Not so long ago disaffected youngsters would take to a life of crime and hard drugs, a trajectory which would often kill them. These days, some young men from our Muslim community sign up instead to the so-called Islamic State, and the dream of a distant Caliphate.
Why? Well, forget theology or even the prestige which comes from being a warrior — if Sister Christine Frost is right, it all comes down to housing.
Sister Christine has worked on the Will Crooks Estate in Poplar, east London, for over 40 years. She accidentally got into the news in early August when she removed the black flag of radical Islam which was flying over the entry to the estate, and the press were fascinated that a small, lone woman aged 77, would take such a risk. But if they believed Sister Christine to be a crusader against Islamism, then they got it all wrong. Sister Christine is a committed Christian of course, but if she is fighting on behalf of anyone, it is the disenfranchised, ghetto-ised Muslim youth she finds herself living alongside.
I met Sister Christine in the St Matthias Community Centre, where Christians once worshipped when the building was a church. Built in 1654 by the East India Company, it’s the oldest building in Docklands. In the nave, large, lumpy white folk were preparing for a wedding reception, though the area is now largely Bangladeshi.
Poplar is in the borough of Tower Hamlets, where the Palestinian flag flies over the town hall and there is the highest percentage of Muslims in England. Sister Christine’s patch also has the lowest proportion of Christians and there have been reports of Muslim patrols in the area threatening locals seen drinking, wearing short skirts, or looking overtly gay.
In recent weeks the tensions between ‘them’ and ‘us’ have got markedly worse, as it’s come out that at least 20 young Britons a month are heading to Syria and Iraq to join terrorist groups. Ibn Hamdan al Bengali, 24, has stated on Facebook that he is a former student at Tower Hamlets College, just up the road from the St Matthias Centre.
But though Sister Christine deplores the jihadis, she also thinks we must address the real reasons it seems attractive to young Muslim men, which is that they feel victimised. ‘It used to be mainly Pakistani youths who were radicalised,’ she says, ‘but now the Bengali youth are getting involved too. They feel themselves targeted and they become angry.’ Sister Christine’s point is that a feeling of persecution makes a young man ripe for radicalisation. The persecution complex began, she says, when Tony Blair led the UK into war in Iraq, but now it’s mainly linked with Israeli attacks on Gaza. ‘There is a sense of victimhood, and they have a narrow vision,’ she says.
Their anger is also fed by the deprivation in which they live. ‘Housing is the worst problem here,’ she says. ‘The lack of provision amounts to a kind of social cleansing.’ The mostly Muslim poor she cares for are being pushed out in favour of the new gentry in nearby Canary Wharf. The cost of one of the early Victorian terraced houses near the Matthias centre is over £2 million.
‘There is a huge housing estate being developed,’ she says, ‘1,500 new homes, but they are all beyond the means of people around here and rents are going up too. People can look across and see homes where people have millions to spend, while they can’t afford basic heating.
‘I’ve seen four families sharing one flat, a family in every room. That causes tension — nowhere for children to do their homework, nowhere to relax, no privacy. Then there are no jobs or apprenticeships when they leave school. I see Bengali mothers, some with little English, struggling with all that. They should be canonised.’
Sister Christine is particularly angry with the Prime Minister, whom she sees as representing the gentry. ‘David Cameron does not have a clue about housing here,’ she says. ‘He’s never spent even a day with the sort of people who live in Poplar. I challenge him to come and live in one of our council blocks for a week, with just £35 in his pocket. See how he survives.’
‘I’m driven by a sense of injustice,’ she says, ‘particularly when I see the powerlessness of people here.’
She has been given MBE for her work on the estate. In the past she’s represented locals against the council when they tried to introduce bizarre health and safety laws banning doormats and washing lines, but she’s not an apologist for Islamism. She once took down Islamist notices criticising Christmas, and though she lives alone, there are five other sisters in the order who live together close by. They are also committed to loving all peoples. The other sisters are older, and she indicated that they don’t share her direct involvement with the crisis currently affecting young Muslims, but all their work comes under the term ‘befriending’. They run old people’s clubs and get the young people to take the elderly out on day trips. At Christmas she makes sure people have cooked dinners delivered to them.
‘Many older white working-class people are isolated,’ she says, ‘especially the proud, independent Cockneys who are still here.’
Sister Christine has an immigrant edginess herself, coming from Limerick, Ireland. She left her convent school aged 17 and won a place at Guy’s Hospital in London to study physiotherapy. Instead she joined a religious order.
‘My parents wanted me to do the medical course,’ she says, ‘but I had a personal conviction.’ This ‘conviction’ has, she says, only grown stronger over the years. She believes that the world is getting less caring, and she is fighting to change that course.
‘We have to find a way of getting people to change,’ she says. ‘I want the wealthy people who have millions and live in Canary Wharf to come over here and help the young people, get them into training. Make that an attractive alternative for them.’
She really believes that with a little encouragement the rich and pampered will come out of their apartments to take an interest in their deprived neighbours. That with care and attention she can persuade young Muslims to reject jihad and embrace life in Britain.
‘We must find a way of bringing people together,’ she says. ‘We must create cohesion, or we will have a Bosnia/Serbia situation here.’
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