Imam Ajmal Masroor speaks to us about his experience of racism as a child in the East End, finding confidence in his British-Bangladeshi identity and how to bring communities together in times of conflict.
Ajmal Masroor, 52, lives a full life. He is an imam, broadcaster, fundraiser and relationship counsellor. He preaches at mosques across London, has helped raise over £100 million for charities over the past thirty years and has written a book, 10 Things You Should Know About Marriage: An Islamic Perspective.
Masroor lived under police protection for five years after receiving death threats from the terror groups Al-Shabab and the Islamic State for his criticism of extremism. Saudi Arabia banned him from the country for his criticism of the Saudi government’s human rights record.
He hints that he is toying with the idea of an autobiography.
What links all his diverse work together? He loves to use the power of his voice. Softly spoken and invariably charming, Masroor began public speaking when he was fourteen. He hasn’t stopped since.
His appearance matches his voice. Slicked-back, well-kept hair, a crisp white shirt and smart watch all contribute to the image of a man brimming with energy and confidence.
When he isn’t working, he is still busy. He can be found either doing DIY – he is pleased to tell me he made the table we sit at for our interview – gardening – he landscaped and planted his new garden – or cycling – his bike takes pride of place by the front door.
There is still time for his wife, two teenage children and the family cat, named Toast. In contrast to Masroor, the cat is shy and sadly doesn’t emerge during our interview.
Masroor has long traded the hustle and bustle of the East End for the leafy suburbs of Southgate in North London. But he still feels a deep connection to the area. He has an office in Whitechapel and, more importantly, growing up there made him the person he is today.
In 1970, when he was one, Masroor’s family moved to Shadwell from Sylhet in Bangladesh. He remembers the East End as a welcoming area when they moved in.
But this quickly changed. The growing popularity of the National Front in the mid-1970s in the context of rising Asian migration to Britain caused significant tensions in the area.
‘Racism became very, very in your face. From dog muck being thrown at our doors, to bricks thrown through our windows. Everything you can imagine under the sun in terms of racial abuse and violence, we experienced growing up in the East End.’
Masroor recalls the terror caused by the racially motivated murder of Altab Ali in 1978. ‘My mother wouldn’t let me out, my father was terrified.’
The year after Altab Ali’s murder, his father moved the family back to Bangladesh. His father worried about his family’s safety and that his children were losing contact with Islam. They lived in Bangladesh till Masroor was fourteen, before returning to London.
The move is something Masroor regrets. It disrupted his education and he had to relearn English when he returned, setting him back compared to Bangladeshis who stayed. It also didn’t solve any of the challenges his family faced in London.
‘My father’s [decision to move] was a flight away from racism. He couldn’t fight, so he did the flight. He didn’t know any other way.’
Masroor’s attitude towards racism is polar-opposite to his father’s. Masroor still has strong faith in multiculturalism. Despite an increasingly hostile political mood towards immigration in Britain and his own experience of racism, it’s something he passionately advocates for.
‘Celebrating each other’s cultures, religions and differences creates a diverse environment where everyone feels safe.’
This attitude is reflected in his own identity. Masroor has always asserted strongly that he is both English and Bangladeshi. But he found that his identity was rejected by both Bangladeshis and white English people alike.
‘I got told off by my father for claiming to be English. He was very upset.’ When Masroor said the same to white English people he faced similar hostility.
‘That’s not how it should be. Wherever I am, that’s my home.’
What’s the solution to this problem? ‘More integration,’ he argues strongly. Masroor sees multiculturalism as a way of enriching our culture, rather than degrading it.
Crucially, he argues that integration goes both ways. White Britons should not expect migrants to make all the effort to integrate. ‘[If you] keep on shutting the door, or keep on creating barriers, that’s not integration.’
Equally, Masroor rejects his father’s attitude of running away from integration. He sees this as a problem in the Bangladeshi community in the East End. ‘I don’t like ethnically dense populations living in one area. Human beings are like that. They like to congregate around their own lives, but I don’t think that’s a safe place.’
Masroor thinks this rejection of integration is the result of a lack of confidence. ‘[If you don’t know] where you belong, you lack confidence.’ His father faced this problem. Unsure of where he belonged, his father chose to go back to a familiar environment.
In Masroor’s view, this creates a false sense of security.
The mantra Masroor lives by is ‘Confidently Muslim, comfortably British.’ His mixed identity as Muslim, British and Bangladeshi is his strength. Masroor wants young Muslims who feel alienated in Britain to embrace this attitude.
Always with a sense of humour despite discussing such a serious subject, the best thing to come out of multiculturalism in Britain in Masroor’s opinion is the improvements to Britain’s food. ‘If it wasn’t for Asian takeaways and restaurants, our food would be very bland.’
Masroor puts this attitude into practice with his family. He wants any decisions his children make about their identity to come from a place of confidence.
I asked him if it was important for his two children to learn Bangla. For Masroor, learning Bangla was a way to connect deeply with his parents, something he is grateful for. It’s different for his children though. They speak a little Bangla, but he won’t force them to learn more unless they want to.
Similarly, Masroor rejects the idea that he should choose who his children get married to. When he was nineteen, he faced a traumatic situation when his father tried to force him to marry a girl in Bangladesh.
Masroor managed to avoid the marriage to his father’s dismay. Although he eventually mended his relationship with his father, they didn’t speak for three years.
Masroor believes that religion and ethnicity are not a solid foundation for a relationship. Rather, two people must align on their moral and ethical principles. This belief guides his approach to relationship counselling. He helps struggling couples figure out what those principles are.
Masroor became interested in relationship counselling after his first marriage ended in divorce when he was twenty-seven. ‘I was distraught. I said to myself, I’m supposed to be an imam. I am supposed to be the one who is…guiding my community, yet my marriage has failed.’
‘The reality is…Muslims are very naive [when they get into a relationship] because we’re not allowed to date before marriage. So we get into a marriage not knowing really what to do.’
Determined to learn from his mistakes, Masroor took a course with Relate, a relationship counselling service, and became a counsellor.
We finished our interview by turning to a topic which Masroor has recently spoken about extensively on television. I asked him how in a time of tension since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th 2023 and the subsequent invasion of Gaza, which has caused a rise in both islamophobia and anti-semitism, we can bring communities in Britain together.
Three things need to be done to resolve tensions in Britain, he explains. First, Britain needs to acknowledge its historic role in creating the current crisis. Second, the British government needs to call for international law to be followed consistently.
Finally, Masroor says ‘It’s a two-way street.’ ‘All faith leaders, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, [need to] stand together and call a spade a spade. Israel is committing human rights violations.’ In his opinion, if Jewish faith leaders called this out, British Muslims would feel that their views were understood.
‘I would like to take the tension away from the UK. But that tension can’t be taken away from one side.’
Masroor still feels confident about the future his children will come of age in. ‘Britain is my home, British people are my people, and I always wish well for this country. I’m hoping my children will do the same. That’s what I’ve been raising them to do.’
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy our telling of the remarkable story of the lascar brothers Ayub Ali Master and Shamsul Haque who helped establish the Bangladeshi East End.
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