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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)

"I was born here. I love Britain," he said, but nonetheless he has had the word "foreigner" tossed at him as a slur -- sometimes from people inside the police station. "Some respect your faith," he said, declining to elaborate.

Mohammad Mahroof, secretary general of the Association of Muslim Police, said many Muslim officers get grief from all sides, including family. A London police officer told him recently that his jaw had been broken by relatives as a warning to get off the force. Mahroof said the officer did not want to be publicly identified and explained that the pressure can be so intense that there are a few "closet" police officers who don't even tell their families where they work.

A uniformed Muslim officer, Mahroof said, was recently roughed up outside the Shadwell mosque by angry young men shouting: "How can you work for these people?" The imam denounced the incident after a visit from Mahroof, a veteran Scotland Yard inspector.

Mahroof, who has a long beard and often wears traditional Islamic dress, said he has caused alarm when entering a local police station and even the headquarters building where he has long worked. "There has been a full-scale terror alert when I have walked in," he said, shaking his head.

Frequent street frisking of Muslims following the deadly bombings on the subway and a bus in London last July, which police say were carried out by Muslim extremists, increased the friction between police and Muslim youths in London. In France, angry and alienated young Muslims rioted for three weeks in October and November, torching cars and buildings.

No borough in Britain has a higher percentage of Muslims than the one Hajjaj patrols, Tower Hamlets. While the 2001 census showed 36 percent of its population of 200,000 to be Muslim, local officials said the real number is about 50 percent. Immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Somalia and other countries -- and their British-born children -- crowd into more and more mosques in a low-income area that once teemed with Jewish seamstresses and Irish dockworkers.

Many older Muslims here either do not speak English or prefer not to. Many rarely leave the densely packed blocks of small apartments where everything from newspapers to rental videos are in Bengali, Sylheti (a language spoken by most Bangladeshis in Britain), Urdu or Arabic. It is a cocoon strikingly separate from nearby Canary Wharf, a neighborhood of gleaming glass high-rises inhabited by millionaire financiers.

"I think I have made a better connection with the community," said Hajjaj, at ease as he walked into the Shadwell mosque on a recent wintry night. It is a place most of his colleagues have never gone. Hajjaj chatted easily with the imams, standing in his socks on the bright green carpet inside the cavernous mosque, which has grown in its 11 years to serve 2,000 people.

Created in a large space under the docklands railroad line -- the rooms rattle with each train passing overhead -- the mosque is a contrast to the neighborhood's older Christian churches, which are usually locked and empty. Most evenings, girls and boys as young as 5 file in for Koran lessons. Hajjaj stops in to pray whenever he can.

Earnest and reserved, Hajjaj smiles more than he talks, but he quietly greets virtually everyone he passes. His job is to get to know the neighborhood around the Shadwell train station street by street, face by face, and to help fix any problems along the way. Most of those have to do with jobless youths who gather on the streets, often blasting their music and sometimes selling heroin.

When he first started introducing himself last year, he would say to passersby, "Salaam aleikum," or "Peace be with you" in Arabic. Some were shocked, he said. "They had never heard that from an officer."

Walking around the Shadwell train station one recent day on his police rounds, he paused at Watney Market, a busy area with small shops and curbside vendors selling a colorful array of goods such as children's pajamas and parsnips.

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