Psychos’ Geography

Published by TomFrancis on

“This is a Muslim Area”

There was a series of incidents early in 2013 when a small group of louts posted footage of themselves harassing people in the name of Islam in inner East London. In their videos they tell a gay man to leave, a woman to dress differently, and a drinker to throw away his booze because “This is a Muslim area”.

Here is the homophobic incident:

The image quality is poor, but in the last seconds, you can see an obelisk set into the pavement, to the left of an oldfashioned London telephone box: Unmistakably, [photo] this is just outside Christ Church Spitalfields (,Spitalfields ) . The “no alcohol” and “no short skirts” assaults take place on Fieldgate Street, about 400 yards east. Some arrests have been made and apparently those arrested are well-known for making trouble in local mosques.


Shaykh Shams Adduha Muhammad gave a good sermon on the whole episode His main points are that: • you must first live by Shari’ah before you start propounding it • walking around intimidating strangers is forbidden under Shari’ah • this is no way to turn unbelievers to Islam

For the most part, though, the whole episode gave rise to a feeble debate between proponents of the “Muslim menace / Londonistan / white flight” and “mindless thuggery” perspectives. But no one interested in human behaviour can simply call this “mindless”. The best way to understand what is going on with these thugs is to ask what they mean when they say “This is a Muslim area”.

Names of the Area

Perhaps most famous around the world as the site of the Jack the Ripper murders in the 1880s, the area is important in British history as a district where immigrant communities have historically made their first settlements in London. Like many historic districts of London, it is covered by several names – Aldgate, Spitalfieds and Whitechapel.

In today’s parlance, the three areas overlap more or less like this:

Interestingly, the whole area was known as Whitechapel at the time of the Ripper murders. So Aldgate and Spitalfields have made substantial inroads into Whitechapel over the last 125 years. It’s a common enough phenomenon: area names acquire more or less prestige and come to be used more or less widely.

How “Muslim” is “the area”?

One attack happened near the Brick Lane Mosque, and the other two near the East London Mosque on Whitechapel High Street. This must have been a core motivation for the Muslim Patrol muppets: they were offended by what they saw as unIslamic behaviour near to the two mosques.

Why are the mosques where they are? Well, since the French Huguenots in the 17th century, Brick Lane has long been the place where new communities in London start to live and trade. The Brick Lane Mosque was originally a Huguenot church. Then, with the influx of East European Jews in the late 19th century, it became a synagogue. Finally, in the 1970s it became a mosque. Similarly, the East London Mosque is right next to a little-used synagogue, a relic of the old Jewish East End. In 1976, when the local council decided to allot some land for a mosque, this must have seemed like an obvious location; there was already a non-Christian place of worship there.

A couple of decades after the mosques were established, this was unquestionably a heavily Muslim area. The map below shows the Super Output Areas used in UK official statistics. In SOA 15, which contains the Brick Lane Mosque, the population was 62% Muslim at the time of the 2001 census. In SOA 21, which contains the East London Mosque, the population was 64% Muslim.

These streets form some of the westernmost parts of the Borough of Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets as a whole has seen little change in the religious makeup of its population since 2001 – 35% Muslim in the 2011 census, as opposed to 36% in 2001. But the area we are looking at has experienced a dramatic decline in its Muslim population:

2001 2011 10-year change in proportion of population that is Muslim
SOA 21 64% 39% -39%
SOA 15 62% 39% -37%
SOA 13 51% 44% -14%
SOA 17 44% 48% +9%
SOA 26 38% 33% -13%

What we are seeing, without doubt, is long-term gentrification. The poorer Muslim community largely of Bangladeshi origin is drifting out towards the cheaper Eastern parts of the borough. The boundaries of Whitechapel are drifting Eastwards. The gentrifying areas that were part of Whitechapel in Jack’s day are differently named now. The mosques remain, but the believers are moving on.

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