John Biggs, the Labour Mayor of Tower Hamlets, is demanding a full apology from the Sunday Times for allowing one of its columnists to suggest that suicide bombers blow themselves up “somewhere a decent distance from where the rest of us live. Tower Hamlets, for example.” Biggs has described these words as “divisive and insensitive” and “outrageous”. He understates his case. The words are cheap, self-serving sewage written by a dismal, attention-seeking shit-stirrer hopelessly addicted to his shoddy notoriety. The sweetheart wordsmith in question, a former BBC Today programme editor called Rod Liddle, should be humanely detained in a house full of mirrors where he can continue to admire himself undisturbed but without disturbing the peace of others.
Because peace, specifically the peaceful existence and co-existence of residents of Tower Hamlets, is what Biggs rightly fears is at stake when media jackasses use the borough he leads as casually insulting shorthand for vicious jihadism. Taking exception to the depiction of Tower Hamlets as a place where a generalised “us” would never wish to have a home because, it is implied, a malevolent, menacing “them” have it all to themselves, Biggs points out that Tower Hamlets is, in fact, one of the most extraordinarily varied places in the world. It is, after all, a borough where scores of languages are spoken and that, famously, encompasses both Brick Lane and Canary Wharf.
But, of course, the jibe was not designed with those characteristics in mind. Its purpose and, sadly, its likely effect is to call up and to perpetuate a stigma long-attached to the borough that has made it the object of unwelcome attention by great droves of conspiracy cranks festering in online silos across and planet and, more seriously, by packs of real live thugs who’ve periodically marched into and around Tower Hamlets streets, apparently convinced in their soft, knuckle heads that they are patriotically invading what a thin, pompous TV documentary once dubbed Britain’s Islamic Republic. It is no such thing.
That is not to deny that what might best be termed the community politics of Tower Hamlets can be and often have been troubling, destructive and exploitative in their own way, with a ferment about Muslim culture and identity very much part of the picture. This can be traced at least as far back as the Brick Lane of the 1980s, so skilfully explored in Farrukh Dhondy’s TV drama King of the Ghetto, and has since manifested itself in electoral politics too, variously underpinning the election of Britain’s first BNP councillor in 1993, pocket demagogue George Galloway becoming MP for Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005 and the rise and fall of Lutfur Rahman as the borough’s first directly elected Mayor.
Biggs, competent, dedicated and as straight as a die, has been a welcome antidote to all that. He won’t need telling that, yes, there are strands of an ugly Islamism in the borough’s complex weave, and that they need to be combated and dissolved. That said, it is pernicious rubbish to claim or to imply, including in the form of some sly newspaper column quip, that Tower Hamlets even remotely resembles the place constructed and smeared in seething alt-right fantasies, all Sharia oppression and “no go zones”. Anyone who needs convincing of that should wander down Whitechapel Road some time, as I often do when taking the leisurely route from Hackney to City Hall. There’s a café down there that does a very good bacon sandwich, if, like me, you are that way inclined.
John Biggs has already seen off one, rather more serious, Scary Muslim story about his borough that gained undeserved national attention. He is right to try to see off this latest bit of muck. The Sunday Times might protest that it was deployed in the service of mocking the dangerous and toxic hate preacher Anjem Choudary. If so, that won’t be good enough. The paper should hold its hand up and say sorry to Tower Hamlets right away.
Image: John Biggs (left) with London Mayor Sadiq Khan.