A couple of weeks ago the Sunday Times ran an article ‘London Taliban tell women to cover up’ (here). The main thrust of the story was about a Bangladeshi woman who works in a pharmacy in Whitechapel who has received death threats for refusing to wear a veil even though she is not a Muslim. She wears western clothes, and both she and her employer have been told that unless she covers her head and wears longer robes local people will boycott the shop “because this is a Muslim area”.
I know the young woman in question and her husband. Like the Sunday Times journalist and the police, I had extensive talks with her, walked round the area and visited her in the pharmacy. I became concerned that unwittingly or deliberately, the issue has been universally misinterpreted. The intimidation cannot be dismissed as the work of a small extremist Islamic fringe from say Luton or Leicester. Rather, this is normal Islam practiced by the pharmacy’s regular customers all living in the same neighbourhood as the huge East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road and the Tablighi Jamaat Markazi Mosque on Christian (sic) Street.
If it’s Taliban-style sharia law as the Sunday Times says, then Taliban-style sharia law is mainstream in Tower Hamlets today. And that’s the issue.
So I wrote this letter which the newspaper published (here):
Playing down the Tower Hamlets Taliban
Both the Tower Hamlets police borough commander and the Quilliam Foundation, the anti-extremism think tank, are wrong to minimise the threats to the Whitechapel pharmacy assistant as just the work of a “small minority” of “Talibanesque thugs” (“Tower Hamlets Taliban order women to cover up”, News, last week). The issue is much more serious than that.
I know the young woman and the pharmacy concerned, which is located in a Muslim-majority residential area under the shadow of the East London Mosque. The intimidation comes from burqa-wearing women as well as bearded men, who live in the vicinity and come to the pharmacy for their prescriptions. They are normal, local residents — the Mr and Mrs Smiths of the neighbourhood — who have made it clear they reckon their part of England is now part of Islam and that the non-Muslim young woman must wear Muslim clothing.
It is especially ominous that the police borough commander should play down the matter. He of all people needs to recognise that this is standard Tower Hamlets Islam doing its normal hardline outreach work. The consequences of this are very distressing for the young woman in the chemist shop. In the long run they are an equally disturbing threat to the liberty of the rest of us.