Fifty mosques in Tower Hamlets: Religion, modernity, and postmodernity

Tower Hamlets, one of the most ethnically diverse zones in Europe. Source: Wikipedia

By Sean Carey

According to nineteenth century anthropologists, religion would disappear with modernity, supplanted by science. Not so. Fifty mosques exist in the Tower Hamlets borough of London alone.

In this post, Sean Carey talks with  John Eade, professor of sociology and anthropology at Roehampton University and former Executive Director of CRONEM (Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism), which linked Roehampton and the University of Surrey.

After research in Kolkata (Calcutta) on the social identity of the educated Bengali Muslim middle class, Eades completed his Ph.D. in 1986 on Bangladeshi community politics in Tower Hamlets.  Since then he has researched the Islamization of urban space, globalization and the global city, British Bangladeshi identity politics, and travel and pilgrimage. He recently co-founded two book series: the Routledge Series on Religion, Travel and Tourism and the Ashgate Series on Pilgrimage.

SC: You favor a post-modern approach to the study of society. Can you explain what this is?

JE: Post-modernity means different things to different people, of course, but I associate it with the crucial change in Britain and other highly developed capitalist economies bound up with the decline of industrial society and the advance of a post-industrial order dominated by the “service sector.” This sector comprises business and financial services, media, advertising and the “cultural industry,” IT (informational technology), and high tech enterprises, as well as the professions such as medicine, law and education. The sector is based around consumption and encourages us to be the consumers of goods, images, and information organized on an increasingly global scale.

Socially, industrial decline and the advance of work in services has meant the replacement of tightly knit local communities with looser networks which may stretch across national borders (transnationalism), may reflect individual choices much more, and be encouraged by global communications associated with IT and high tech innovation. The former wool and cotton towns in northern England provide example of industrial decline while London, a highly globalized city, demonstrates the transformations wrought by the post-industrial dominance of the service sector.

In 1986, the East London Mosque was one of the first in Europe to be allowed to use loudspeakers to broadcast the adhan. Source: Wikipedia

SC: According to early anthropologists, religion would die out in the modern world, superseded by science and undermined by affluence. It hasn’t quite worked out like that, including in globalizing cities such as London. What’s going on?

JE: In the U.K., Christian institutions, especially the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, have been forced to respond to the challenge presented by the weakening of local communities based around the parish and hierarchically structured through the diocesan system. More flexible, transnational sects such as the Pentecostal churches have rapidly expanded through a system of “gathered communities” where worshippers are drawn from areas far beyond the locality where the church is based. Hence, despite the overall decline in Christian belief and practice across Britain, some urban areas have seen a rise in the number of worshippers. Again London is a striking example where the Church of England has enjoyed a revival inspired not only by global migration but also more flexible institutional structures and a return to faith among middle class professionals working in the service sector. In former working class neighborhoods of London and other cities the plethora of “black majority churches” is further evidence of this changing picture.

SC: As you say, migrant groups have been particularly important in the revitalization of religious spaces, especially in urban areas. For example, I know of one Church of England church in   Islington, a borough in Inner London, that has a much larger congregation since West African migrants, mainly Nigerian, established a community nearby. I’m also thinking of the impact of 2,000 or so Chagossian migrants, mainly from Mauritius, who now dominate two Roman Catholic congregations in Crawley, West Sussex. The Chagossians, who were forcibly removed from their homeland in the British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s and early 1970s, arrived in the town, which is near Gatwick airport, after being granted U.K. citizenship in 2002. Where previously the number of people attending services was in sharp decline, in the last few years, the Crawley churches have been obliged to put on special Holy Communion services for Mauritian-Chagossian children because there are so many of them. Is this type of religious participation by recent migrants a temporary, time-limited phenomenon, part of social and cultural adjustment to life in the U.K. or do you think it is sustainable?

JE: Your comments support what I have said in answer to the previous question. Predicting the future is an extremely hazardous business, of course, but I will have a go!! I am tempted to say that these kinds of ethnic churches will fade as the second and third generation move away from the neighborhoods where their parents and grandparents settled. My guess is that many of these movers will not join the churches in their new neighborhoods and will assimilate to the more privatized world of the suburbs. At the same time some will engage with local churches and the activities associated with them, especially if local schools have strong ties with the Anglican or Catholic Church. The general revival of those attending services in suburban Anglican churches indicate that the suburbs have been shaped by a long tradition of local organizations such as sports clubs and cultural events such as concerts, summer fetes, and Christmas fayres.

SC: The growth in congregations for Church of England, Roman Catholic and other mainstream Protestant denominations that we’ve already discussed has happened in recent years without much comment or political opposition. However, this isn’t always the case in religious place-making in the U.K. In fact, in your forthcoming work about London, you use the distinction between “acceptable insiders “and “unworthy outsiders.” Can you explain further?

JE: Religious place-making is a complex process involving congregations, others living in the locality, political activists and government officials, especially planners. In London global migration has massively increased the pressure for new churches, mosques, temples and gurudwaras and many applications fail. The reasons for this high proportion of failed applications are various but the ability of congregations to build alliances with powerful outsiders is crucial. Alliance building enables congregations to navigate the planning process where particular interest groups may regard them as outsiders, who do not deserve to make their mark on the local landscape. In other words, they have to become acceptable insiders.

The reasons why local interest groups may be opposed to particular planning proposals are again many and varied. They are typically framed in terms of material considerations such as increase in traffic, inadequate parking facilities and noise but there may also be a racial or anti-religious sub-text in some cases, particularly where the building of “mega mosques” or “mega churches” is proposed. Furthermore, some ethnic minority religious congregations may also lack the professional expertise to “play the planning game” successfully and they have to compete with the powerful drive towards gentrification which has transformed many working class and lower middle class areas of London such as Spitalfields and Shoreditch in the East End and Fulham in West London.

Southall, London, is home to the largest Sikh gurudwara outside India. Source: Wikipedia

SC: I’m keen to know why many religious leaders in the U.K. and elsewhere now refer to themselves as people of “faith” rather than “religion.” How and why did that rebranding and repositioning come about? In particular, what strategic advantage does the possession of a “faith” rather than a “religious” label bestow on formal, organized groups of believers in civil society?

JE: I am not an expert here but it seems that “faith” is a more inclusive term than religion. A number of non-western traditions such as Daoism, Shintoism, Buddhism and Jainism do not share with Christianity or Islam a belief in a transcendent God, for example, so it is easier to construct networks which focus on faith rather than religion such as the Inter Faith Network for the U.K. These networks have been encouraged by government to promote cultural understanding and defuse tensions around religious difference. However, faith and religion are intimately related and sometimes it is difficult to tell them apart as the Inter Faith Network for the U.K. website indicates. It describes its mission as:

Working with faith communities, inter faith organisations, educators and others to increase understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths and to widen public awareness of the distinctive religious traditions in the U.K..

SC: You have been observing British Bangladeshis, who account for some 30 per cent of the population of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (and elsewhere),  for around 30 years. The borough is particularly interesting because it is adjacent to the City of London and it also contains Canary Wharf, another globally important financial district. Nevertheless, despite the vast amount of wealth generated by this particular service sector, recent government findings indicate that Tower Hamlets continues to suffer significant levels of income and other forms of deprivation, especially among children and older people. I realize that this is a big subject, but what are the major changes that have taken place in relation to politics and religion in that time?

JE: The major change is the shift from a close involvement by the first generation in political struggles “back home” during the 1970s to an engagement with local and national politics in Britain led by the second generation from the 1980s onwards. In terms of ideology second generation activists were largely influenced by secular nationalism and anti-racist struggles during the 1980s but the emphasis has shifted to more religious – or should I say faith – considerations from the 1990s. These changes reflect global developments involving Islam and conflicts involving Muslims across the Middle East, for example, conflicts between “secularists” and “Islamists” in Bangladesh and in Britain as well as the development of Muslim institutions and activists at the local level – for example, Tower Hamlets, Camden, Luton, Birmingham and Oldham. Of course, these global and local developments are closely connected and reflect the transformations associated with “post-modernity” described above.

SC: That’s interesting. One very noticeable difference I have observed in recent years in Tower Hamlets and other parts of east London is the increase in the wearing of the hijab by British Bangladeshi teenage girls and women, as well as a few wearing the veil. More young men have also adopted an overtly religious form of dress than members of previous generations. Does the Islamization of the body to a large extent mirror the Islamization of space in recent times in Tower Hamlets?

JE: I would agree given the comments I have made in the previous section. We need to remember that the Islamization of the body takes many forms and is not the only way people express themselves. It is still possible to see groups of female teenagers, for example, walking along a street in Tower Hamlets expressing their identity in different ways – from the hijab to the latest western fashions.

SC: Or using both fashion codes simultaneously – though I notice that ripped jeans are not much in evidence.

JE:  Perhaps a further demonstration of post-modern pick and mix!

SC: There are over 50 mosques in Tower Hamlets but surely two of the most socially and culturally significant institutions are to be found within a stone’s throw of each other in Whitechapel – the London Jamme Masjid on Brick Lane and the East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road. Could you provide an insight into what differentiates these mosques in terms of people and practices?

JE: The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid (Great Mosque, formerly the London Jamme Masjid) was originally built by French Protestant (Huguenot) settlers in the 1740s. My Bangladeshi friends have described it as a “community mosque” by which they appear to mean that it serves local Bangladeshi male residents and keeps a low profile. The East London Mosque is a purpose built mosque with a dome and minarets on the busy Whitechapel Road and attracts male and female worshippers not only from the local Bangladeshi community but also from other Muslim ethnic groups. It is also much more engaged in the local political arena, in educational and welfare projects and inter-faith collaboration. From 2001 it expanded its premises through the building of the London Muslim Centre and Maryam Centre which includes housing. The East London Mosque’s high profile and prominent location has meant that it has been embroiled in a number of public controversies, which the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid has largely avoided.

Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, London. Source: Wikipedia

SC: It’s very evident to anyone conducting fieldwork in areas of South Asian settlement in east London that pilgrimage to holy sites, including Mecca, has become increasingly important to a significant segment of the British Muslim population. How do you account for this? Moreover, is pilgrimage by Muslims living in the U.K. leading to the erosion of national identities – Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Moroccan, Somali and so on with or without a British component – and a replacement by participation in a globalizing Muslim community, or umma?

JE: The growth in pilgrimage is a global phenomenon and involves all the world religions. It reflects the massive expansion of travel and tourism since the Second World War, so that academics question the distinction which is frequently made between pilgrims and tourists. Going on hajj to Mecca and Medina has always attracted Muslims not just for the spiritual benefits of the journey but also for the enhanced status of becoming a hajji/hajja back home. It used to be a once in a lifetime experience, but ease of travel now enables people to go more than once. Furthermore, the lesser pilgrimage, umra, has also increased in popularity.

We also need to remember that pilgrimage to local sacred sites such as the tombs of saints has been practiced for centuries, even though it has become a much more contested practice during the last fifty years. I am also intrigued by the emergence of this practice in Britain so pilgrimage in various forms is highly dynamic and reflects global migration and new mixtures of local and global.

As for the umma replacing national identities, this appears to be true for some people but not for others. In practice, we all work with various identities linked to religion, language, gender, sexuality, locality as well as nationality and so the issue is how we prioritize particular identities in specific contexts.

SC: You have been critical of Victor and Edith Turner’s analysis of Christian pilgrimage as being overly romantic, placing too much emphasis on pilgrims’ experience of communitas. Does your critique of their views extend to pilgrimage in other religious traditions, including Islam?

JE: Yes, it does, as I have already indicated when referring to the contested practice of pilgrimages to local shrines. It is clear that pilgrimage is characterized by communitas where people celebrate their unity as fellow believers through joint rituals but it also frequently involves contestation as people challenge the beliefs and practices of other “pilgrims,” the edicts of religious leaders or the guardians of shrines. This contestation may not be expressed through open conflict but by more subtle, indirect forms of resistance to the power of others.

SC: What this all means, of course, is that religion has not gone away. In fact, anthropologists (and other academic researchers) are facing the challenge of studying religion in a new way — addressing global ties, danger and security, and several issues that 19th century anthropologists did not (apparently) face. What’s your view?

JE: Clearly, we live in a world where transnational migration is impacting on wealthy regions such as Western Europe and North America just as much as in poorer regions. Migrants are bringing their diverse religious beliefs and practices and having a visible effect on western urban landscapes through the building of mosques, temples, churches, and gurudwaras. This process contributes to the disaffection in many western countries like Britain with secular “grand narratives”, which make universal claims in the name of “modernity” and “progress”. Of course, religious elites also make universal claims for their belief systems but, given the “post-modern” conditions outlined above, these claims vigorously compete with secular modern narratives rather than fade away as many secularists assumed. We live in a world of competing multiple modernities and multiple religions, therefore.

SC: Finally, do you think that there is a danger in researchers focusing too much on aspects of contemporary Islam because jihadist groupings are such a “hot” topic nationally and internationally? Put another way, perhaps the anthropology of religion, and wider society, including politicians, would benefit from more resources being allocated to the study of non-Muslim groups – Christians, Jews, Jains, and Hindus as well as agnostics and atheists – in order to provide a better understanding of the processes that underpin or undermine religious and religious-like ideology and behavior in socially and culturally diverse “open” societies?

JE: Yes!!!  Actually, a lot of research is being done in this broader area. But, of course, funding is more available for “Islamic” issues, and it is very tempting to follow the money.

 

 

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