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This is the London that is my home

I had hesitated about writing this column after the bomb attack in Manchester, trusting that such an incident would not be repeated. However, following Saturday night’s events in London, I feel compelled to take pen to paper.

London and Europe are in the teeth of a homegrown terrorist problem that is entirely removed from mainstream Islam and illustrative of a need to actively deal with those who seek to divide society. The UK has offered not only sanctuary but an arena for hardworking Muslims to excel; this cannot be jeopardized by the acts of a few hell-bent on chaos.

I grew up the son of immigrants in leafy north London. Looking at old school photos recently, I noticed I was only one of three ethnic minority children in my primary school class — not that I was ever made to feel that I was different.

During Eid we were asked to give presentations to our classmates, just as at Hanukkah the Jewish children would bring fried potato latkes to share, and at Advent we would take oranges to school to make Christingles. To this day I can narrate several hymns by heart. I remember asking my mother whether I needed to learn them for our school visits to the church across the road; she told me she had to do the same and that their Lord was ours. 

When we were at an age to be allowed to play outside and (much to my mother’s relief) to begin occupying ourselves we would visit the blind lady next door. To us she was English, though I later learned her father was Ukrainian. She was thrilled at having company and would gift us sweets. Our parents would tell us that good relations with her were crucial, not because of her disability but because she was our neighbor. This was a contained environment, a parochial childhood, but it was one where I learned that members of my community had different faiths, but we were all classmates. This is the London that is my home.

There were very few places of worship in north London in the early 1990s; I recall Friday prayers being hosted in a church hall before a local mosque was built. I still feel my father’s hand on the back of my neck (as was his custom when we were still young enough to be shepherded) as he told me to move out of the way after praying, to let members of the public walk past. He would explain how lucky we were to have a place of worship and warn us never to bother the public when conducting religious services. 

On the occasions that we would meet family friends at the Islamic Center near Regent’s Park, we would picnic in the glorious gardens across the road. My father would ask other Muslim families to pick up their litter; respect for others in society was paramount. This is the London that is my home.

I was sent to a selective secondary school on the fringes of London, here the royal blue blazers of one of the oldest schools of the country were worn by boys of every ethnicity conceivable; 60 percent of the intake spoke English as a second language.

The British authorities must respond to the recent attacks in London with renewed vigor, as successive UK governments have been overly lenient concerning the propagation and dissemination of extremist ideology.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Here I found my home among promising Jewish students who had grown up in my neighborhood, with an almost parallel upbringing to mine and sharing the same values. The school dedicated a lecture theater to Muslim students as a prayer room; the Friday sermons were intellectual, well researched and many of the past speakers are now leaders of industry in their own right. This was an Islam that had molded to fit a successful academic environment, a religion that was in tandem with what was going on around it.

Having picked up some Tamil from my Sri Lankan friends, I fondly recall collectively being punished with them for the use of unsavory Tamil language in class. As one of a pioneering generation of Muslim students at the school, we were taught that success was open to everybody. I proudly led the school’s debating team to the European Youth Parliament; the school captain the year following mine was a hardworking student, a brilliant sportsman and a Muslim. This is the London that is my home.

On the road to maturity I inevitably had to go about looking for part-time work. A Jewish philanthropist had an existing charity but was very concerned with the lack of the integration between the different communities of north London and was seeking to hire two Muslim students to support his work part-time. A dear friend of mine and I applied and were accepted. We were given the resources and mentoring to focus on interesting projects such as building linkages between the different places of worship, forming coalitions to deal with local environmental and educational problems. Here I learned the best form of giving is that which is blind to ethnicity and religion and that wealth can be used as a tool to enable societal change, just as this elderly gentleman had done. This is the London that is my home.

And then came the attacks of July 2005. I was completing an internship in the City when I heard the office roar with delight as the police shot Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who had been mistaken for one of the terrorists. It was then that I realized there was something very wrong in London; its citizens had been threatened, were visibly on edge.

I then began to notice robed and turbaned figures on the train to work, not out of concern, but because I knew that to be dressed that way they most probably had no jobs to go to, and were making a statement that they were not part of our society and somehow yearned for a world that suited their sedentary lifestyle.

These were characters who never subscribed to helping society move forward but were content to snipe from the margins, handing out leaflets outside mosques claiming that the British voting system was incompatible with Islam. Their conception of a successful marriage was to parachute an illiterate young girl from somewhere else in the world, with a limited ability to integrate with the rest of society, and at a complete disadvantage in terms of supporting a young family with the skills needed to succeed. This was not the London that I knew.

The British authorities must respond to the recent attacks in London with renewed vigor. For generations British society has accepted waves of immigrants with open arms, employing a model of integration that has shown itself to be more successful and cohesive than in mainland Europe. There is no room for those that do not wish to be part of society, and successive UK governments have been overly lenient concerning the propagation and dissemination of extremist ideology. London is not a city of atrocity and mindless violence, it is rather the city where the son of a Pakistani bus driver can rise to be its mayor. This is the London that is my home.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).