Today, thousands of athletes and tourists begin arriving in London in anticipation of the Olympic Games, now only eleven days away. Appropriately, today also sees the launch of Muslims in London, the penultimate report in the Muslims in EU Cities series which examines what it is like to live in an area of London renowned and celebrated for its diversity but where socio-economic deprivation remains a feature in the lives of many residents. Why appropriate? Because from the moment the Olympic Games were won, Muslims in London have been in the spotlight, for better and for worse. Some of the country’s best medal hopes are Muslim athletes such as Mo Farah and it’s hoped that the Games and the prominence of athletes such as Mo may create a more inclusive sense of Britishness; the Games themselves take place during Ramadan, a holy month of fasting and prayer for Muslims, and of course security around the Games will focus their efforts, rightly or wrongly, on any “home grown” terrorist threats.
Muslims in London is based on research undertaken in Waltham Forest, an Olympic borough in north east London which neighbors the Olympic site. Waltham Forest has been home to different waves of immigrants since the mid-19th century. Research undertaken in 2010 examining Londoners attitudes to the Olympics found that one in 12 Londoners were planning to leave the city to avoid the Olympics. Not me—Waltham Forest has been my home since 2008 and its transformation over the last five years deserves a spectator seat.
Recent estimates places the current population of Waltham Forest at around 243,200. The diversity of the borough is reflected in its 35.5 per cent ethnic minority population (2001 census) of which its Muslim population is the third largest in London. Breaking down these statistics even further, Waltham Forest demonstrates the fallacy in supposing Muslims are a monolithic group. The borough’s minority and Muslim inhabitants come from various parts of Africa, Pakistan, China, Greece, Turkey and most recently from Eastern Europe.
At the same time, Waltham Forest stands out from the crowd and not always for the best reasons. We chose to examine this area as part of our comparative study because of the borough’s diversity and history of migration but also because it was an area which was and continues to be scrutinized by the media and the subject of police and security concerns. The arrests in 2006 of local residents in Operation Overt, a counter terrorism initiative, compounded these concerns. Waltham Forest forms a microcosm of London and the United Kingdom in which supporting cohesion and inclusion remains a challenge for local communities and officials.
As a resident of Waltham Forest, the report confirms some of my own experiences but also throws light on other people’s very different realities. There is a positive portrayal of living in the area where a majority of people feel they belong and get on well together. 82 per cent of both Muslim and non-Muslim respondents in our research see themselves as British and moreover want to be seen by others as British. Therefore it is particularly poignant when many Muslim participants, UK citizens in most cases, feel they are not regarded as British by others; only 40 per cent of Muslims surveyed felt others saw them as British.
This sense of rejection for many Muslims from mainstream Britain potentially fuels a stronger sense of local identity compared to national identity. Four in five (79 per cent) Muslims surveyed feel a sense of belonging in their local community, while two-thirds (69 per cent) feel a sense of belonging towards Britain. The situation is reversed among non-Muslims in the borough. 76 per cent of non-Muslims surveyed feel a sense of belonging towards Britain, while 66 per cent feel the same about their local community, suggesting stronger identification with the nation than with their local community.
Under reporting of hate crimes, especially as experienced by some Muslim women for whom verbal abuse was a normal part of their everyday experience, is a worrying trend the report also highlights. This is of particular concern as the local authority has invested a significant amount of time and resources in developing initiatives to tackle these types of hate related crime. The local authority in Waltham Forest has been at the forefront of local cohesion policies and the report found that local authorities were attuned to the nuances and sensitivities of their diverse communities. However, sustaining many of the benefits resulting from policies and efforts in the past decade, integrating new communities, tackling socioeconomic deprivation all while working with limited resources remains a challenge.
Muslims in London highlights the gaps preventing exemplary local cohesion efforts from fully working. Uncertainty over national identity, values and belonging in Britain stops British Muslims from feeling they really belong, and others from agreeing they do. It was the everyday, lived multiculturalism of London that swayed the decision for the 2012 Olympics to be hosted in London and Waltham Forest shows what’s needed to make inclusion work locally. If we want cohesion to work in Britain, national leadership is needed to ensure these efforts stick.