Fighting Extremism in the East End

Simon Blish

The borough of Tower Hamlets in East London is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country. It is known for its proud but assimilated minority communities, the most prominent of which is the British Asian  diaspora. Its border starts only a few minutes down the road from where I live and I regularly spend much time frolicking about the area.

Despite it including areas such as Canary Wharf, it still shows statistically high levels of unemployment, and is one of the poorest places in the country. Adjacent to Shoreditch and the City of London, these areas bring a contribution to a myriad of diverse inhabitants, making it one of the most interesting places in London. A British born investment banker and an immigrant taxi driver can share the same postcode. So what happens when you have so many different people sharing a considerably small amount of space across such contrastive economic and cultural spectrums?

Historically we have seen a lot of conflict, and this is not to be ignored. However, what I would like to shed some light on are recent developments in the story of a borough that might have learned a lesson or two about acceptance and tolerance. You have probably already been exposed to a lot of coverage of recent EDL demonstrations and counter-protests taking place all over the country. A few months ago they intentionally chose to target Tower Hamlets purely for the fact that it is home to one of the largest Muslim communities in Britain.

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As a march was planned in September this year they were unsurprisingly met with much resistance from local communities who didn’t want conflict and ignorance parading through their streets. It was seen as a cheap attempt to justify hate by scapegoating socioeconomic problems on certain cultural groups and was fortunately not welcomed by the residents. Urged by notions of peace and tranquillity, locals united despite their differences in order to face the true extremism polluting their neighbourhoods. A very positive development was found in an effort to assimilate Muslim and LGBT agendas in a joint attempt to stand up against the EDL.

In case you’re interested, this is outlined in more detail in an article by the Peter Tatchell Foundation. Despite most major religions having a comparatively conservative approach to sexuality, this endeavour to conjoin LGBT and Muslim forces in Tower Hamlets invokes an aftertaste of optimism. This example shows an individual instance where the wider Muslim community is opening up about oppression and prejudice, and might be willing to include the LGBT agenda with theirs.

However, my only concern is when the hypothetical table is turned – if the Muslim community will accept the gays in their politics, how willing are the gays to accept the Muslims? In a culture where ‘No Femmes’, ‘No Blacks’ and ‘No Asians’ is commonplace rhetoric, where does the LGBT majority place itself next to other minorities fighting against the same hegemony for acceptance and peace?

I’m personally not Muslim but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand similar experiences of prejudice and oppression, or any other subjectivities for that matter. Whether this is based on race, sexuality, gender, religion etc, is pretty much irrelevant. I’m just hoping the wider LGBT community will agree. Despite non-heterosexual identities being inherently deviant, many of its members still enjoy the benefits of a comparatively privileged upbringing or education – and are consequently enabled to articulate a political voice. Some people are not.

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The amount of gays advocating equal marriage through online and social media is overwhelmingly admirable and benevolent, but how many are equally invested in racial politics, gender equality or the rights of asylum seekers? If we only fight our own battles there will always be someone losing out. I’m not suggestion that identities don’t create unity and a political voice, we’ve seen this historically and it is indeed very powerful. I am however suggesting that this unity and political voice should be used to speak for others as well.

Identity politics should move forwards using the paths paved by the Civil Rights Movement, the Suffragettes and Stonewall – not regress to a cultural climate of segregation and division that caused such interventions to be needed in the first place. What cannot be forgotten is that the LGBT community does not exist in its own little bubble. For instance, religion, race, class and ethnicity can all be as important as sexuality in identity formation. I’m sure most have experienced or witnessed racism, classism or xenophobia within the LGBT community and I for one am getting really tired of it. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.

What can be seen in the recent example in Tower Hamlets though is an optimistic narrative of tolerance, which suggests that we are going in the right direction. I genuinely wish it represents only an instance in a series of strikes against political apathy in the future – and hopefully it will extend beyond a borough in the East End of London.

About Simon Blish

Writing, drawing, editing - Simon loves it all.