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Answering the EDL in Tower Hamlets

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Even though Tower Hamlets is just a short tube or bus ride from Westminster it is disappointing that no members of the government bothered to stand shoulder to shoulder with their local neighbours in the face of threats and intimidation from the English Defence League on Saturday.

Had she found the time Home Secretary Theresa May would have been able to explain to puzzled residents how by banning an EDL march she knowingly facilitated an equally threatening 'static' demonstration by the very same organisation. She would also have had an opportunity to explain to the well behaved, multi-faith, multi-cultural United East End coalition why she had decided to ban their wholly benign march as well as the EDL's malign one. Moreover, if she had listened to the speeches of the Reverend Alan Green, Rector of St John on Bethnal Green and Leon Silver from the Nelson Street Synagogue (delivered by his Christian friend Green as Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath) in support of their Muslim neighbours she might have learnt something about the symbolic importance of East End solidarity and unity - not least in a year in which East Enders mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.

Instead it was left to Lutfur Rahman, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, to lead a team of councillors and Town Hall staff on a tour of the borough today to ensure that all residents of this multicultural London borough felt safe and secure enough to go about their normal business. This exercise in community reassurance was more than just a token gesture, in the prevailing circumstances it was vital and effective. Not only does the EDL pose a real and current threat to community safety and confidence but its provocative behaviour also raises unhappy recent memories for many local residents.

During the course of my research in Tower Hamlets I am always struck by the vivid and frightenening accounts of a large number of local people who experienced the violence and intimidation that accompanied the extremist politics of the British National Party and the National Front two and three decades ago. Numerous residents recall having windows broken and facing a routine barrage of racist abuse and intimidation. After years of suffering assaults described by their assailants as 'Paki bashing' (even though most victims had family backgrounds in Bangladesh) they fought back and drove the racist thugs out of Tower Hamlets. Policing in Tower Hamlets then was not the partnership operation it was today with the Mayor, local councillors and communities. But such experience leaves its scars, and this has become problematic now that more tightly focused anti-Muslim hate crimes and Islamophobia generally have become more prevelent during the last decade.

On a brisk walk about the borough Mayor Rahman stopped to chat to shoppers and shopkeepers in Brick Lane before entering the Brick Lane Mosque for prayers. I spoke to a local resident outside the mosque who recalled the day when the racist David Copeland known as the Nail Bomber tried to bring terrorism to Brick Lane. Copeland is safely imprisoned but his willingness to kill inocent civilians came back to mind when Anders Breivik resorted to terrorism in Norway in pursuit of the same anti-Muslim political agenda as the EDL. It is wrong to bracket the EDL with Breivik in all respects but it would be negligent to ignore the anti-Muslim bigotry they share.

Throughout the day Mayor Rahman and his team offered real leadership and encouragement in the face of a day long threat that the EDL would attend and endeavour to intimidate the local Muslim community and provoke violence. Working hand in hand with the Metropolitan Police the Mayor ensured that local people were reassured that EDL demonstrators were being robustly marshalled by the police away from the heart of Tower Hamlets. When in the afternoon approximately 1,000 EDL demonstrators arrived on the borough boundary at Aldgate they were expertly marshalled by police so as to reduce their ability to intimidate local people.

Earlier in the day in the heart of the Borough in Whitechapel Road near the East London Mosque the target of ill informed EDL campaigning, the Mayor addressed the same solidarity event as Rev. Alan Green and showed sound leadership skill by commending community solidarity while urging calm and close co-operation with the police. The Mayor was followed onto the platform by Dilwar Hussain Khan, chairman of the East London Mosque, who recalled his own experiences of racist violence in Tower Hamlets in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.

Today Khan's mosque faces a specific threat of intimidation from the EDL because of the EDL's ill informed assessment of 'Muslim extremism'. Worryingly for the Home Secretary the EDL base their flawed 'extremism' assessment on the one provided by her cabinet colleague Michael Gove in his book Celsius 7/7. In my new book I explain why Gove is wrong, why it matters and why the policy of demonising loyal and effective Muslims like Khan and their mosques is dangerous and counter-productive as well as unjust.

I will send a copy of my book to Theresa May - along with a copies of the speeches by Mayor Rahman, Rev. Green and Lionel Silver she missed in Tower Hamlets today. It is time she understood how the EDL campaign against Tower Hamlets is nurtured by too many of her colleagues in neighbouring Westminster.