LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Muslim Londoners -
Harun Rashid Khan with his family
Clockwise: Harun Rashid Khan with his wife, Farzana and their daughters, Aneesa, Safiyya and Maria.
Date of photography: 18th November 2017
At home, Harun Rashid Khan, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, together with his wife, Farzana, and their three daughters, Aneesa, Maria and Safiyya, talk openly about the difficulties faced by the million-strong community of British Muslims in a climate where some Brits see every Muslim as a likely jihadist and the ‘enemy within’. The right-wing, tabloid press are largely responsible for fuelling this hatred and, post-EU Referendum, this ‘inculcated xenophobia’ has been extended to include East Europeans who, as fellow EU nationals, have every right to live and work in the UK. Harun says, ”I am now made to feel like an outsider in my own country. I find myself repeatedly having to prove my loyalty to this country, to justify my right to be here. I feel we are constantly required to show that we are legitimate members of society.” But deep down, Harun still believes that peaceful coexistence amongst different peoples is possible and that, in many ways, London offers some superb examples of what can be achieved. Let us hope he is right.
In 2013, I interviewed and photographed Harun Rashid Khan for the second part of my London Trilogy, Outsiders in London, Are you one, too? and we discussed how a London-born Muslim might find himself feeling like an outsider in his own city, if that city were to become polarised as a result of the phenomenon often referred to as the ‘clash of civilisations’. His contribution was noteworthy, not least because it generated lots of discussion during the exhibition itself - this was held in London in 2015. (His contribution can still be read online via the following link: http://www.outsidersinlondon.org/Outsiders_in_London/14.html )
On this occasion, some four years later, I have had the honour of being invited to Harun’s home, in North-East London, and to have the pleasure of meeting his family. Harun is now 48 and still occupies a senior, professional post with London Transport; however, in June 2016, he was appointed to the position of Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain. The Council, often referred to as the ‘MCB’, is often in the news and is generally seen as a moderate, highly respected organisation that represents many of the more than one million Muslims living in London (over half of the UK Muslim population) as well as those Muslims who are dispersed throughout the UK. While Harun Rashid Khan is ex officio one of the principal spokesmen for the MCB, I wish to make absolutely clear that his contribution to this project does not in any way represent the views or the policies of the MCB and should be seen purely as his personal contribution to this project, ie the contribution of a Londoner with Bangladeshi heritage, who is British by nationality and Muslim by faith. With his permission, I have also extracted and incorporated into this article several sections of his earlier interview - the relevance of these sections remains unchanged.
Throughout its history, East London has accepted wave after wave of immigrants. The French Protestant Huguenots in the 17th century were followed by the Irish in the 18th century, and by Ashkenazy Jews escaping from pogroms in Eastern Europe towards the end of the 19th century. The immigrant Bangladeshi community settled there from the 1960s. Each of these waves of migrants added another dimension, another layer of culture and history to East London and to the metropolis as a whole.
Harun was born in Stepney, the heart of the East End, to Bangladeshi parents - they were observant Muslims. His father had arrived to the area in 1958 and was both well-known and had high standing in his community. Harun says: “I consider myself an East Londoner and had an enjoyable early life there. I have many vivid memories, memories of playing in the streets and feeling very loved and safe. It was the best part of my life, growing up.”
He went to primary school locally and, perhaps unusually, continued his education at the Church of England Raine’s Foundation School in Bethnal Green. Being a Muslim in an Anglican school in the 1970’s does not seem to have presented him, or the school, with any major issues: “I attended evening classes in the local Mosque to learn the Quran but being young and energetic, enjoying myself in outdoor pursuits was more important to me than worrying about being a Muslim. Later on, the Muslim life did become more and more the norm for me, as I grew up in an observant household.”
Harun’s family was quite traditional: respect for one other and for the community was paramount and was seen as essential for personal happiness and for harmony with others. Harun had three sisters but was the youngest in what was a devout family; his father prayed the prescribed five times a day and attended the by now famous East London Mosque, in Whitechapel. “Probably around the age of 14 or 15,” says Harun, “ I started to associate with friends with whom I shared an interest in learning more about Islam and my own faith, and this had a profound effect on my life.”
“Even as a young man, I was guided by the fundamental tenets and did not drink alcohol, smoke or take drugs; socialising in bars and clubs, or having a girlfriend, these were off-limits too and that was not always easy - there were lots of temptations out there. But I felt that by abstaining and by exercising self-control, I would get stronger; and I thought that God would provide me with a partner for life.“
“I found that my religion made me feel more positive about myself and the world I lived in: it helped me in striving to be fair and just; it made me more aware of my own community; and it grounded me in the notion of social justice. All of these things have helped make me who I am today - my religion and the Quran form a sort of supporting framework around my life. The entire system of belief and values that I espouse is based upon Islam and it ties in with everything I do in my daily life - in the workplace, in connection with the people I meet, and in all my interactions with the world at large.”
In a society where traditional values are often seriously challenged and sometimes thoughtlessly discarded. Islam helps Harun to identify guiding principles and assists him in understanding the ever-changing maelstrom of events around him. Harun recognises that, in striving for modernity, contemporary British society has abandoned some of the more traditional social norms and values that once cemented it together. He believes that some sections of society have been so destabilised that people may look occasionally with envy towards the more traditional Muslim family structures and values, with their greater respect for parents, teachers, authority and for each other. As a father of three, Harun now strives to instil these essential values into his own children.
From school, Harun continued his Sixth Form education with two years at Lime Grove College in West London, subseqentely part of Hammersmoth & West London College, which at that time specialised in Construction and Engineering, and he went on to take up his first job as a trainee Civil Engineer at Tower Hamlets Council. This was very much his local patch. He worked there with five other engineers on road maintenance and road safety schemes, while pursuing his studies in Civil Engineering part-time at the University of East London. Following his graduation, and having spent 11 years at Tower Hamlets, he was able to move on in his career, and to progress. Harun joined Transport for London when it was was formed in 2001, and he has continued to work there until today, where he is now a senior manager responsible for road planning.
In 1994, at the age of 25, Harun followed the well-established tradition of his family and entered what is known as an arranged marriage. Born in Bristol, his wife also came from a practising Muslim family, though they were less strict. Harun now has three daughters, one of whom is currently at university.
Because of his long-term association with the local mosque and the wider Muslim community in East London, Harun became involved with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) when it was formed in 1997, following the storms that had rumbled on since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989. Some would argue that this was a pivotal moment for the Muslim community; many felt that there was a great deal of anger and a lot of foolish and provocative language on all sides, but it became clear nonetheless that there was a need for the Muslim community to be more organised, and to find a more consistent and coherent way both of dealing with the media and engaging positively with government. “In those early days, I had only a loose association with the MCB,” says Harun, “but with over one million Muslims now living in London, the work of the MCB was to become very significant indeed.”
Harun then became the Chair of the Council’s London Committee, which engaged directly with City Hall and with the Mayor. As one consequence of this liaison, Harun took on the role of chief organiser of the first three annual Eid Celebrations in Trafalgar Square. This was to become a major event in the capital, open to everyone, and helped to showcase the positive engagement of Muslims with life in London and in Britain as a whole.
Once the world had become embroiled in what some describe as a ‘clash of civilisations’, a conflict between the West and the Muslim world [Harun went on to say in his interview of June 2013]: “I became very self-conscious, of who I was and how I would be perceived and treated by others. I knew that I would henceforth be viewed in a different light, that suddenly I might have become an outsider in my own home town.” Of course, not wearing overtly Muslim attire (Harun dresses conventionally) reactions to him on public transport and on the street didn’t differ much from before but, as soon people became aware that he was a practising Muslim, their reactions changed. Harun says: “I strongly believed that my character and my behaviour were the things that should reflect upon me and, I hoped, be a positive influence on others, on how they perceived Islam. I expected to be judged according to my character and my behaviour - that is a core principle of the Prophet - and I do not wish to be judged on the way I dress. Being seen as an enemy is never comforting, even to the strong, but suddenly all Muslims had begun to be perceived as a potential threat. They all now felt like outsiders, despite many having been born and raised in the UK, knowing little, sometimes nothing, about the country of their forefathers.”
In May 2013, just when the Muslim community thought that some stability, some sense of harmony was returning to London’s streets, a young soldier was brutally murdered in Woolwich. Two evidently unstable young men carried out this so-called ‘act of revenge’, in the name of Islam. Yet again, members of the English Defence League and others on the nationalist far right felt they had a cause to march, and mosques were torched. Muslim communities were again under attack. “To be honest,” Harun said at that time, “while very sensitive to all these goings-on, most of the time I try to continue as normal. I am part of the Muslim community but I also feel myself an integral part of London society; having to carry the label of ‘potential terrorist’ is hard to bear and the normalising of this kind of provocative language is becoming difficult to live with.”
Since 2013, a great deal has happened and the continued involvement of the US, Britain and their allies in the Middle East, including further interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria, mostly in an effort to destroy the so-called Islamic State or ‘ISIS’, has fuelled more conflict there as well as generating a terrorism ‘blowback’ to mainland Europe and to Britain too. On 5th December 2015, a man with a knife attacked three people at Leytonstone Tube Station, shouting "This is for Syria”. In March 2017, Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old British man, drove his vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, injuring 50 people, four of them fatally, and finally murdering a Police Officer on guard duty at the Palace of Westminster. On May 22nd 2017, the crowd leaving a concert at the Manchester Arena was attacked by a suicide bomber, Salmen Abedi, whose actions caused the deaths of 22 individuals and injured 250 more - many of the victims were children. Less than two weeks later, on 3rd June, eight people were killed and almost 50 injured on London Bridge and in Borough Market by three men wielding knives and wearing imitation suicide vests. In November 2017, a Tube train was targeted with an improvised explosive device that, thankfully, failed to detonate properly though it did injure and burn around 30 passengers. The Metropolitan Police claim that they have successfully thwarted a number of other potential terrorist attacks on London, by penetrating networks and arresting individuals who were engaged in the planning or organising of further attacks.
Following these incidents, it is hardly surprisingly that hate crimes against Muslims on London’s streets have risen significantly too. Since the Brexit vote, there has been a general spike in hate attacks against people who are perceived by the majority as ‘other’ - East Europeans, Muslims, Jews and gays. After the Westminster Bridge attack, the Metropolitan Police reported a 40% rise in the number of racist incidents in the capital and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, spoke about a fivefold increase in Islamophobic attacks since the atrocity at London Bridge.
The above incidents were followed by an indiscriminate acid attack by four white men on mopeds who targetted anyone in Tower Hamlets who looked ‘Asian’, assuming they must be Muslim.
The Sutton Islamic Centre in south London suffered a graffiti attack that read: “Terrorise your own country!” In June 2017, a white van was driven into worshippers near Finsbury Park Mosque, in north London, causing significant injuries. In July, a Manchester mosque suffered its third arson attack in three years, an attack which Greater Manchester Police are now investigating as a hate crime.
In an interview he gave to the New York Times, in June 2017, Harun Khan reported: “Over the past weeks and months, Muslims have endured many incidents of Islamophobia, and this is the most violent manifestation to date,” and Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, commented: “I’m calling on all Londoners to pull together and send a clear message around the world that our city will never be divided by these hideous individuals who seek to harm us and destroy our way of life.”
Jacob Davey, of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who analyses extremist material online, observed: “Islamist militants and far-right extremists have fed on one another’s hatred to recruit people for their causes,” while Shiraz Kothia, of the London Muslim Community Forum, said: “I think it could escalate. We’ve got the right-wing extremists and we’ve got the Muslim extremists; I’m really worried. Today, it’s trouble outside a mosque. Tomorrow, outside a church?”
I asked Harun if, despite all the recent hostility towards Muslims in London, he feels optimistic about things getting better: “I do, Milan, because I know that most people just want to get on with their lives. Yes, we have threats, and both Muslims and non-Muslims are being attacked, but every day I try to remind myself that the actual danger must not be exaggerated. On the evidence we have, statistically, many more people are injured or killed through the ordinary misfortunes of daily life - traffic accidents, domestic accidents and crime - than as a result of Islamist terrorism or attacks by the far right. Yes, it is certainly true that attacks on Muslims in London are on the increase; this is undoubtedly worrying and must be condemned, but the frequency and scale of these attacks should not be over-exaggerated. We must always try to keep things in perspective. I feel strongly that things can still be turned around, though there is lots of work to be done and many more bridges to be built between our communities. We also have to accept that there will always be crazy individuals amongst us, people who are susceptible to brainwashing and easily coaxed into fanaticism. Sadly, the hatred of others who are different from us, xenophobia, will no doubt remain an unappealing part of our complex world, certainly for as long as there is such gross inequality in how people have to live their lives.”
It is certainly true to say that during recent years, we have all witnessed increasing polarisation within our society and London has not been exempt from these unwelcome developments. The gap between those who have nothing and those who are fabulously wealthy continues to widen and, while the rise of nationalism and extreme rightwing movements in the UK, Europe and the USA are often presented as a reaction to Islamic extremism, these movements are in reality much more complex and sinister. Brexit has divided the nation; it has liberated an ugly and disturbing xenophobia and would seem to have licensed physical attacks, sometimes murderous attacks, upon anyone who is perceived as alien. It appears that many UK citizens, who hold deeply-ingrained nationalistic views and espouse so-called ‘patriotic’ sentiments, have felt that a majority vote to leave the EU has suddenly freed them to express their vile opinions openly, often through the social media. This has engendered fear in the hearts of all those Londoners who are ‘foreign’ or in some other way ‘different’, though they be British citizens who have been born and raised here, in this city of ours, and who have lived here all their lives.
I asked Harun for his response to a very difficult question: ‘How, as a civilised, multi-cultural society, should we deal with ‘Extreme Islam’, the ‘Extreme Right’ and, for that matter, any other violent extremists in what is supposedly a democratic society with freedom of speech?’ “One of the best ways,” says Harun, “is for people to come together in solidarity. The massed voices of ordinary people must be heard against all this extreme stuff, on all levels - on the governmental level, on the level of civil society, and in all the media. For minorities, like Muslims, these things are very important: we have to make sure that the majority doesn’t automatically associate Islam with extremist views and terrorism.”
While discussing polarisation within several of our diverse communities, I was tempted to ask Harun something about the escalating and seemingly ineluctable conflict between Muslims themselves, between the Shia and the Sunni, differences that appear to underlie the main conflicts, both in the Middle East and indeed further afield. I asked Harun if he feared that this ancient hostility might come to divide Muslims in Britain too, precisely at a time when unity is paramount. Harun replied: “Yes, the differences are undoubtedly present but I feel that over here they are not very significant. You have to understand that, on the international level, these divisions have been exploited for geo-political reasons; in the Middle East, they provide cover for wars, and indeed proxy wars, that have quite specific economic and political aims; they have almost nothing to do with religion.”
“Now, with my MCB hat on, I wish to say that we are very much a non-sectarian organisation and we strive to minimise the risk of extremism and sectarianism gaining ground. We always strive to keep to a middle position and, as you can imagine, for that very reason we often get criticised by both sides. Of course, as you would expect, during periods of heightened tension internationally, pockets of unrest will come to our attention here; in such cases, as a non-sectarian institution, we do try to intervene, to offer mediation, and to present the opposing view, the other perspective. And when we ourselves get attacked by the extreme right, we are attacked because we are Muslims, not because we are Shia or Sunni or Sufi, or because we came from Bangladesh, or Syria or North Africa; they cannot tell the difference in the way we look and they don’t care much about the subtleties of our religious practice. Sometimes Sikhs and Hindus are attacked too and obviously they’re not Muslim, they just look different. It is therefore crucially important that we don’t divide ourselves and make ourselves into even smaller minorities within a minority. In times like these, we need to broaden our alliance, to give us strength, and to confront irrational hatred.”
Harun continues: “Milan, identity, what I should possibly call ‘self-identity’, is the critical issue; it is how you identify yourself as someone from this country. As you know, my parents came from Bangladesh, though my sisters and I were born in London. As a youngster, I didn’t think to question my Identity; I felt this was my country and I was proud to be a Londoner. But things have changed: I continue to be a proud Londoner, of course, but I feel that my right to be here has begun to be questioned. I meet people in Scotland who confidently describe themselves as ‘Scottish Muslims’; they don’t feel excluded, not in the least - they even have their own tartan now! It is the same in Wales; Muslims living there identify themselves as ‘Welsh Muslims’. In England, it is unheard of for Muslims here to describe themselves as ‘English Muslims’ - ‘British Muslims’ perhaps, but never English. The British media and especially the rightwing, tabloid press are largely responsible for fuelling this hatred and, post-Brexit, this ‘inculcated xenophobia’ has now been extended to include East Europeans who, as nationals of EU member states, have every right to work and settle in this country. I am now made to feel like an outsider too, in my own country. I frequently find myself having to prove my loyalty to this country, and repeatedly to justify my right to be here. I feel we are constantly required to prove ourselves as legitimate members of this society. I don’t wish to sound negative, because I am naturally a very positive person, but I must say that I do struggle with these inner feelings and doubts, and I know that I have to overcome them, for myself and for the sake of our children too.”
In his original interview, Harun addressed this very issue of belonging very eloquently: ”The disadvantages of being an outsider are going to be significant and will be felt not only by individuals but also by the community as a whole. It is hard to be labelled an outsider when one is always striving towards positive engagement, to being very much a part of society. One strives to be an example to the community and, going forward, one seeks always to engage with democratic processes, at the local and national level, as the only sound way of bringing about positive change in the long term. To achieve that, one has to be active in society, something which is hard to do if one is perceived to be a ‘non-belonger’, an outsider. Without involvement, one has no voice, whereas activism and participation in the democratic process demonstrate to doubters that one is definitely not an outsider.”
Speaking to Harun, it was obvious that he was aware of those Muslims who have a utopian vision of an international Islamic State - a new ‘Caliphate’ - and they are prepared to sacrifice almost anything and anyone to achieve it. While dreams have their place, he believes that government in the real world has in many ways to be the pragmatic management of imperfection, of extraordinary diversity, and often of conflicting interests. “One can have one’s religion, one’s personal vision of an ideal world, but ultimately, one has to live alongside those whose lives, beliefs and expectations are very different from one’s own,” says Harun. “My own children visited Bangladesh a few years back but they don’t see themselves as anything but British; they wouldn’t identify themselves as anything else. My aim is to do anything within my power to make my children feel safe here, Muslim by religion, Bangladeshi by ethnicity, but British citizens; above all, I never want them to be seen, or to see themselves, as outsiders.”
Towards the conclusion of this interview, I asked Harun if there was one thing he would wish for, to make the lives of Muslims in London easier or more convivial. Unhesitatingly, he replies: “My greatest wish would be to change the way Muslims are portrayed in the media. I wish the newspapers and the media in general would stick to the facts and stop indulging in tendentious distortions. Fake news is constantly talked about now but the facts in newspaper headlines have been deliberately distorted for many, many years. And these distortions are specifically, cynically designed to pander to people’s fears and prejudices, and they most certainly succeed in creating divisions and conflict. They are blatant encouragements in the spreading of racial hatred and the promotion of fear of ‘the other’. There is no doubt in my mind that, over all these years, they have certainly done their job: Muslims are now routinely painted in a negative light and these days, we are all seen as potential terrorists. Initially, Muslims somehow imagined that their lives might not be touched by the Brexit referendum; however, it is now becoming eminently clear that behind the slogan, ‘Getting Our Country Back’, there is a whole panoply of racism and xenophobia, conveying a very clear message, not just to East Europeans but to almost all ethnic minorities, that it is time to get out. We are all made to feel that we no longer belong.”
Since I have already mentioned the importance of Social Media as a means of spreading Islamophobia, it is worth taking note at this point of a study, published recently by researchers from the anti-racist organisation, Hope not Hate. For a number of years now, they have followed the activities of a global network of anti-Muslim activists. They noted significant growth in the number of followers of these ant-Muslim twitter accounts, of fake news spread via Facebook and other social Media channels, especially during and after terrorists attacks (this could probably have been predicted ). Patric Hermansson, one of the researchers for Hope not Hate, has said: “The growth among Twitter accounts and websites spreading anti-Muslim hate is alarming. In such a key area of public interest, it is an indication of increased interest in these views and, as each account or site grows, more people are exposed to deeply prejudiced anti-Muslim views.”
For example, following the gruesome attack on the Manchester Arena, Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) has seen an increase in the number of his ‘followers’ of more than forty thousand, with further increases after the Westminster and London Bridge attacks. Networks of these various online forums have thus become a vast echo chamber for magnifying and spreading anti-Muslim propaganda, for generating hatred of Islam, and for distributing deliberately manipulated images designed to paint all Muslims with the same brush, as the enemy within. Basically, all the world’s extremists and demagogues are now using exactly the same tools to attack and to discredit their opponents, or indeed anyone and everyone who dares to hold views that differ from theirs. We really do live in dangerous times for democracy.
Harun recognises that the progress of storms of this kind is unpredictable and that a great deal of time, energy and resources will need to be deployed if such destructive trends are to be to neutralised and the manufactured xenophobia counteracted. But deep down, he still believes that peaceful coexistence amongst different peoples is possible and that, in many ways, London offers superb examples of what can be achieved. I do hope he is right.
Text edited: 28th January 2018
Page modified: 17th March 2019