Behind a glass door inside Al Madina Mosque, Ashfaq Siddique stands at ramrod attention, his eyes darting. He is the mosque’s guiding spirit. He is also a former policeman with Scotland Yard. He is scanning live feeds from 36 closed-circuit cameras that monitor everything from the prayer hall to the ablutions room. He is searching for trouble.
None in the parking lot, where white nativists routinely throw nails over the walls to puncture the car tires of those praying inside. Nor in the main hall, where Islamic extremists have sometimes argued against democracy with mainstream imams.
This morning, the problem is overcrowding. So many Muslims now live in working-class Barking that roughly 9,000 people attended the morning prayer sessions in early September to begin the holiday of Eid al-Adha.
“Upstairs is filling up — start moving them to the upper hall of the community centre!” Siddique, 50, shouts into a yellow walkie-talkie.
Few, if any, major Western cities have been more open to Muslims than London. More than 12 percent of Londoners are Muslim. Eighteen months ago, this became the first Western capital to elect a Muslim mayor, a milestone for residents proud of their multicultural ethos.
Now, though, religious hate crimes are up nearly 30 percent, primarily against Muslims. At his mosque, Siddique is hiring extra security guards to protect his congregates. Muslim women have complained about being spit on, or cursed.
What has brought these tensions to the surface? Brexit and terrorism.
only a month after Sadiq Khan was elected as mayor — was fuelled by a nationwide campaign infused with anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant venom. Then, after a decade without Islamic terrorist attacks, this year Britain has suffered four, including an assault by Islamic terrorists in June that killed eight people at London Bridge and Borough Market.
Even as crowds of Londoners came out to mourn, the dynamics of daily life shifted for many mainstream Muslims. Brexit and the terrorist attacks have given bigots license to express hostility, many Muslims say, or to label them all as terrorists, or to tell them to go home — as if London were not their home.
“People feel they have the right to be open about Islamophobia,” said Saima Ashraf, a local council member in Barking and a French-Palestinian immigrant. “Or to be open about their racial views, or just to be a bit more nasty.”
The Brexit vote stunned many Londoners — the city voted heavily to remain in the European Union — but not Siddique. The borough of Barking and Dagenham was one of the few in London that voted to leave, and it did so by a ratio of nearly 2-1. Many whites there saw a vote for Brexit as a vote against immigration and Islam.
For years, Al Madina Mosque has sat uncomfortably on a fault line between the Islamic radicalism of the terrorist attacks and the white nativism intertwined with Brexit.
One of the plotters of the London Bridge attack, Khuram Butt, was radicalized a few blocks to the north, in Ilford. There, a notorious jihadi recruiter, Anjem Choudary, built a following before going to jail last year, even as Siddique sought to keep him from influencing congregates at Al Madina.
Siddique has also clashed with Peter Harris, a local politician based a few miles to the east in Dagenham. Harris has made a career out of thwarting the opening of Muslim prayer spaces, as Dagenham has become a “white British” stronghold in a borough that has seen a demographic transformation from a flood of new Muslim residents during the past 15 years.
The tensions in Barking once seemed peripheral to London. No longer. Siddique knows some conservative Muslims in Ilford scorn his support for police. He also knows that the growing crowds at his mosque, like the rising numbers of Muslims in the city, terrify some of his white British neighbours.
“We get both kinds of extremists,” Siddique said. “They both espouse the same garbage — and in the middle is us.”
Two years ago, the borough council approached Siddique with a proposal. It would make available the empty grounds of a former pharmaceutical factory if Siddique could raise money to build a cricket training facility. It was seemingly a win-win — a sports complex that would be open to the public, to be built at no public cost. Except that the plans, as with many public buildings in Britain, included a quiet room for prayer.
And that the empty property was in Dagenham, under the watchful eyes of Harris.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Harris said of the moment he read of the prayer room in the planning application. “There would be room for thousands of Muslims.”
He started a campaign against the project, with one rally at a local pub and another where one of his supporters waved a copy of the Quran to show what they were fighting. At one point, Harris called Siddique to accuse him of trying to build a new mosque in Dagenham.
“You have turned it into a political football,” Siddique responded, and withdrew the offer.
The factory grounds are still empty, a point of pride for Harris. On a recent day, he steered his white Kia past squat row-houses and shuttered stores in Dagenham in a tour of his resistance to what he calls “the Muslim plan” for a “huge march of mosques.” He passed two Muslim community centres that he suspected, without basis, of hiding secret houses of worship, as well as a long-closed pub where a Muslim entrepreneur had opened a banquet hall that he found suspicious.
At 51, Harris owns a service station and leads the local branch of the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, which helped drive the Brexit campaign. Nativism has a long history in Barking and Dagenham. Neo-Nazi skinhead gangs roamed its streets in the 1970s, and in local elections in the 2000s, the far-right British National Party won about 20 percent of the vote.
For decades, Dagenham was dominated by a Ford factory, which once employed as many as 40,000 people, but the company moved its last production line abroad in 2002. Other big manufacturers followed. The white British population fell from 81 percent in the 2001 census to 49 percent in 2011 (across London, it’s 45 percent).
Many other businesses have closed. The pub across the street from Harris’ service station is now an African grocery.
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