The Guardian today reported on an incident at the Will Crooks estate in Poplar High Street last night when journalists and a “passer-by” were sworn at by a group of youths.
The group was guarding a black flag they’d erected over the gates to the estate. The flag, which bore Arabic lettering, was believed by some who live nearby to be the ISIS flag.
Experts from the Quilliam Foundation have since assured me it was not. They say it is the shahada, the Islamic testament of faith, superimposed on a black flag. They think the message is: it’s your Islamic duty to support Muslims in Gaza. It is also said that by using a black, which is the colour of war in Sunni Muslim traditions, the message has jihadist overtones.
But I suppose it’s intent that matters. Who put these youths up to it? Did anyone? Are they actually thinking about what they’re doing?
I’ve also heard it argued that this is “Lutfur’s legacy”. The argument runs that by so frequently shouting racism and Islamophobia, he and his team have encouraged (unwittingly or not) an angry, unbalanced outlook. It’s said his decision to raise the Palestinian flag at the town hall last month increased this fervour.
While I think the town hall flag decision was unwise in a borough like Tower Hamlets (I understand his reasons, but I think there were other ways to demonstrate solidarity), I’m not sure he can be blamed for the current outbreak of anti-Jewish hatred. I suspect it’s been there a while.
I also think Lutfur has a good record in this area. He issued a strong statement after last night’s incident, which you can read below. (UPDATE AT 4.30pm: I’m told his office is also trying to calm the situation this afternoon: I hear the youths are being encouraged by some elders to erect more flags. Watch this space.)
That said, we need far more of this firm language. These kids/idiots quite possibly don’t even realise how prejudiced they are. It’s as if they’ve lacked firm parenting or teaching on the issue. And let’s be clear, this is not an attempt to smear all youths in Tower Hamlets. But there seems to be a terrible silence towards those who hate from those who should know better.
Lutfur needs to lead on tackling this. Perhaps special inter-faith task forces are needed to teach in mosques, schools and colleges…about anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim hatred.
Anyway, here’s the piece I wrote for the Express website today about my experiences at the Will Crooks estate last night. (The community activist I refer to is Sister Christine Frost: I bumped into her this morning just after she’d removed the flag.)
I WAS told this morning by a community activist in east London to be kind in this article to the Bengali Muslim youths who threatened violence last night…and who told me to “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”
So let me state her well-meaning view that they’re “good boys” and that they’ve been raising much money for the victims of the terrible violence in Gaza.
My wife, a Bengali Muslim herself, disagrees.
She thinks they’re a “disgrace”, both to their families and to their shared community.
My wife is always right.
Until a few days ago, the gates to the Will Crooks estate in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, were adorned with posters calling for an end to the siege in Gaza.
Flying atop the gates was the flag of Palestine.
Then someone–and it’s important to find out whom–had the bright idea of replacing that flag with what many in the area took to be something more sinister.
I received a tip-off about it last night. I was told the black “ISIS” flag was flying there. I was sent a dark grainy photograph but it was difficult to make it out.
So I stopped by the estate on my way home.
With no wind, only a few Arabic letters were visible on the flag. I took out my phone and started taking pictures from different angles.
A few shouts were thrown my way. A group of five or six youths approached me. They asked what I was doing.
Just taking pictures, I said.
I asked them to explain the black flag. They said it represented their Muslim faith. Then they asked for £5. “It’s our flag, we charge people for taking pictures,” they said.
I tried to keep it light-hearted: I joked I was a good photographer; they should be paying me £5.
A few more youths, all of them mid-late teens, a couple a little older, joined the group.
Then one stared at me.
“Are you a Jew?” he asked.
I’m not. I have a large nose; I fitted his stereotype.
I glared back at him. “What if I were? Would that be a problem for you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “F*** off Jew, you’re not welcome here.”
I looked at one or two of his mates. “Your friend wants to be a bit careful using language like that,” I said.
Another one, apparently more sensible, told him off. This older one then asked whether I was “the police”.
I asked him whether I looked like police. He said I did. I told him if I were, I’d probably be arresting his mate for what he just said.
“You wouldn’t have the balls, man,” he said. “The police don’t have the balls to arrest us.”
The crowd around me had grown again.
“Are you a journalist?” another asked.
Now, I’ve been covering Tower Hamlets for nine years. I’m well known among political activists, and to some I’m a target. A crowd outside the venue for the notorious Tower Hamlets council election count in May started yelling at me when they recognised me walking home.
So on this occasion yesterday, I answered: “What if I were, would that be a problem?”
They said it would be. “We don’t want journos here. They call us terrorists.”
I didn’t count, but I think there were some 15 youths around me by this stage.
Then an older man appeared. He told me to leave for my own safety. He said I was inflaming tensions. “Mate, there’s going to be an incident if you stay,” he warned.
I told him they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with anti-Semitic abuse, that they needed to learn intimidation wouldn’t work.
So I told him I was staying.
Then another (white) man appeared. He had a professional camera and took a few photos of the flag. The youths surrounded him; they demanded his camera. They wanted to delete his photos.
The photographer was from The Guardian. Their reporter, Rajeev Syal, appeared next to me. We know each other.
The youths asked who he was. He told them he was a journalist.
“Ah,” they said, pointing at me. “So you are a journalist.”
Then one voice, then several: “F*** off Jews. We don’t want Jews here, f***k off Jews.”
The three of us then headed for the photographer’s car, parked just down the road. They followed us.
More abuse, more demands for the camera, then warnings of violence unless we left.
The Guardian reported an abridged version of the story this morning. I’m the “passer-by” mentioned in that article.
There’s been some debate whether the black flag was that of ISIS, or merely a symbol of the ‘shahada’, an affirmation of Muslim faith. It was probably the latter.
However, most agree that placing such symbols or words on a black flag has violent jihadist overtones; replacing the Palestinian flag for that one was a provocative act.
About five minutes’ walk away from the Will Crooks estate is the Tower Hamlets town hall.
There last week, the borough’s directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, ordered the flag of Palestine be raised as a “humanitarian gesture of solidarity” with Gaza.
His decision created national headlines.
Some applauded his principles; others worried his action would stoke the fires of division, that his example would somehow legitimise hatred among those less able, or willing, to spot the difference between the policies of an Israeli government and the views of the British Jewish community at large.
But to the mayor’s credit, when he heard about the incident in Poplar last night, he asked council officials to have the black flag taken down.
In actual fact, the flag was removed before they arrived this morning… by the community activist I mentioned earlier.
However, Mr Rahman said: “I will not stand for anti-Semitism or any other form of hate in this borough.
“I am deeply concerned by media reports of abusive language and will be liaising closely with the police on this matter.”
The bigger, troubling question for him, however, is does he have a problem with a significant section of the youths in his borough?
It may well be that yesterday’s incident was just local hooligans looking for a cause and identity, and acting territorially on their estate.
But I think there’s probably more to it than that. They seemed to want a Jew-free zone.
The conflict in Gaza has unleashed what I think has been latent anti-Semitism in the minds or far too many in Tower Hamlets.
A few years ago, I was called ‘Ted Jewry’ by one former councillor.
He later apologised.
But social media, particularly during Ramadan, when the violence in Gaza was at its peak, was awash with pro-Hitler prejudice against Jews.
The terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Zionist’ have been used interchangeably as a form of abuse.
And all this from sections of a Muslim community that has quite understandably felt aggrieved at rising levels of Islamophobia directed their way in recent years.
Every year, a delegation from Tower Hamlets marches to a nearby mural in Cable Street to pay homage to the Jews and anti-fascists who stood firm in 1936 against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts.
The East End defeated anti-Semitism in that battle.
Now, it must beware of its rebirth.