Brick Lane is every liberal's dream today. It's a brewing pot for cultures meshing together, drawing different groups with different lifestyles under one street. The cosmopolitanism of London is embodied here. Its street snakes like a ribbon through the roads of Whitechapel, local fried chicken shops, Indian restaurants, hipster joints and pubs all adjoined in one diverse blend. It doesn't quite have the hipster feel that places like Shoreditch and Homerton have, but it's a town in constant flux, changing, moving, no-one standing still ever really.
It's also town made up mostly of a Bangladeshi-Muslim demographic. And the magnetic hub at the centre that daily draws people in - and unfortunately controversy sometimes - is the East London Mosque. It's a town everyone suspects to be a breeding ground of extremism, cultural misogyny and religious corruption. Those things exist, but sometimes aren't nearly as significant as the economic transformation of the area that is deepening the social crisis for the local Muslims.
In many ways, the changing gentrification of East End at the hands of rich property developers and liberal hipsters, speaks volumes about the silent crisis of poverty confronting British Muslims, and how ethnic minorities are often being forced out. It's a story of dwindling council homes, job discrimination, marginalisation and a rootless drift for an identity. It's also a story that exposes the myth of meritocracy and social mobility, and the idea that structures of privilege and prejudice do not affect someone's climb up the social ladder.
In Whitechapel, council homes are being threatened with demolition, bulldozed to make way for private housing - at presumably rocket-high prices. It's in effect social cleansing, and beyond Brick Lane it exists across other parts of east London too, namely Newham. The 2012 Olympics created a gentrification crisis in towns like Stratford, a radical transformation creating a social upheaval where the town was regenerated - in theory to create economic opportunities but in reality resulting in local residents finding it too expensive.
Within east London lives a sizeable Muslim community, one dealing with high rents, demolition of council homes and jobs that look upon them with suspicion. The story of how austerity and gentrification affects British Muslims in east London rarely gets news coverage. For all the focus on extremism, it's often brushed aside, the socioeconomic destitution of the British Muslim community, in being the most economically disadvantaged faith group in the country - where Muslims make up 10% of the proportion of prison population and 28% in social housing. In an age when cultural discrimination is high, many Muslims often fear their name and appearances have battered their employment odds, reflected in the unemployment rates for groups. Unemployment rates particularly affect Bangladeshi and Pakistani women, the vast majority being Muslims and visibly so due to the hijab; this often leads to some employers discriminating against them more easily. Some of this is not simply down to racism and 44% of Muslim women surveyed in the poll admitted it was because of their home duties, which compared to 16% for women across wider society. On one level, this does suggest that lack of cultural integration creates destitution for British Muslims.
But it also shows that every story is layered with multiple narratives that are deliberately left untouched. The story of British Muslims being one of the biggest victims of cuts to public services and social security, of being impoverished partly by discrimination does not sit well with those calling for greater integration of Muslims.
Right now many young British Muslims are simply excluded from opportunities. A lot of them know nothing beyond poverty, and if they don't turn to extremism, some will turn to drugs and crime. In east London, those who do drift to the margins of society don't turn to religion and terrorism always to solve their poverty-fuelled lives but gang-related crimes. It provides them with some sense of inclusion, some stake in a society that otherwise ignores their existence.
The integration of British Muslims cannot solely focus on the religious aspects of it, on looking at what we can do to stop extremist preachers, socially conservative scholars and online radicalisation. For there to be cultural integration there has to also be economic integration. Many British Muslims do not see Britain as their home, largely a product of postcolonial grievances, partly a product of religious disdain for British liberalism but significantly because of a lack of economic opportunities.
Integration is hard to implement when you're given so few opportunities to climb out of poverty.Suggest a correction