I came to Britain from Bangladesh in 1976 at the age of nine. At that time east London was a very scary place, something of a racial battleground.
Every Sunday the National Front (NF) would come to one end of Brick Lane with their skinhead gangs to hold a street meeting, at the end of which they would march together and attack shops and passers-by.
On one occasion I narrowly avoided a beating because a shopkeeper pulled me inside just as the NF were passing. The young people in particular lived in fear. We even used to fear going to school.
The end of the school day, even in the Church of England primary school I went to, was a particularly tense time. Going home was dangerous and my friends and I were attacked on very many occasions.
That situation led to most Bangladeshis deciding to send their children to one particular school so that there would be safety in numbers.
That same feeling has led many immigrant communities to choose to live in the same area—there is a strong feeling that we need security.
In 1978 my family lived in a ground-floor flat in Wapping, and every week our windows would be broken. Guy Fawkes Night was always a particularly bad night for us, as we’d get firecrackers put through our letterbox.
It was normal for us to be called “Paki” and to be sworn at in the street. Trips outside of our immediate neighbourhood were even more dangerous.
I remember one occasion, going to buy my school uniform from a shop a few miles away in Poplar and being attacked by a gang of skinheads.
The idea that we Bangladeshis ever chose to live in particular areas because we don’t like living near white people is nonsense. The fact is that whenever we moved into an area, like Brick Lane for example, many of the white residents chose to move away because they didn’t want to live near us.
In particular, they didn’t want their children to go to school with us or alongside foreigners in general.
Conversely, our parents wanted us to mix with English children. They thought it would help us to improve our language skills and help us to integrate.
Things have improved enormously over the past 30 years. Bangladeshis and other migrant communities have made Tower Hamlets their home and the days of racist gangs stalking children on their way home from school are thankfully behind us.
But I worry that in the current climate, where sections of the media and some politicians are attempting to scapegoat Muslims for many of society’s problems, we could stop making progress.
Something that particularly worries me is the way that today’s bigotry is so specifically targeted against Muslims.
In the 1970s and 1980s the attacks were directed against blacks and Asians.
In response, we all stood united and fought against them together. Now bigots are deliberately singling out Muslims and hope that they can get support from other immigrant communities. I think that is part of the classic strategy of divide and conquer.
The “war on terror” has accelerated that process and in Britain things changed dramatically after the 7/7 bombings. Despite the fact that almost all Muslims condemned the attacks, we as a community were still blamed by some.
In particular, Muslim women who wear the hijab became fearful of going out. Even today you might notice that not many use public transport because they fear being treated with suspicion, or being abused and attacked.
One of the tragedies is that until 7/7 very many Muslims were beginning to feel that Britain was their home. One sign of that is that we started to bury our dead here.
Until the 1990s many Muslims would send their relatives back to Bangladesh, Pakistan or India to be buried. That practice is not very common today.
Another sign is the growing number of purpose-built mosques in Britain. Contrary to what many racists think, building a mosque is not a sign of wanting to be separate. It is a way of saying, “We belong here. This is our home.”
But I get a sense that the spirit of united resistance that was there in the 1970s is coming back.
People, including many non‑Muslims, are saying they that will not leave us to stand alone.
You can see that in the way people came together to defend the community, and the East London Mosque in particular, from attack by the English Defence League (EDL) in the spring of 2010.
People in Tower Hamlets first heard about the EDL after they planned an attack on the Harrow Mosque in north west London in September 2009.
People helped spread the word of a counter-demonstration by text and many of our young people went to help defend the community in Harrow.
When they got there they found that the mosque had worked with many others, including other faith groups and trade unions, and that Muslims were not on their own against the EDL.
So when the EDL threatened us in Tower Hamlets, we decided to use the same model. The EDL, inspired by the documentaries and writings of journalists such as Andrew Gilligan, Martin Bright and others, claimed that Muslims were attempting to turn Tower Hamlets into an Islamic state, which is absolute nonsense.
When the Dutch anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders came to Britain in March 2010, the EDL came to support him and brought placards that read, “Close down the East London Mosque”.
From then we started to hear rumours that they were going to come here to attack us.
In June 2010 they singled out an Islamic conference and mounted a campaign calling for it to be banned for having so-called “radical” speakers.
This was a lie—something that both the police and the local council confirmed. Despite this, the conference had to be cancelled and this infuriated many young people in particular.
They now felt as though everyone was against them. But one local resident, Glyn Robbins, took the initiative and got a campaign to defend the mosque up and running. He sent round a letter saying that the EDL was not welcome in Tower Hamlets and from that a meeting was organised with Unite Against Fascism.
A small group of Muslims from the East London Mosque went along and found a large number of non-Muslims there who wanted to join with us to defend the community and we were surprised at how passionate they were.
We had gone to the meeting having been advised by our elders that the best thing to do was to ignore the racists and their provocations, which they said would go away eventually. This feeling was echoed by the then leadership of Tower Hamlets council.
Nevertheless, we came away from the meeting feeling that we should resist and that we would not be alone if we did.
Something else that convinced me of the need for a counter-
demonstration was the knowledge that if we did nothing, the Muslim youth would come out to defend the community regardless, but they would be forced to stand alone.
That would have been a disaster. An organised protest was the best way to channel their anger in a constructive way. We decided a counter-demonstration would be positive, showing that the wider community was united and would not be divided by racism.
At the meeting I proposed that we have a rally at the London Muslim Centre, which is part of the East London Mosque, involving people of all faiths and none so that we could show that we all stood shoulder to shoulder.
I wanted our young people to see that the majority of white people are not racist or bigoted, that we have many friends and allies among them.
In the event, the rally was packed. More than 1,000 people came and we couldn’t fit everyone in. It really lifted everyone’s spirits and proved emphatically that Muslims were not alone.
News of the success of the rally spread far and wide, with the Bengali media spreading the word across the country. It also helped defuse some of the tensions between the different youth gangs in the area because people started to see that they had a common enemy in the EDL.
The following week we had our counter-demonstration, even though we knew that the EDL had decided against coming to Tower Hamlets.
Around 5,000 people came together for a massive show of unity. Everyone was there. The march was young and old, Bengali, Somali, African-Caribbean and English. The EDL threat served to show that we are not alone—it helped to bring us all together.
I think that the main reason that the Muslim community in east London resisted pressure not to hold a counter-demonstration is the long history of anti-racism here.
In particular, those of us Muslims who were brought up in this country believe we have rights and that we have to stand up for them. Britain is our country too.
This is an edited version of the interview in the book.
Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement
Edited by Hassan Mahamdallie. £8
A vibrant, informative collection of essays that sets out to defend Britain’s multicultural way of life
Contributors include Peter Hain MP, Tariq Modood, Liz Fekete, Danny Dorling, Salma Yaqoob, Ken Livingstone, Sabby Dhalu, Billy Hayes, Weyman Bennett, Dilowar Khan, Michael Rosen and Zita Holbourne
Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk