[UPDATE: July 24: The Evening Standard have since covered this story and they have a video of Shafiur being pelted with an egg as he's being interviewed by a London Live reporter. All here].
I wrote this today for the Express website. It’s one of those stories that journalists file under ‘you couldn’t make it up’ for its weirdness: a filmmaker commissions some street art in the middle of Whitechapel’s Chicksand estate; the artists come up with a scheme that’s meant to depict humanity and diversity (and add a bit of colour to the area); and then some idiots say, ‘Actually that’s not humanity, that’s the Anti-Christ.’
They then start pelting the art (on a shop’s security shutters) with spit and eggs. But because that’s not frightening enough, they chuck the eggs at the staff inside the office, then threaten them this violence will continue until the art is removed.
And all this has happened for the best part of a month under the gaze of a Tower Hamlets council CCTV camera…with, as yet, no action (I asked the council for a comment, but they didn’t reply; Mayor Lutfur Rahman lives just around the corner, by the way, and I’m sure he’d be appalled). The police are also involved.
Now, is this just some brainless youths who’ve read somewhere about “bulging eyes” representing the Devil (in an obscure interpretation of Islam), and then acted like little ganglords of their estate for a bit of schools-out fun?
Or is there something more disturbing at play? Is someone whipping these youths up into a frenzy? Is there really a hardline Islamic fervour out there?
Shafiur Rahman, the filmmaker whose office has been targeted, believes the latter.
He went to the Brick Lane Mosque for help. He asked them to condemn the violence. They apparently told him the youths were wrong to use violence and they should have raised their concerns through other channels. Shafiur said an imam told him the painting is unacceptable in Islam because it depicts a face.
“Mosques and madrassas should be careful what they teach young kids,” Shafiur said today.
If anyone knows more about the people behind this, do please get in touch. Anonymity guaranteed.
Here’s the Express piece in full (there’s a video of me talking on the Express site).
MUSLIM youths have vandalised the offices of a Bengali filmmaker in east London because they claim street art on his security shutters depicts the “anti-Christ”.
The gang has even threatened further violence against Shafiur Rahman’s property unless the images, two eyes, a nose and a mouth, are removed.
Graffiti artists Josh Jeavons and Edwinonwalls painted the images on three shutters of Mr Rahman’s Six Oranges film company, which is based in a building known as Zara’s Corner in Spelman Street, just off Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets.
Viewed from across the road the painting is actually a face, with a nose on the central shutter, two single eyes on the two either side, and a mouth running across all three.
The artists wanted it to represent humanity and diversity.
They even wrote and crossed out the words, “colour” and “shape” and circled the word “space” to reinforce a message that what matters is not someone’s background or appearance but the community in which you live.
However, youths from the nearby Chicksand housing estate had a different interpretation.
They told Mr Rahman the painting in fact represented “dajjal”, an Islamic term in Arabic for the “anti-Christ”, or the devil, or the “false Messiah”.
Mr Rahman, who had given permission for the artwork, explained: “According to certain Islamic beliefs, Dajjal is the false prophet or anti-Christ who will come before Judgment Day, and will be known by his single bulging eye.”
Over the past month, his office has been attacked repeatedly.
The shutters have been splashed with spit and eggs, while the vandals have also hurled eggs into the office itself.
An entire tin of white paint was then hurled on the shutters.
Staff have been intimidated and the damage to walls and computer equipment is estimated to be hundreds of pounds.
Mr Rahman, a filmmaker who is currently working on a documentary about Syrian refugees, said the youths have demanded the art is removed.
“When we have been locking up at night, they have told us to throw away the key and not to come back,” he said.
He has sought help from the local Brick Lane Mosque and asked their imams to explain the innocuous nature of the painting.
However, he said while the mosque condemned the violence itself, an imam told him the painting would not be accepted in Islam because it depicted a face.
Mr Rahman said: “This is completely ridiculous. This is not a painting of dajjal. This is an abstract figurative piece of work.
“Mosques and madrassas should be careful what they teach young kids.
“Vandalism or hate crime, as far as I know, is not condoned by Islam.”
The vandalism has been reported to the police who are treating it as a hate crime, Mr Rahman said.
His office is also directly beside a council CCTV camera but it is not clear if the incidents have been caught on film.
Marco Marasca, an editor at Six Oranges, said: “After these repeated incidents, we are worried about our personal safety.
“We have just finished editing a film on oppressed Bihari Muslims.
“We are writing a proposal about Syrian migrants and the hardships they suffer. “Why would we paint anything offensive towards Muslims?”
The office is in one of London’s trendiest areas and is home to internationally famous artists such as Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George.
Harjinder Bahra, the managing director of Six Oranges said: “Brick Lane is known the world over for its street art.
“It has brought countless tourists, and the Bangladeshi restaurants actively welcome the vibe that street art has created.
“To see this exciting art as somehow connected to the anti-Christ is bizarre.”
Josh Jeavons, one of the street artists behind the work, said: “It wasn’t our intention to depict the devil.
“Maybe there was a bit of ignorance on our part on not understanding what the eye represents.
“But our intention was to create a full face to show humanity in its most basic form to represent community, diversity and multiculturalism.
“It doesn’t matter what shape you are, or what colour, it’s about your community, the space where you live and what you make of it.”
Anti-extremism campaigners are puzzled by the incidents.
They wonder whether ordinary youths from the Chicksand estate would even be aware of theological terms such as “dajjal”.
They believe the youths are being encouraged by hardline Islamists.
The borough of Tower Hamlets has seen various activities from both far right fascists and Muslim extremists.
The small but threatening Muslim Patrols, a group backed by extremist preacher Anjem Choudary, physically attacked non-Muslims for drinking in Whitechapel last year.
Additionally, last December, Mr Choudary led a small march in Brick Lane calling for the many Bengali curry restaurants to stop serving alcohol.
Far right groups the English Defence League and Britain First have also tried to incite hatred in the borough.
No one from Brick Lane Mosque was available to comment this afternoon.