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OPED: Mayor a Demonized Hate Figure of British Conservative Press

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 6 2012 (IPS) - The London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the “East End,” is the historic core of England, the home of the Tower of London,  and now it is a Gateway borough to the Olympics. It is also the site of St Mary Le Bow church – real Cockneys should be born within the sound of its bells-  but nowadays, there are probably more mosques than churches, which helps explain why Lutfur Rahman, the first directly Mayor of the borough, is also the country’s first, and so far only, Muslim to hold the office.
He explains “I happen to be Muslim and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of my faith; I’m proud of my upbringing; I’m proud of my roots.  I’m a British Bengali, but I’m also a resident of Tower Hamlets and a citizen of this country and I share its values.”

It is difficult to recognize in the formal besuited Mayor the demonized hate figure of the British conservative press who have been portraying him as a crypto-fundamentalist. Only this week a Daily Telegraph columnist called him “extremist-linked” even though the British Press Council had recently ordered the paper to retract a previous statement. The “link” seems to be that Mayor Rahman goes to mosques – and so do Al Qaeda members.

Despite his quite proper speech Rahman still has traces of Cockney Bengali in his diction, having been brought over by his father in the fifties when Bengalis were moving into an area that was still dominated by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Indeed, he remembers fondly “My father and my brother both worked for the Jewish community.  When I was growing up, my brother as a young lad used to be driven home by this man in traditional Jewish clothing.  He used to come  in and say hello to my mother and the rest of us. My family owes a great deal of gratitude to the Jewish community.  When my father came here to Brick Lane in the ’50s they harbored him, talked to him, and helped him.”

Rahman became Mayor at a time when the centre of gravity of Britain’s metropolis is inexorably edging in his direction. His borough includes Canary Wharf, rivaling the City of London as the centre of finance, and abuts the Olympic Park and the London City Airport on the other side.

The transport infrastructure, the rail and road links for Canary Wharf  Park, the investment of over L800 billion in the Games have all contributed to a rising prosperity in what had formerly been one of the most deprived municipalities in Britain.

But it has the Gini coefficient of a least developed country, with staggering wealth around Canary Wharf highlighting large areas of deprivation elsewhere. For those on the bottom of the ladder, the galloping gentrification of the housing stock just makes homes more unaffordable.

Brought up in a large Bengali family in an overcrowded home, Rahman had made housing and education the inter-related pillars of his policy. “I come from a very working-class poor background, and education gave me the chance of my lifetime, and gave me open opportunities for me and my family.”

His career through law to politics went through the local Bow School, still one of the top tenth schools in the country, and on to City University, and he wants others to follow in his footsteps.
“Education has always been one of my top priorities, my passion. In 2008, after I got elected to the council, there was a huge number of people, some 11,000-12,000 people living in badly overcrowded situations, that created serious education and health inequalities.  Kids just didn’t have the space to study.  They’ll study in corridors. So, we started a revolution how to increase the housing stock — affordable houses; larger homes to reduce the overcrowding, and investment in our schools — make sure we have the best teachers, best facilities.”

There is a long tradition of immigration into the borough from the nearby docks, with longstanding Bengali, Chinese, Somali and Yemeni communities often derived from the “Lascars” – the non-British seamen who staffed the British Merchant Navy for centuries.

There is even a tradition of politicians from the sub-continent.  From 1895 to 1906 Indian Parsee Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree, was elected to Parliament by East Enders – albeit as a Conservative.

As an interesting sign of continuity, in the Whitechapel market is a statue to King Edward VII erected in 1911 by the loyal Jewish community, but now surrounded by Bengali market stalls and  shops festooned in flags for the current Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Rahman smiles when it is pointed out, “My father is a solid monarchist, very proud of the Queen. When he came here she was a beautiful woman; he always speaks about her.  And now, during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, he was very proud.”

When originally chosen as Labour’s Mayoral candidate, he was the logical choice as a two term leader of the Council. However, he was the subject of a “dog-whistle” campaign by opponents.

Just as conservatives in the US use coded language to raise the hackles of racist voters against Obama, similar language is used against Rahman, hinting at “links” to the Islamic Forum of Europe.  That led to his decision to run, successfully, as an independent, and his victory has done little to increase the love.

Going to a mosque with “links” to other Muslim groups alleged to be “Islamist,” provokes reflexes in a surprising range of people,  from left-liberals alert to insinuations of anti-semitism to conservatives for whom it is a convenient cover for racism.

It is as though anyone who went to a Catholic Church was alleged to be “linked” to the Irish Republican Army or the Mafia, both noted for their religiosity.

Faced with accusations that he is dependent on the “vote bank” of Bengalis clustered around the old East India Docks, he points out, “When I got elected, I had 25,000 votes — they weren’t just from the Bengali community; they were votes from across across the community – double my rival’s vote.”

He adds, “Of course I’m of a particular faith, and of course I will, in my private time, I will go and pray at the mosques.  Of course I’ll go to events, weddings, and social events from the various communities that I’ve come from, in  synagogues and of course I’ve been to mosques.”

However, far from trying to impose Shari’ah law on the borough, his main concern has been mundane issues – notably how to translate the hundreds of billions pouring into the Olympics into tangible benefits for its residents.

The resulting infighting hampers the big work at the moment: which is to ensure that Tower Hamlets inherits some of the “Legacy” of the Olympics.  “We understand very well that we need inward investment.  We need people of influence, with money, to come into our borough and help us to create jobs and opportunities.”

“Above all, I’m extremely pleased that the Olympics has come to the  area.  It gives us as East Enders of London, as people of this country, a great chance to experience and feel the Games that may never come to our country in our lifetime. Secondly, it has regenerated a part of East London on our doorstep which I have seen in the last 25 years was to the tip of London … you know, scrapyard, rubbish used to be dumped there, “no-go” area — to regenerate that part of Stratford is fantastic.

“To be left behind with stadiums and facilities — world-class facilities that will be accessible to local residents is fantastic. Very importantly, I’m also on the Legacy Board, the (London) Mayor’s Development Board where I can work others to ensure that we are able to regenerate and attract the investment needed after the Games to develop the further facilities, where there’s homes, offices, that would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and opportunities in the service industry for generations to come.   So, I’m glad the Games are here.”

Equally indicative are the friendly relations he has developed with Canary Wharf, originally conceived as a private enclave in the borough under Margaret Thatcher  and hence traditionally suspected by Labour politicians.

“All along I’ve along supported the development of Canary Wharf  and now I’ve supported the Olympics on our doorstep as another source of investment in our borough. However, that needs to work in partnership with the local community.  For me, if I was around as a serious politician when the Canary Wharf happened, I would have welcomed it, but perhaps in a different manner.”

He claims vindication for his policies when last year London was burning in riots but in Tower Hamlets not a match was struck and the streets were quiet for the duration.   “That was because of the investment we made in our schools, in services to young people in our communities.”

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