Neighborly relations

Coexistence efforts between Jews and Muslims in London are being replicated elsewhere in Great Britain.

Members of the Minhaj-ul-Quran Muslim group 521 (photo credit: OLIVIA HARRIS / REUTERS)
Members of the Minhaj-ul-Quran Muslim group 521
(photo credit: OLIVIA HARRIS / REUTERS)
AT FIRST glance, there seemed nothing out of the ordinary at the meeting taking place at the North London Muslim Center in Stamford Hill, even though the community had been shaken by a spate of anti-Muslim attacks following the May 22 murder of off-duty British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. On June 5, a mosque and community center in Muswell Hill, a London neighborhood less than 10 kilometers from Stamford Hill, was heavily damaged in an arson attack. In the aftermath of that attack, Muslim communities around the country came together to talk about their fears and to take security precautions for their mosques and homes.
But a second look at the gathering would have revealed an uncommon juxtaposition – Stamford Hill happens to be one of London’s main ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, and Jews and Muslims live there side by side.
At the meeting at the North London Muslim Center, a group of veiled Muslim women, men in long tunics and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men – including Muslim and Jewish city councilors and local activists – discussed the rise of the far-right in England and the threat posed to both communities by far-right groups like the English Defence League.
Indeed, the ultra-Orthodox Shomrim security group offered to include Muslim sites on its patrol routes, and to train the Muslim community in security and safety procedures.
That piece of news made headlines in Jewish media around the world, but according to Abraham Jacobson, a Haredi resident of Stamford Hill for more than two decades, the media missed the real issue.
“Banner headlines about Jewish-Muslim animosity may sell a lot of newspapers, but those stories do not reflect the reality on the ground in most of London, or elsewhere in England,” Jacobson, who serves as a city councilor for the Liberal Democrats in the Hackney District, tells The Jerusalem Report.
Instead, Jacobson says, most Jews and Muslims in Great Britain have worked together for decades on a host of political issues – including circumcision, ritual slaughter (shehita for Jews, halal for Muslims) and post-mortem operations. Jacobson asserts that he and his family have more in common with their Muslim neighbors in Stamford Hill than with many of the white Anglo-Saxon Britons he had grown up with.
“I grew up in Gateshead [a prominent ultraOrthodox enclave in northeast England].
There, you feel the threat from the far right.
People do not shy away from phrases like ‘bloody Jew,’ sometimes accompanied by horrible spitting on the ground right next to you. They can’t spit directly at you because they’d be guilty of an assault, but spitting on the ground isn’t a crime,” said Jacobson.
“On the other hand, here in London, we have lived next door to our Muslim neighbors for decades, without friction or tension. I came to Stamford Hill in 1990, and we never set out to provide an example for other communities – we are simply neighbors, business associates and friends who look out for one another.
So when far-right groups attack the Muslim community here, we know perfectly well that we could well be next on their list of targets,” Jacobson continues.
A walk along Cazenove Road, a central avenue through the neighborhood that is home to approximately 20,000 Haredi Jews and 30,000 Muslims, illustrated Jacobson’s point.
The street is a bustling thoroughfare, where Satmar boys with long coats and sidelocks try not to brush shoulders with Muslim girls in hijabs. Standing at a street corner, two women – one Orthodox, one Muslim – chatted politely as they waited for the light to change.
INSIDE THE North London Muslim Centre, located directly across the street from the Simon Marks Jewish Primary School, director Munaf Zeena attributed the community’s harmony to a host of programming that serves hundreds of people per week, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Our meeting took place on a Thursday morning in early July, so the building was relatively quiet, but both Zeena and Jacobson said that the library and recreation room would be full by midafternoon, with teenagers playing pool and ping pong, doing homework or mentoring younger students as part of the center’s tutoring program. Jacobson maintains regular office hours at the Centre and says that Orthodox residents felt free to visit him there.
“I’d say there are three areas that contribute to the success of this community – education, neighborliness and openness,” Zeena tells The Report. “Firstly, we are neighbors – we live together, shop in the same stores, our children play outside on the same playgrounds. Second, is education and openness. We may see the world differently, but we are able to engage. By opening up the center to all residents, we show that we are part of the community. And when there have been criminal attacks, we all work with police to track down the attackers. I’m happy to say that they have almost always come from outside the community. I don’t even want to say that ‘both sides’ work together on this issue, because it’s like Abraham said – an attack on our community is an attack on all of us. In that way, there is only one ‘side’ here.”
Program Director Mohammed Amejee says the center was crafted in the image of Jewish community centers, adding that its ultimate goal was to provide a “holistic approach for families to be successful.
Wherever Orthodox Jews live, they’ve set up services for themselves that are appropriate for their communities – kosher food, modesty arrangements for men and women, etc. Other, non-Orthodox, centers host Jewish film festivals, holiday programming and more.
So Mr. Zeena and others copied that model and it has worked for the whole community,” Amejee says.
Coexistence efforts in Stamford Hill are being replicated elsewhere in London and around Great Britain. There are active JewishMuslim groups in Manchester, Bristol and elsewhere, as well as at several universities around the country, many of which boast the participation of prominent voices from the Jewish and Muslim religious communities.
Muslim activists and religious authorities attribute the success of these efforts to two main points: Successful integration into British society and a concentrated effort on the part of British Muslims to condemn terrorism and to distance themselves and their communities from radical imams and preachers.
“I WAS born in Pakistan, but I immigrated to England in 1975 to serve the Ahmediyya Muslim community here,” Naseem Ahmed Bajwa, senior imam at the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, south London relates to The Report. “In those days, there was no mention of Islam in the media or newspapers, or anywhere, really. People didn’t want to talk about religion at all. Today, that couldn’t be any further from the truth – people want to talk about Islam, they want to know about it and they want to understand it. I’m sorry to say it, but that is because Islam has gotten terrible press in recent years because of remarkably un-Islamic attacks on innocent people.”
Since then, Bajwa says his mosque – with the motto, “Love for all, hatred for none,” emblazoned across the main building, clearly visible to passing traffic – has grown to become the largest in Western Europe, with enormous prayer halls for men and women, which accommodate up to 10,000 worshipers. The complex also functions as a center for education about Islam and peace.
“We have a special day, called Religious Founders Day,” Bajwa notes. “Once a year, we invite leaders of all faiths to our mosque to teach about their religions. Several rabbis have come to speak about Judaism, and they’ve reciprocated by inviting me to their synagogues. It is a tragedy that this is considered remarkable. The Prophet Mohammed was very clear when he said that ‘all mankind are children of God.’” The Jerusalem Report: Although Islam is a source of spiritual richness to so many people around the world, Muslims are also so often the perpetrators of tremendous hatred and violence.
“Yes, you are absolutely correct, but the Prophet Mohammed predicted this. But we can choose to be the ones who will be saved from the fire. The Prophet says that anyone who takes up the sword will not just be beaten, he will be humiliated. We must show people the beauty of Islam and of the Prophet Mohammed to try to win their hearts. This is the only way forward,” says the imam.
Muslim lay leaders also acknowledged the fact that London was known as a haven for radical Islamist preachers for much of the past two decades, and they also emphasized Bajwa’s statement that the extremists have a minimal following among the local Muslim community.
Several factors contributed to the rise of radical Islam in London – including England’s economic downturn in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the financial support to local mosques from radical regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Young Muslims were radicalized at Muslim centers, including Finsbury Park, East London and Regent’s Park mosques, in addition to several youth clubs around the country.
Muslim lay leaders now say their communities have undertaken a period of soul-searching and evaluation of Islam, Great Britain and their future in the country.
“When the economy was down and many young people – white and colored – had a tough time finding work, it was a perfect atmosphere for the radicals. They could take a young man down on his luck and their utopian, violent messages would resonate,” says Fiyaz Mughal, founder of the online dialogue site, Faith Matters. “Yes, there’s antiMuslim bigotry in England, and it’s a problem we have to deal with. We have got to take responsibility for our own communities and to insist on becoming strong, contributing, productive members of this society,” asserts Mughal.
TO ILLUSTRATE this, Mughal points to a recent incident at Finsbury Park Mosque.
Since the mosque’s former leader Omar Bakri Mohammed was jailed in 2005 for raising money for al-Qaeda, Mughal says the trustees of the mosque had moved strongly to clean up the mosque’s image and to root out extremist elements. Those efforts paid off in June, when the mosque held an open day for local Muslims and non-Muslims to visit the compound, meet the clergy and to learn about Islam.
All the Muslims interviewed for this article acknowledged that the Israel-Palestinian conflict posed an ongoing challenge for cross-community dialogue.
But community activists also said the mutual respect and guidelines for dialogue they had developed over the years had allowed them to maintain ties, even at the darkest of hours.
Mainly, this has meant focusing on the local issues of concern to both communities and steering clear of political discussion about the Middle East. Several groups, including the Jewish-Muslim Forum of Greater Manchester and the London-based Faith Matters group have led joint study tours to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but their leaders said they were only able to undertake that challenge after years of relationship and confidence building.
This is aided partly by the fact that nearly all of Britain’s 2.9 million Muslims are of Indian and Pakistani origin, and that only about 100,000 Muslims come from Arab backgrounds. This is significant for two reasons. One, while Muslims around the world naturally feel a connection to other Muslims, regardless of ethnic background, the fact that the subcontinent is removed from the Arab world gives Muslims here enough distance to minimize their anger on the topic. Secondly, Islam on the subcontinent has been heavily influenced by Sufi thought, Islam’s mystical tradition that stresses spiritual growth alongside religious ritual observance.
Ultimately, however, Jacobson says the success of Muslim-Jewish ties in Britain is far less complicated or interesting than theories revolving around theology or sociology. At the end of the day, he says, there is little more to the story than neighbors living together, going about their daily lives and trying to form a solid community.
“We’re all neighbors here. I don’t care whether the guy next door is Jewish, Muslim or anything else. I want Stamford Hill to be a place that everybody can welcome and respect. Obviously, nothing is perfect, but I think we’re doing pretty well,” Jacobson says.