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Out of the Abyss, Hope

The East End of London has seen it all: radicals and revolutionaries, fascists and poverty, disease and despair. Yet it has outlived them all. Despite the 7/7 terrorist bombings on its doorstep, the signs are it will do so again, says Nick Ryan.

The streets are strangely quiet. There are sirens in the near-distance, the muffled thump of hip-hop jostling with Amharic, Arabic, Bangla, English, Russian. The azan [call to prayer] beckons from the huge masjid [mosque] on Whitechapel Road. But to the seasoned eye the crowds are missing. Something has changed. There is a tension, a palpable feeling which laces the hot, humid air.

The young girls with makeup and hijab are nowhere to be seen. The women's entrance to the masjid is closed, for "security reasons". The Cockney pubs are locked worlds with sullen faces. Only the traditional sweetshops on Brick Lane are still busy, young men crowding to buy ladoo, jellaby or perhaps dates imported from the Gulf.

On the Tube we had all gazed at one another: a bit longer, more suspicious. Two young South Asian men sat alone in one section of the carriage, chatting away, oblivious. We avoided them. I felt ashamed.

Whitechapel station had been quiet too. Echoes rang out on the old wooden steps, as we clattered up to the market. The sun was beating hard on the dirty pavement, driving City workers into the nearby bars. There was the Royal London Hospital, where so many bomb victims were treated, looming massively above. Elderly Bangladeshi women in niqab veils waded past, balancing improbably large bags of shopping. It was a scene hundreds of years old. But the haggling was muted, the stallholders packing up early for the day.

It is exactly one week since the first of the London bombings. One week since 56 were killed and more than 700 wounded by those who held a brutal Salafi dream.

During that balmy morning – "7/7" as it is already known – the East End was itself a target. Members of the huge East London Mosque, London's oldest masjid, ran out to help victims at Aldgate East and Aldgate Tube stations, setting up reception areas in the London Muslim Centre next door and offering both facilities and volunteers to the nearby Royal London Hospital.

Now you can sense the fear. Walking up a semi-deserted Whitechapel Road, past the entrance to Osborn Street and Brick Lane, past ancient buildings which seem to lean inwards in the summer heat, you enter Altab Ali park. Once "Itchy Park", where tramps would scratch themselves on the railings, it is usually crowded with sun-seekers and drinkers. Today it is empty. You ponder the changes and you ponder the past: it was here that a young Bangladeshi man was murdered by white racists over 20 years ago. Things have changed since then: the BNP has been seen off from its east London heartlands and the Bangladeshis are the largest minority community. An Islamic community living on the cusp of Europe's most powerful financial centre.

There is fear now – fear of reprisals and backlash. "The tension is so high around here you can almost feel it after the bombings," says Abu, a Bangladeshi youth worker, as we sip sweet tea in Café Casablanca, opposite the old Whitechapel Bell Foundry. "Probably some big nasty war will kick off with the BNP as they ain't making the situation easier."

But there is anger too. "I was asleep when it happened," says Hassan, a young Somali I talk with in Cable Street, scene of the famous battle between fascists and Jews & Communists in 1936. "All I can say is why did we go to war? There are a lot of angry people out there. You can't really blame them, just the Government – i.e. Mr Bliar." He sucks between his teeth in disgust.

Back in Whitechapel, behind the masjid, a series of peace buses have been hired to take local Muslims to the Trafalgar Square peace vigil. "There's shock, fear and total disgust," according to one of the mosque workers I speak to on top of the first bus (painted all black). "At first, we were hoping it wasn't Muslims. In London, here in the East End, the community is solid. It's not like those northern cities."

He sighs. "People are going to start talking about losing freedoms, soon. We'll be looking at a police state."

"These people," he adds, suddenly pointing at the air in front of us, "these bombers, they've got a military mindset. Loads of them volunteered for jihad in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, and so on. People thought they were being patriotic. They've made Bin Laden a hero."

My friend Siraj, a long-time community worker and 'Hajji' (one who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca) says he's just "very sad" at how it's all turned out. He's angry at extremists threatening years of painstaking work tackling social exclusion, poverty, employment, community cohesion and drugs. Churches, mosques and trade unions have long-united here in a unique alliance to fight low pay and injustice amongst the most vulnerable members of society.

Of course, the 'ummah' – the worldwide Muslim brotherhood and community – is felt as strongly here as anywhere. There were prayers said for Sheikh Yassin, the paraplegic spiritual head of Hammas who was assassinated by Israeli forces last year. The perceived injustices of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas are felt keenly. There are at times disturbing levels of anti-semitism.

But Islam here has been used as a healing force: it has rescued gang members from a life of violence. It has brought faith to imprisoned drug dealers, young men who once wrought ruin among their own communities. There are interfaith forums too: dialogue between Jew and Christian, Muslim and Jew. There are even young Jews returning to their historic heartlands: several are my friends. The mosque's chairman, Dr Muhammad Bari, a lean, neatly-dressed man who is also deputy secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, told me from inside his sweltering, whitewashed office: "Although we feel differently about the injustices on Palestine, in Islam we are asked to live peacefully with our neighbours. We're all people of The Book." I had been hearing him on the radio and TV recently. Each time he condemned the bombs unreservedly, though now he too was worried about a backlash.

Hamida, an educated young Bangladeshi, puts her thoughts more forcefully when we meet up later in a muted Bethnal Green café. "I'm a Muslim young woman who identifies with the issues of alienation and marginalisation of young Muslims. I am outraged at the July 7 bombs, just as the rest of the public. But I am getting even more outraged that the air-time given to Muslims has mainly gone to Muslim men. Surely this is part of the problem? The Muslim community is diverse – so where are the women's' voices?"

"These bombers, like Osama and so on, are not alienated and marginalised. The national soul-searching on the motivations of these bombers, by Muslims and non-Muslims, is dangerously misplaced." She stops for a moment to sip her tea, flicking a hand through a stray strand of hair (she is not hijabi).

"These men are all confident, rational, highly pro-active," she continues, "and dedicated activists of a different world order. I do not agree with their politics, or their way of life, or their view of Islam. I would paint animal rights activists who use violence with the same fanaticism towards a political or ideological aim.

"Those who are dedicated, or have the time to devote their lives to political or ideological ends, are not marginalised or alienated. It is fairly patronising to be working class or young and Muslim and be told that this background might be a reason for sympathising with terrorists or suicide bombers. The alienated and the marginalised sporadically break out in protest in the public gaze – hardly in secret. My wider concern is to see these villains painted as villains, not Muslims, or alienated or marginalised youth. To do otherwise is to miss a trick – these men, and others like them, will bomb again.

"It is not the mosques that are inspiring them – far from it, these men are dismissive of Imams brought up with a older tradition of peace and co-existence. The worshipers of the mosques, like my father's generation, are men, mostly uneducated, too, and are regularly insulted by younger, more educated youngsters, brought up with the British education system, with its emphasis on learning skills for citizenship, rational argument, challenging injustice and so on. Their forefathers, by comparison, were only too eager to settle and dare I say it 'assimilate', like the Jewish before them in the 1930s, eager to detract attention from their identity."

You wonder if the London bus and Tube bombers knew, or cared, about any of this before venting their separatist fury on this city. Is it any wonder that extremist offshoots from al-Muhajiroun tried to influence the elections here recently? Attacking politicians, declaring through meetings and posters that any Muslim who voted would become kufr (apostate)? Such crude and alienated ideas serve only to delight the extremists of Europe's far right. The clocks will not go back. Muslim and Christian, Jew or trades unionists – we must all see to that.

This story first appeared in Searchlight magazine ©2005


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