In partnership with leading Tower Hamlets Inter-faith organizations, Faith Regeneration Foundation arrange a cohesion event with the title of “The role of faith groups in community cohesion” on Thursday 21th April 2016 at the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid Trust, 59 Brick Lane. This event is the 2nd of 4 different events under the project called “Mosque and Community Engagement project”. Mosque and Community Engagement is a project funded by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (LBTH). The event brings together 5 Faith leaders from 5 different faith groups, 9 mosques representative and approximately 10 community members. The event also enlightens by the presence of the Chair of Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum and Church of England Borough Chaplain Rev. Alan Green, Jack Gilbert from Sandy Row Synagogue, Maitreyaraja of London Buddhist Centre, and Paul Kaufman, chair for East London Humanists, Pervez Qureshi, chairman of Brick Lane Muslim Funeral Service and the Chairman of Brick Lane Jamme Masjid trust Mr Sazzad Miah.

Discussion of what cohesion is and how it effects the borough, concerns that residents and community leaders have about the nature of borough interactions.

Chair started by discussing physical indicators of cohesion or tension in the form of graffiti, abuse, etc. Members of the panel were keen to point out that in reality such acts are increasingly rare and that it could be more easily thought of as a lack of information and sharing of experience and belief, both cultural and religious.

Discussion of the “Britain First” rally outside the London Muslim Centre (LMC). Acknowledgement as a difficult issue to deal with as they give little warning of their intensions to anyone including the authorities. Difficult to organise counter rally at such short notice. Potential for angry reactions in such acts which it was widely agreed was no doubt the intention of “Britain First”. Also acknowledgement of the fact that such an event is the result of groups outside of the borough coming to Tower Hamlets due to its publicised stance as a model of London’s diversity.

One member of the group was concerned about steps being taken by young members of the community towards the heavy and repeated use of drugs, suggests that this stems from the buying up and building over of community spaces, that would otherwise be places for them to congregate and socialise, also a lack of extracurricular activities to engage and entertain youth.

Many participants had examples of the limitations of a borough wide approach to community cohesion as it is too broad and doesn’t cater to the specific needs of specific communities of certain areas. E.G. the needs of Wapping communities do not necessarily intersect with the needs of Bethnal Green communities.

Language as a barrier even among those taking steps to improve their grasp of the language.

It seems that concern is with a lack of knowledge and information sharing between communities, about communities. Suggestions were made that more needs to be done to invite younger members of the community and women to these events, to make them feel involved in the process and systems being involved. A neutral space for such meetings was also suggested.

Key issues identified causing tension and preventing social cohesion in the community:

Education – It was agreed that education is of central importance to any improvement in social cohesion. Some members felt that school education covered the topics of religious belief sufficiently, but atheist members present argued that more needed to be done to support an understanding of atheist beliefs due to their significant presence in the borough.

One representative suggested that in fact it was post school education that was necessary as it was often the case that following leaving school young members of the community became more insular to their own communities and this effect should be prevented to ensure greater social cohesion.

Further another member of the group suggested there was a need to educate older members of the population in the culture and belief of others in the borough as they are less well versed in the subject of diversity and social inclusion.

Smaller more focused Cohesion groups – People present where keen to point out that the borough wide format for discussing cohesion failed to focus on the intricate nature of the relationships in Tower Hamlets. As a result of this it seemed appropriate to suggest a series of smaller neighbourhood community cohesion meetings as a means of developing lasting and strong bridges between faith and belief groups in the borough.

More widespread community engagement – A theme that came across several times in conversation was that off the members of the community being engaged. Although it is typical for faith and community leaders to be present at cohesion events there is a lack of representation of female and youth groups in the discussions about engaging all members of the community. A change of venue from the traditionally male centred mosques was one suggestion for alleviating this shortage. The requirement to involve communities beyond the traditional borders of faith and culture to encompass dynamics such as age, gender and sexuality, seems important.

Positive Publicity – There is a lot of publicity around negative events such as that of the Britain First rally and yet there is little corresponding publicity of the positive activities of social cohesion in the borough. These events need to be publicised properly to show that they are taking place and also to stimulate appropriate engagement in these events by members of the community. Council Representative pointed out that negative events also offer opportunity for positive publicity if handled right.

Better information on the services available and accessing them – A key issue preventing greater social cohesion and correct monitoring and evaluation of social tension was a lack of information on the processes already in place for reporting issues.

When the FRF introduced their suggested feedback forms to allow mosques to evaluate and share situations of tension it was pointed out by the head of the Inter Faith Forum that there are already processes for reporting and that these are simply not know or well understood. Following on from this information it was decided that the FRF could play a useful role in helping to provide this information to mosques and communities in Tower Hamlets. It was also suggested that further systems of reporting tension may have little positive effect and may in fact work to muddy the waters.

This lack of information extended beyond Tension monitoring to the voluntary and public organisations of the borough. Many individuals have expressed concern at the inability to appropriately access necessary services such as Family services, Drug prevention services, and other organisations that have a positive impact on the community.

Actions to be taken forwards from this event:

1. Development of more localised structures to support local cohesion, include groups representing the young and women as well as other groups as part of the dialogue.

2. Development of relationship with Masjid to connect them with suitable organisations to combat the increase in drug use by local youth.

3. Organise a meeting with Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum, No Place for Hate and relevant Council departments to collate information on tension monitoring process and develop strategy for improving awareness and engagement of local communities on reporting process.

4. Further discussion with interested community leaders and media partners on ways to develop better publicity for cohesion activities and events.