Religious Faith, Space and Diasporic Communities in East London: 1880 – Present 1 January 2011 – 31 December 2015


This research project, which is being conducted in collaboration with Oxford University’s History Faculty as part of the Oxford Diasporas Programme, aims to analyse the contested histories of faith-based civil-society institutions in the East End of London from the late nineteenth century to the present. It will examine the ways in which different faith communities – specifically Christian, Muslim and Jewish – have shared spaces and resources in East London and have worked together to overcome social problems throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

Standard narratives of the history of the East End present a series of community displacements or distinct “waves” of migration. In these narratives, the ethnic and religious makeup of the diasporas of East London have shifted with each migration. This research looks to question the narratives of moving up/moving out by focusing on connections between different faith communities in East London, showing that there have always been interactions between different diasporic communities and between diasporic communities and the “receiving culture.” It pays specific attention to certain themes: the organisation of space (sharing, claiming, contesting); gender and faith practices (particularly how religious observance and use of space might differ for men and women) and how different generations of diasporic communities have negotiated issues of faith and space in East London. Exploring these issues illuminates both the diasporic communities in East London and shifts in wider society.

Principal Investigator

Ben Gidley


Michael Keith
Nazneen Ahmed (Oxford Faculty of History)
Eve Colpus (Oxford Faculty of History)
Jane Garnett (Oxford Faculty of History)
Alana Harris (Oxford Faculty of History)


The Leverhulme Trust

Professionals' Advisory Group

History Faculty, University of Oxford

News & Media

Everyday Atonement
The Tablet | 21 Jun 2014

Events in the local elections in Tower Hamlets have provoked national interest and display worrying signs of division
Democratic Audit UK | Michael Keith | 7 Jun 2014

Migration and the city. Dynamics, challenges and complexities
Análise Social | Michael Keith interview | Jun 2014

Divide and rule: How race politics has poisoned Tower Hamlets
Independent | quotes Michael Keith | 30 May 2014




CitiesCivil SocietyDiasporaNetworksReligion




This project develops a series of interlocking ideas. First, it shows how a diasporic perspective, attentive to the complexities of history and geography, can transform received wisdom about immigration and integration. Second, it shows how diasporic associational practices disturb some of the standard grammars of liberal political theory: faith-based diasporic associationalism, for example, blurs the borders between reason and sentiment or between public and private. This project excavates how faith-based and domestic spaces have enabled the emergence of alternative public spheres, which are differently gendered from mainstream public space.


The research for this project will be conducted in three ways. Firstly, a survey will be undertaken of the historical archives, paying particular attention to mapping archives that haven’t been examined by standard histories, such as oral history repositories, community group records and mosque archives. Secondly, interviews will be conducted with members of the three faith communities, community group leaders, and youth and women’s groups. Thirdly, researchers will get directly involved in interfaith work in East London by working with groups to run community events (including a drama-based event with young people) and supporting archival work in the area.


Exploration of the intersections between ethnicity, religiosity, class and gender within the diasporic faith spaces of East London illustrates the ambiguity and instability of identity formation and expression. Visible markers of identity were inscribed in the physical space of faith buildings, but the thresholds of these buildings did not mark the borders of belonging. Faith buildings have served not just as anchors of identity but also as points of connection across identities, however tense and contested at times. Faith spaces have provided vehicles for assimilation and integration into the receiving society, but also platforms for resisting such assimilation and integration. They have provided an infrastructure for the absorption of migrants into the urban landscape, but also sanctuaries enabling them to maintain vernacular traditions brought from elsewhere. They have provided spaces for co-operation and contact around shared religious needs, shared experiences of racism, and shared social missions.