• Far-right Essex councillor denies members to blame
Racist attackers abducted a Muslim community leader at knifepoint, bundled him into a car and threatened his life unless he stopped running prayer sessions in a community hall that has been the target of a British National party campaign.
Police have confirmed they are treating the incident as a hate crime and are investigating links with an earlier firebomb attack on the same man's home.
Noor Ramjanally (photo, top), 35, told the Guardian he had been the victim of a terror campaign which has also involved threats against his family after he began the Islamic prayer sessions in March. He said he fears for his life after the abduction at knifepoint, which happened at his home in Loughton, Essex, on Monday.
A BNP campaign has been blamed for rising tensions in the area. The party has been leafleting the area warning of "Islamification" which it says flows from the weekly two-hour prayer session, which it claims is a prelude to a mosque being built.
Ramjanally said he was abducted from his home in daylight by two white men who threatened him with a knife, bundled him into a car then drove him into woodland. They demanded he stop organising the Friday prayer sessions at Murray hall community centre. He said the words from his abductors matched the BNP propaganda opposing the Muslim prayers. The same demand was contained in hate mail he received last month threatening his wife and child, he said.
Councillor Pat Richardson, leader of the BNP group on the local council, said her party was not behind the attacks on Ramjanally. "Firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure," she said.
Ramjanally said: "I believe the BNP campaign has inspired the violence."
He said he was snatched at around 12.15pm and feared he would be murdered during his ordeal. "I was at home and the door bell rang. I opened the door and they grabbed my wrists, pulling me out by force," he said.
"It was two white men. They put a knife upon my stomach, and said do what you're told or you'll get hurt." He said he was then bundled into the boot of a 4 x 4 vehicle, with one of the men holding a knife to his chest.
Ramjanally said he was driven for 10 minutes to nearby Epping Forest, walked around, and then threatened: "They said 'We don't want your Islamic group in Loughton.' I was scared, I feared for my life. I was in a forest, a knife was held against me, how would you feel? They said, 'If you don't stop, we'll come back.'"
The attackers then left Ramjanally alone in the woods. Essex police said an investigation was under way into the incident and two earlier ones at Ramjanally's home.
"Police are treating the incidents as 'hate crime' and a possible motivation would appear to be a link to the use of the Murray hall, Loughton by the Muslim community for Friday prayers," the force said.
Superintendent Simon Williams of Essex police said: "We are treating these offences with the utmost seriousness and are putting considerable resources into the investigation.
"While that investigation continues we will be working with the whole population of Loughton to ensure that all members of the community are free to practice their religion and beliefs safely and freely."The prayer sessions at Murray hall began on 27 March, with nine people worshipping. Now up to 80 people attend.
On 2 July, Ramjanally received an anonymous threatening letter telling him to stop using the hall for prayers and stating the author knew which school his child went to and which car he drove. The next day his flat was firebombed. The BNP has four councillors in the area and its leafleting campaign in late July has been attacked as inflammatory and divisive.
Richardson said she had seen the leaflet before it was released last month. She was sceptical of Ramjanally's claims of a terror campaign. "I told the police we want to object that fingers were being pointed in our direction," she said.
She also denied that BNP members were behind any violence. She believes that the weekly Muslim prayer meeting is a prelude to an attempt to encourage more Muslims to move into the area, and thus to vote out the BNP. "I was wondering whether it was a ploy to attract more Muslims to the area to try and vote out the BNP councillors," she said.
Richardson said the Muslim prayer meeting did not fit in with the area's mainly white population: "It's not really natural for the area because there are so few Muslims," she said.
At Murray hall yesterday there was little sign of the building being turned into a mosque. The hall's caretaker said a children's group was using the premises.
Passing by was lifelong Loughton resident Paul Luton, 57, who said: "Who says [the hall] can't be used for different things. A community is a community. If there's a local community of Muslims, they're local people."
Mohammad Fahim runs the nearest mosque to Loughton which was firebombed in 2000. He said racists have used the fears of new mosques in the area to stoke racial and anti-Muslim tensions.
The BNP describes Fahim's mosque, in south Woodford, four miles from Loughton, as "notorious" and claims it has incited violence. In fact, Fahim works as a chaplain for the Metropolitan police.Loughton, which borders the eastern fringe of London, is affluent in parts, with a number of houses on its millionaire's row, called Alderton Hill, owned by British Hindu families. It is also a road, said Fahim, where women wearing headscarves are racially abused by passing white motorists. He advised one Muslim woman to remove her headscarf to avoid being a victim of hate crime. According to the 2001 census, just over 1%of the area's residents describe themselves as Muslim.
One owner of a takeaway, who said he would fear for his safety if either he or his shop were named, said he often faced racist abuse: "This area is rubbish. So many times there is trouble."
Last year a 20-strong white gang attacked his shop, leaving one Asian employee with head wounds.
He said often the abuse and violence happened when people were drunk. "Tonight they call you Paki and tomorrow they come in for food."
Abdurahman Jafar, chair of the Muslim Safety Forum, which advises the police, said: "The campaign of terror has followed a campaign organised by the BNP whereby they delivered hate literature to locals citing the small Friday prayer sessions as evidence of how 'the Islamification process is almost complete'." Recent months have seen a sharp rise in religiously motivated attacks against the Muslim community including attacks on outwardly Muslim appearing individuals, mosques and pogroms directed against the Muslim Community."
How the hate campaign unfolded
27 March 2009: Nine people attend first Muslim prayers at Murray hall, Loughton, Essex, organised by Noor Ramjanally
2 July: Ramjanally receives anonymous hate mail warning his group to stop. The author says they know which school his child goes to, what car he drives. The letter is delivered by hand
3 July: Ramjanally returns to his flat at midday to find the door ablaze after a suspected firebombing attack
23 July: A BNP leaflet appears alleging Murray hall will be turned into a mosque and warning in other parts of east London that "the Islamification process is almost complete". The BNP says: "We'll do all in our power to prevent Islam creeping into our town." BNP group council leader says she approved the leaflet before its release
24 August: Ramjanally abducted by two white men wielding a knife, driven to Epping Forest and again threatened if he does not stop running his prayer group
25 August: Essex police say all incidents are being treated as hate crime, with a possible motive being the use of Murray hall
26 August: At the hall the BNP says is being turned into a mosque, children of all races engage in soft play.