A full, fair and true account of the short term placing of a five-year-old non-Muslim girl with Muslim foster parents in East London may never emerge into the public domain, and in some respects, of course, that is quite right: it is plain enough that the child and, for that matter, her mother have enough problems without more details of them becoming common knowledge. But there is one aspect of this affair we can already be confident about: that it would not have become such a big a national news story had it not involved Islam and Tower Hamlets.
Throughout this century and before it the East End borough has been the recurring focus of wider anxieties about Muslim inhabitants of Britain and their influence on the country as a whole. That is not simply because a large Muslim minority, primarily of Bengali/Bangladeshi Londoners, lives there but also because controversies centring on them contrast so sharply with a folkloric, imagined East End that still informs potent, post-war English myths.
You don’t have to travel far into the internet backwoods to find laments for a race of chirpy cockney patriots purged by brown-skinned immigrants composed by people who’ve probably never ventured outside Little Sticksville let alone strolled around Stepney or Brick Lane, and who might be surprised to learn quite how many of the lost tribe they mourn were Irish Catholics and Jews. The foster care affair has fed the nastiest side of that nostalgic fantasy, thrilling the usual cranks and cockroaches. But note that claims fundamental to the initial coverage have since been challenged.
Beneath the headline “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”, The Times quoted what it called a “social services supervisor” describing in confidential council reports “the child sobbing and begging not to be returned to the foster carers’ home because ‘they don’t speak English'”.
However, the council said the reporting of the story contained inaccuracies, specifying as an example that “the child was in fact fostered by an English speaking family of mixed race”. And in her published order about the child’s future, the judge in charge of the case recorded that: “The child’s Guardian [officially representing the rights and interests of the child] has undertaken inquiries and visited the child in the current foster carers’ home and spoken to the child alone. The Guardian has no concerns as to the child’s welfare and she reports that the child is settled and well cared for by the foster carer.” (page 4, paragraph 10).
Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs has been on the radio and, though acknowledging that the council is still looking in to precisely what has occurred, said that what The Times (and later the Daily Mail) had written was “somewhat sensationalist” and that claims those news organisations made such as that the child had, for example, had a crucifix taken from her and been told she couldn’t have meals containing bacon were “from all of our investigations, not based in fact”.
Moreover, the judge’s order also says that the maternal grandparents she has decided – in line with Tower Hamlets’ wishes – will look after the little girl on an interim basis are of Muslim background, albeit no longer practicing the religion. So perhaps being looking after for a few months by members of an observant Muslim household wasn’t quite so alien to the child, described by The Times as “Christian”, as early reports starkly suggested.
We can only hope that the various individuals directly impacted by all this, especially the vulnerable small child who had needed emergency fostering because she was taken in to protective custody by the police, recover from any ill effects. Sadly for Tower Hamlets and its people, the latest damage to its reputation has already been done.
The Times article managed to term it “the scandal-ridden borough” in its second paragraph. Even if the fit between child and foster family in this case was indeed less than ideal, the law of averages suggests that all sorts of foster children with all sorts of backgrounds all over the UK find themselves in the temporary care of adults they do not feel entirely at home with. But add the words “Tower Hamlets” and “Muslim” and, hey, it’s “a story” with reach far beyond the immense complexities of child protection into the febrile and sometimes fetid field of national culture and identity.
It would be daft to pretend that the borough hasn’t been damaged by political turmoil in recent years or that Muslim activism has not been part of that. Nor can it be denied that vicious and illiberal ideologies proclaiming themselves Islamic hold an appeal for some Muslim Londoners in that part of the city. All of this is true. But it is also true that far too much tittle tattle, conspiracy theory and hostile supposition have been presented in the media mainstream as credible possibilities and even fact.
The mayoralties of Lutfur Rahman, brought to an ignominious end by an election court, are the prime recent example. Rahman was not a very good mayor: evasive, obsessed with micro managing his political defences and surrounded by too many angry young men. However, to pick a few examples, claims that his two election wins were secured because of thousands of invalid votes were not borne out by the election court judgment that brought him down; a borough chief executive was not forced out by Rahman for being gay (I know, because the individual in question told me so); and a Muslim businessman who purchased the former Poplar Town Hall from the council during Rahman’s time as mayor and received planning permission to redevelop it has received substantial damages, an apology and costs from the Telegraph for a series of what it concedes were “untrue” articles alleging that the businessman was a willing beneficiary of corruption (they were principally written by Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan).
It has fallen to Mayor Biggs to lead the council’s recovery. In relation to the foster care furore, this has entailed going beyond defending its work in child protection to trying to explain the mosaic-like social ecosystem of his borough, indeed of much of London as a whole, to a national audience. That can be difficult at the best of times: it seems to fair to assume that many non-Londoners would find it hard to imagine that, for instance, a Muslim woman who lived near me in Hackney and always wore a niqab when outside her home was a prized childminder among local white professional women.
Biggs should be praised for his handling of this issue. He has declined to run for cover, sticking up for his staff and his borough’s foster carers as they go about their difficult work in a borough whose past mishaps and present character make it a soft target for too much bad journalism and sewer populism. He is brave, thoughtful, hard-working and as sound as a pound. He deserves London’s support, as does the borough he leads.