed.
- Phase 2: an intermediate conjuncture wherein the UK State, its organs and various intellectual elites would attempt to impose the ideology of multiculturalism on different localities – this important phase would see the emergence of ethnic-based tensions between different cultural paradigms [cf. Paper 2a, where we present a series of riot situations, especially acute in the 1980’s and 1990’s].
- Phase 3: a process of spontaneous self-segregation [“flight”, on the part of White Britons] – such process followed naturally from the need for socio-cultural self-affirmation on the part of these different cultural paradigms. We would thereby witness the crystallization of “ethnic clusters”.
Having made these rather general comments with respect to East Ham, we may embark on our examination of this locality by first making a number of general statistical observations concerning its residents. Statistics on its residential population vary widely: we shall here make use of GLA Intelligence statistics [cf. https://data.london.gov.uk] and City Population statistics [cf. https://www.citypopulation.de], both of which are more or less corroborated by other sources [but which should also be contrasted to relevant data available in UK Crime Stats [cf. https://www.ukcrimestats.com]. GLA Intelligence and City Population statistics are as follows:
- East Ham Central – residential population: 16.798 [GLA Intelligence, for 2015]; 17.341 [City Population, for 2017].
- East Ham North – residential population: 14.406 [GLA Intelligence, for 2015]; 14.837 [City Population, for 2017];
- East Ham South – residential population: 16.352 [GLA Intelligence, for 2015; 17.085 [City Population, for 2017].
- East Ham generally – total residential population: 47.556 [GLA Intelligence, for 2015]; 49.263 [City Population, for 2017].
- It should also be noted that the wards of Boleyn and Wall End also include areas of East Ham – if one were to include the residential populations of these two wards in our general population count, then the total number of residents would come to 76.186 [2011 UK Census data].
- All statistics given above are merely estimates. Further, and as is usually the case, such statistical analyses cannot take into account the presence of illegal migrants in the locality.
London’s East Ham is generally recognized by everyone in the UK as a locality of Asians, with the majority of these being Indians – it is therefore a locality wherein a settler population has congregated around “clusters” based primarily on the country of their origin [cf. K.S.S. Seshan, op. cit.]. More specifically, we know that this settler population is predominantly composed of south Indians.
Our first-hand experience of the locality of East Ham – especially around the High Street North Edwardian tube station, The Overdraft Tavern and its environs – allows us to register a number of rough impressions with respect to its residents. At least at face value, the vast majority of people seem to be law-abiding “citizens” of the UK. Some are well-established traders, shopkeepers, etc., or simply shop assistants going about their business in an orderly, “decent” manner. Yet others idle away their time in the course of the day, presumably belonging to that category of people characterized by “worklessness” [cf. Paper 3]. Traces of criminality are not really visible – on the other hand, one may suspect the possibility of transgressive behaviour, especially after dark. Perhaps symptomatic of potential criminality is the fact that The Overdraft Tavern has to employ muscular Door Hosts to protect patrons and premises, especially on Saturday nights. And yet, the vast majority of residents appear to have adopted a British-like “politeness”, especially in their dealings with strangers.
We have said that this settler population of East Ham – most of which is by now a category of people fully and formally recognized as “British citizens” – is predominantly Indian. Yet again, our first-hand experience definitely justifies this. Regulars at The Overdraft Tavern would use both the English language and their particular Indian dialects in their boisterous conversations over a pint. Pedestrians along High Street North would usually be dressed in a manner expressive of their ethnic roots or religious beliefs. We shall at this point attempt a presentation of the ethnic demographics of the East Ham locality. As usual, statistical data from various sources do not always fully confirm one another, and they can be rather confusing. We could make the following more or less accurate observations:
- To begin with, it would be of some interest to compare the demographic morphology of East Ham in 1911 with the situation exactly one hundred years later, in 2011. According to G. Armstrong, R. Giulianotti and D. Hobbs [cf. Policing the 2012 London Olympics: Legacy and Social Exclusion, Routledge, 2017, quoted in Paper 3], “In the 1911 census there were 143 Asians recorded in East Ham, and 17 in West Ham…” Of course, the demographic configuration that would emerge by 2011 would present us with a radically different picture.
- By 2011, and according to City Population statistics [op. cit], East Ham Central would be composed of the following ethnic groups, and with their corresponding numerical presence:
- White: 2.881
- Asian: 10.313
- Black: 1.672
- Arab: 192
- “Mixed”/ “multiple”: 487
- Other ethnic groups: 372
- For that same period, and according to the same set of statistics, East Ham North would be composed of the following ethnic groups, and with their corresponding numerical presence:
- White: 1.281
- Asian: 10.657
- Black: 1.242
- Arab: 104
- “Mixed”/ “multiple”: 276
- Other ethnic groups: 306
- Finally, for that same period, and again according to that set of statistics, East Ham South would be composed of the following ethnic groups, and with their corresponding numerical presence:
- White: 5.023
- Asian: 5.548
- Black: 3.524
- Arab: 224
- “Mixed”/ “multiple”: 883
- Other ethnic groups: 373
- One may compare the above statistics for 2011 with those presented by the House of Commons Library covering the same period [cf. https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk]. This source, said to be based on research undertaken by “impartial experts”, gives us the following population percentages of each ethnic group in the constituency of East Ham as a whole:
Other ethnic group: 3.4%
According to this “impartial” set of statistics, therefore, 77% of the residents of East Ham did not belong to the category designated as “White” in the census year of 2011.
- Now, one may further compare the House of Commons Library statistics with yet another set of statistics [cf. https://ipfs.io/ipfs/...wiki/East_Ham.html]. According to this latter source, “In 2011, 88.1% of East Ham’s population was non-White British… This makes East Ham one of the most ethnically diverse towns in the country, surpassing other multicultural towns like Oldham, Blackburn and Walsall”. In this case, the number of “White British” in the locality came to a mere 11.9%. One may identify a number of factors possibly justifying such a major discrepancy between the figures presented here and those provided by the House of Commons Library. One possible factor is that that 88.1% [non-White British] – 11.9% [White British] demographic morphology covers a wider geographical area than that covered by the House of Commons Library statistics. Here, demographic statistics for East Ham may also include those for the Newham wards of Boleyn and Wall End, both of which – as already mentioned – partly belong to the district of East Ham [for such a statistical approach, also see: https://ukcensusdata.com].
- East Ham’s present  demographic morphology remains unclear – most available sources seem unreliable, or only vaguely point to possible demographic configurations regarding the present situation. We shall here simply refer to just two subjective estimations, if only because these may express the impressions of Londoners regarding the presence of ethnic groups in the locality. One such fairly recent source is that of Prophecy Today UK, which suggests that 96% of East Ham residents are non-White [cf. “The Demise of White Britain”, https://www.prophecytoday.uk, 25.11.2016]. Yet another – even more recent – source suggests that 90% of East Ham residents are non-White [cf. “Top things to do in London – East Ham”, https://www.youtube.com, 03.08.2018]. Both estimations remain to be verified.
Speaking of “non-White settlers” in East Ham obfuscates the relative internal differences of those that compose that general category based on mere skin pigmentation. South Asians, Africans, Caribbeans – taken merely as examples of East Ham’s “non-Whites” – cannot obviously be lumped together into one, single socio-cultural collectivity. While these ethnic sub-groupings are related to one another in a variety of ways – they are all, in the last instance, settlers “carrying” foreign cultural paradigms as a mode of life – they nonetheless need to be disentangled into discrete socio-cultural entities.
With that in mind, one may refer to three groupings that are said to dominate in the residential areas of East Ham [cf. K.SS. Seshan, op. cit.] – these are:
- The Tamil settlers: most of these originate from Sri Lanka [though not only – some may come from places such as southern India].
- The Malayalee [or Malayali] settlers: these are an Indian ethnic group originating from Kerala, south India.
- The Punjabi settlers: these are mainly from Punjab, northern India – they could be native to either India or Pakistan.
As in the case of the whole of the Borough of Newham [cf. Paper 3], many of these ethnic groups residing in East Ham are organized in “clusters” around a particular locality or localities of the district. Seshan [op. cit.] describes the situation as follows: “The migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh make numerous clusters of localities in East Ham. Manor Park, for example, is predominantly Tamil populated with Sri Lankan Tamils in great numbers” [my emph.].
East Ham’s High Street is itself expressive of such “clustering”, and verifies the relative dominance of particular cultural preferences. Albeit indicative of a thriving Indian middle class [pointing to elements of a certain class stratification within the locality – something which we shall have to come back to], it nonetheless epitomizes the “culturally specific purchases” [cf. Paper 3] of its residents. Seshan continues: “The High Street… is the core of the locality. The entire stretch here is vibrant and full of life, with shops and establishments catering to every need of this sprawling district, including everything that a south Indian middle class family needs, right from a coconut scraper to grinding stones, saris to spices” [my emph.].
This relatively heavy concentration on “culturally specific purchases” may be contrasted to the center of the City of London. While the High Street market area is a hub of ethnic-based consumer cultural activity, “The City” is itself a market place characterized by the “melting pot” phenomenon. The contrast underlines, not only the unevenness of multiculturalism, but also the dominance of ethnic-based cultural practices at the local level in the “inner cities” of London’s periphery.
The absence of the “melting pot” phenomenon in East Ham is also evident in that district’s Central Park. As Seshan further notes: “At the sprawling Central Park, you find mostly Asian crowds”. When, for instance, the Newham Council organized a “music extravaganza” at East Ham’s Central Park in August, 2018, it basically featured south Asian music talent, naturally responding to the cultural preferences of the locality’s residents.
We shall argue in what follows that East Ham has yielded a relatively alien form of “Britishness”, at least in relation to the manner in which the White indigenous population – viz. the “ancient” cockneys – had always construed their own way of life. To understand Asian “Britishness” as manifested in East Ham, we shall need to undertake an examination of at least some of the everyday socio-cultural practices that prevail in the locality. Such practices include:
- Religious practices, or an ethnic-based religious traditionalism
- Ethnic-based eating habits
- Dress, as a medium of cultural expression
- Forms of ethnic-based entertainment – cinema, music
We shall examine each of these practices in turn, and always with special reference to East Ham.
RELIGIOUS PRACTICES – ETHNIC-BASED RELIGIOUS TRADITIONALISM
- THE SIKHS – East Ham’s Gurdwara [or Gurudwara] Dasmesh Darbar Temple
This temple, according to K.S.S. Seshan [op. cit.], “caters to the considerable [number of] Sikh residents here”. It is located on Rosebery Avenue, Manor Park, it being a locality with a fairly dense presence of Sikhs. The temple used to be a Christian Church before the Sikh community purchased the building in the mid 1970’s.
Perhaps the single most important point to make about this temple, as also regarding the religio-cultural practices of East Ham’s Sikh’s community, is that both express an almost total reproduction of a world originating from the Punjab region of India. It is as if a whole cultural lifeworld has been transferred intact from one geographical location to another. Such lifeworld’s dislocation [from the Punjab] and its relocation [right in the heart of “inner city” London] has taken place through “chain migration”, much of which – though certainly not all – occurred for extra-economic reasons. Such extra-economic propulsion of waves of migration to the UK relates, inter alia, to the late 1970’s and 1980’s ethno-nationalist secessionist movement in the Punjab region.
The research work of Gurharpal Singh and Darsham Singh Tatla alludes to such dislocation-relocation process – they write: “Several villages, known as ‘barapinds’ [large villages], have been transplanted overseas en bloc… These villages were central to the construction of many overseas Sikh communities as waves of chain migration followed the early settlers: they created bridgeheads for future arrivals, as well as staging posts for further movement and dispersal…” [cf. Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community, Zed Books, 2006, p. 40, my emph.]. The writers cite East Ham’s Sikh community as one typical example of such cultural transplantation [ibid.].
The Sikh community of East Ham would concentrate its social life around its Gurdwara Temple. Maintaining the vitality of its religious and cultural practices, it thereby functioned as yet another “bridgehead” attracting new waves of migration. Such waves, according to Singh and Tatla, would yield a Sikh “culture of migration”, and which would be further fuelled “by the development of probably the most sophisticated migration industry in India, if not the whole of Asia…” [p. 38]. This industry in people-trafficking would include the development of an extensive network of well-organized travel agencies in the Punjab region. Enticing would-be migrants with information “on the rich prospects in the West”, it would play a major role in “pushing” Sikhs towards migration [pp. 38-39]. The existence of a well-established Sikh community in localities such as East Ham would operate as the “pulling” factor. This “culture of migration” would in any case also be boosted by a variety of other [albeit interrelated] factors – Sing and Tatla go on to explain: “While economic factors have undoubtedly played a major part in Sikh migration, we also need to acknowledge the role of cultural factors. Migration from Punjab today is not only determined by the migrant’s economic status: even well-established families have felt the need for ‘foreign connections’, more so in the last decade as the pressures of globalization undermined agriculture while introducing Punjabis to global markets…” [ibid.].
The end-product, as mentioned, has been the en bloc transplantation of Punjabi cultural and religious practices into the neighbourhoods of East Ham. It is above all the specific symbolic functioning of the locality’s Gurdwara Temple, as also the services it provides to the Sikh community, that best exemplifies this reality. One may make the following observations regarding this temple [all relevant information or quotes are here taken from The Gurdwara, www.bbc.co.uk/religions, 27.10.2009, unless otherwise indicated]:
- East Ham’s Gurdwara belongs to a network of such Sikh temples located in various areas of the UK – their total number comes to about 200.
- We should note that the literal meaning of the Punjabi term “Gurdwara” is “the residence of the Guru” or “the door that leads to the Guru”. In the case of the East Ham temple – and as is the case for all present-day, modern, Gurdwara Temples – the Guru is not a person as such. Rather, it is the presence of the book of Sikh scriptures – called the Guru Granth Sahib – that gives the Gurdwara its religious status in the community. It is this book of scriptures that constitutes the focus of attention within the temple, as also the only symbolic object of reverence. In the course of the day, the book is kept on a raised platform and under a canopy in the main hall, called the Darbar Sahib. Of major symbolic importance is the Sikh flag flying outside the Gurdwara. Its orange-yellow colour and royal blue Sikh emblem signifies the presence of Sikhs in the locality.
- We may now briefly examine the religious, cultural and social functions of East Ham’s Gurdwara Temple, and some of the implications of these. Naturally, the Gurdwara functions as a place where one may “learn spiritual wisdom” and where Sikh religious ceremonies take place.
- As importantly, the temple is a place where Sikh cultural practices and moral values are being systematically nurtured and reproduced. Therein, Sikh children learn the Sikh faith, ethics, customs, traditions and texts. The particular lifeworld that is being reproduced, therefore, remains alien to the cockney lifeworld that had once prevailed in the neighbourhoods of East Ham – while the Sikh community is by now deeply rooted in the locality, its “Britishness” remains a discrete identity with Punjabi culture as its essential reference point.
- As in the case with all religious institutions, the “learning” of Sikh culture and religious traditions does not merely take place through catechist sessions. Mere participation in the set procedures defining the religious rituals of a Gurdwara Temple initiates its visitors to the morals and customs of the Sikh lifeworld. Consider the following set of rules regarding one’s entry to East Ham’s Gurdwara: “All visitors to the Gurdwara should remove their shoes and cover their heads before entering the main hall. It is forbidden to smoke or take tobacco on to the premises and visitors cannot enter the Gurdwara while under the influence of drugs”.
- The East Ham Gurdwara is deeply rooted within the Sikh community which it serves. As a popular religious institution, it is actually managed by a committee elected by the community itself.
- The majority of Sikhs actively participate in the cultural practices of their community by going to the Gurdwara on ‘Gurpurbs’, the festivals honouring the Gurus. For instance, in May 2012, approximately 11.000 worshippers flooded the streets of East Ham to celebrate the Sikh march for “Vaisakhi”, an important religious observance. The procession is said to have stretched from East Ham’s Green Street and all the way down to Romford Road [cf. https://www.newhamrecorder.co.uk, 09.05.2012].
- Many attend services at least once a week – while Sikhs do not regard any particular day of the week as a holy day, they usually go to the Gurdwara on Sundays, as that naturally fits in with the UK pattern of work.
- The Gurdwara therefore functions as a religious and cultural nexus maintaining and reproducing the Sikh identity. On the other hand, it should be noted that the religious cohesion of the Sikh community cannot really be compared to the cohesion and internal self-organization of a community such as that of East Ham’s Muslims. The latter seem to maintain a much higher level of religious consciousness and discipline, and are far better organized in terms of the running of their own religious institutions. Sikhs, for instance – and in direct contrast to Muslims – do not run schools, libraries or bookshops to promote their own religion [identifying the reasons for this is well beyond our capacities here – we shall in any case examine the Muslim case in greater detail below].
- Yet still, East Ham’s Gurdwara does operate as a community centre, one of its functions being to offer “food, shelter, and companionship to those who need it”. It is as a community centre that it perpetuates the traditional function of all Gurdwaras – viz. the operation of the “Langar”, or free food kitchen. The temple thus has a “Langar” attached to it where food is served to anyone, and without any charge. It is said that the term “Langar” is also used for the “communal meal” that is served therein.
- It should be noted that the food served is itself an expression of the culture and moral values of the Sikh community. The “Langar” meal must always be simple, “so as to prevent wealthy congregations [from] turning it into a feast that shows off their superiority”. All food is vegetarian – the meal may include “chapati” [unleavened flatbread], “dul” [pulses], vegetables and rice pudding. Fish and eggs are considered to be meat and are thus excluded from the “Langar”.
- THE HINDUS – East Ham’s Murugan and Mahalakshmi Temples
According to K.S.S. Seshan [op. cit], “East Ham has two major [Hindu] temples; one for Murugan and the other for Mahalakshmi… [T]he Murugan Temple here is one of the largest… It was consecrated… in 2006”. We know that the Mahalakshmi Temple had itself been consecrated back in 1990 [cf. https://www.srimahalakshmitemple.net]. Both temples serve East Ham’s Hindu community – thus, before we examine the cultural and religious practices of these temples, it would be useful to say a few very basic things regarding East Ham’s Hindus.
Andrew Wingate has pointed out that the very first Hindu settlers in localities such as East Ham were “professionals”. He writes: “The early South Indians and Sri Lankans… were normally professionals, the majority doctors or business people. The Tamil community included both those from India and Sri Lanka. The latter were not refugees in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s” [cf. The Meeting of Opposites? Hindus and Christians in the West, Cascade Books, 2014, p. 45]. As we shall see below, it would be this segment of the Hindu population of East Ham – viz. the old, well-established upper-middle class – that would play a central role in establishing both the Murugan and Mahalakshmi Temples.
Wingate goes on to describe how this early nucleus of Hindu settlers would come to be encircled – so to speak – by continuing waves of new Hindu settlers, many of these now being “refugees” – he continues: “… but to them [the early professionals] have been added large numbers of Sri Lankan refugees who came in the last 20 years, many of them much more recently” [ibid. – we need remember that Wingate was writing in 2014].
As we are to here examine religious practices in East Ham, it would be of interest to note, as does Wingate, that “... it is Sri Lankans who are more committed to temple ritual” [p. 50]. The precise implications of this will not be systematically ferreted out in what follows, though some pointers shall be suggested.
East Ham’s Murugan Temple – also known as the London Sri Murugan Temple – is located along Church Road, Manor Park, and is a twelve minutes’ walk from the East Ham tube station. Writing at a time when this temple was in the process of construction, Joanne Punzo Waghorne confirms that it was the old, “upper caste” members of the East Ham community that had both the power and the necessary connections to initiate the project. Waghorne writes: “The construction is financed with a loan from the Bank of Baroda to hire the craftsmen in India to carve the vimanas. The published capital campaign brochure given to me is mostly in English with some Tamil, Telegu, and Hindi – suggesting diverse educated middle-class patrons. The list of officers and major donors had recognizable names from Tamilnadu, Andhra, and Kerala, including a number of Naidus, the same caste community as the current head of the Mahalakshmi Temple” [cf. Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle Class World, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 211, my emph.].
Waghorne’s observations may be further clarified – or interpreted – as follows:
- We note that Waghorne writes of the hiring of craftsmen directly from India – this points to the perpetuation of cultural links between the Asian settlers of East Ham and the country of their origin, India [we shall examine the exact nature of such links further below]. The craftsmen would undertake the carving of the traditional “vimanas” of the temple – these constitute the structure over the inner sanctum of the temple, it being the tallest structure of the building forming a sort of tower dominating the whole edifice.
- Waghorne notes that the “capital campaign brochure” – registering the list of donors and presumably aimed at attracting further sponsors – had been compiled in three different ethnic languages, although the use of English predominated. For Waghorne, this would suggest that those who had initiated the construction project were “diverse educated middle-class patrons”. East Ham’s relatively older settlers – its professional classes – would get together and, attempting to unite different ethnic groupings in a foreign land, would undertake a project meant to serve the whole of the Indian community. Their use of the English language in the brochure somehow amplifies their middle class status – viz. their wish to present their acquired “British”-based class status to the rest of the community. On the other hand, the use of English may also have been used as a unificatory medium bridging whatever cultural differences between the Telegu [a Dravidian ethnic group], the Tamilians and whoever identified with the Hindu religion generally.
- But the initiators of the Murugan project would not only function as members of East Ham’s upper-middle class – superimposed onto this class-based identity of patrons would also be that of India’s own ancient caste system. Waghorne herself clearly refers to the caste element of patrons, and especially so when she lists the “recognizable names” of “officers and major donors” with respect to both the Murugan and Mahalakshmi Temples. This is important in that it points to the importation of the Indian caste system right into the social nexus of East Ham’s Asian community – of course, this seems to parallel the en bloc transplantation of Punjabi cultural and religious practices in the neighbourhoods of East Ham [as noted in discussing the case of Sikhs above]. The importation of the ancient caste system into Britain has been discussed by a variety of analysts – consider, for instance, an article published in International Business Times, which notes: “When millions of immigrants from South Asia migrated to the United Kingdom in the past fifty years, many Hindus and Sikhs brought along their ancient attitudes towards caste. Illegal in India, caste prejudice remains deeply embedded – not only on the sub-continent, but also in the global Indian Diaspora, including Britain, where some 400.000 Dalits [or ‘Untouchables’] live” [cf. Palash Ghosh, “Indian caste system imported to Britain? Dalits say yes, upper caste Hindus say no”, https://www.ibtimes.com, 07.12.2013]. As indicative is an article published in The Guardian, which emphatically states that “couples who marry outside their own caste face ‘violence, intimidation and exclusion’…” [cf. Hugh Muir, “Caste divide is blighting Indian communities in UK, claims report”, 04.07.2006]. This article goes on to refer to the work of the Dalit Solidarity Network in its struggles to eliminate caste discrimination in the UK, as also “for the establishment of more temples open to worshippers of all castes” [ibid.]. Finally, it is important to note that the UK’s Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance would issue a report tellingly entitled as follows: “Hidden Apartheid – Voice of the Community: Caste and Caste Discrimination in the UK” [A Scoping Study, November 2009]. The mere wording of this report’s title is indicative of a caste-based “apartheid” prevailing in the Hindu communities of the UK.
- It has proven difficult to gauge the extent to which East Ham’s Murugan Temple is – or is not – fully open to the community’s “lower” caste members. It is also as difficult to gauge the extent of caste- or class-based conflict within the Asian community. But either way, it may be argued that the establishment of the Murugan Temple by East Ham’s upper-middle class elite enables it to assert a certain hegemony over the rest of the community. Hindu religious practices are in any case an important medium whereby community cohesion is reproduced. Religious leaders, furthermore, may also function as mediators between the community, the local authority and apparatuses of the central State. On the other hand, this does not mean that whatever hegemony – or whatever religious homogeneity – would be able to obliterate the objective conflicts of interest that characterize relations between, say, East Ham’s middle class landlords and their tenants [an issue to be referred to below, but which will be examined in detail in a forthcoming paper].
- Waghorne also informs us that the construction of the Murugan Temple would be partly financed by a Bank of Baroda loan [this bank being one of India’s major state-owned multinational undertakings]. One may argue that the granting of the loan itself could further confirm the connections and power of East Ham’s professional/upper caste community, such connections being instrumental in establishing the Murugan Temple.
This more or less sets the socio-cultural context within which the Murugan Temple would be established. Waghorne gives us some idea of the actual construction process of the temple – she writes in 2004: “When I returned to the London Sri Murugan Temple recently, English workers in hard hats were clearing the grounds and setting the concrete pillars that would form a roof over the three granite shrines from a distant land. The lovely vimanas now stood firm in the most quintessential London environment – the yard of a former pub… The old pub continued to house Lord Murugan in his own sanctum, tableaux of lovely bronze images arranged around a corner section of the building, gracious priests, and a vibrant group of devotees” [p. 211, my emph.].
The construction of the temple, we should observe, was taking place in what Waghorne aptly describes as “the most quintessential” of London’s own social landscape – viz. on the grounds of an English pub. The replacement of the latter by a Hindu temple is truly symbolic of what had been happening all along to the ancient “cockney culture” of Newham as a whole [discussed especially, though not exclusively, in Paper 3]. To be more specific, the story behind the final demise of that particular pub is slightly more circuitous. It had first mutated into a garage and would then finally give way to the temple. In a book examining the relationship between migration and religious identity in UK’s cities, we read: “Amongst the uniform terraced houses on a side-street in East Ham, the elaborate Sri Murugan Temple [built in traditional style by Tamil Nadu craftsmen and sculptors] graces the site of a former pub then garage” [cf. Jane Garnett & Alana Harris, eds., Rescripting Religion in the City – Migration and Religious Identity in the Modern Metropolis, Routledge, 2016, p. 118].
It is of great interest to note that this now extinct English traditional pub has its own rich history which surely deserves to be followed up and duly recorded by social historians. Simply by way of a clue, we may present a brief pointer for researchers in the field – Pall Talling’s excellent website, Derelict London, identifies the pub as that dubbed the “Flying Bottle” by the then locals. This is what the website has to say: “The Avenue Hotel, known locally as the Flying Bottle by locals, on 90 Church Road closed in 1990 a couple of years after a murder taking place in the pub… The building has been converted into a Hindu temple – the London Sri Murugan Temple” [cf. “East London Pubs – From Dead Pubs to Conversion”, https://www.derelictlondon.com, 2019]. Talling sees the demise of this particular pub – as in the case of so many others that he records – as a result of what he calls “the decline of the local drinking culture”, and which of course relates directly to both White “decamping” [cf. Paper 2b] and the plight of “cockney culture” in the area [cf. Paper 3]. Perhaps it should also be noted that the website presents us with a full-colour picture of the “Flying Bottle” [taken by Diane Ridley, 2004].
The variety of reactions, on the part of East Ham’s cockneys [or ex-cockneys], to the dramatically altered cultural landscape of their locality – and especially as regards the disappearance of traditional pubs generally – will be examined further below. Suffice it to say at this point that a large segment of East Ham’s White Britons would simply express their utter estrangement from their previous neighbourhood – and many would do so from afar, having finally “decamped”. One such resident, for instance, would react to the emergence of the Murugan Temple by saying: “Oh my Lord – I was staying at a house on Church Road… haven’t seen it for years – it’s so different” [cf. https://www.flickr.com.photos/judygr, 20.05.2007, my emph.].
East Ham’s Hindu settlers, of course, would naturally see things from a completely different perspective. For them, the establishment of their Murugan Temple would mean that a mere pub – profane, noisy and violent [remember the murder perpetrated at the “Flying Bottle”] – would give way to a spiritual oasis of a culturally higher order. Talling’s “local drinking culture” [op. cit.] would now mutate into the Indian sublime. Consider here how the magazine web edition of Hinduism Today would comment on the establishment of the Murugan Temple: “Even as the construction dust flies, the devotees flock to the makeshift temple which has made an oasis of calm, a sanctum, out of a pub. Here as the cymbals and drums make sweet music, hundreds of families gather to pray…” [cf. “Hindus make a home in the United Kingdom”, https://www.hinduismtoday.com, January/February/March 2003, my emph.]. For Hinduism Today, the demise of East Ham’s “local drinking culture” is a natural development in the unfolding of Britain’s own history – as it puts it: “Britain, long the colonizer, is now getting colonized by its own subjects” [ibid, my emph.].
By 2014, this “sanctum” would be served by nine priests [cf. Wingate, op. cit.]. These would operate in a religious and cultural environment that would fully replicate that of their own homeland. The en bloc transplantation of Tamil culture would be strict and all-enveloping, thereby asserting a reality that Hinduism Today refers to as the “colonization” of Britain by its former subjects. This process would in fact constitute a conscious project on the part of East Ham’s religious elites and their functionaries, the priests – and it would have to be a project that also had to reflect the needs and sentiments of grassroots temple “users” [as we shall see, the relationship between elites and the community has not always been smooth and contradiction-free]. We may here consider what Helena Reddington’s work has found with respect to the workings of the Tamil diaspora in the UK. In her study entitled Tamil Diasporic Identity Manifested Through The Architectural Hybridization Of Temples, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1994, Reddington writes: “… a Tamil worshipping community preserves a distinct cultural and religious identity despite their displacement… The… temples of the Tamil diaspora highlight not only the desire to maintain material links to the homeland, but also symbolic links. The symbolic significance of desiring the regional god of Murugan as its presiding deity, rather than a pan-Indian one, allows Tamils to differentiate themselves from other Hindu diasporic religious communities” [p. 53, my emph.].
East Ham’s Murugan Temple, therefore, is an embodiment of explicit religious and cultural practices that have been transplanted from the Tamil homeland in a manner that asserts the group-specific identity of a “cultural cluster” [the Tamils] within a wider “cultural cluster” [the Indians]. The need to assert one’s group-specific material and symbolic links with one’s homeland constitutes a phenomenon within the UK that – perhaps quite ironically – is intensifying rather than fading. One may speak of an ever-increasing amplification of group-specific consciousness, and therefore of an ever-deepening concentration of sub-divided “cultural clusters”. Such an important – albeit apparently paradoxical – observation is further confirmed by the research work of Steven Vertovec, who has focused on the Hindu diaspora. His findings allow him to argue that, at least as regards the case of the UK, Hindu religious practices that had initially taken the form of being “All-Indian” would ultimately mutate into a splintering of group-specific practices. With reference to the work of Vertovec, Waghorne [op. cit.] writes: “Steven Vertovec, attempting a broad overview of Hindus in Britain, argues that a ‘more complicated pattern is emerging’ with regard to institutionalization… he describes ‘phases’ of the development of temples, beginning with the early days of often-contrived but important ‘All-India’ celebrations. This unity broke down quickly into ‘numerous group specific associations’…” [p. 212, my emph.].
We should add here that Vertovec’s excellent book, The Hindu Diaspora – Comparative Patterns, Routledge, 2000, is actually rampant with references that verify precisely such an interpretation, at least with respect to the British case. We present here a number of sample quotes taken directly from his book – brief comments shall be appended:
- In Britain “temples have come to function in a variety of ways reflecting the regional backgrounds, settlement patterns and institutional strategies of their founders and users” [p. 16, my emph.]. This quote is especially important in that it encapsulates the three basic factors that ultimately determine the functioning of Hindu temples in the UK. First, it is the “regional background” of the Hindu settlers – in this case the Tamil – that determines the functions of a temple. These functions need be such so as to reproduce – as already mentioned – the material and symbolic links with the specific cultural/religious practices of one’s own and distinctive regional homeland. Second, it is the specific “settlement patterns” that determine a temple’s functions – viz. the geographically designated “cultural clusters” established within a locality such as East Ham, and especially the pattern of renewed migration waves that come to replenish these neighbourhood “clusters”. And third, it is the conscious “institutional strategies” of the elites and founders of a temple that also play a role in determining the functions of that temple – elites have to satisfy both the needs of temple “users” and pursue their own interests [either as an upper-middle class or as a superior endogamous caste, or as a social stratum combining both of these].
- In the case of Hindu temples in Britain, “certain caste, regional and sectarian groups have maintained distinct practices, associations and institutions” [p. 16, my emph.]. This quote more or less reiterates the above quote – but more than that, it also emphasizes the fact that “cultural clusters” are not merely spontaneous outgrowths of culture-based conglomerations of individuals that find themselves banding together in a foreign land for the sake of survival. Vertovec’s research work has found that Hindu “cultural clusters” are well-organized, hierarchically structured communities. They are informed by a conscious community “nous” – although we know that such “nous” is heterogeneously variegated depending on the social status of the community member. Vertovec clearly speaks of “associations” and “institutions” – the Murugan being one dimension of these social structures. Now, given that a “cultural cluster” is composed of hierarchically organized groupings, the practices of such “cluster” will be determined by the interplay of such forces at the local level – some of these groupings may prevail while others may find themselves having to adjust to – or resist – local elites.
- Vertovec concludes his study as follows [and which summarizes both his findings and our position regarding the form that cultural and religious practices take amongst Hindus in localities such as East Ham]: “In Britain the studies of Hindus and Hinduism offered in this book point to regional and caste-specific meanings and activities underpinning the reproduction of discrete communities…, the sometimes adverse relations between them…, and their distinct patterns of religious practice. These developments have arisen in light of given historically and contextually conditioned processes within diasporic settings” [p. 160, my emph.]. We note that Vertovec goes so far as to even identify “adverse relations” between various sub-“cultural clusters” within the Hindu community – this of course further verifies the “hidden apartheid” and “discrimination” amongst Hindus that we have noted above.
The “contextually conditioned processes” that Vertovec writes of above constitute a complex entanglement of factors that yield such group-specific cultural and religious practices that define the Hindus of East Ham. The Tamil settlers, to begin with, carry deeply ingrained customs, habits and beliefs that delimit their existential discreteness. All along, there had been that existential need to import the regional-based Hindu mindset into localities such as East Ham as soon as settlement had ensued, and to ensure that it be reproduced amongst settlers of similar origins. Maya Warrier, for instance, in her study entitled “Faith Guides for Higher Education – Hinduism”, writes: “Hindi families often tend to be closely knit, and family members, especially women, often play a vital role in transmitting Hindu customs and traditions across generations” [cf. The Higher Education Academy – Subject Centre for Philosophical & Religious Studies, 2006, p.18]. Warrier further explains that such abidance by the customs and traditions of Hinduism is part and parcel of “Hindu pride” amongst Indians [ibid., p. 16, inter alia].
This group-specific existential need and pride of identity would be bolstered by a renewal of links with one’s homeland via, inter alia, the continual input of new waves of migration. Added to that would be East Ham’s own contextually conditioning circumstances wherein one would experience a certain racial and/or cultural polarization – at a local level – between White locals and non-White settlers [cf. Paper 3], or even a polarization amongst non-indigenous ethnic groups themselves [Vertovec’s “adverse relations”].
The deeply ingrained beliefs, the renewal of these through the input of newcomers, the de facto cultural adversity between “clusters” within the community, and so on, would all come to fuse into a passive or active reaction against the UK State’s “multiculturalist” policies pressing towards a final “integration”. Such a reaction, on the part of East Ham’s Tamil community [very much as in the case of other “cultural clusters”] would further underline group-specific cultural and religious practices in the face of economic hardship: cultural and religious practices organized around the Murugan temple would constitute a manner of survival in an economically hostile environment [described, inter alia, by Carsten Volkery in Spiegel Online – cf. Paper 3].
East Ham’s Tamil community would be able to assert its presence and engage in the practices of the Murugan Temple given its dense concentration around it – that would be its relative cultural strength. As Wingate [op. cit.] notes: “… there are several thousand Tamils in the immediate area” [p. 50, my emph.]. A visitor of the Murugan Temple in 2017, writing in the temple’s official Facebook page, confirms just such physical and organizational presence of the Tamils in the area – after describing the temple as “Awesome and nice as well clean” [sic], he goes on to observe: “the Tamil people are really well established in the town” [cf. London Sri Murugan Temple, East Ham – Facebook page, 14.09.2017, my emph.]. Further, and as already noted above, it is the community’s Sri Lankans that are generally more committed to the various rituals of the temple. Waghorne [op. cit.] also tells us that, of the Tamil people, it is the South African and South Indian Tamils that most often attend the London Murugan Temple of East Ham [p. 215].
And yet, the dominant cultural presence of the Tamils with respect to the Murugan Temple is only a relative phenomenon. Firstly, as an institution – and as already discussed above – the temple is under the administrative control of its founders, or of elite groupings related to these founders. Thus, one may speak of a conflictual relationship between, on the one hand, founders/administrators and, on the other, the actual “users” of the temple. Secondly, and despite the population density of the Tamils in the environs of the temple, this would not enable them – and especially their Dravidian separatist element – to assert an exclusive presence in the cultural and religious practices of the temple. Their group-specific religious patterns and assertive nationalism would run up against those of other sub-groups in the locality. Thus, Waghorne [op. cit.] informs us that “Clearly the DK [Dravidar Kazhagham] Tamils did not wrest control [of the Murugan Temple] from a larger south Asian constituency” [p. 215]. One may therefore further argue that, in addition to the conflictual relationship between the community elites and the “users” of the temple, we would also have internal contradictions within the “users” themselves.
At this point – and summarily – one may argue that East Ham’s socio-cultural morphology is the end-product of a chain of either active or dormant contradictions that remain impervious to whatever State policies pressing for “integration”. Such chain includes the following contradictions:
- East Ham’s “local [cockney] drinking culture” versus Hindu spiritualism.
- Hindu spiritualism versus group-specific Tamil culture.
- Group-specific Tamil culture versus D.K. Tamil separatist nationalism [sectarian, à la Vertovec, op. cit.].
- D.K. Tamil separatist nationalists versus all the rest – but especially as regards East Ham’s religious elites and temple founders/administrators, who would try to establish some form of hegemony within the Hindu community by attempting to unite the contradictory pluralities within that community.
It is in such context of elite, upper-middle class or caste hegemony versus D.K. Tamil nationalist sectarianism that one may explain – to some extent at least – the policies of Murugan’s founders/administrators. Distancing themselves from the Tamil pressure for exclusivist group-specific cultural and religious practices, the elites would attempt to present the Murugan Temple as a place for all Hindus. Such an opening up was meant to unite all of East Ham’s Hindu community [and even beyond that particular community] by forging some degree of cohesion amongst its members. In that, the elite group would more or less achieve a certain level of success [but as we shall further see below, such anti-sectarian policy would not be as successful in the case of the Mahalakshmi Temple].
The elite’s attempt to open up the Murugan Temple to all of UK’s Hindus has been recorded by Waghorne [op. cit.]. Following her visit to the temple in the early 2000’s, she records her impressions as follows: “… the entire Indian community except the Muslims uses the London Murugan temple, although it has only a relatively small group of members and donors… Many north Indians come to pray to Durga [a popular form of Hindu Goddess], who wore a necklace of lemons that day, as I have seen her in rural areas throughout India” [p. 211, my emph.].
Waghorne goes on to speak of what she sees as the temple’s potential for “commuter-devotees” – she writes: “… the London Murugan has commuter-devotees who clearly plan to drive – there are sixty-six planned parking spaces – into this religiously diverse but nonetheless South Asian area” [p. 212]. Again, this seems to further confirm the openness of the Murugan Temple, as also its attraction to all of the UK’s Hindus as a whole. Finally, we may also quote Wingate [op. cit.] who, having been invited to join a street procession organized by the Murugan Temple in East Ham, would observe: “They proudly invited me to their annual street procession with a chariot, when Murugan is taken round the streets of East Ham. Twenty thousand people turn out, not just Tamils but other Indians…” [p. 51, my emph.].
Naturally, the openness of the Murugan Temple towards the residents of East Ham has its limits, these being fully reflective of the segregationist practices embedded in the “cultural clusters” that we have identified all along in this project. Further commenting on the various processions organized by the priests of the Murugan Temple, Wingate [op. cit.] reveals, not only the essentially exclusivist nature of such religious practices, but also the utter failure of Newham’s purported “interfaith” programs as promoted by the borough’s Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz [cf. Paper 3]. Very importantly, Wingate writes: “Other processions are held within their building or compound [of the temple], as they do not want to presume upon the locals. There is little involvement with Christians or other faiths. The trustee assigned to Inter Faith Newham has little time to go, and does not see it as a priority. ‘We leave each other alone’…” [p. 51, my emph.].
We shall complete our observations on East Ham’s Murugan Temple by noting the sentiments of some of its devotees or visitors – most such sentiments speak for themselves [the information has been retrieved from the temple’s official Facebook page, op. cit.]:
- Ramesh Kadamannaya writes: “Most beautiful Murugan Temple” [24.02 – year not stated].
- Vivekanand Sankar writes: “Peaceful place. Well led Poojas and celebrate Hindu rituals” [25.04 – year not stated; note that “poojas” or “pujas” are a Hindu prayer ritual, and which will be discussed further below in some detail with respect to the Mahalakshmi Temple’s religious practices].
- Gayathri Sumanoharan writes: “The place where I find the true happiness and inner peace” [21.06.2014].
- Kavin Robert writes: “It’s an amazing place. It’s vast. I have been to other Temples. But this one really stands out. I mean the events it holds are a [sic] really mind blowing indeed” [16.08.2017].
- Seethalakshmy Nagarajan writes: “Is one of the only two temples in the UK where the world leading sithar Yoga Jnana Sithar Om Sri Rajayoga Guru from Malaysia has visited. A place that has been blessed by the visit of a true sithar. For the disciples of the Guru the place is full of vibrations which can be felt by the disciples when we are there… really an awesome experience” [04.02.2015].
- Vasanthan M. Pillay writes: “The devotion vibe that u can feel religiously in your instinct… the moment you take a step ahead at this Temple’s entrance…” [05.02.2015].
- Sriram Rajarathinam writes: “I love this beautiful temple!!! Hinduism is only the religion of peace. It is the only religion which have scientific origination [sic]. The most intellectual religion of the world. Some great facts about Hinduism are as follows: 1. Aryabhatta invented zero “0”. Without which maths was not possible. 2. Bhaskaracharya was a mathematician and astrologist [sic] who provided the diameter of earth hundreds of years back. Presently NASA found only 1% difference between the diameter given by Bhaskaracharya and NASA. 3. It is said that Jesus learned the powers from India during 10 years undocumented time of his life. 4. Principle of electricity is described clearly in Verdas. 5. 8700 year old book documents the 7 planets and also the fact that pluto’s [sic] orbit cuts through Neptune’s” [18.01.2015].
- Guruswami Gururam writes: “God blessed temple I am guru Indian vedic astrologer UK [sic]” [21.05.2018].
- Raj Kumar writes: “Beautiful temple… Well maintained. Feel like India” [15.01.2017].
Sentiments such as these allow us to make the following tentative observations:
- Repeated references to the “beauty” of the temple obviously point to a certain element of “Hindu pride” [and cf. Warrier, op cit].
- Repeated references to the “peacefulness” of the temple – or how one discovers “inner peace” therein – point to the function of the place as a “sanctum”. As mentioned above, this need be contrasted to the erstwhile “local drinking culture” [cf. Hinduism Today, op. cit.].
- References to “vibrations” point to the almost other-worldly, deeply lived spirituality on entering the temple. Such purported “vibrations” have a double significance: on the one hand, they help devotees stand over and above the hardships of everydayness; on the other, they constitute an indelible link with one’s homeland. Consider what UK Tamil News [News Site for Tamils] has to say regarding such “vibrations”: “The ancient temples in South India were constructed in such a way that the cosmic energy from space could reach the devotees who goes [sic] to worship at the temple… These temples are energy centres. It’s like a public charging place. These temple [sic] have stood the test of time for giving the community health and happiness” [cf. C.P. Thiagarajah, “Abisekam rituals in temples: the science behind it”, www.uktamilnews.com, 28.06.2014]. We know that the architecture of the Murugan Temple replicates – at least as regards the pyramid structure towering over its sanctum – that of the ancient temples of South India. It is such pyramid structure that is said to cause the “vibrations”, and which helps devotees “receive more cosmic energy” [cf. Thiagarajah, ibid.].
- The reference to the “scientific” or “intellectual” dimension of Hinduism ought not to be seen as a whimsical sentiment expressive of isolated Hindu devotees. In fact, texts published in UK Tamil News [ibid.] attempt to support Hindu religious practices by referring to the findings of cosmologists and physicists. What is noteworthy is that both Rajarathinam [the commentator above] and the “experts” writing for UK Tamil News wish to stress that there is an absolutely exclusive relationship between Hinduism and science – viz. that no such relationship is evident in any other religion. Objectively speaking, this amounts to some form of supremacist tendency in Hindu theology, albeit not at all aggressive [as in certain strands of Islam, to be discussed below]. Such supremacist tendency may nonetheless go some way in explaining the segregationist practices of East Ham’s Hindu “cultural clusters” [as mentioned above].
- Finally, when a visitor to the Murugan Temple says that it “feel[s] like India”, he confirms the natural linkage with his own homeland, and which further explains why East Ham is commonly referred to as “Little India”.
All in all, one may say that the Murugan Temple is a cultural and religious hub offering protection – and the confirmation of ethnic identity – to the Asian “cultural clusters” and/or “religious clusters” that make up part of East Ham. Such protection – be it material or psychological – seems to be absolutely necessary in a somewhat hostile world that seems to be either racially polarized or solidly secularized. One should here contrast the religious sanctity of the temple [despite the so-called “scientific” pretensions of its theology] to London’s Central Business District [CBD] – a space which seems to have no room for whatever “cultural clusters” [we intend to devote a number of forthcoming papers focusing on “the City” and the mindset of its various generic “types”].
We may now go on to examine the second major Hindu temple located in East Ham – the Mahalakshmi Temple, or the London Sri Mahalakshmi Temple. Much of the information that follows is based on the temple’s official website – https://www.srimahalakshmitemple.net.
The Mahalakshmi Temple in East Ham has two branches, both along High Street North. The one branch is the older Mahalakshmi Temple, and is located along 272 High Street North, at the corner of Kensington Avenue, in the residential area of Manor Park. With reference to this temple, https://www.allhindutemples.com provides us with the following data: “[The] Lakshmi Narayana Trust [formed so as to establish the temple] was registered with [the] Charity Commission… in September 1985. [The] Sri Mahalakshmi Temple was built in 1989 and consecrated on 2nd February 1990”.
With reference to the newer construction, the Lakshmi Narayana Trust, in a post dated 2016 and published in https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk, gives us the following information: “London Sri Mahalakshmi Temple’s first mahakumbabhisegam [consecration ceremony] was performed during 1990. Since then numerous devotees have attended the temple, participated in Poojas and have been obtaining the blessings of Sri Lakshmi Narayanar and other deities. The number of devotees have [sic] steadily increased and the current site cannot accommodate all the devotees comfortably. With the blessings of Sri Lakshmi Narayanar we applied to construct a new Temple at 241 High Street North and Newham council has granted consent for building a new temple to provide more facilities. New temple internal area will be approximately three times bigger than the current temple”.
As is obvious from the above Crowdfunder post, the trustees of the Mahalakshmi Temple – to whom we shall return further below – would attempt to raise money for the building of the new temple via the Internet [that being their one source, amongst others]. The post registers this fund raising process as follows: “Construction of New London SriMahalakshmi Temple with Cultural, Educational and Health Screening facilities at East Ham, London… We did it… On 26 April 2016 we successfully raised £326 with 7 supporters in 56 days”.
By August 2018, the Mahalakshmi Temple’s Newsletter would note: “The Management [Lakshmi Narayana Trust] at Sri Mahalakshmi Temple would like to say a ‘BIG THANK YOU’ for the support extended by all the devotees, volunteers and staff on full completion of the new temple including the Rajagopuram [the temple’s entrance tower]”.
As in the case of the Murugan Temple and that of the older Mahalakshmi Temple, the construction of the new branch would be undertaken in a manner that would fully preserve material and symbolic links with the homeland. The Newsletter [ibid.] continues: “The granite stones have arrived from India. These stones have been crafted with Dasavatharam and various art work on them. It will be used to cover the inside four pillars to conclude the new temple construction… With the blessings of Sri Lakshmi Narayanar the new temple building structure appears with Chola style Raja Gopura work. We are very happy to share that this majestic temple for our Sri Lakshmi Narayanar will be with us for many generations to come…”
Much of what we have discussed above regarding the preservation of links with Hindu religious culture, as also the role of regional and sectarian groups in such preservation, could be said to apply to the Mahalakshmi Temple as well. Similarly, we may say that the institutional strategies of East Ham’s elite groupings would again play a relatively hegemonic role in the running of this temple, although – and as we shall see below – such unifying hegemony would have to be somewhat compromised in this particular case. Yet still, and despite the apparent compromises, the upper-middle class and caste elites would continue to retain control over the affairs of the temple. Available data on the Mahalakshmi Temple allow us to take a slightly closer look at the form that such power would take.
We may begin with the case of the temple’s “Patron”. It is quite obvious that we here speak of an Indian family the socio-economic status of which is well beyond that of the upper-middle classes. Heading the temple’s Board of Trustees is the well-known Nadarajah family. The head of this family, Sri Ganesh Nadarajah, chairs the as well-known Venus Group Asset Management, which had been established in 1990. Venus Group UK and Venus Group Singapore have extensive relationships with a range of strategic partners across the globe, the most important of these being China-based. It is known that the two Groups nonetheless remain separate organizations. We may also note here that Sri Ganesh Nadarajah is a former accountant educated at the University of Hertfordshire.
The temple has a Senior Advisor, someone by the name of S.N. Perumal, and a well-structured Board of Trustees which is comprised of 16 supposedly functional positions – these are the following:
- The Senior Trustee
- The President and Vice-President
- The Chairman and Vice-Chairman
- The General Secretary and the Assistant Secretary
- The Treasurer and the Assistant Treasurer
- A Public Relations Officer
- A Cultural Secretary
- The Temple Office Manager
- Three functionaries responsible for what is termed “Communications”
There are a number of simple observations that one may make with respect to the temple’s administrative structure: Firstly, the Board seems to be a top-heavy organizational body with too many functionaries possibly duplicating responsibilities. Such an apparently overloaded administrative organ could mean that some of its members may not necessarily have functional duties or may have duties that are complemented by those of others. This may have arisen from a need to create various checks and balances in the exercise of authority. Alternatively, it might be symptomatic of elite groupings competing for power amongst themselves. Further, it might simply indicate a vying for social status through officeholding. Secondly, the top-heavy structure could suggest a “distance” between its functionaries and the popular “users” of the temple. This “distance” could have been deliberately established so as to maintain a “safe” and “neutral” stance vis-à-vis the various sectarian “clusters” composing a relatively disunited [or even internally conflictual] Hindu community. Of course, such intended “distance” and “neutrality” would not necessarily absolve the Board of power struggles reflecting sectarian conflicts within itself. Finally, we may note that there is only one woman on the Board – viz. the Cultural Secretary. This of course stands in stark contrast to the UK’s gender equality policies [cf., for instance, https://eige.europa.eu/gender-mainstreaming/countries/united-kingdom].
When we speak of elite groupings competing for power within the Board of Trustees, we do not wish to imply that such power is always and necessarily of an economic nature [although, as we shall see, many or most of the temple’s religious practices are accompanied by monetary transactions]. One thing is certain: power struggles may reflect competing “cultural cluster” sectarianisms aimed at impressing their respective presence and status in the community [culture here being as much a “material” force as is economic standing]. The following quote, retrieved from the Mahalakshmi Temple’s official website, may be taken to suggest that power struggles, or the mere exercise of power, can also be of an extra-economic nature – we read: “The Management Committee of Lakshmi Narayana Trust consists of 16 Trustees. All the Trustees are unpaid volunteers and many of the current Trustees have been active participants in the temple activities since 1980s. Current Chairman was Registrar when the temple was consecrated during Feb. 1990” [cf. “General Trustee Information”, my emph.]. One may assume that, at least at a formal level, members of the Board are in no way remunerated for the exercise of their duties – and yet, they insist on active participation.
We may now examine the stipulated “objects” of the Trust, all of which – according to the website – are “extracted from the constitution of the Lakshmi Narayana Trust”. Such objectives place a major emphasis on both religious culture and on social service to the community. Thus, the three central rubrics outlining the Trust’s objectives are “Religious Service”, “Health Service” and “Cultural and Educational Service”. Within the framework of these rubrics, objectives are clarified as follows:
- “To advance Hindu religion particularly by promoting religious and cultural activities” [Religious Service].
- “To establish, secure or build a temple to Sri Mahalakshmi and Sri Narayanar strictly conforming to Hindu Temple architecture…” [Religious Service, my emph.].
- “To relieve sickness particularly by provision of periodical screening service for people over the age of 40, in order to detect disease at an early stage especially against heart attack, high blood pressure and diabetes mellitus” [Health Service, New Temple Project].
- “To build a cultural and educational centre” [Cultural and Educational Service, New Temple Project].
- “To provide a library with usual and educational books and magazines” [Cultural and Educational Service, New Temple Project].
- “To provide education and other necessary assistance to people with language problems due to lack of English knowledge” [Cultural and Educational Service, New Temple Project, my emph.].
- “To provide voluntary help to the elderly and people with special needs” [Cultural and Educational Service, New Temple Project].
- “Teaching of Indian classical dance [Bharatha Nattiyam] and vocal and instrumental music” [Cultural and Educational Service, New Temple Project, my emph.].
The enumeration of the Trust’s objectives verifies that the temple’s social support programs are closely intertwined with a systematic attempt to promote the religious culture of the various “clusters” composing East Ham’s Hindu community. The strict conformity to Hindu architecture, as also the perpetuation of Indian classical dance, must naturally be seen in this light. It is of importance to note that, with the inauguration of the “New Temple Project”, social support initiatives would be further expanded. These would include attempts to help Hindus who did not know the English language – presumably, this would mainly refer to new Indian incomers, and which suggests that the temple plays some role in accommodating the continuing waves of migration to the locality [the question of migration influx with respect to East Ham in particular will be examined further below, it being a special case].
We have mentioned that the temple’s religious practices usually involve monetary transactions. By implication, this would mean that the popular religio-cultural practices of the temple’s “users” would instigate, in one way or another, a concomitant series of economic practices on the part of the temple’s management [the latter representing, as suggested, the religious elites]. Managing the economics of the temple would mean that income accruing from services offered to “users” would help finance the running of the temple itself, including its social services. The point here is that the material support of the temple would be based on the satisfaction of a community’s culture-based or identity-based needs. We may therefore speak of a temple’s culture/identity-based “political economy”, as managed by the Mahalakshmi Temple’s Board of Trustees. To fully understand this tight relationship between religio-cultural practices and economics, one needs to examine instances where this is practically manifested in the temple’s activities – as we shall see, it is the intensity of such interrelation that seems to verify such a reality. Before we embark on this examination, there are two clarificatory points that have to be made: [i] Obviously, not all of the temple’s income accrues from its religio-cultural practices as such – for instance, the Nadarajah Family must itself be a major financial contributor; [ii] The connection between religio-cultural practices and economics identified in the case of this Hindu temple is not a phenomenon exclusive to such temple – the phenomenon may apply to a wide variety of religious institutions of various denominations. On the other hand, here we have a case where the reproduction of religio-cultural practices via economic transactions helps tighten the cohesion of Hindu “cultural clusters” vis-à-vis other “clusters” residing in East Ham.
We may commence our examination of the phenomenon by first considering the practical implications of being a priest at the Mahalakshmi Temple. Quite paradoxically, the temple’s official website presents the duties of Hindu priesthood in an all too “secular” manner, thereby confirming the economistic dimension of a calling that is supposed to be deeply “sublime” [and which Hindus would wish to contrast to the banalities of an English pub – cf. above]. On the 5th of June, 2018, the temple’s management announces that it has a number of vacancies regarding its temple priests. It makes use of its own website to make this announcement, which it places under a rubric that is reminiscent of the business world – viz. that of “Careers”. The announcement continues in a style that further confirms the secular dimension of a Mahalakshmi Temple priest. It would be of interest to quote here some of the announcement’s data, paying special attention to the manner of presentation:
- “Careers: Temple Priest – Job description”
- “Hours: 40 per week”
- “Days: 5-6 per week”
- “Salary: £17.000 per annum” [approximately 19.000 euro]
- “Job type: full time”
- “Employer: Lakshmi Narayana Trust [Sri Mahalakshmi Temple]”
- “Job title: Temple Priest”
- “Number of vacancies: 4”
- “Remuneration:… We comply with the National Minimum Wage regulations and we also provide holiday pay and other benefits according to the laws of [the] UK”.
- “Qualifications and Skills: Candidates should affirm their faith as a Hindu as the job involves assisting in worshipping and performing poojas for the Hindu Gods and the preparation of the food in a traditional way and offering to the deities and devotees. Candidates should have sufficient training and experience under a senior priest… Candidates should be willing to accept both Saiva and Vaishnava faith of Hinduism as the Temple is having both deities. Candidates are expected to be more spiritual and godly and obtained and learnt mantras and customary way of worshipping the God traditionally from the Senior Priests of Temples. Candidates are expected to consider this role as a service to God… The person with at least three years’ training and experience in a similar role is essential [sic]”.
It is true that, taken as a whole, the above announcement does attempt to strike some kind of balance between, on the one hand, its secular discourse [with references to “job description”, UK labour law, etc.] and, on the other, its religious discourse [with references to a candidate’s affirmation of faith, the need to be “more spiritual and godly”, etc.]. Yet still, it is quite obvious that whatever religious spirituality has here been severely compromised – the announcement approximates a formal job advertisement couched in a style more or less reminiscent of Venus Group Asset Management.
The question here is how this secular, business-like style of the temple’s management relates to – or expresses – the popular “users” of the temple. Of course, East Ham’s “users” are socially stratified as a Hindu community and may include anyone from a member of the middle classes to that of a manual labourer. As regards the middle classes, such business-like style may be more or less tolerated or even fully accepted, it being expressive of their own style of life [at least in its economic domain]. The real culture gap that one would expect to see would apply to those popular “users” of the temple who belong to common, working people. But we should not forget that, for all of East Ham’s Hindu social strata there is one particular cementing ideological universal that can potentially overcome whatever divisions [bar sectarianism] – that of course being Hinduism itself. It is this cultural-ideological universal that allows religio-cultural practices to mesh with the economic.
This now allows us to examine the religio-cultural practice of what is called “poojas”. We have already referred to this practice above – here, we intend to examine it in some greater detail, as also relate it to practices of monetary exchange. To begin with, let us simply explain that a “pooja” is a Hindu prayer ritual – it is performed as a form of devotional worship to one or more deities. The ritual may also be undertaken in a variety of social occasions, one of its purposes being to celebrate a particular event in a spiritual manner – for instance, it may be performed when hosting and honouring a guest at one’s home, or to celebrate the birth of a child, or in the case of a wedding, and so forth. Generally speaking, a “pooja” may be performed within the temple, or at one’s home, or even outdoors. The ritual usually involves the participation of temple priests, who may be accompanied by musicians.
We shall now examine specific types of “poojas” offered by the Mahalakshmi Temple and the monetary exchange that accompanies these. Our examination of data available in the temple’s website allows us to say that there are 45 different types of “poojas” made available to East Ham’s Hindu community [and even beyond that community]. Based on our collation of available data, we may present a fairly accurate picture of the temple’s “pooja” practices – we shall list the different types of “poojas” available, and the cost of their performance [the website speaks of “recommended costs”]. We shall also attempt to briefly explain what the various types of “poojas” are all about – this, however, will only be done in cases where the relevant information has proven accessible [as such, the explanations we shall present below will have to remain incomplete]:
- “Poojas” costing £10.00 each – 4 types: These include the “Special pooja” and the Sri Rudra Abishegam. The latter is a group-based “pooja” and the ritual is meant to be repeated on a weekly basis [on Mondays].
- “Poojas” costing £20.00 each – 9 types: These include the “car pooja”, which is a ritual whereby one blesses one’s new car [apparently, Hindus are said to consecrate any new purchase before using it]. There is also the group-based, annual Linga “pooja”, which is most probably related to issues of fertility and sexuality. Yet another “pooja” belonging to this £20 category is the group-based, monthly Sri Gayathri Homam and Abishegam – this “homam” [or ritual] is said to be performed in favour of the locality or community as a whole.
- “Poojas” costing £30.00 each – 2 types: These are the All Deities archana and the Sahasranama archana. The term “archana” refers to a special “pooja” meant to help a particular devotee with his or her personal problems, such as dispelling a bad “karma”.
- “Poojas” costing £50.00 each – 7 types: These include the Abishega Purappaadu and the Sri Mahalakshmi/Andal Abhisegam “poojas”. It is said that the Abishega [there are quite a number of variations in the spelling of the word] is a ritual that asks of Divinity to “purify” and “balance” the external world as well as the perception of it by devotees. In the course of the ritual, milk, yoghurt, ghee, honey and sugar are poured over the image of a particular deity. It is said that this causes some sort of a “vibrational effect” which transforms both the environment and the individuals witnessing the ritual – it therefore benefits both the performer of the ritual and all who are present [cf. https://bhaktimarga.co.uk].
- “Poojas” costing £75.00 each – 5 types: These include the Sri Murugan Abishegam and the Sri Shiva Abishegam. We cannot tell what factors determine the particular cost of these “poojas” – we may assume that the specific deity chosen to be worshipped and the ritual accompanying such deity must be the main factors deciding the price.
- “Poojas” costing £100.00 – 5 types: These include the Homam and the Sri Sathyanarayana “pooja”. Both rituals are exclusively meant for individuals [in contrast to, say, the group-based Homam which is priced at £20 – cf. above]. Here, it would be interesting to note a few basic points on what Homam involves as a ritual procedure – Chandru Ramasubramanian tells us that “The fundamental steps in any Homam procedure focus on starting and maintaining the sacred fire… [The] most commonly used ingredients in this process include items such as dried cow dung patties, dried coconut, wood shavings, peepal twigs [samit – or twigs from the sacred Indian fig tree], camphor, milk, curd, and ghee” [cf. “A perspective on the science behind the Hindu Homam ritual”, https://medium.com, 05.05.2016]. Ramasubramanian explains that the emissions from the combustion of these ingredients act against hypertension, arrhythmia, malaria and other health problems.
- “Poojas” costing £125.00 – 3 types: One of these is the Sri Gayathri Durga “pooja” or Ubayam. The ritual is a devotional worship to one of the most important and popular of Hindu deities, the Goddess Durga. It is meant, inter alia, to show respect to the women of the community. Many of UK’s Hindus organize this “pooja” over the weekend, so that many people can attend and celebrate with their families [this may explain the relatively high cost of the event – cf. https://www.asian-voice.com, 02.10.2018].
- “Poojas” costing £150.00 – 2 types: One of these is the Navagraha Abhisegam. It is said that “This kind of abhishekam gives prosperity, achievement of all desires, eliminates negative forces, getting rid of negative karma and will give you immense joy and success in life” [cf. https://icctmemphis.org, undated].
- “Poojas” costing £200.00 – 4 types: Two of these are the annual Garuda Seva and the monthly Sri Arupadai Murugan Homam and Abishegam. The latter ritual is especially esteemed amongst East Ham’s Tamil Nadu community.
- “Poojas” costing £250.00 – 1 type: This is the Sri Saneeswarar “108” Abhisegam. We have not been able to find any relevant information on this apparently rather expensive “pooja”. All we can say is that “108” refers to the number of names of the particular deity being worshipped, and all of which have to be chanted by the devotees.
- “Poojas” costing £300.00 – 2 types: One of these is the annual Navarathri Ubayam. The word “Navarathri” [or Navaratri – there are further variations in the spelling of the word] literally means “nine nights” in Sanskrit. This worship and dance festival is thus celebrated for nine nights in a row [and which could also explain its cost]. Its purpose is to bestow “all-round success in life”, and is thus said to constitute “an auspicious time for starting new ventures”. It is further meant to protect a person’s [or a family’s] health and property [cf. https://www.sivadurga.com/navarathri].
- “Poojas” costing £1000.00 – 1 type: This is the most expensive “pooja”, and is the annual Brahmotsavam Ubayam. It is considered to be the most important annual fête for Hindu worshippers, being the mother of all festivals. Like the Navarathri Ubayam, it also lasts for nine days. It takes the form of a chariot festival celebrated in the streets of the locality.
The organizing of “poojas” seems to be the chief manner in which East Ham’s Mahalakshmi Temple intertwines religion with economics. There are, however, other temple practices that further confirm such tight religio-economic entrepreneurship. The use of the temple’s hall is quite indicative of such a case. Under the rubric of “Hall Hire”, the temple’s website informs the community as follows: “At our temple, we offer multipurpose hall for hire for occasions such as Arangetram [debut performance given by a student of Indian classical dance], weddings, religious functions, music and dance classes. The hall is available for hire for £75 an hour for a minimum of two hours. As part of our commitment to promote Hindu religion and culture, we encourage you to use the multi purpose [sic] hall for cultural activities and classes. Concessions available for regular classes” [my emph.].
The above announcement concludes by making certain practical clarifications to potential hall “users” in a manner quite reminiscent of secular exchange relationships:
- “Please contact temple office for terms and conditions [of hiring the hall]”.
- “Please note the decorations [of the hall] need to be arranged by the organizers [the “users”] themselves”.
- “Please setup standing order or transfer the donations directly to our bank account… Barclays Bank Plc., Plaistow, Leicestershire…”
Yet another religio-cultural service offered by the Mahalakshmi Temple to its “users” is that of garland-making. Under the rubric of “Garlands”, the website notifies the Hindu community as follows: “Our garland maker makes beautiful garlands to offer to our deities. We also offer garland making service to private functions such as weddings, gruhapravesam [house warming ceremony] etc. Please contact temple office to get more information”. While no prices are mentioned here, it is quite obvious that the service is not for free.
Now, and as is to be expected, the management of the Mahalakshmi Temple would also attempt to counter-balance such cash-related services with a number of activities that would be offered free of charge. While most cash-related services would not constitute much of a burden to East Ham’s middle classes, this would obviously not apply, for instance, to the unemployed or to those who espouse some form of “cultural worklessness” [cf. Paper 3]. One indication of such free services is given in the website’s Newsletter, dated July 2018: “At our temple, classes are conducted every week for yoga, music and meditation. We also conduct free religious classes” [my emph.]. As important a free service is the temple’s provision of free food to members of the Hindu community – we read: “The Temple also provides free food [annadhanam/prasadham] to the devotees in the afternoon and evening…”
To end this note on East Ham’s Mahalakshmi Temple, we shall need to return to the question of hegemony and as that is exercised by the community’s elite groupings. Above, we had suggested that the institutional strategies of East Ham’s elite groupings within the Mahalakshmi Temple would only be relatively hegemonic – by this we had implied that whatever unificatory practices on the part of the elites would be somewhat compromised. We should remember that in the case of the Murugan Temple the sectarian initiatives of the D.K. Tamils to wrest control of that temple had not been altogether successful – there, the elite groupings had been able to open up the temple to all of UK’s Hindus, thereby allowing the phenomenon of “commuter-devotees” to flourish. The case of the Mahalakshmi Temple is slightly different.
While not at all a “watertight” institution, the Mahalakshmi Temple is above all focused on meeting the discrete religio-cultural needs of East Ham’s Sri Lankan Tamil community. In contrast to the Murugan Temple, therefore, its focus is essentially local – as Waghorne [op. cit.] has observed: “… the Mahalakshmi caters mostly to nearby residents of this South Asian locale…” [p. 212, my emph.]. Most of the temple’s nearby residents, of course, are Tamils from Sri Lanka. We know that Sri Lankan Tamils in any case dominate East Ham – half of the Sri Lankan community in the UK can be found in this locality [the rest residing in Tooting, south London]. It is of great importance to emphasize that this community is characterized by discrete religio-cultural needs that extend beyond both religious beliefs and cultural practices – these overlap with as discrete political allegiances. As is known, UK’s Sri Lankans have never hidden their sympathy for the pro-Tamil cause in Sri Lanka [cf., for instance, https://www.sify.com, 29.07.2011]. One may here generally note that, for the vast majority of Tamils as an ethnic group, religion is deeply intertwined with politics, and vice versa – as B. Kolappan has written with respect to all the sub-groupings of this ethnic group: “the binding identity of religion continues to be a key factor in shaping their social life and political outlook” [cf. “Religion still a factor in politics in Tamil Nadu’s deep south”, https://www.thehindu.com, updated 21.05.2016].
It is above all this particular “ethnic cluster” residing in the environs of East Ham’s Mahalakshmi Temple that would be most committed to religio-cultural practices expressive of its traditional homeland [that would certainly also apply to Tamils frequenting the Murugan Temple – and that, despite the latter’s policy of openness to all of the Hindu community – cf. Wingate above]. This active commitment is evident in what K.S.S. Seshan [op. cit.] has observed regarding the daily habits of East Ham’s Tamil community – he notes: “The Mahalakshmi Temple, close to the busy High Street,… is visited by large crowds in the evenings” [my emph.]. Obviously, religious and cultural practices amongst this “cultural cluster” are thriving in the locality. By August 2018, the Mahalakshmi Temple’s Newsletter would announce: “There are so many new devotees coming to know about our Sri Mahalakshmi Sametha Narayanar and they have been visiting the temple frequently” [my emph.].
We have made it clear, however, that the Mahalakshmi Temple has never functioned as a “watertight” institution. This has practically meant that whatever the “compromises” made by the temple’s management to appease the Sri Lankans, such concessions have only been partial. Thus, the temple’s Newsletter [ibid.] stipulates that its religious celebrations are not delimited by the needs of any one particular “cultural cluster” – we read: “At our temple we celebrate [a] variety of events belonging to various communities in their traditional way…”
It is arguable that East Ham’s Tamil community is engaged in some sort of a cultural “power struggle” vis-à-vis the rest of the Hindu community, as also in relation to the rest of the “cultural clusters” composing the locality. Emblematic of East Ham’s Tamil cultural presence is the London Tamil Sangam, the Tamil community and education centre [cf. www.ltsuk.org]. As one walks six blocks along High Street North, from the Mahalakshmi Temple towards Church Street, one comes across a building of much significance, said to house one of the oldest Tamil organizations in the UK. It also houses the London Tamil Sangam Library, it being the largest Tamil library in the UK with more than 5.000 Tamil books. The centre runs, inter alia, what it calls a “Luncheon Club”, meant for purposes of community socialization. Not too far from this centre there is also the Tamil Welfare Association. In fact, there are many other religious and cultural institutions in East Ham that express the Tamil identity – these all form an almost invisible social network organizing this ethnic group’s assertive cultural presence. But it is above all the Mahalakshmi Temple that fuses all the threads of this network into one, unitary cultural hub.
We should also note that the question of Tamil identity in Britain generally [and more specifically in East Ham] has been meticulously researched by a range of academics – cf., for instance, Ann R. David, “Migratory Rituals or Classical Dance Forms? ‘Trance’ Dance and Bharatanatyam as Signifiers of Tamil Identity in Diasporic Hindu Communities in Britain”, https://www.academia.edu, 2007.
- THE MUSLIMS – East Ham’s Jamia Masjid Mosque and other Muslim organizations
Apart from the Sikh and Hindu “cultural clusters”, East Ham is of course also home to Muslim “cultural clusters”, all of which are organized around a network of mosques or mosque-related organizations.
Before we examine the religio-ideological practices of some of these institutions, we should first make some rough observations regarding Muslim residents in and around East Ham. To begin with, it is said that UK’s 2001 Census had registered the presence of 607.083 Muslims in the Greater London Area [obviously excluding the influx of as yet unregistered Muslim groupings at the time]. By 2011, the Office for National Statistics would note that the proportion of Muslims in the same area had risen to 12.4% of the population. The percentage of Muslims in Newham [as in Tower Hamlets] would come to exceed 30% [cf., inter alia, “British Muslims in numbers – A demographic, socio-economic and health profile of Muslims in Britain drawing on the 2011 Census”, The Muslim Council of Britain, January 2015, https://www.mcb.org.uk]. Examining what it terms “Muslim enclaves in Britain”, the Gatestone Institute informs us that a careful analysis of the UK’s 2011 Census figures enables it to draw a number of conclusions with respect to “Muslim enclaves” specifically within the locality of East Ham – samples of such statistical inferences include the following [cf. https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org]:
- Muslims constitute 39.6% of the residents of East Ham Central
- Muslims constitute 45.4% of residents in the Manor Park locality
- Muslims constitute 50.1% of the residents of East Ham North
Most of London’s – as also East Ham’s – Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from South Asia, particularly Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and India. There are also large numbers of Muslims from various Arab countries. Among African Muslims, there are large Maghreb communities, including immigrants from Algeria and Egypt. There are, further, settler communities from Somalia, as well as the equally large 200.000 members of the West African Muslim community. We should note as well that the Greater London area is also home to large Turkish and Bosnian Muslim communities. Naturally, while not all of these settlers reside within the confines of a locality such as East Ham, the latter more or less reflects this grand mosaic of Muslim presence in the UK.
We know that it is the mosque – and various institutions related to it – that constitutes the central organizational hub of Muslims in the UK, as elsewhere. Back in the 1910’s, those few Muslims that resided in the UK or in the East London area would make use of “floating mosques”, or prayer rooms without any fixed location. By 2018, there would be at least 1.500 mosques around the UK, most of them being well-established religious and cultural centers. It is said that London itself has 478 mosques. Of these, the Borough of Newham has 56. There are at least 10 important mosques and/or Islamic centers in East Ham. Generally speaking, many of these Muslim institutions used to be Christian Churches [or pubs] that would be later converted into mosques [cf. www.mosquedirectory.uk].
Most of the mosques in East Ham have a “Madrasa” [or “Madrasah”] attached to them, this being a “college” or “school” for Islamic instruction. The purpose of such colleges is to teach Muslim children traditional Islamic languages and religious texts. Muslim religious culture is therefore consciously and systematically being perpetuated [cf. K.S.S. Seshan, op. cit.].
Muslim institutions in the locality – be these mosques, schools or whatever cultural hubs – have by now become a fully organic part of the environment. Both their physical presence in the locality and their routine functioning are in no way “foreign” to the overall atmosphere of what has accurately been dubbed “Little India”. Waghorne [op. cit.], who – as mentioned above in discussing the Murugan Temple – had visited East Ham in the 2000’s, notes such organic osmosis of all ethnic-based temples in the area as follows: “… and as we rounded the corner near the Mahalakshmi Temple, I spotted the “Tamul Madrasa” – a Muslim school for Tamils… I had the odd feeling that I was in India, as I was virtually the only non-Asian on the bus. One advantage for South Asians here appears to be that here the temples could occupy public space, with no objection that the ‘architectural integrity’ of the neighborhood is in jeopardy” [p. 211, my emph.]. On the other hand, and as we shall see further below, such organic osmosis within East Ham’s landscape would not exclude a string of tensions between various “cultural clusters”, and especially with respect to the Muslim versus non-Muslim interface.
East Ham’s largest mosque is the Jamia Masjid [cf., inter alia, K.S.S. Seshan, op. cit.]. Its full name is the Jamia Mosque and Islamic Centre Anjuman-e-Islamia [cf. the institution’s official website, www.jamiamosquenewham.org – much of the data that we shall be making use of here have been retrieved from this source]. According to the website, this mosque is “one of the first and is still the largest Jamia Mosque in Newham”. It is located along East Ham’s 266-270 High Street North, in the residential area of Manor Park.
The Jamia Masjid is affiliated to the Sunni Islam faith – as its “leaders” state: “Jamia Mosque and Islamic Centre Anjuman-e-Islamia has been spreading the light of the Quran and Sunnah since the 1980’s”.
As in the case of East Ham’s other religious institutions examined in this paper, we may say that the Jamia Masjid is itself managed by elite groupings of the Muslim community. As we shall see below, the role of such groupings vis-à-vis the Muslim grassroots reality in the locality is rather complex. Operating in an environment that can often be characterized by a certain degree of volatility and friction, Muslim elites can function either as arbitrators in a conflictual situation or as direct representatives of community interests, or may do both all at once. Their elite position is nonetheless such as to enable them to maintain a certain hegemonic aloofness from the popular elements of the locality.
We know that the mosque is currently being led by Hafiz Azad Sahib and Hafiz Ahmad Sahib. At least the former maintains a relatively closer contact with the community given his teaching functions for the mosque – he has been teaching “Hifz” classes [memorization of the Quran] for approximately 25 years. The mosque had been previously long served by Hazrat Allama Mufti Riaz Ahmad Samdani Sahib.
Very much reminiscent of other major temples in East Ham, the Jamia Masjid is run professionally by a Management Team – its committee members are those responsible for the management of the mosque’s day-to-day activities. It is composed of the President, the General Secretary, the Treasurer, the Welfare Secretary and the Maintenance Secretary. The mosque also has its own Board of Trustees, its members being Abdul Rehman, Ghulam M. Minhas and Khalid Masud.
There are signs that the hegemony of the mosque’s Management Team is being questioned – or has been questioned – by certain oppositional groupings within the East Ham Muslim community. These groupings have undertaken initiatives to depose the present leadership – apparently, it seems that such initiatives have not met with much success [although it is difficult to gauge the final impact of such ongoing internal dissent]. But we in any case see here a power struggle that is of much interest in itself – it allows us to examine the potential internal contradictions of a Sunni community that is sometimes assumed to be characterized by a solid cohesion. An examination of such power struggle also brings to light the types of problems faced by a Masjid community in the UK.
In October 2018, an East Ham Muslim resident by the name of Tajammul Ali organized a petition campaign against the Anjuman-e-Islamia Management Committee and the mosque’s Board of Trustees. Although the Trustee Abdul Rehman was presented as the pivotal target of the campaign, the petition would demand the resignation of everyone – en bloc – leading the Jamia Masjid. The petition would be signed by 545 residents [cf. https://www.change.org]. We shall here present some of the more important extracts of the lengthy document accompanying the signatures:
- The document begins by explaining the historical importance of the mosque: “Anjuman-e-Islamia Newham is one of the oldest mosques in London and has been serving the local community for over 40 years”.
- It then states people’s grievances in general terms before coming down to specifics – it writes: “Unfortunately, the current management team has been operating illegally and have ignored the community for far too long. Members of the community both young and old, have suffered” [their emph.].
- The document then goes on to enumerate what it calls “the major failings of the current trustees and management”. It lists 13 such failings, which it states are mere examples and all of which point to the unconstitutional practices of the incumbent elite.
- The first failing is recorded as follows: “They [the trustees and management] were never selected by the local community. They have been in power for over 20 years, having never been elected and refuse to hold future elections”.
- The second related failing refers to the fact that there have been “No Annual General Meetings”.
- The third failing is also related to undemocratic procedures and is suggestive of the practices of a “closed elite”: “No membership process. New membership is not being offered, even though many of us have been associated with the Mosque for 30+ years”.
- The fourth failing points to important grievances of an economic nature, even suggestive of corrupt practices: “The mosque accounts have never been audited. What is there to hide?”
- The fifth failing concerns an amalgam of both economic issues and general issues related to the Management Committee’s relations with the Muslim community: “No public consultation when spending over £10.000. No Jum’ah [Friday prayer] announcements. No sharing of designs/costs prior to works beginning. Spending hard-earned public donations without keeping the public informed or even aware. No opinion or advice sought from experts within the community. Currently requesting £50.000+ for a minaret design which the public has never seen!” [their emph.].
- The sixth failing refers to the wanton wastage of financial resources and the Committee’s disregard for the practical needs of the community: “Over £250.000 worth of public donations wasted on unnecessary cosmetic building works [mehraab, outside face front, roof] which remain unfinished for over two years! Over £100.000 wasted on further building works which did not have any planning permission. The public did not want their money wasted on decorative items when essential areas such as children’s education need addressing” [their emph.]. We may explain here that a “mehraab” [or “mihrab”] is a niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca.
- The seventh failing refers to what is deemed to be the inefficiency of the Management Committee – the document writes: “Mismanagement of properties and assets. Commercial properties on High Street North purchased over 15 years ago have never been used for the community and have been left vacant losing potential income worth £100.000 annually. Letters have been sent by individuals as well as community groups but no reply to date” [their emph.].
- The eighth failing, also mentioned in the points made above, concerns the Committee’s unwillingness to engage with the community: “All letters, questions, meetings, requests and attempts made by the public have been ignored. Why do they not engage with the community and address important issues?” [their emph.].
- The ninth point is especially important – it suggests that, since the mosque’s management structure is “closed” to outsiders, it does not allow for the “circulation” of elites within such structure [and cf. the third failing]. This has meant the exclusion and ultimate alienation of the younger members of the Muslim community, and especially as regards the young professionals. One could therefore see this conflict as part of a struggle to renew and revitalize the mosque’s leadership – and it could thus also be symptomatic of a more generalized clash between the old, anachronistic elements of the Muslim community and of that community’s up-and-coming young professionals, who probably feel marginalized [and yet, and as we shall see further below, there are particular mosques in East Ham that are especially popular with young Muslims]. The document puts this ninth failing as follows: “No opportunity for young professionals to serve the masjid. They have been neglected and left disillusioned, losing all connection with the masjid and community. Do they [the Management Committee] seek the advice of professionals and young members of the community?” [their emph.].
- The tenth failing is closely related to the one immediately above – it points to the old, anachronistic leadership of the Jamia Masjid and its inability to engage effectively with British law. The document states that “Many of the members are unable to communicate in English. How are they to comply with the law and charity commission guidance?” [their emph.]. Both the ninth and the tenth points of the document seem to be pressing for the “modernization” of the affairs of the mosque – this, however, tells us very little as regards the dogmatic or even fanatic insistence, on the part of various elements of the Masjid community, to stick to the tenets of the Sunni faith [as we shall see below, such insistence has often exacerbated tensions between the Muslim “cultural cluster” and other forces operating within East Ham].
- The eleventh failing suggests that the Jamia Masjid leadership is, not only “closed” unto itself, but also indifferent to – or ignorant of – the social problems of the community it is supposed to serve [and cf. the eighth failing]. The document states with reference to the Management Committee: “Total ignorance of social issues i.e. drugs, careers, violence, poverty, counseling, health, youth recreation, services for the elderly. No desire to provide communal services. Are they even capable of delivering such services?” [their emph.].
- The twelfth point made by the document is yet again an allusion to corrupt practices [cf. the fourth failing] – it asks: “Where did the Fitrana donations for the last 10 years go?” [their emph.]. We should note that Fitrana donations [or Zakat ul-Fitr] is a form of charity given to the poor of the community at the end of Ramadan.
- The final failing concerns conditions within the mosque building itself – inter alia, the document speaks of “… Pest infestation within masjid halls and rooms where children attend Madrassah [or Madrasa]”. And it generally demands to know “What is being done to address health and safety issues [within the mosque]?” [their emph.].
Having set out their list of grievances, the dissenters’ document closes by stating four specific demands. It also emphasizes the need to depose an entrenched elite grouping that runs the masjid “as if it is their own private member’s club”. The demands are enumerated as follows:
- “New membership available to regular attendees and members of the local community”.
- “Elected trustees who represent the local community”.
- “Educated, young, professional, capable committee members”.
- “Management which fully complies with the constitution and charity commission’s best practices”.
It is asserted that none of the above demands could possibly be met unless the leadership of the Jamia Masjid is made to resign – the document puts this as follows:
- “To restore public confidence we the community are calling for a complete change of the masjid management, administration and related processes”.
- “We the undersigned believe that the current trustees and committee of Anjuman-e-Islamia Newham have failed in their duties to serve the community and are illegally acting as administrators of the masjid”.
- “We demand that the following individuals resign and transition their roles to new, able and willing members of the local community:… [the names of the Trustees and of all members of the Management Committee are mentioned]”.
- “WE WANT YOU TO RESIGN, YOU DO NOT REPRESENT THE MASJID COMMUNITY!”
- “THE MASJID IS NOT A PRIVATE MEMBER’S CLUB BUT A COMMUNITY HUB FOR ALL!”
Now, while this petition campaign does – in itself – point to symptoms of internal conflict within East Ham’s Muslim community, those 545 signatures that were collected would obviously not be enough to effect a change in the leadership of the Jamia Masjid. Such leadership would continue to function as an arbitrator – or, perhaps more precisely, as an ideological mediator – for East Ham’s Muslim community whenever a conflictual situation would raise its head.
The role of the Trustees and of the Management Committee as ideological mediators in potentially explosive situations should not be undervalued – it would bolster their position both vis-à-vis the local and central apparatuses of the UK State and also in relation to the Muslim popular masses themselves. Within the terrain of various State apparatuses, there would be a solidification of the elite group’s leadership position by simply reproducing the ideological discourse of these apparatuses. Consider, for instance, the ideological collusion between the Jamia Masjid leaders and Newham’s Labour-controlled Borough Council [the latter having been under Labour control since its formation in 1964]: both parties would promote the ideology of religious “tolerance” and “inclusion”. The official website of the Jamia Masjid states explicitly:
- “From the outset the Mosque has been spreading the doctrine of peace, harmony, unity and inclusion”.
- “[The Mosque] is trying to further spread its role to bring about understanding of different faiths within the community in Newham”.
At the same time, that selfsame ideology would further solidify the position of the mosque’s leadership in relation to the Muslim popular masses: in the event of a crisis situation wherein these popular masses would wish to vent their specific religious sentiments over some burning issue of the day, the Jamia Masjid leadership would come to the protection of the community by again asserting its ideology of religious “tolerance” and “inclusion”. Paradoxically, this would not prevent these same leaders from taking on the role of direct representatives [or even direct instigators] of Muslim popular sentiments in the locality, depending on circumstances. In such cases, religious “tolerance” and “inclusion” would give way to the overt promotion of the special rights of a religious minority presumably discriminated against by, say, “Islamophobic” majorities. Thus, whichever the chosen ideological manoeuvre of the Trustees/Management Committee, the end-product would be one and the same – viz. the ultimate bolstering of their hegemonic position both within the mosque and in the locality [or in parts of that locality].
While religio-ideological manoeuvring would play a major role in bolstering the hegemony of the Jamia Masjid elite grouping, there would nonetheless be other factors that would further enhance its power and make it almost impossible to displace. Such factors – “economistic” in nature – are more or less expounded in the petition document discussed above and relate to the leadership’s direct access to the mosque’s income. In contrast to what is implied in the petition document, however, we do not at all wish to suggest that the leadership’s handling of mosque income is necessarily “corrupt”. It may or may not be – but the data we shall be presenting below should in any case be understood in the context of the various religio-economistic activities we have encountered in discussing, for instance, the Mahalakshmi Temple. As we shall see, there are quite a number of such religio-economistic activities within the Jamia Masjid that are reminiscent of activities in that Hindu temple.
We may, for instance, consider what happens within the Jamia Masjid regarding its “Hall Hire” and compare it directly to the case of the Mahalakshmi Temple’s usage of its own hall. In both cases, we observe the entanglement of religious practices with specifically “economistic” transactions. Under the rubric of “Hall Hire”, the Jamia Masjid website informs its Muslim devotees as follows: “The Mosque has a community hall for hire [usually hired for nikah, waleemah and aqeeqah ceremonies, Eesaal-uth-Thawab, Fatiha, Qul etc.] at a cost effective rate as follows: Hall hire: £50 per hour; Hall cleaning: £30 per event hire; Minimum hall hire is for 3 hours. In all circumstances a £100 deposit is required which will be refunded providing all conditions have been met on return of the hall…” In this announcement, we see that Muslim devotees have no choice but pay specific amounts of cash for the holding of religious practices that are, for them, both habitual and mandatory – these practices include:
- “Nikah” – the Muslim marriage ceremony.
- “Waleemah” [or “walima”] – the marriage banquet, performed after the “nikah”.
- “Aqeeqah” [or “aqiqah”] – the sacrificial slaughtering of an animal [a sheep] on the occasion of a child’s birth; the meat is consumed in a feast for family and friends, while some of it is distributed to the poor of the community.
- “Eesaal-uth-Thawab” [alternatively “isaal-e-thawabar”, or “isaal-e-sawaab”] – Quran gatherings where devotees perform a “virtuous act” and grant the reward to any person, alive or deceased.
- “Fatiha” – a ritual prayer, based on the opening “sura” [chapter] of the Quran.
- “Qul” – prayers for the deceased.
It is not only the hiring of the mosque’s hall for such types of religious activities that is entangled with economic transactions. As important in such transactions are the Jamia Masjid’s funeral services. Before we examine the manner in which such services are presented by the Management Committee, we should keep in mind that Muslim funeral procedures are subject to Sharia law, defining the expected behaviour of Muslims at the time of a person’s death [such code of conduct is followed by the vast majority of Muslims in the UK]. For instance, the body of the deceased must be buried as soon as possible; there are specific stipulations regarding the body’s washing and shrouding, etc. The Jamia Masjid’s funeral services, therefore, have to maintain a delicate balance between the tenets of Sharia law and the economic transactions that accompany such services.
Explaining that the Jamia Masjid provides “full funeral facilities”, the Management Committee presents its services by specifying the “basic charges” for each of these – we read:
- “£500.00 [without the coffin box within a radius of 4km of East London]”.
- “£600.00 [with a coffin box within a radius of 4km of East London]”.
- “[At least] £720.00 [for taking the deceased body abroad with a coffin box…]”.
The Management Committee then goes on to explain which particular services are included in the charges specified above:
- “Transporting the deceased from hospital to the Mosque mortuary [located next to the Mosque]”.
- “Washing/Ghusal of the deceased”.
- “Wrapping the deceased in a white coffin cloth or preparation of the body for cargo”.
- “Transport the deceased to the family home”.
- “Transport the deceased to the local Mosque for namaz Janaza [funeral prayer]”.
- “Transport the deceased to the local cemetery or Heathrow airport”.
The Management Committee also specifies charges for the use of the mosque’s available “cool rooms”:
- “£20 per day/night for Newham if the Mosque service is used”.
- “£35 per day/night for Newham if the Mosque service is not used”.
- “£70 per day/night for outside of Newham and if the Mosque service is not used”.
Finally, the Management Committee adds a number of clarificatory points with respect to its funeral service charges in general so that any misunderstanding be avoided: “Please note the charges are not negotiable and are fixed for the whole or any part of the service. These charges do not include any charges by the cemetery themselves [sic]”.
Yet again, the use of the mosque’s funeral services is – for at least a segment of East Ham’s Muslim community – both habitual and mandatory. Usage of such services therefore constitutes a steady flow of income for the Management Committee, allowing it to both sustain the necessary funeral facilities and consolidate its position as provider of an indispensible ritual procedure following the death of a Muslim resident.
Based on the above, one may thus far be of the impression that the Jamia Masjid’s Trustees/Management Committee is an elite body that has managed to impose itself on a passive East Ham Muslim community. Its vanguard role in religio-ideological matters [which are usually of prime importance for the Muslim mindset] as also its function as a systematic provider of mandatory religio-cultural services, certainly seems to confirm such imposed authority over the Muslim rank-and-file. That, however, is only one dimension of the reality. It is as important to emphasize that the Jamia Masjid is a living hub for East Ham’s Muslim community. As the mosque’s website itself admits: “[The Mosque] is a community hub for men, women and children…”
The Jamia Masjid organizes a series of community activities which involve the direct engagement of East Ham’s Muslim residents. While it is the organizational apparatus of the mosque that does the “organizing” of these activities, the latter would simply never happen in the absence of rank-and-file active engagement. It is this vital engagement that renders the Jamia Masjid a “community hub” for various segments of East Ham residents, be these men, women, youth or children. It is absolutely important to note that such “community hub” is characterized by a deep internal unity cemented by the ideology of the “deen”. All of the activities undertaken by the community are meant to engender and promote that specific ideology. Within this ideological paradigm of “deen”, therefore, all Muslims – be these of whatever elite or whichever rank-and-file – find themselves unified, at least in a spiritual sense. Before we examine the various activities undertaken within the mosque, it would be useful to say a few words about this all-powerful and all-inclusive ideology known as “deen” in the complex world of Islam. To put it in a nutshell, we may say that “deen” constitutes an absolutely total “way of life” or a total “system of life” – it is a deeply essentialist ideology prescribing a specific type of behaviour both for the individual and for society as a whole. Academic authorities on Islam have this to say regarding the ideology of “deen”: “this concept embodies within itself perspectives on existence, life, society and sociopolitical system”. The concept of “deen”, they continue, “renders Islam much more than a religion. Islam emerges as a complete and competing ideology and a system of life and society… Thus, Islam emerges as a superior ideology towering over other ‘isms’ and the resultant socio-political systems” [cf. Md. Jahirul Haq, “Deen in Islam: A conceptual analysis”, International Journal of Islamic Thoughts, vol. 4, no. 2, year not stated – we need to mention here that the IJITS is a refereed academic journal published by the Bangladesh Institute of Islamic Thought].
It is within such ideological worldview that the activities of the Jamia Masjid have to be understood – all or most activities engaging the Muslim community confirm the omnipresence of “deen” religio-cultural practices.
The first set of activities organized by the Jamia Masjid and fully engaging the Muslim rank-and-file concern adult male and female members of the community. Some of these activities are the following:
- “Zikr” gatherings – taking place on Thursdays, these are a ritualized practice whereby Muslim men and women materialize their “remembrance” of and complete “surrender” to Allah.
- “Dars-e-Quran” gatherings – these take place every Saturday with the object of explaining the Quran. The mosque’s website extends its invitation to Muslim men and women as follows: “Come to obtain a better understanding of the Quran beyond just its translation. A brief tafseer [explanation] of the Quran is given to help us better understand the true purpose behind the verses…”
- General education programme on the Muslim community’s “deen” – this is a continuous education programme on various aspects of “deen”.
- General education programme on Islamic Law [Fiqh] – sessions take place every Tuesday, following “Zuhar” [or the noon prayer].
- Question and answer session on spiritual matters – such sessions take place after “Maghrib” [or the prayer just after sunset].
The second set of activities organized by the Jamia Masjid concentrate exclusively on Muslim women. An important example of such activities is the weekly Islamic class for adult females, taking place on Wednesdays.
Perhaps the most important set of activities organized by the mosque concern East Ham’s Muslim youth and children. These activities are above all of an educational nature. Of course, such educational activities are all focused on the training of Muslim youngsters in matters of Islamic spirituality – viz. the spiritual concept of “deen”. It is also very important to mention that the prime object of these activities is to identify and nurture future “leaders” of the Muslim community. Given such object, the mosque’s educational activities for Muslim youngsters are structured in a strictly hierarchical manner.
With respect to being admitted to the mosque’s classes for children, the website informs the community as follows: “Currently new admissions are processed on Mondays, an application form is filled in [and] thereafter the child is assessed and then he or she is allocated a class according to their current level or ability. The admission fee is £15.00 per child” [my emph.]. Apart from the inevitable economic dimension of this activity, we also see here – perhaps much more importantly – that the established admission procedure is such as to facilitate the hierarchical nature of the educational process.
The hierarchical structure of the mosque’s educational system is further evident in the following quote regarding the organization of classes – according to the website: “Each class enjoys the privilege of a separate and dedicated class room [sic] hence channeling focus, attention and concentration of the children towards their lesson. The classes are divided and categorized according to level or ability. For example the Qaa’idah classes [teaching children how to recite the Quran] are separate and the Quran classes are separate as well as the Hafiz class [learning the Quran by heart] being separate” [my emph.].
The mosque’s educational activities for Muslim youngsters take place daily – according to the website: “The children are taught a structured syllabus that is timetabled for a daily basis [sic]”. Naturally, boys and girls are taught separately. The subjects they study include the following:
- “Tajweed” – this is a basic subject teaching children a specific set of rules for the correct pronunciation of the letters of the Arabic alphabet [obviously a prerequisite for the later recitation and memorization of the Quran].
- “Aqaa’id” – while the above subject focuses on phonetics, “Aqaa’id” goes on to introduce children to the actual content of Islam – here, they study the fundamental beliefs [or creed] of their religion.
- “Seerah” – this is a subject meant to function as a counterbalance to that of “Aqaa’id”. One may assume that the Islamic creed taught in “Aqaa’id” – and as is probably the case with all creeds – could be rather abstract for a young child. Thus, precisely so as to give flesh and blood to such abstract spirituality, children also go on to study the subject of “Seerah”. This is a subject with a very concrete object, teaching children about the life of Prophet Muhammad. “Seerah” teaches them about the prophet’s day-to-day life, his role as a political, social and religious leader, even his characteristics and mannerisms. The purpose of the subject is to help Muslim children imbibe the life of the prophet as a role model meant to be emulated.
- “Fiqh” – this subject builds onto that of “Seerah” by moving from the mere emulation of the prophet to the study of Islamic Law as such. By this stage, Muslim children come to understand that both the Islamic creed and the emulation of their prophet constitute an all-consuming, total system of life – viz. the “deen”. Here, they are introduced to the Muslim world in all of its manifestations as structured by Sharia Law. Children are thereby taught that all aspects of their life shall henceforth have to reflect this superior, all-encompassing socio-religious ideology.
- “Adaab” – this subject includes almost all of the above but now teaches Islamic Law in a highly concrete manner, focusing specifically on the individual. Children are here taught very particular codes of personal behaviour. Prescribed behavioural codes include, inter alia: how to eat and drink, how to take care of their body [including the question of circumcision for boys], relations with the opposite sex, and so on.
Generally speaking, the Jamia Masjid’s educational sessions for youngsters are based on the “Dars-e-Nizami [Alim or Alima]” teaching philosophy, it being the usual study curriculum or study system used in any traditional Islamic institution [the origins of such system may be traced back to the 18th century Indian subcontinent]. The term “Alim” [or its plural, “Alima”] basically means an all-knowing Islamic scholar, and which confirms the Jamia Masjid’s central most important objective regarding all of its educational activities – viz. [and as already mentioned above] the nurturing of Islamic leaders in the community, or the training of Muslims who can lead the community “by excellent example” [cf. https://www.alhashim.org].
The importance of leadership training is clearly evident in many of the texts published in the mosque’s website – we read, for instance: “We also have a [sic] dedicated hifz [or “hafiz”] classes for the memorization of the Quran taught by Hafiz Azad Sahib who has been teaching Hifz for approximately 25 years producing a number of Huffaz in the local area. Alhumdullilah [“praise be to God”] two youngsters, who have been tutored by him have been leading the local community for Taraweeth Salaah [extra night prayers] during the month of Ramadan for several years now” [my emph.]. The mosque, therefore, prides itself for having “produced” a couple of “Huffaz” to lead the local community spiritually – the apparently limited number of youngsters the mosque was ultimately able to train points to the long and strenuous process whereby a youngster becomes a “Huffaz”. We should note that the “Huffaz” is a “guardian” of the community – what sets him apart from the rest of the Muslims is that he has learnt the Quran by heart [he is therefore a “memorizer”]. It should also be emphasized that the role of a “Huffaz” in the everyday life of the Muslim community is both complex and of vital social significance – research work undertaken around this dimension of Muslim life has found that a “Huffaz” influences the everyday work, life and perceptions of community members. The latter are guided so as to always “keep the Quran fixed in memory” and to remain focused on “the central importance of Ramadan” [cf., inter alia, Bill Gent, “The hidden Olympians: the role of huffaz in the English Muslim community”, Contemporary Islam, Issue 1, 2016].
Finally, it is also interesting to note that the Jamia Masjid offers local Muslims the opportunity to train themselves in martial arts. More specifically, they are introduced to the Silat [Indo-Malay] martial arts training system. Those who participate in such classes – which usually take place on Sundays – are both boys and girls from the age of seven to sixteen. While the emphasis seems to be on youngsters, there are also classes for males over the age of sixteen.
The provision of Silat martial arts training sessions by the Jamia Masjid should not surprise us. Firstly, it is a tradition that has been transplanted directly from the geo-cultural area of the Indonesian Archipelago [remember similar cultural transplantations on the part of East Ham’s other ethnic “cultural clusters” such as those of the Sikhs]. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, most Silat styles practiced by Muslims in countries such as Malaysia are Sharia-compliant. In fact, it is said that Islamic principles are woven into Silat martial arts practices. According to one Muslim trained in Silat: “… we are taught in Silat that all ‘gerak’ [movement] belongs to Allah” [cf. Daliah Merzaban, “Martial arts and the journey to Islam”, Huffpost, updated 02.12.2011]. According to the mosque’s website, the Silat martial arts lessons are meant to improve the Muslim personality by nurturing the following traits: “awareness, balance, communication, concentration, confidence, co-ordination, discipline, sensitivity, self-defence”.
Having presented some of the basic practices of the Jamia Masjid, we may now move on to yet another Muslim establishment operating in East Ham, that of the Sri Lankan Muslim Community of East London [SLMC EL]. This is an especially important and well-known organization as it happens to represent the locality’s Sri Lankan Muslims as a “sub-cultural cluster” within that locality’s wider Muslim “religio-cultural cluster”. Functioning as an umbrella socio-religious organization and specifically serving the needs of Sri Lankan Muslims, it nonetheless seems to be closely associated with East Ham’s extensive network of mosques or mosque-related institutions. It is also affiliated to the Council of Sri Lankan Muslim Organizations UK [COSMOS UK – cf. https://www.cosmosuk.net].
The SLMC EL’s official website explains the reason for its establishment as follows: “It is to be highlighted here that according to some statistics [the] majority of Sri Lankan Muslims live in Newham compared to any other borough in the UK, so it was a timely need to form such an organization to enhance and educate the community” [my emph. – most of the data we shall be making use of here have been retrieved from the establishment’s website, cf. https://www.slmc.org.uk].
As to the organization’s foundation, its website further informs us: “[The] Sri Lankan Muslim Community of East London… was found [sic] in 2008 by a group of Sri Lankan men with the aim of serving and bringing up [sic] the community in all aspects, and also to empower our next generation”. As is the case with all such types of organizations in the UK, the SLMC EL is registered as a “charity”. The organization’s building is located along 16-18 Pilgrim’s Way in East Ham.
Being a social organization with an essentially religious orientation, the SLMC EL organizes most of its activities around “Salat” times [Islamic prayer times] – it focuses such activities around matters that are of direct concern to East Ham’s Sri Lankans. On the other hand, and as in the case of the Jamia Masjid, its leaders attempt to function as ideological mediators vis-à-vis other “cultural clusters” in the area, both generally and whenever the need arises. Very much reminiscent of the Jamia Masjid elite, therefore, the SLMC EL leadership articulates an ideology of “religious harmony” within the locality of East Ham [as also within the Borough of Newham as a whole]. This type of mediative ideology is evident in the manner that the organization presents one of its “main aims and objectives” – its website speaks of “The promotion of religious harmony for the benefit of the public by: 1. Educating the Muslims in different religious beliefs including an awareness of their distinctive features and their common ground to promote good relations between persons of different faiths. 2. Promoting knowledge and mutual understanding and respect of the beliefs and practices of different religious faiths” [my emph.]. Interestingly, we see here that, while the SLMC EL wishes to benefit “the public” at large [viz. whichever non-Muslim “religio-cultural clusters” in the area], it nonetheless aims to achieve its objective via an introversive, self-focused educational process whereby it is the Muslim devotees themselves that are informed of the beliefs and practices of non-Muslims.
Quite in keeping with its mediative function, the SLMC EL presents its services for Muslim Sri Lankans in a manner that is presumably meant to include the rest of the residents of East Ham. With respect to recreational services, for instance, the website states the organization’s objectives as follows: “The provision of facilities for recreation and other leisure time occupation of persons who have need of such facilities by reason of their youth, age, infirmity or disablement, financial hardship or social and economic circumstances or for the public at large in the interest of social welfare and within the object of improving the condition of life said persons [sic]” [my emph.].
The SLMC EL’s intentions to offer its educational services to the community are presented in a similar – more or less “inclusivist” – vein. We read that the organization intends “To act as a resource for young people up to the age of 21 living in east London by providing advice, assistance and organizing programmers’ [sic] of physical, educational and other activities as a means of: 1. Advancing in life and helping young people by developing their skills, capacities and capabilities to enable them to participate in society as independent, mature and responsible individuals. 2. Advancing education. 3. Relieving unemployment”.
The approach in this case is not only suggestive of “inclusivism” – apparently, its content is also particularly “secular” in tone. As presented here, the organization’s educational activities are not meant to prepare youth in terms of any deeply religious “deen” – rather, what is of importance is to help youngsters avoid unemployment and to enable them to “participate in society” as responsible citizens. In keeping with this line of thinking, the organization’s educational services include “English, maths and science tuition”. At this point, no mention is made of Islam as a way of life, and there is no obvious reference to Sri Lankan youth.
And yet, the SLMC EL’s “inclusivist” and/or “secularist” approach has to be understood as a pragmatic, “instrumentalist” ideological discourse in a potentially hostile world of clashing “cultural clusters”. The case of the Sri Lankan Diaspora in the UK has been especially volatile and at times explosive, leading to a deep sense of vulnerability on the part of its various community members. The UK’s Council of Sri Lankan Muslim Organizations [to which, as noted above, the SLMC EL is affiliated] gives us a clear picture of just such vulnerability. It notes, for instance: “Ever since the War in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, many hate groups emerged… which targeted the Muslim community in particular. The SL Muslim Diaspora in UK felt the need to do what it must to protect the interests and rights of the SL Muslims” [cf. https://www.cosmosuk.net/about, my emph]. It was precisely so as to “protect the interests and rights” of Muslim Sri Lankans that both COSMOS UK and the SLMC EL decided in 2012 to avoid extremist practices and promote a policy of “integration”.
But that which had to be “protected” was something absolutely inviolable for both the SLMC EL and the community it served in its locality – viz. one’s sense of identity as a Sri Lankan Muslim. Especially as regards the young Sri Lankan Muslims of East London, these had to achieve a “special awareness” of who they really were, and programs have been established by the SLMC EL to achieve such goal. Various activities were organized to facilitate local “youth engagement” – but it is of importance to emphasize that all such engagement would be informed by what is known as “Tarbiya” in the Islamic tradition.
The SLMC EL website mentions a number of examples of such type of “youth engagement” aimed at instilling the religio-cultural ideology of “Tarbiya” in Muslim youth. For instance, it notes: “[The SLMC EL] is pleased to announce the arrangement of [a] children’s program for Boys which includes Tarbiya, Team building & outdoor football event[s] for boys booked at [the] University of East London”. It is generally said that “Tarbiya is an Arabic word that means development, increase, growth, and loftiness. In Islam it means the development and training of people in various aspects [of life]… in the light of Islamic teachings” [cf. https://www.alhijrahschool.co.uk]. This seems to tally well with the SLMC EL’s stated aim “to enhance and educate the community” or – similarly – to work “with the aim of… bringing up [sic] the community in all aspects [of life]”. We should also note, within this context, the SLMC EL’s cooperation with Newham’s University of East London – this is of some interest for a number of reasons. One such is that this university is a campus neighbour of the Newham College of Further Education, about which we shall be saying much regarding its role in the East Ham locality, as also about that college’s deep “infiltration” by students belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic extremist organization.
The SLMC EL would pursue its “special awareness” project in a variety of other ways, some of which have had the distinct intention of maintaining and nurturing the Sri Lankan Muslim community’s close ties with their original homeland, Sri Lanka. We mention here two such cases, as presented in the organization’s website:
- “Fithra [Zakathul Fithr] collection and distribution to four needy places in Sri Lanka”. In this case, the SLMC EL organizes the collection of “essential alms” from the community and the distribution of these to certain areas of Sri Lanka. “Zakathul Fithr” is compulsory charity during Ramadan – it is said to “perfect” the days of fasting [cf. https://www.island.lk/2008].
- “Lobbying issues related to Sri Lanka & Muslim Ummah”. The term “Ummah”, as is well known, refers to the whole community of Islamic people.
While at least these two types of activities help maintain close links with Sri Lanka, the SLMC EL also organizes events promoting or protecting the Muslim identity generally. For instance, and in keeping with the organization’s pursuance of its “special awareness” project, it may often invite Islamic scholars from overseas to lecture members of the community on various aspects of Islam. The much-felt need to protect Muslim identity within the UK as a whole has also taken the form of organizing “signature campaigns” against what the organization deems to be symptoms of “Islamophobia” in the country [presumably, it here coordinates its initiatives with those of COSMOS UK].
To end these general observations regarding East Ham’s SLMC EL, we may simply note that the organization also attempts to “organize” the community by sending mass text messages to Muslim residents whenever the need arises – its website speaks of “Important events & community information alert by SMS”.
In our examination of religious practices amongst East Ham’s Muslim “cultural cluster” [or, more accurately, “clusters”], we have thus far concentrated on the functioning of Muslim institutions in the locality. We have selected to focus on two of these, the one being a mosque and the other a community organization. We deliberately chose the Jamia Masjid due to its long history in East Ham, and we presented the SLMC EL given the historical importance of Sri Lankan Muslims in the area.
But it would now be of much interest to move away from such an examination of organized institutions and rather attempt to enter the mindset of some young Muslim devotee living in the kind of religio-cultural milieu that we have been describing. It would be useful, in other words, to listen to the experiences of such “generic type” as these have been lived in London’s “inner city” localities and to try to understand what it was that made such “type” turn to Islam. By implication, our case study shall focus on someone who was not born into an Islamic family but rather converted to that faith [or “reverted” to Islam, as Muslims would put it – viz. became a “sahaba”].
To do this, we shall briefly examine the case of a fairly young man – now going by the name of Muslim Belal – who spoke about his life in one of East Ham’s mosques in 2014. Before we consider what that young Muslim had to relate to his devoted audience at the time, we should first of all say a few words about the venue where this speech was given. This particular mosque is of special interest as it is said to be very popular amongst East Ham’s young Muslims – it is therefore no accident at all that Belal would chose this place as his venue. We are referring to East Ham’s Masjid Bilal, a mosque affiliated to the United Kingdom Islamic Mission [UKIM], an organizational network coordinating 50-60 mosques around the UK. UKIM’s work concentrates, inter alia, on “revert Muslims” in the UK, and more so on Muslim youth “reverts” – it is therefore typical of this umbrella organization to have its own “Youth Wing” [cf. https://www.ukim.org].
As implied, the Masjid Bilal in East Ham concentrates much of its work on youthful Muslims, which explains its popularity amongst them. When Muslim Belal spoke there on March 26, 2014, the mosque’s hall was packed to capacity with young people, all of whom listened to the speaker with the greatest of intensity [the person who presented Belal to his audience would himself observe that there are “a lot of youth here”]. When Belal had completed his long speech, all or most of his audience came over to him and very warmly embraced him. Many wished to be photographed standing side by side with Belal. Of course, and as we shall see, this is quite explainable: Belal is a “revert” who had once been a rather popular “rapper”, amongst other things [the mosque had advertized the coming evening event as follows: “Masjid Bilal brings you a special event with Br Muslim Belal. The ex-rapper… will be talking about his journey to Islam…”].
We may now present some of the basic points made by Muslim Belal in his speech [cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuvoH5XEpZk, 26.03.2014]:
- Belal tells his audience that he was born into a Christian Jamaican family in 1982 [he was therefore 32 years old at the time of his speech]. His original name was Ashley Anthony Chin. His parental grandfather was Chinese, and hence the particular surname.
- As a child, Belal grew up in south London’s Brixton neighbourhood. There, he was raised in a Council Estate. As is well known, it is mainly poor, ethnic minority groups that make use of such accommodation provided by the UK’s Councils [cf. Maarten van Ham & David Manley, “Social Housing Allocation, Choice and Neighbourhood Ethnic Mix in England”, Centre of Housing Research, University of St. Andrews, 2009].
- Belal’s father abandoned his family when the child was four years old. His mother, who would become an alcoholic, did not work. The now one-parent family would live in great poverty.
- It was not, however, only Belal’s family that experienced such dire socio-economic circumstances. Belal tells his audience that all or most families living in Brixton’s Council Estates would be stricken by poverty [remember we are here speaking of the mid 1980’s].
- Such ethnic minority groups would experience life in London in an absolutely unique manner – theirs was a life that was [and so remains] completely alien to that of the “City type” or to that of the privileged suburbs that feed the Central Business District with its elite employees [we shall devote a forthcoming paper on the “Square Mile” and the mindset of its elite groupings]. Belal’s words are absolutely revealing in this context – he tells his audience: “I lived in a poor estate. And that is what it’s like in London” [my emph.].
- Belal further confirms what we have been arguing all along – viz. the de facto racial or ethnic segregation cutting across many “cultural clusters” in London’s “inner city” localities [cf., especially, Paper 3]. Interestingly, however, Belal chooses to view such segregation as a reality essentially imposed on ethnic minorities by external forces such as the UK State. Nonetheless, this is what he has to say: “They put all the similar people in a similar area. They was [sic] never going to put us in a house in Chelsea. They put all the poor Jamaican people – even by culture – they separate us… They put the Jamaicans all in Brixton and surrounding areas… But when you go over to Peckham, it’s like you are in Lagos, Nigeria… I remember coming out the train station in Upton Park once, I thought I was in India [audience laughs]… They put all the different cultures and races in certain areas…” [my emph.]. Apart from Belal’s insistence on putting such segregation squarely at the door of the UK State, his description of such de facto racial/ethnic segregation nonetheless remains incredibly accurate [judging by our own findings].
- The nexus of economic, social and cultural circumstances would lead Belal – as so many other youths experiencing similar circumstances in London’s “inner city” neighbourhoods – to drop out from school at the age of 15.
- Although Belal would drop out of school, he would nonetheless not choose to land whatever job – something which could be said to confirm the “cultural worklessness” we have examined elsewhere [cf. Paper 3]. Belal put it to his audience at the mosque as follows: “In my area… everyone was broke… so I was never motivated to go out there and work…” [my emph.].
- As an unemployed youth belonging to a particular “ethnic culture” with its own mores and conventions, Belal would find himself “thrown” into a milieu characteristic of many “inner city” neighbourhoods. Such milieu would present him with very specific “role models” – and yet, it would be precisely such “models” that would, perforce, introduce him to the world of local crime. Belal explains this social mutation with an accuracy that could dazzle the best of sociologists – he describes things as follows: “Who was my role-models [sic]? It was the people who seemed cool… they looked successful, they looked happy, it was the people who was [sic] making money, but it was [sic] making money from criminal activities… the drug dealers, the robbers… I was raised in London, this is our home, this is who we look up to, this is what we want [i.e. to become, not exactly criminals, but rappers]… And when I was out in the street the closest thing to it [becoming a rapper] was those criminals…” [my emph.].
- Belal would come to spend his youth immersed in ethnic minority “gang culture” [we shall be examining such “inner city” gang milieu in a forthcoming paper]. It would be precisely via his local gang connections that Belal would become somewhat popular amongst ethnic minority audiences as a rapper. Members of that gang would set up a “musical collective” called SMS, or “South Man Syndicate”.
- It would be in 2002, when Belal was almost twenty years old, that he would convert to Islam, as also turn away from the world of crime. It would of course be then that he would adopt the Muslim name, Belal. Following his conversion to Islam – and perhaps that of other members of the local gang – the SMS “musical collective” would be renamed “South Muslim Soldiers”.
- For Belal, converting to Islam would be a watershed moment in his life. He would tell his audience that taking his “Shahada” [declaration of faith] was, not only the most important step in his life, it was in fact the only important step.
- Henceforth, his understanding of life itself would undergo a dramatic change. He would tell his audience that life is “nothing” – it is only “a mosquito’s wing”.
- Completely alienated from all this-worldly affairs, the only “space” he would now be able to identify with would be the mosque. As he put it: “I feel at home in a Masjid” [my emph.].
- His conversion would also mean – and naturally so – a total renouncement of his Christian background. He would overtly reject the Christian God – as he would put it: “There is no deity worthy of worship except Allah, who is One – He has no partners, no father, no son…”
- Belal’s rejection of Christianity would also go hand-in-hand with a total rejection of whatever is related to the Western way of life. He would go so far as to denounce all music – whichever type – as “pollution”.
- He would thus go on to denounce all forms of clubbying, all types of partying, etc., as “pollution”. This would of course even include birthday parties.
- Belal would further denounce whatever is remotely related to the Western cuisine – this would naturally include eating out at McDonald’s.
- For Belal, living in London – which he contemptuously describes as the “city of lights” – has a pollutive effect on one’s self. Much more importantly, “learning London’s culture” means “getting polluted”. The implication is obvious: as a Muslim, Belal would be hostile to whatever process of “assimilation”, “integration” or “acculturation” within the Western, British way of life. His mindset, therefore, could fully explain the relative autonomy and cultural insularity of the “religio-cultural cluster” to which he belongs.
- To the extent that “learning London’s culture” is akin to “getting polluted”, Belal feels that simply being in that “city of lights” makes of him [as also all of his Muslim brothers] a “victim of the system” [as he tells his audience]. That would suggest that we are talking here of a religio-cultural ideological paradigm that is essentially “antisystemic”.
- Finally, we should also note that Belal would, at some stage following his conversion, go to Egypt so as to further his studies on the teachings of Islam. His stay in Egypt would prove quite – not to say very – disappointing. The reason for this is quite revealing as regards his understanding of Islam – he found his Muslim brothers in Egypt all too “lukewarm”, too “Westernized”, too “secular”.
One may draw the general conclusion that the mindset of a Muslim Belal can be potentially conflictual or hostile towards the Western cultural “system” [Muslims should see themselves as “victims of the system”]. Such conflictuality would be especially activated in cases where the likes of a Belal would feel threatened by whatever elements of Western culture are, not only seen to “pollute” their own religio-cultural paradigm, but are also seen to be thrust upon them. This suggests that the Belal mindset would not necessarily be oppositional vis-à-vis Western cultural patterns unless directly provoked [or forced to “learn” such culture]. In the absence of such provocation, one could say that the Belal mindset would simply constitute an alternative cultural paradigm willing to coexist – though from a relative distance [segregation] – with what it considers cultural “pollution”. One could say that it is generally such coexistence that characterizes day-to-day relationships between East Ham’s different “cultural clusters”. Of course, the influx of immigrants in the area has certainly aggravated inter-ethnic relations – as even Wikipedia notes: “… this influx of immigrants has led to community relations issues. In the East End of London, there is a lot of tension in the area around East Ham, Barking and Dagenham between Muslims and non-Muslims” [cf. “Islam in London”].
Such tensions are nonetheless contained, if only because “cultural clusters” maintain their relative autonomy with respect to one another. But it is precisely when such autonomy is impinged upon – when a Muslim “cultural cluster” is asked to compromise its own norms and values – that the conflictual dimension is unleashed. We may therefore say that the conflictual dimension is always there as a latent force that can become active given certain specific circumstances amounting to provocation. We shall here turn to an examination of just such cases that have unfolded within the neighbourhoods of East Ham and its environs.
One important instance where East Ham’s Muslim community would become definitely embroiled in such conflict – unleashing its sentiments at a grassroots level and in defense of its quintessential religio-cultural values – took place in 2017-2018. As we shall see, the triggering of such conflictual dimension would also attract the direct intervention of the more organized elements of East Ham’s Muslim community. The matter would further trigger the engagement of other Muslim organizations operating at a nationwide level.
What was it that would trigger the conflict? In June 2017, the headteacher of an East Ham Primary School would decide to ban the wearing of the hijab by Muslim school pupils below the age of eight. She would also decide to stop Muslim children from fasting during school days. The ensuing reactions to this double decision tell us much about the collective mindset of East Ham’s Muslim “cultural cluster” [or “clusters”]. Very much reminiscent of Belal’s own mindset, East Ham’s Muslim community would simply – and consciously – refuse to “learn” Western cultural norms as practiced in schools. It would be useful to examine this case in some detail – in so doing, it is important to see this cultural clash from an absolutely “neutral” stance, in the sense that both cultural paradigms were locked in a struggle for their own discrete legitimacy.
The East Ham school we are referring to – and which has a Muslim demographic make-up – is St. Stephen’s Primary School, located in Upton Park, along Whitfield Road. Its headteacher, Ms. Neena Lall, would defend the legitimacy of the changes she had introduced to the school [viz. the double banning] by arguing that these would “help integrate children into British society” [cf. Sophie Morton, “Muslim campaign group calls for end to East Ham school’s hijab ban for under eights”, Newham Recorder, updated 17.01.2018, my emph]. Of course, the headmistress was clearly implying that the Muslim schoolchildren at her school were not, at least up until then, “integrated”.
The phenomenon of non-integration amongst East Ham’s Muslim children had been verified by the headteacher herself following an impromptu survey which she had conducted at her school – the Newham Recorder notes: “In the interview [given by the headteacher] she said that a few years ago she asked the children to put their hands up if they thought they were British. ‘Very few’ said they did” [cf. Tom Horton, “Petition against East Ham school’s hijab ban for under 8s gets 8.000 signatures in two days”, updated 17.01.2018, my emph.]. The headteacher’s findings, of course, raise extremely important questions which we have attempted to deal with throughout this project – viz. the extent to which the “cultural clusters” of London’s “inner cities” are alien to “Britishness” per se, or the extent to which a new form of “Britishness” has been “invented” by UK’s ethnic minority groups. Neena Lall seems to be suggesting that the very notion of “Britishness” is something alien to the average mindset of Muslim children living in a locality such as East Ham. In any case, it was this type of phenomenon within St. Stephen’s Primary School that would prompt the headmistress to initiate measures aimed at “integration”.
Perhaps unfairly and with some tone of irony, The Spectator would present events at St. Stephen’s Primary School as follows: “Here’s what the monstrous school did. It wanted to ban girls under the age of eight from wearing the hijab… Five year-old girls in a hijab stood apart. Their gender identity, and the news they possessed some kind of dangerous allure [in the dirty minds of some of the men who would constrain them at least] were imposed while they were still little more than toddlers. The school is not anti-hijab. The deputy head has chosen to wear it in middle age. But, it [the school’s governors] argued, there was every difference between adult women making a decision of their own volition, and highly conservative religious authorities enforcing their dogmas on children. A girl who has no choice about sexual stereotyping is unlikely to grow up to sail through A-Levels and go on to a good job. St. Stephen’s may be in the East End but it is just a few miles away from the wealth of central London and the City. The school was ambitious. It did not see why working-class girls should not aspire to work somewhere better than Aldi [viz. the German supermarket chain in the locality]” [cf. Nick Cohen, “Two Muslim cultures are emerging in Britain”, https://blogs.spectator.co.uk, 22.01.2018, my emph. – all quotes from The Spectator are taken from this article].
According to The Spectator, the double banning had one primary aim in mind, and that was to put the educational interests of the pupils above whatever religio-cultural practices – the magazine continues: “It [the school] thought, too, that the fasts of Ramadan were too much for children. They fell asleep or went into dizzy spells when they were meant to be studying. Its ban on the hijab and fasting on school premises were done to put the interests of the child first, as every saccharine-coated commentator on social affairs says schools must. But not, it seems, when the children are Muslim”.
We should say that this article was published right in the midst of the culture clash that had been unfolding in East Ham – and which was a localized conflict that would ultimately draw nationwide attention. The Spectator, a “conservative” publication, would be adopting a rational, secular stance meant to uphold the standards of the British educational process. At least in some indirect sense, its position was typical of a “Britishness” that wished to “integrate” Muslims into the British way of doing things. Without at all belittling the Muslim community, it would nonetheless be pushing for a more balanced approach between the needs of religion and those of secular education [and it would thereby be attempting to “protect” the future of Muslim children]. It is in this sense that one could describe The Spectator’s stance as “rational”. But no “rationality” is absolute in itself or supreme vis-à-vis other forms of existing “rationality”. The Islamic mindset provides its own, internally coherent and perfectly functional “rationale”. And hence the clash.
It would be such Muslim rationale that the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK [MPACUK] would express in its total rejection of the initiatives undertaken by the St. Stephen’s Primary School. Imran Shah, who is a spokesman for the MPACUK, would see the motivation behind the double banning in a completely different manner. He would make a number of salient points, and all of which may be directly contrasted both to the position held by Neena Lall and to that of The Spectator:
- Shah would argue that the school had banned the hijab “because they fundamentally believe the hijab is at odds with being British” [cf. Sophie Morton, op. cit., Newham Recorder, 17.01.2018, my emph.].
- Further, the banning had been imposed because “they think it [the hijab] is a sign of increasing Islamization” [ibid., my emph.].
- Regarding the issue of “integration” as raised by the headteacher, Shah would retort as follows: “if it’s about integration, are they going to ban Jewish and Sikh religious wear based on being British?” It should be noted that Shah’s wording at this point is slightly ambiguous – he obviously means to say that, as in the case of the hijab, Jewish or Sikh religious wear could also be taken to be at odds with “being British”. And, if that be so, these should be banned as well.
- Quite controversially, however, Shah would go on to unilaterally demand that school policies and practices must reflect those of the community – as he put it: “Schools have an obligation to ensure their uniform does not cause a barrier between them and the community. They have done just that and their policy should be withdrawn immediately” [my emph.]. The implication here is crystal-clear: for MPACUK, it is the norms, values and religio-cultural practices of a “cultural cluster” that should ultimately determine a school’s policies and practices. We are suggesting that such a demand remains controversial within the UK educational context – it is a well-known fact that UK schools are entitled to set and enforce their own rules regarding overall code of conduct, uniforms, etc. [and yet, and as we shall see, the double banning would be finally lifted, following pressures from the Muslim community].
- That the Muslim rationale – or the Muslim way of doing things – would constitute an adversary of equal standing vis-à-vis the secular rationale of the school [or in relation to that of The Spectator] would become obvious when Shah would go on to emphasize the very real success of St. Stephen’s Primary School in terms of academic achievement. As he would explain: “Even without the hijab ban and without stopping kids from fasting in Ramadan, St. Stephen’s topped the schools league. Clearly they aren’t hindering kids from achieving”. Such de facto academic success must obviously have constituted a paradox for those who wished to push for a greater secularization [or “Westernization”] of the educational process – be these the school’s headteacher, or its governing body, or ideological organs promoting “Britishness” such as The Spectator.
The ensuing conflictual relationship between East Ham’s Muslim community and the officials of St. Stephen’s Primary School would be exacerbated precisely because we here had two cultural paradigms locked in a struggle for their own discrete – and equally functional – legitimacy. As we have seen, one Muslim organization that would attempt to articulate the Muslim position would be the MPACUK group. It would be of some use to mention a few points with respect to this organization [cf. “Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK”, Wikipedia]:
- Established in 2002, MPACUK is a London-based Muslim lobby group. It had been founded primarily so as to address what it perceived as the “under-representation” of Muslims in British politics generally. And yet, and as we have seen in the case of East Ham, it would also intervene in whatever clashes were deemed to threaten the religio-cultural interests of Muslims in various localities of the UK.
- Within that context, one of its key objectives is to fight “Islamophobia” in the UK [as would the SLMC EL, COSMOS UK and whatever UK institutions related to Islam].
- The group describes its activities as guided by four overarching principles: two of these principles are, firstly, what it refers to as the need for an “institutional revival” of the Muslim communities and, secondly, the importance of “accountability” to these communities.
- More interestingly, another of its principles is “reviving the fard [obligation] of Jihad”. Of course, one ought not to necessarily attach any violent connotations to the term “Jihad” – it can be taken to merely mean “spiritual struggle”.
- Its final overarching principle is that of “Anti-Zionism” – here, of course, if related to its Jihadist “fard”, this principle could be taken to suggest “violent” intentions [but we say this with some reluctance – we have no evidence to verify whatever overtly violent insinuations].
One could argue that at least one organization articulating the Muslim religio-cultural paradigm in East Ham – the MPACUK group – is definitely representative of radical Islam. Apart from the information presented above, Wikipedia also informs us of an important event in 2004 – involving MPACUK – which does suggest the radical orientation of this organization. We read: “In 2004, MPACUK was the subject of a no-platform order by the [UK’s] National Union of Students, because of its publication of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist conspiracy theories, provocative racist material, and further material on its website encouraging activists to break the law”. Wikipedia provides us with a sample of MPACUK’s anti-Semitism – the following quote is taken from the organization’s Facebook page: “Take your holocaust, roll it nice and tight and shove it up your [be creative]!”
Yet another Muslim organization that became directly involved in the East Ham clash is the well-known MEND [Muslim Engagement & Development]. According to this organization’s official website, “MEND is a not-for-profit company that helps to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics” [cf. http://www.mend.org.uk]. This is a UK NGO founded in 2014 and, like all such Muslim bodies, has as one of its basic objectives to systematically “tackle Islamophobia”. As the website emphasizes, Muslims should become active in political and social affairs affecting their communities. MEND’s direct intervention in the case of East Ham must be seen in that context. We should also note that MEND provides its own “Working Group Coordinator” focusing specifically on Newham’s Muslim community – the organization’s key man for the borough as a whole is Tahir Talati. Regarding MEND’s Newham branch, the website writes: “Newham MEND… we work closely with the majority of the Mosques in and around Newham”.
It was this particular organization that was able to coordinate and unite various forces within East Ham’s Muslim community – as also Muslim elements external to that community – so as to fight the changes introduced at St. Stephen’s Primary School. Its intervention would constitute a “moment” in East Ham’s social history wherein spontaneous grassroots forces and consciously organized bodies would fuse into one, united and therefore substantially powerful lobby. MEND, together with clerical agitators, would unite with East Ham’s Muslim parents. Their mobilization would be bolstered by various mosque leaders and Muslim community activists. The fusion would constitute a wave of resistance that could not possibly be held back, as it was not.
The Spectator describes the power of such lobby – as also the role of MEND – as follows: “Lall [the headteacher, as mentioned] faces angry parents, mosque leaders, and activists whipped up by the clerical agitators in MEND… By all accounts she is in despair. She may bow to their demands to resign, or walk out of her own volition” [my emph.].
MEND was by no means simply manipulating East Ham’s Muslim community, and it was definitely not imposing itself on it – its leaders were capitalizing on de facto popular sentiments. It would be just such sentiments that would yield that wave of resistance we are describing. This is how The Spectator puts it: “MEND and a local mosque went for the school [i.e. attacked it, in the ideological sense]. They tapped into a wave of religious emotion that is barely noticed in mainstream society” [my emph.].
Such wave of religious emotion had to be translated into a cohesive ideological position against the school’s authorities – MEND would of course do this in a manner very much expressive of the statements made by MPACUK’s Imran Shah. Some of MEND’s statements would include the following [cf. The Spectator]:
- Arif Qawi [chair of the school’s governors] was an “Islamophobe”.
- The teachers at St. Stephen’s Primary School are part of a “plot” to ostracize Muslims.
- The imposed double ban suggests that “being Muslim and British are incompatible”.
The wave of religious emotion, translated into a coherent ideological position, would lead to a major petition campaign. This campaign would be initiated by one of East Ham’s young Muslim activists, Ms. Hafsah Dabiri. The young female university student – eighteen years of age – would petition her local Labour Party MP, Lyn Brown [for further information on Dabiri’s own initiative – although she was not acting all by herself – cf. Matthew Smith, “It was the Muslims”, Indigo Jo Blogs, www.blogistan.co.uk, 21.01.2018]. By the way, it should be mentioned that Smith’s article emphasizes that it was the Muslim community per se that was behind the attack against St. Stephen’s double banning, not some “mob” of extremists.
We shall need to consider some of the more salient points made on the petition’s webpage before briefly discussing its immensely popular success [the text accompanying the petition is presented in the Newham Recorder, 17.01.2018, op. cit.]. Points include the following:
- “Freedom of expression is a must regardless of age”. Obviously, the petition here refers to the individual’s freedom to express himself – or, rather, herself – by wearing a hijab [or by fasting]. Such freedom, further, can even apply to eight year-olds, suggesting that such an age-group has the ability to make independent decisions. Our comment here is not meant to be critical of such a position – we are simply pointing to its real implications.
- “The hijab represents a choice and to remove it is the very oppression which actors [the school’s authorities] claim to prevent”. This is a highly important statement – it clearly asserts the rights of a “cultural cluster” to makes its own choices as to how it shall live its life. The “cultural cluster’s” freedom of choice is absolutely inviolable – whatever violation of its autonomy regarding religio-cultural matters constitutes “oppression”.
- “The school’s policy is against the UN Convention on Human Rights”. It is interesting to point out here that the petitioners would choose to make use of the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR] rather than – as would have been more natural – the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam [or CDHRI, and which had been adopted by 45 Islamic countries in 1990, all being members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation]. Presumably, it would have been the CDHRI that would have better expressed the religio-cultural worldview of East Ham’s Muslim community – such worldview would accept whatever “human rights” so long as such “rights” fell within the parameters of Islam [the Cairo declaration itself speaks of “human rights in Islam]. The petitioner’s choice to make use of the UDHR and not the CDHRI may be explained in terms of the fact that they were making an appeal to British secular society [via their local Labour Party MP, Lyn Brown]. On the other hand, they might also have known that the Islamic-based CDHRI actually limits the “universal rights” already enshrined in the more secular-based United Nations UDHR – one such limitation being the rights of women [who are seen as subordinate to men]. But, and understandably so, the petitioners would not have wished to present the wearing of the hijab as something imposed on “subordinates” – for them, it was a matter of “freedom of expression” and the “rights” of minorities [albeit, in this case, a matter concerning minors]. They well knew that British secular society would never have been able to “understand” the inner intricacies of the Islamic worldview [for a comparative discussion of the UDHR and the CDHRI, cf. Jonathan Russell, “Human Rights: The Universal Declaration vs The Cairo Declaration”, Middle East Centre Blog, LSE, www.blogs.lse.ac.uk, 10.12.2012].
- “It’s not a request or a plea, it’s a demand”. The petitioners felt that they had both the moral right and the necessary popular power to actually demand that both the banning of the hijab and that of Ramadan fasting should be lifted, and be lifted immediately.
The petition campaign, which would be launched on January 14, 2018, would gather 8.000 signatures within the first two days. By the third day, the signatures would come to more than 13.500. Eight days later, by January 25, 2018, the number of signatures would exceed 20.000 [cf., inter alia, Newham Recorder, 25.01.2018; The Independent, 21.01.2018; The LibertyPhile, 29.01.2018]. We have not been able to track the final number of signatures gathered – yet still, one may state that that 20.000 figure definitely represents a more than sizeable number of people residing in East Ham and its environs. We need keep in mind that the total number of residents in East Ham – including Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, etc. – comes to about 47.000-49.000 [cf. above].
The initiatives of the Muslim community against St. Stephen’s Primary School would receive the unreserved support of the Labour-controlled Newham London Borough Council. Such support makes full sense: we have already discussed above the ideological collusion between East Ham’s various Muslim institutions and the borough’s local authority [remember, for instance, the case of the Jamia Masjid leaders]. Following the mobilization spearheaded by MEND and the stance taken by Newham’s Labour councillors, The Spectator would wryly comment as follows: “You should not view with equanimity the abandonment of a school. For it has not been left on its own. Labour-controlled Newham Council found the choice between defending teachers and the education of children, and upsetting agitators and clerics who can shift block votes, no choice at all. A group of Labour councillors said that the ban would leave Muslims ‘victimized, intimidated and threatened when practicing their faith’…” [my emph.]. We see here that the relationship between East Ham’s Muslim institutions and the Newham Council goes well beyond a mere ideological collusion – “agitators” and “clerics” are able to exercise direct pressure on the local authority by influencing the local Muslim vote, and can do so by shifting whole “block votes” this way or the other. This is of course highly indicative of the organic role of organized activists and influential clerics within the Muslim grassroots rank-and-file.
But the initiatives of the Muslim community would also be bolstered at another level – viz. at the level of the central political stage [with respect to the ideological role of the UK central State in celebrating its “new multiculturalism”, and the practical implications of that, cf. Paper 2b]. The point here is that it would not simply be the active and direct support of the Newham Council that would prop the movement against the school – the initiatives of the Muslim community would also receive the passive and indirect support of UK’s central State apparatuses, as also that of the mainstream political parties. In fact, some members of the latter would even express their direct solidarity with the Muslim cause and take a stance against the school authorities.
With respect to one central State apparatus – that of the Department for Education – The Spectator observes: “The Department for Education cannot be bothered to fight. They say that uniform is a matter for ‘individual schools’, even though the case of St. Stephen’s shows they are nothing of the sort”.
As regards UK’s mainstream political parties, The Spectator paints – all too subjectively of course – a rather dismal picture of defeatism on the part of the school’s authorities, given the usual stance taken by politicians on issues related to those of St. Stephen’s. Nick Cohen writes: “… People at the school I have spoken to are close to giving up… they wonder what the point of all their efforts has been. No one will defend them when religious reactionaries come hammering at their door. With honourable exceptions, liberals and conservatives, Corbynites and Tories, back away or, more often, choose the side of clerics” [my emph.].
As we have seen, the intended changes meant to “secularize” certain procedures at St. Stephen’s Primary School would cause a major crisis within that educational institution. Yet again, The Spectator provides us with an overall picture of the school’s plight – it writes: “Despite having an intake of poor children from Pakistani and African families, the head [of the school] and the chair of the governors Arif Qawi transformed it into one of the best state primaries in England. Now it is falling apart” [my emph.].
So that the school would not “fall apart”, Arif Qawi found that he had to resign as governor of the school – in fact, a second petition had also been circulated specifically calling for his resignation [gathering some 1.500 signatures]. The school did a complete U-turn on the hijab and the fasting, lifting both restrictions. Thereafter, everything fell back into place again – the Muslim parents had scored an important victory in terms of securing and preserving the religio-cultural codes of their “cluster” [with respect to the lifting of the restrictions, cf. Sophie Morton, “Governor resigns as East Ham school does U-turn on hijab ban”, Newham Recorder, updated 25.01.2018].
We shall end our discussion of the case of St. Stephen’s Primary School by entertaining a rather complex question raised by Nick Cohen in The Spectator – viz. that the UK is seeing the emergence of “two Muslim cultures”. This notion seems to be implying that UK’s Muslim population is divided between, on the one hand, those who are “educated” and professionally “successful” and, on the other hand, those who are still under the ideological tutelage of “extremists” and thus remain “backward” and “isolated”. Embedded within this interpretation is the further implication that there is a perpetuated cleavage between “Westernized” middle class Muslims and “backward” working class Muslims. Such class-based cleavage within UK’s Muslim population is a definite reality, it being empirically verifiable. And it is also true that such cleavage will, at least to some extent, be reflected in the manner in which these different class strata experience their Muslim backgrounds – and one may thus speak of “two Muslim cultures”. But such an approach remains simplistic: it fails to examine the potentially multiple ideological relationships that could prevail between middle class or upper-middle class Muslims and the Muslim popular masses. It is this potential multiplicity of relations between such strata that Cohen ignores – for him, there is simply a stark dichotomy between Muslim “professionals” and the rest, and which is a dichotomy that ought to be overcome. For Cohen, it is the “extremists” who stand in the way of “progress”.
Based on events at St. Stephen’s Primary School, Cohen writes: “We are seeing the emergence of two Muslim cultures in Britain. Muslims who make a success of their lives are withdrawing now. They are learning the hard way that it is dangerous to try to help the communities they came from, educate children and fight misogyny. They know that, when they try, white society, which shouts #metoo and proclaims its opposition to every variety of prejudice, will leave them to swing in the wind”. Of course, when Cohen writes of Muslims who are “withdrawing”, he has someone like Arif Qawi in mind; when he writes of “white society”, he is thinking, inter alia, of UK’s politicians.
Cohen then concludes in a manner which – and despite his oversimplifications – very accurately describes a prevalent aspect of the Muslim “cultural cluster” in toto. He writes: “As they [the “successful” or “educated” Muslims] back off, they leave behind an impoverished Muslim working class confined in their ghettos. Their isolation suits religious extremists well” [my emph.].
But, then, what exactly is it that Cohen’s approach – willfully or not – simply ignores? As we have seen, in speaking of a plurality of Muslim cultures, Cohen draws a distinction between “Westernized” Muslims and “backward”, “isolated” Muslims. His perfect example of a “Westernized” middle class Muslim would be someone like Arif Qawi. And yet, there are other segments of middle class or even upper-middle class Muslims – and infinitely much more powerful than the likes of Qawi – who would bolster the non-secular, religious extremism that one would see raising its head in schools such as St. Stephen’s Primary School. We are of course referring to the role of MEND in the events that unfolded in East Ham’s school – the role of this organization, controlled by upper-middle class Muslim “professionals”, reveals that other dimension of the multiple ideological relations that may prevail between those upper strata and the rest of the Muslim working classes. In fact, and as is obvious in the case of St. Stephen’s Primary School, MEND would operate as the ideological vanguard of East Ham’s “backward” Muslim community – and it would operate as such given its power as an organized embodiment of Muslim elite religiosity opposed to whatever secularization, even within the educational process. Here we would actually see an organization controlled by segments of the UK’s Muslim elite groupings actually cooperating with Islamic extremists and “clerical agitators” and thereby leading the “backward” elements in a fight to salvage the hijab and the ritual of Ramadan fasting during school hours. The conclusion one may draw is obvious: the likes of an educated Arif Qawi have no choice but to “back off” and “leave behind” their community precisely because other, even more powerful elements of the “educated” Muslim community, take over and represent the rank-and-file. Thus, Cohen’s suggestion that there are two Muslim cultures is quite inaccurate – in fact, and based on what we have here been arguing, there are at least three different Muslim cultures within the UK: that of the Muslim popular masses, that of the elite and well-organized Muslim groupings aiding and abetting anti-secular Islamic religiosity, and that of a peripheralized Arif Qawi [there are of course yet other dimensions of Muslim culture both in East Ham and elsewhere in the UK – analyzing all such dimensions would call for a doctoral dissertation].
We have been suggesting all along that MEND is controlled by Muslim elite groupings belonging to the middle or upper-middle classes. Simply visiting that organization’s official website clearly verifies such an observation. But one may further verify this by considering some basic biographical facts regarding MEND’s founder, Sufyan Ismail. We quote from the website: “Sufyan Gulam [Ismail] is an award-winning Serial Entrepreneur and Philanthropist and was recently ranked amongst the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. He graduated from the University of Manchester and then started his career training with Deloitte [the well-known multinational professional services network]. Sufyan has built numerous businesses over the years specializing in financial services, private equity and real estate… In 2014, Sufyan formally retired from full-time business activity to focus on philanthropic adventures with a key focus on tackling Islamophobia. To this end he was the founder of MEND which specializes in tackling Islamophobia via a dual approach of advocacy in Westminster and media engagement as well as improving media and political literacy of grassroots British Muslims in the UK” [my emph.]. This brief biographical note on MEND’s founder clearly indicates the relationship between Muslim upper-middle class elites and Muslim communities at grassroots level. MEND’s long list of “Regional Managers” – biographical notes of which are available in the website – further confirms the elite status of its Muslim activists.
The case of St. Stephen’s Primary School is certainly not an isolated example where East Ham’s Muslim community would exhibit its conflictual dimension. There have been other cases where – on being provoked – the Muslim rank-and-file would reveal an oppositional collective mindset very much reminiscent of Belal’s individual mindset as discussed above. We shall here present a second similar instance – however, since much of what has been said above regarding St. Stephen’s Primary School would also apply to this second case-study, we do not intend to deal with it in as great a detail.
The second case again concerns a school, this time in Little Ilford, an East Ham ward. The school itself is called Little Ilford School, located along Rectory Road, Manor Park – it is just a two-minute walk from the Sri Murugan Temple discussed above. According to the school’s official website, this secondary school for pupils aged eleven to sixteen is a “mixed multicultural” establishment [cf. https://www.littleilford.sch.uk]. The number of pupils attending this school comes to 1.325.
In this case, the issue that would provoke the reaction of Muslim parents was that of “sex education” for their pupils [cf. Jon King, “Muslim parents air their concerns ahead of planned changes to sex education”, Newham Recorder, updated 10.07.2019 – all of the information that follows is based on this source].
More specifically, East Ham’s Muslim community would react to the introduction of “RSE” [or “Relations and Sex Education”] lessons to secondary schools – such teaching was meant to be compulsory by 2020. The content of “RSE” would be such as to naturally provoke reactions – the Newham Recorder informs us that “Under RSE the government expects secondaries to teach pupils about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] relationships…”
As is well known, both homosexuality and lesbianism are anathema to Islam – the religion has always been “violently” opposed to such forms of sexual practice. Consider, for instance, the following representative text on the issue: “They [gays and lesbians] both go against the natural disposition [fitrah] which Allaah has created in mankind – and also in animals – whereby the male is inclined towards the female, and vice versa. Whoever goes against that goes against the natural disposition of mankind, the fitrah… The spread of homosexuality has caused man diseases which neither the east nor the west can deny exist because of them [sic]. Even if the only result of this perversion was AIDS – which attacks the immune system in humans – that would be enough… It also causes the breakup of the family and leads people to give up their work and study because they are preoccupied with these perversions” [cf. https://islamqa.info, 04.04.2009].
Islam’s “violent” opposition to homosexuality is further evident in the following quote based on the teachings of Ibn al-Qayyim, the Sunni medieval theologian: “… homosexuality involves innumerable evil and harms, and the one to whom it is done would be better off being killed than having this done to him, because after that he will become so evil and so corrupt that there can be no hope of being reformed, and all good is lost for him, and he will no longer feel any shame before Allaah or before His creation. The semen of the one who did that to him will act as poison on his body and soul…” [ibid.].
It is this theological understanding of whatever is related to LGBT that naturally informs the mindset of the average Muslim – as in the case of the wearing of the hijab or of Ramadan fasting, it needs to be seen as a “functional” theological artifact in the rationale of the Islamic worldview. Thus, whatever attempt at “entertaining” the various dimensions of LGBT behaviour – and doing so amongst pupils in the classroom – would amount to an attack on the Islamic faith per se, as also on the community abiding by such faith. East Ham’s Muslim parents had really no choice at all but to simply reject the possibility of seeing their children been taught “RSE”. Yet once more, we here had a clash of cultures and their respective moral systems.
Muslim activists operating in East Ham would get wind of plans to have “RSE” introduced to Little Ilford School and they would inform parents through the distribution of leaflets attacking the very idea of “RSE”. This would mobilize the Muslim community against the school’s new curriculum plans. Fearful of the repercussions of such mobilization, the school authorities would invite Muslim parents to share their concerns with them.
We do not intend to examine the events around Little Ilford School as these were to unfold – we shall merely limit ourselves to some of the statements made by parents regarding “RSE”:
- Mohammed Chowdhury, a Muslim parent, had this to say: “… what we don’t want is the school to encourage our children to have a same sex relationship, which is against our religious beliefs” [my emph.].
- The above parent would further explain that Muslim parents did not want external organizations allowed into the Rectory Road secondary “to fulfil their own agendas”.
- Chowdhury’s attitude would not necessarily be aggressive or oppositional, unless provoked: “… [The school] needs to keep in mind [pupils’] religious and cultural backgrounds. If they follow that, then there will be no problem” [my emph.].
- Yet another Muslim parent had this to say: “Our religion teaches us to respect each other’s values and beliefs. We’re all for tolerance and diversity but we also have a right to decide how we bring our children up” [my emph.].
Both the case of St. Stephen’s Primary School and that of Little Ilford certainly reveal a conflictual dimension in the life of East Ham’s Muslim community – but such dimension can remain dormant unless provoked. And yet, the conflictual dimension of such a “cultural cluster” can take other forms as well – these are expressive of permanent structural contradictions well outside whatever instance of provocation. Here, the conflictual dimension can be of a double nature [at the very least]: Firstly, the Muslim religio-cultural worldview can clash with the alien structures of the UK’s politico-legal formation. Secondly, such worldview can even exacerbate contradictions within any Muslim community residing in a Western society as is the UK. We are here referring to the realities of Sharia Law, and as these are practiced in localities such as East Ham.
The practice of Sharia Law may be said to reproduce a permanent structural contradiction within UK society if only because it is a legal structure running parallel to that of the British legal system. Such parallelism, in itself, may not necessarily constitute a cause for major friction between the two legal systems – and yet it does, often at the level of a Muslim’s everyday life [as we shall attempt to show below]. But further, and perhaps much more significantly, that sheer parallelism of two absolutely different legal systems organizing the lives of individuals can only but deepen the prevailing segregation between Muslim “cultural clusters” and the rest of UK society [for a discussion of such parallelism, or of what has come to be called the problem of “Muslim legal pluralism” in Britain, cf. Samia Bano, “Islamic Family Arbitration, Justice and Human Rights in Britain”, Law, Social Justice & Global Development [An Electronic Law Journal], 06.12.2007].
The stretch and depth of cultural segregation resulting from the realities of Sharia Law in the UK are both more or less measurable. The well-known freelance journalist, Olivia Cuthbert, notes: “In 2017, a survey by UK TV station Channel 4 of 1.000 British Muslim women found that almost two-thirds had a nikah-only marriage” [cf. www.arabnews.com/node/1305516, updated 19.05.2018, my emph. – the term “nikah” means Islamic marriage in Arabic]. The survey undertaken by Channel 4 gives us some idea of the stretch of the cultural cleavage.
The depth of such cultural phenomenon is evident when one considers the age-groups that insist on such nikah-only marriages, as also the growing popularity of such types of marriages in the UK. Cuthbert quotes a UK family lawyer dealing with cases of Sharia Law, Siddique Patel, who asserts that “nikah-only marriage is becoming more popular. Among the under-30s, a lot of Muslim men and women who were born and bred in the UK are coming to us with unregistered marriages” [my emph.]. Such marriages are unregistered in terms of UK civil law.
Cuthbert also quotes Aina Khan, said to be UK’s leading specialist in Islamic Family Law – according to Khan: “… around 80 percent of newly married Muslims do not [register their marriages under UK civil law]” [my emph.]. One may assume that Channel 4’s finding – that fraction of two-thirds or 66.6% constituting nikah-only marriages – jumps to 80% when it comes to newly-married couples below the age of 30.
The conflicts and contradictions arising from the implementation of Sharia Law have given birth to a whole network of legal services aimed at dealing with such conflicts and contradictions – legal experts specializing in Sharia Law are being continually called upon to intervene in a range of paradoxical practical issues directly related to such law.
The ramifications of Sharia Law are, of course, also evident in a locality such as East Ham. Perhaps the most important legal aid service operating in the locality is that of Duncan Lewis Solicitors Ltd [GB] – this being the largest legal aid provider in the UK specializing in Islamic Law. Their East Ham headquarters are located at Office No. 2, 2nd floor, along 2A Heigham Road, very close to the two Sri Mahalakshmi Temples discussed above.
The law firm of Duncan Lewis Solicitors provides what apparently amounts to an “army” of specialist Muslim Lawyers [cf. https://www.duncanlewis.co.uk – most of our information on this legal aid service has been retrieved from this source]. It is Senior Consultant Solicitor Aina Khan [the leading specialist mentioned above] who heads this law firm’s nationwide Islamic Department. The latter focuses its work on Islamic and Sharia Law, and especially on family and child care. The specific areas dealt with – and which are all indicative of the problem zones emanating from nikah marriages – are the following:
- Islamic marriage contracts
- Islamic marriage guidance and counselling
- Islamic mediation
- Islamic divorce
- International Muslim families [related to migration]
There are three particular problem zones that the Islamic Department – and especially Aina Khan herself – most frequently handles. According to the law firm [here, cf. especially duncanlewis.co.uk/brochures/I_Brochure._web.pdf]: “… She personally handles the highly charged negotiations and issues arising from these challenging court cases, which frequently include… ● Couples who have had only an Islamic marriage, so are not legally married under English law and do not have matrimonial rights ● Women seeking an Islamic divorce to which their husband does not consent ● Dowry and wedding jewellery disputes” [my emph.]. All three cases are indicative of conflictual situations arising both within the Muslim “cultural cluster” and in relation to the official legal structures of the UK. The mere fact that the norms of such “cluster” are set in the context of an officially dominant Western politico-legal system may further intensify the conflict – consider, for instance, the complications that may arise in the case of a nikah-only marriage being dissolved through English law. Cuthbert [op. cit.] has herself written of this contradiction between Islamic marriage and English divorce and has concluded that “For growing numbers of British Muslim women, the results can be devastating”. Obviously, and judging by the types of cases often handled by Khan, this is not the one and only contradiction arising from the practice of Sharia Law in the UK.
Apart from the network of formal legal services, the conflicts and contradictions arising from the implementation of Sharia Law within a locality such as East Ham have also given birth to yet other types of organizations aimed at dealing with ensuing social problems. We are here referring to less formal – albeit fairly well-organized – structures set up by Muslim locals themselves whose prime purpose is to offer counselling to Muslim individuals beset with problems related to Sharia Law or the Islamic way of life. These are, of course, profit-making establishments.
One such establishment is Sukoon Healing, which has offices somewhere in East London [cf. https://www.sukoon.org.uk – most of our information here has been retrieved from this source]. The key person behind this organization seems to be Sr Afshan Khan [cf. also Afshan Khan – Islamic counsellor – sukoon, https://uk.linkedin.com].
Afshan Khan has received her training as a community counsellor in institutions based in East Ham. Some of her more formal qualifications include the following:
- 1998-1999: Certificate in counselling [NCFE board, completed at Newham Community College of Further Education]
- 1994: 18-month community counselling course [Hartley Centre, East Ham]
- 3-month introduction to counselling [Newham Community College of Further Education]
Afshan Khan clarifies to Muslim individuals seeking her advice that “As an Islamic counsellor I do not give fatwas [or formal rulings], that is not my job…” She describes her services to the community as follows: “At the moment I am working with single sisters in pre-marriage workshops offering practical as well as Islamic advice. Sometimes offering cooking and housekeeping courses to help them once they are married…” One may conclude that at least a segment of the services provided by Sukoon Healing is of the preemptive type – they help prepare as yet single Muslim girls in a manner that would forestall possible friction within a future nikah marriage.
We may say that Afshan Khan provides us with invaluable information on the types of problems experienced within Muslim families, be these in East Ham or in various localities around the UK. She also attempts to offer an explanation for such types of problems. Khan notes: “I have been working with the Muslim community for over thirty years as an Islamic counsellor and have dealt with many issues affecting our community. My main work has been around marital issues, family disputes, teenage problems, domestic violence and mediation. In most cases the underlying factor has [sic] cultural misinterpretations of Islam”. For Khan, therefore, the conflictual dimension of living in a Muslim “cultural cluster” is explainable in terms of the manner in which Muslims interpret Islam. Her observation is especially interesting – it indirectly suggests that conflictual circumstances within the Muslim “cultural cluster” are caused by the cultural practices of that “cluster”. Further, such cultural practices are expressive of the community’s manner of understanding the Islamic way of life. Thus, while Khan sees the “issues affecting our community” as the by-product of “cultural misinterpretations”, we would rather see such “misinterpretations” as the by-product of a community’s willful or preferred appreciation of what Islam is all about. While we certainly do not possess the appropriate data to examine the exact manner in which Muslims actually appreciate or comprehend Islamic Law, we may nonetheless draw the general conclusion that Islam is a religio-cultural worldview as interpreted by the community, and not as that is written in the Quran. [Of course, such an approach can have much wider implications as regards the “nous” of whichever Muslim community, and especially with reference to what has been dubbed “political Islam”, jihadist tendencies, etc.].
Now, having said that, we should also note that Afshan Khan herself seems to verify our approach regarding the dominant role of cultural practices at grassroots level vis-à-vis the letter of Islamic Law – as she further asserts: “I can give many examples where culture has become our lawmaker instead of the two sources we should be taking as Muslims, the Quran and Sunnah” [my emph.]. Yet again, however, she adopts a didactic stance with respect to the de facto realities of Muslim life in the UK. Presumably, such didactic stance is expressive of her role as a professional Muslim counsellor or arbitrator [she goes on, for instance, to remind her Muslim community that “Islam tells us if there is a dispute an arbitrator who is impartial, should be chosen to help find a solution…”].
While Afshan Khan “blames” cultural practices amongst Muslims for the conflictual dimension that besets their lives, she does not wish to be absolute in her criticism of such practices. She explains: “On the positive note not everything in our culture is negative and sometimes bears resemblance to some of the rulings in our Deen, such as respect to our elders, being kind to our parents…”
Yet still, Khan wishes to maintain a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, the day-to-day cultural practices of the Muslim “cultural cluster” and, on the other, the rulings of Islam per se. As already mentioned, she sees this discrepancy between a Muslim’s lived reality and the theological or philosophical tenets of Islam as the root cause of a Muslim’s social or family problems. In keeping with such a position, she offers Muslims the following piece of advice: “We as Muslims should try to keep the two issues [viz. that of culture and that of religion] separate, as most cultural issues have nothing to do with religion and in most situations go against the ruling of Islam”.
To clarify what she sees as a contradiction between cultural practices and religious tenets, Khan gives Muslims an example – she writes: “The prime example I can give of this in cases of domestic violence is that the sister has been told she has to be obedient to her husband”. And yet, she argues, “Islam does not permit oppression of any form; our best example of a husband is our beloved prophet [SWT – viz. “Subhanahu wa ta’ala”, meaning “Glory to Him, the Exalted”]”. It is certainly not for us to decide on the extent to which Afshan Khan’s interpretation of the Quran is accurate – simply for the sake of interest, we may here refer to two general theological positions on the husband-wife relationship in a nikah marriage, and leave it at that. First, it is said that “Islam made the husband the protector and maintainer of the wife and gave him the responsibility of heading the household, because he is more perfect in rational thinking than her in most cases. This means that it is obligatory for her to obey him”. But second, the husband “should not mistreat or oppress her, or issue harsh commands to her. Rather he should deal with her in a wise manner, and tell her to do things which are in her interests, his interests and the interests of the household, in a kind and gentle manner” [cf. https://islamqa.info, 29.09.2001].
Whichever way one chooses to interpret the cultural and/or religious practices of a Muslim “cultural cluster” in a locality such as East Ham, the fact remains that such “cluster” is riddled with a number of problematic “issues” affecting its own members. One important “issue” is that of divorce [and we need remember that that is one of the most frequent problem zones handled by the Islamic Department of Duncan Lewis Solicitors – cf. above]. Based on her own experience as a Muslim counsellor, Afshan Khan writes: “We are all aware of the high rate of divorce that is rising in our community, once an unheard topic had become an everyday conversation where people discussing marriages ending within a couple of months and I have heard even within a week. It saddens me to think what is happening to us, why have we become so hasty”.
Perhaps unwittingly, and in her own rather clumsy language, Afshan Khan seems to be pointing to a situation where the rising rate of divorce amongst UK’s Muslims may be put down to the possible influences that that “cultural cluster” is receiving from the Western style of life [and that, despite the generally “closed total system” characterizing a Muslim “cultural cluster” – cf. “A Tentative Sociological Examination of the ‘Political Economy’ of the Muslim Ghetto in the Western World of the 21st Century”, https://www.gslreview, 15.02.2018]. For us, this issue shall have to remain a moot point, it being difficult to gauge the extent to which other styles of life can actually “colour” both Muslim culture and religion as practiced in a country such as the UK [and which may also relate to the different class positions evident within most Muslim “cultural clusters”]. In any case, this is how Khan puts it: “We need to re-educate ourselves as Muslims now second and third generations in this country and begin to define our roles”. Her advice that Muslims need to “define” their “roles” in a Western country such as the UK seems to suggest that such “roles” are undergoing some degree of crisis, perhaps given the impact of an alien culture – Western secularism – on the traditional values of the Muslim worldview.
Now, apart from the intervention of law firms and private counsellors in the complex world of Sharia Law, there are certainly other institutions that attempt to ameliorate situations arising from the practice of such law in the UK. Definitely the two most important organizations dealing with Sharia Law are the Sharia Councils and the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal. Although the rulings of these two bodies seem to be decisive in whatever dispute involving Sharia Law, we shall not attempt to analyze their functions in this present study – apart from the sheer complexity of the arbitrational work that they do, an analysis of this would take us well beyond the limits of the realities of East Ham. We may briefly make a number of points regarding these two institutions, and which seem to verify some of the observations we have made above regarding the practice of Sharia Law in the UK:
- We know that the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal [or MAT – cf. https://www.matribunal.com] has been established “to provide a viable alternative for the Muslim community seeking to resolve disputes in accordance with Islamic Sacred Law”.
- The services that MAT specializes in are “Islamic Divorce, Inheritance Law & Islamic Wills, Family Mediation, Mosque Dispute Resolution”.
- Interestingly, the MAT official website informs us, inter alia, that the organization has “launched its proposals for discussion and support of the Muslim Community to root out forced marriages in their midst”. MAT’s report on forced marriages had been issued in 2015.
- The Muslim Law [Shariah] Council UK, London [cf. https://www.shariahcouncil.org] also focuses its work, inter alia, on issues regarding “Talaq” – viz. Muslim divorce cases.
- It is as interesting to note that both MAT and UK’s Sharia Councils cooperate with the Islamic Departments of law firms such as Duncan Lewis Solicitors. In fact, both the Tribunal and the Councils recognize Aina Khan as the UK’s leading specialist in Islamic Family law.
We have attempted to show how the legal pluralism arising from the practical implementation of Sharia Law at a grassroots, community level has given birth to a series of organizations which have attempted to maintain some kind of balance between Muslim religious law and English secular law. As we have seen, these may include Islamic legal services, private Islamic counsellors, Sharia Councils, Arbitration Tribunals and Imams [although we did not focus specifically on the latter]. The job of such organizations has not been – and is not – an easy one: they need to maintain a balance between, on the one hand, Islamic rulings as such and, on the other, the socio-cultural practices of Muslim “cultural clusters”. They also need to maintain a balance between both rulings and cultural practices and the demands of English law [where such need arises]. But it need generally be said that, in their attempts to handle such multiplicity of contradictions, these organizations certainly do recognize the legal pluralism as a reality of life in the UK.
Such attempts at maintaining balances, it should be emphasized, primarily concern cases where nikah-based marriages clash within themselves or clash with English civil law. On the other hand, and as we have seen above, the idea of maintaining strategic balances has not always been a priority, at least as regards certain major Muslim organizations in the UK. The cases of St. Stephen’s Primary School and Little Ilford revealed that important groupings such as MPACUK and MEND have proved to be especially uncompromising.
We shall complete this part of our study on East Ham by pointing to certain cases of Muslim organizations which actually cross the limits of most of the Muslim bodies mentioned in this text. We are here referring to East Ham-based Muslim militant activists. We are not suggesting that such groupings are necessarily representative of East Ham’s Muslim community – we cannot in any case gauge the extent of their influence within such community. They nonetheless remain rooted within the Muslim “cultural cluster” or “clusters” that make up part of the mosaic of the locality.
There are certain Muslim activist groupings operating within East Ham – as elsewhere in the UK – which consciously choose to ignore whatever legal and/or cultural “pluralism” and opt for the domination of Sharia Law within their community. In that sense, they constitute an oppositional ideological force permanently challenging the politico-legal system of the UK.
These groupings – whose membership is mostly composed of Muslim youth – usually organize what are called “Islamic Roadshows” around the central streets of East Ham and elsewhere. This is what a UK website, Loving Dalston [cf. https://www.lovingdalston.co.uk, 2019] has to say about such “Roadshows” both in East Ham and around the East London neighbourhood of Dalston: “These young [Muslim] women are the daughters of the revolution to persuade locals that they need to live under the laws of Islam… Several Muslim men travel with them in a van around London to promote their creed. But it is the women who catch the eye, clad as they are in black from head to foot”. In the course of UK’s 2015 general election, these “revolutionaries” would propagate the idea amongst locals that it was “strictly forbidden to vote”. Doing otherwise “was to follow the religion of ‘the Christians’ [sic] and ‘the Jew’ [sic]”. The website also goes on to note the following piece of telling information: “On social media a site using the StayMuslimDon’tVote hashtag points to an interview in which a salafist preacher… tells a fawning interviewer that democracy is ‘a law of the ape’…”
There is yet another – perhaps much more important – case of Muslim militancy within East Ham, and especially at the locality’s Newham College. We shall here simply present an extract from Maajid Nawaz’s book, Radical: My Journey from Islamic Extremism to a Democratic Awakening, WH Allen, 2012. Nawaz, who was once a leader of the global Islamist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir, writes: “It was 1995 and I was president of the Student Union at Newham College in East Ham. The union was nothing but a front for HT. We siphoned off money to our cause, giving lectures and preaching anywhere and everywhere – the street, the yard, the canteen… We were encouraged… to operate like street gangs and we did, prowling London, fighting Indian Sikhs in the west and African Christians in the east. We intimidated Muslim women until they wore the hijab…” We may note that Hizb ut-Tahrir [HT] is the global Islamist network that first spawned al-Muhajiroun [AM], the banned Islamist terrorist organization. AM happens to be one of the most notorious of domestic Salafi-jihadist groups in the UK – it had been linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]. Maajid Nawaz was a leading member of HT for about 14 years. He would finally renounce his Islamic extremism and join UK’s Liberal Democrats [cf., inter alia, https://www.quilliaminternational.com, 28.05.2013].
This ends our study of the religious practices manifested in the locality of East Ham. Paper 4b shall focus on other everyday socio-cultural practices prevailing in the community, including ethnic-based eating habits, dress as a medium of cultural expression, and different forms of ethnic-based entertainment.