For Muslim Policeman, London's a Tough Beat

Officer Saeed Hajjaj, 25, a British Muslim of Moroccan background, greets produce vendor Surman Miah from Bangladesh while on his beat in East London.
Officer Saeed Hajjaj, 25, a British Muslim of Moroccan background, greets produce vendor Surman Miah from Bangladesh while on his beat in East London. (Mary Jordan - Twp)
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 22, 2006

LONDON -- When Scotland Yard community police officer Saeed Hajjaj detained a young man on theft charges recently, the man told him angrily: "You are a Muslim. You should not be working for the police."

"You are a Muslim," Hajjaj said he replied. "You shouldn't be committing a crime."

In London these days, it's often complicated to be a Muslim, often difficult to be a police officer and always tough to be both.

While some fellow members of the faith are delighted to encounter Hajjaj, a 25-year-old with brown skin who walks his East London beat greeting people in Arabic, others are puzzled about why he would join an overwhelmingly white force with a reputation for racism.

Still others are outright hostile. They view uniformed police officers as the most visible representatives of a government waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have killed many Muslims.

As Europe's Muslim population rapidly increases -- there are now nearly 2 million adherents of Islam in Britain and 15 million in the European Union -- governments are working with various degrees of success and enthusiasm to integrate the newcomers not only into society but also into government.

Muslim and police officials agree about the importance of hiring Muslims for police jobs, which is proving particularly difficult. In their view, having more Muslim officers could help soothe raw relations between majority populations and the largely law-abiding minority and establish better links to communities that have sheltered violent extremists.

The Association of Muslim Police, which supports Muslims on the force, estimates that of Scotland Yard's 30,000 officers, only about 300 -- 1 percent -- are Muslim, even though nearly 10 percent of Londoners are Muslim.

A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said the force did not keep statistics about its employees' religions but said it was trying to increase its ethnic diversity because minorities account for only 7 percent of officers.

"If something like one in nine Londoners is a Muslim, then I want one in nine police officers to be a Muslim," Ian Blair, the metropolitan police commissioner, said last summer. "Which means we are currently about 2,000 short."

Hajjaj, whose photograph is frequently used in ads for Scotland Yard, has wanted to be a police officer since he was 14. Strikingly tall -- over 6 feet 4 -- and born in London to Moroccan parents, he said he views policing as a service to his neighborhood, a much-needed way to bridge a cultural chasm. But after 19 months on the job, he said, it has proved tougher than he expected and he is not sure how long he will stay.

The force's culture has not always been welcoming, Hajjaj said. Like many Muslims, he does not drink alcohol, and he knows that on the force many bonds are forged and promotions sealed in after-hours drinking sessions. And English police stations were not designed with prayer in mind. So Hajjaj rolls out his green-and-yellow prayer rug in a small space inside a sergeant's office with glass walls and no privacy. When that is occupied, he uses the locker room.

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