This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Tower Hamlets.
Minority communities residing in the UK have had many labels imposed on them since their arrival in large numbers in the 1960s and ’70s. In recent years there has been a focus on faith, so those once identified as ‘Asians’ are now described in religious terms. This shift has led to the emergence of a ‘faith industry’ comparable to the ‘race industry’ of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet in Tower Hamlets the multiple policies and groups associated with this have done little to challenge fundamentalism.
It seems academics, researchers and journalists are falling over each other to come to Tower Hamlets. Some want to see how Tower Hamlets is successfully managing diversity; others how it has gradually become a hot bed of religious fundamentalism.
Now the first thing to know about Tower Hamlets is that it is not as diverse as people make it out to be. The neighbouring boroughs of Newham and Hackney are far more diverse racially and religiously than Tower Hamlets. The two largest communities of Tower Hamlets are the local White British working class and the Bengalis constituting, respectively, 31 per cent and 32 per cent of the total population. They also constitute the two largest faith groups, i.e. Christians at 27 per cent and Muslims at 35 per cent. There are of course other smaller ethnic and faith groups mainly comprising Afro Caribbean, other South Asian, Chinese, Somali and Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish.
The faith groups that we are referring to today are not a new phenomenon. These faith groups, especially those from South Asia, have not suddenly appeared in the UK following 9/11 or 7/7. They are the same groups who have been here in the UK since 1950s or 1960s.
So, who are they?
In Britain, majority of the Muslims are from the Indian sub continent, which includes India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, rather than from the Middle East or the Arab countries. In Tower Hamlets, as Bengalis constitute the largest ethnic minority group, by faith they also represent the largest Muslim faith group. It also must be mentioned here that within the Bengali community perhaps 10 per cent belong to other faiths: mainly Hinduism, but also Buddhism or Christianity.
“Multiculturalism failed because while it celebrated the cultural heritage of different ethnic groups it failed to challenge racism and discrimination robustly.”
The origins of the South Asian, including Bengali, presence in the UK can be traced back long before the Indian subcontinent gained its independence in 1947. From the mid-19th century onwards a small number of Asian professionals, mainly doctors, businessmen and lawyers, had established themselves in Britain and from the beginning of the 20th century, small groups of Bengali ex-seamen were settling nearer to the docks. Due to the Second World War Britain had experienced shortages of industrial labour; many of the Asians were able to obtain jobs in industry as manual workers; and during Britain’s post-war economic boom, as more jobs were available, more and more migrant workers from Bangladesh came to join these early pioneers.
The vast majority of Bengali migrants were from Sylhet in Bangladesh. The reason for the majority of migrants originating from only one district is linked to earlier patterns of settlement. Seamen from the merchant navy from Sylhet who settled in England from the early 1900s became the bridgeheads for the flow of migrants who arrived in Britain from the 1950s. Famously, Bengalis from Sylhet were often ship’s cooks; many of them went on to work in the ‘Indian’ restaurants, which they still dominate across the UK. In Tower Hamlets they have created a ‘Curry Capital of Europe’ in Brick Lane by having the largest number of Indian restaurants on one small street.
The minority communities residing in the UK have witnessed many labels being branded or imposed to identify them since their arrival in large numbers. Initially people of the Indian sub-continent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) were termed collectively as Asians. Other labels such as ethnic minority community, BME (Black & Minority Ethnic) and at BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) are in use. And of course at present religious identity, specifically Muslim, is widely being used to identify South Asians, including Bengalis.
Since the 1990s there has been increased engagement with faith communities in the name of ‘faith in regeneration’. The Inner Cities Religious Council was established in 1992 and under the New Labour regime its role expanded. Following 9/11 and 7/7, and after the 2001 disturbances in English northern cities of Burnley, Oldham & Bradford, there has been a drive to engage with the Muslim community in the name of community cohesion and inclusion, as recommended in the Cantle Report. Often, this was at the expense of secular community.
“In Tower Hamlets faith leaders share tea and biscuits and attend each other’s religious festivals but do not challenge the rise of religious fundamentalism.”
As Sukhwant Dhaliwal says: ‘[S]ince New Labour formed a government in 1997, we have seen the extension of voluntary aided status and related state funding from Christian and Jewish faith based schools to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools, the legitimisation of religious groups as partners in the delivery of education services through the Education Act 2006 and the establishment of a faith and cohesion unit within the newly formed Department for Communities and Local Government’.
Dhaliwal argues that the faith agenda was influenced prior to New Labour coming to power by the relationships between the Labour Party and local ethnic minority councillors involved with religious organisations at local and national level. Minority religious identity politics involved arguing for the same privileges that Christianity enjoys, and this was taken up by Labour in opposition as part of their arguments around racial equality.
This trend has created a new industry which can be termed the ‘faith industry’ similar to the ‘race industry’ of the 1970s and 1980s. The race industry was created by the likes of Commission for Racial Equality, GLC (Greater London Council) and local authorities with the backing of government to promote multiculturalism. This effort obviously failed, with many policymakers blaming multiculturalism for fostering segregation and allowing British Muslims to be drawn in by Islamist groups.
Yet thought it may be true to say that multiculturalism failed, I believe the real reason is because while it celebrated the cultural heritage of different ethnic groups it failed to challenge racism and discrimination robustly. The ill treatment of ethnic young people by the white majority community, various government institutions and its agencies may have pushed Muslim, including Bengali, youth to look for alternative belonging, which is readily provided by the Islamist groups.
And it is for the same reason the work of inter-faith forums and the government’s Prevent strategy has so far failed or will fail. These forums have become just like the race relations bodies of the 1970s and 1980s, where various members of ethnic groups would sit round a table over a cup of chai and samosas. Precisely the same is happening in Tower Hamlets, where to my knowledge there has never been any animosity or tension between the various faith groups, but an inter-faith forum exists. In that forum various faith leaders share tea and biscuits and attend each other’s religious festivals but do not challenge the rise of religious fundamentalism.
Ansar Ahmed Ullah is a community activist who has lived and worked in the East End of London since the 1980s. He has worked as a youth, social and community worker and has been an active anti-racist campaigner. He is currently involved with the Nirmul Committee, a campaign group set up to challenge the rise of religious fundamentalism.
 A contact within the Bengali Hindu Community Sanaton Association estimates the number of Bengali Hindus to be over 4,000. A contact from the Bengali Christian Fellowship, Bangladesh Christian Association and Bangladesh Community Church estimates their members to be a few hundred (400-500). The Bengali Buddhists are also in the hundreds, although the 2011 Census gives the number of 2,726, which probably includes white & other South Asian Buddhists.
 Ted Cantle (Chair) (2001) Community Cohesion: A Report of the Independent Review Team, HMSO: Home Office.
 Sukhwant Dhaliwal (2007) From Anti Racism to Religious Identity Politics, speech delivered at South Asia Watch Public Forum, SOAS, University of London, 10May 2007
 For analysis, see Samuel Westrop (2013) The Interfaith Industry. London: Stand for Peace. (http://standforpeace.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Interfaith-Industry.pdf).