Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam

About the author
Delwar Hussain is working for a doctorate at Cambridge University

The connection between events in Bangladesh and the large Bangladeshi community in east London is intimate but not static. The influence of economic, political and generational change on the transformation of personal and public identities is profound. In particular, there has been a significant movement in recent years from alignment with secular politics as a vehicle of representation and empowerment towards Islamic-based organisation. An important element in this is that the British state has helped create and support this process through its funding policies and its application of a "multicultural" model of relating to and supporting community organisations in the area.

To understand the context of this change, it is necessary to understand the trend of events in the Bangladeshi homeland itself. In 2001, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power in coalition with the vehemently Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, which at the time of Bangladesh's liberation war in 1971 had fought to maintain the country as a province of Pakistan. "East Pakistan" (the forerunner of Bangladesh) shared a Muslim identity with "West" Pakistan – today the state of Pakistan proper – but most Bengalis wanted a secular society, rooted in Bengali culture rather than in Islam.

Almost immediately after Jamaat's arrival in government, attacks against religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh began to be reported. A British peer and parliamentary human-rights representative, Eric (Lord) Avebury, said that "Bangladesh is an increasingly dangerous place for women, minority faiths and ethnic groups, opposition parties and secular organisations". He argued that at the root of these problems lies the "cancer of a maverick branch of Islamism" that aims to "transform the country into a Taliban-style dictatorship".

Five years on, Bangladesh approaches an election scheduled for January 2007 with its politics bitterly divided between the Awami League (AWL) and the BNP (see Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh's fraying democracy" (26 June 2006). The Jamaat openly advocates "Islamic revolution" and calls for the establishment of a worldwide Islamic khalifah (caliphate). This is the culmination of a process that began soon after independence with the assassination of Bangladesh's architect Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the seizure of power by the army.

Bangladesh's new rulers sought legitimacy for their nationalistic vision by turning to religious parties. They removed secularism and socialism from the constitution, and declared Islam the state religion. This issue lies at the heart of the country's present predicament: the attempt to revive religion as an instrument to redefine the national identity.

The war of liberation appeared to have resolved the problem, but the faultline persists. Jeremy Seabrook argues that it goes to the heart of the people's identity, "(setting) Bengali culture, language and tradition against the growth of a form of Islam not rooted in Bengal". Seabrook makes the important point that for centuries, the distinction between these two realities was not experienced as a problem or a division at all.

The diaspora and the city

These issues – Islamic and Bengali identity, religion and culture, political struggle and political power – are very much alive in London's Bangladeshi diaspora, centred in the Tower Hamlets area. At their forefront are organisations such as the East London Mosque (author of conspicuous and effective Islamist initiatives) and the Shadinata Trust (a secular body that seeks to increase awareness of Bengali culture and history among British Bangladeshis).

The battle is an unequal one: the secular effort is faltering against the vibrancy and energy of the Islamists. One of the trust's primary objectives is to bring collaborators in the liberation war, some of whom live in Britain, to justice. For many young people in deprived Tower Hamlets, this is ancient history with no relevance to their lives: they regard Bangladeshi politics as distant and corrupt, and day-to-day issues of drugs, gangs and unemployment as far more relevant.

The Islamists, by contrast, are sophisticated and up-to-date in their focus and appeal. The East London Mosque (and its affiliate, the London Muslim Centre [LMC]) shares the ideology of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The mosque is no fringe organisation; it was at the centre of the campaign that helped elect the local Respect party candidate and vocal critic of Britain's New Labour government, George Galloway, in the 2005 general election.

An article on the website of the Islamic Forum Europe (IFE), an organisation associated with the mosque, urged voters to vote for Galloway; although it said he was "unlikely to establish khalifah in East London", and he has "passionately (campaigned) for Muslim political prisoners far more than some of our Muslim community elders who are still living in the days of the subservient maharajas in British India."

The London Muslim Centre hosted an event in honour of the new MP, where he expressed his gratitude to the young volunteers who "gave their blood" for him. The IFE's president, Muslehuddin Faradhi, said: "We made sure that people (were) able to cast their votes without fear and intimidation and make an informed judgment. The way we attempted to educate people was significant. We believe the impact of this will be felt for years to come."

Delwar Hussain is a researcher in Bangladeshi politics and the Bangladeshi diaspora

Also on Bangladesh in openDemocracy:

Liz Philipson, "Bangladesh's fraying democracy"
(26 June 2006)

A Bangladeshi Jamaat MP, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, has regularly appeared at the mosque and raised funds for his party there. These visits are controversial: older Bangladeshis accuse him of involvement in the massacres of Bengalis during the liberation war. But the Jamaat has made strenuous (and successful) efforts to distance itself from its extremist and anti-Bengali past, and young, third-generation, British-born Bengalis have demonstrated in support of Sayedee's presence.

It is striking that a party with the Jamaat's record can attract young people in Britain, when for the most part, they have little interest in the politics of their parents' or grandparents' country. In south Asia, the party has drawn support from those both promoted and dislocated by modernisation – middle-class people (teachers, lawyers, and engineers among them) repelled by western ideas and attracted to the ideological rigour of fundamentalism.

Indeed, societies in transition often generate fundamentalism. In London, the absence of a Bangladeshi middle-class has meant that support for the Jamaat was negligible, but it has discovered another constituency: the British-educated Bengali working class, those at the bottom of Britain's social pyramid, heirs to endemic poverty and exclusion. The path of social advancement may be closed to them elsewhere, but the doorway to rightwing, fundamentalist theology is broad and always open.

The state and the "community"

The transnational, diasporic links represented by Jamaat-e-Islami represent just one aspect of the "Islamising" of the Bangladeshi community in east London. There are further processes at work: political, religious, and "multicultural".

The social policies of successive British governments have played a part in the long-term trend away from secularism and towards Islamism. The British state has since the early 1990s deferred to a generic idea of the "Muslim community". This has increasingly enabled mosques to enter into partnership with local authorities to deliver social-welfare programmes. The East London Mosque, for example, provides educational facilities (religious and non-religious), a youth centre, a gym, a meeting-space and a library. The mosque and the LMC have also positioned themselves in resistance to the culture of gangs and drugs in the area.

These organisations share with others based on Islamic principles a facility in targeting youth "at risk" and helping to curb anti-social behaviour. John Eade writes: "The success of these projects in reaching out to disaffected youngsters ensures that these faith-organisations are engaged in mainstream service delivery channels and remain open and accountable, a requirement for public funding".

Michael Keith, the former leader of Tower Hamlets Council, observes that faith has become legitimised as a way of providing welfare facilities, such that explicitly faith-based youth associations in the borough that have become increasingly significant; to end the funding of such organisations, he says, would result in the disappearance of crucial social safety-nets of the kind once provided (but no longer) by the state.

Moreover, an effect of structural economic change in Britain (especially the unemployment of many former textile workers in London as a result of the effective outsourcing of their jobs to…Bangladesh) has been that local authorities themselves have funded faith-based initiatives that answer the livelihood needs of second – and third – generation Bengalis.

This funding has its origins in two significant events in the early 1990s – the Salman Rushdie affair (1989) and the Gulf war to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait (1991) – that were crucial in the formation of the "British Muslim identity". In their aftermath, Britain's political establishment realised that British Muslims could not be ignored, believed that gestures towards fighting poverty and social exclusion would undercut support for specifically "Muslim"' causes, and at the same time sought (for economic and ideological reasons) to cut government funding to voluntary organisations. The result of these combined processes was the rapid emergence of faith-based alternatives in the social arena, whose agents urged individuals into using their "Muslim" identity to access particular services and to gain traction over social and political concerns.

While in earlier periods British Bengalis were known by their national origin, today they are seen as part of a homogeneous "Muslim community". This is the irony of multiculturalism: policies aimed to create diversity in British society opened spaces for fundamentalist intolerance and homogeneity. Islamists have been the main beneficiary of these developments. The media may portray them as "backward" and "medieval" people who reject British values, but their demands on the British state have been and are legitimated within a government-created framework.

However, state funding is only one aspect of the rise of Islamism. As long ago as 1992, reports suggested that Asian Muslims were deserting bars and clubs and entering mosques and religious classes. The phenomenon seems in retrospect supportive of an argument based on the idea of young people being "in-between two cultures" (alienated both from the cultural "traditions" of their parents and "modern" western culture).

This led them, the idea runs, to an embrace of an Islam that allows individuals to transcend this separation by linking them into the global "culture-free" identity of the umma. The increasing self-identification of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims by faith rather than by ethnicity would seem to support this line of thinking (the summary is, a simplification, needless to say, since cultures are not static, but complex and multiple with porous borders).

A more persuasive argument relates to issues of discrimination and exclusion. Bengalis are among the poorest in Britain, and among those most exposed to racial discrimination. This is not new; but the response of the maturing third generation of indigenous British Bangladeshis is.

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Bangladeshis in London used secular, socialist ideology to combat injustice – a system of thinking that could then still lay plausible claim to the future. There also remained at that time the option of return which sustains many migrants, who promise themselves they will go "home" when they have made enough money.

Today, most of those born in London still refer to Bangladesh as "home", but in practice Bengal is distant from their daily lives and probable futures. Within the community, Bengali secularists appear today as archaic as the political left. Islamic brotherhood is a more potent tool in the fight against discrimination. Claire Alexander, author of The Asian Gang: contesting Britishness, writes: "Islam stands as a psychological barricade behind which…Bangladeshi young people (usually men) can hide their lack of self-esteem and proclaim a functional strength through the imagination of the umma".

The agency of change

An older generation of British Bangladeshis saw Islam as one aspect of a plural, many-layered identity; for their children and grandchildren it has become the basis of a monolithic ideology, the supreme identity in the struggle for political and socio-economic interests. It is also both reaction to and defence against the experience of poverty and racism.

The context of this mobilisation is both global and local. The Islamists have managed both to articulate and project a persuasive political meta-narrative after 9/11, and to appeal to young people in east London by focusing on issues of drugs, crime and unemployment. Their local success is in part a consequence of the state-sanctioned ideas of multiculturalism which dominated society during their upbringing. They have been able to use, adapt and extend such ideas by taking them far from their "liberal" origin, and joining very different movements which yet proclaim the same objective of "equality".

The impulses and actions of what might in another age have been seen as working-class anger have thus acquired a more plausible emancipatory narrative in Islamic fundamentalism. Religion has been the agent of empowerment for many Muslims in the struggle against racism, imperialism and the extremes of capitalist inequality. That this has been facilitated by state funding along faith lines is a fact few are ready to confront.

The fight of secularists against racism and poverty appears bland compared to the ardent certainties of religion. In Bangladesh, secularists and the left have been marginalised and suppressed by the post-2001 ruling coalition. While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – and George Galloway in London – seek to ride the Jamaat-e-Islami tiger for political gain, the prospects of this strategy for resolving the enduring questions of social justice, equality and diversity are dim. Jamaat and other fundamentalist groups are sowing the seeds of future conflict, as well as obscuring more hopeful and humane pathways to equity and harmony for Bengalis, in both Britain and Bangladesh.