“Islam isn’t the enemy… Islam is here to stay in the UK” says actor and former gangster-turned-Muslim Martin Askew

Perceptions about Islam, the gentrification of inner London, and ‘how do you tell your gangster family that you’ve converted to Islam’ were among the questions put to film director Andrew Hulme and actor Martin Askew at a special screening of Snow in Paradise,  a film which they wrote together.

Inspired by Martin’s life and shot locally in Dalston and Shoreditch, the critically acclaimed film charts the life of a young Eastend gangster whose life hits rock bottom following the death of his best friend. It tackles guilt, fear and redemption, as well as the changes in urban London and attitudes towards Muslims and multiculturalism.

Some 70 people attended the screening and Q&A at the Rio Cinema in Dalston on Saturday 6th June that was chaired by T-VINE editor İpek Özerim. The diverse audience encompassed a broad age-group, from students to the elderly, as well as multiple ethnicities. Among those asking questions were representatives of faith groups, including Faith Matters patron Filip Slipaczek, filmmakers such as award-winning film sound editor Nigel Holland, local councillors Emine Ibrahim and Peray Ahmet, local residents and curious others.


Many of the questions were directed to Martin Askew, a “Cockney Muslim” by his own admission who happily chatted about his youth, conversion to Islam and the challenges making Snow in Paradise. Martin grew up in nearby Hoxton where the community was entrenched in a culture of crime. His uncle Johnny Wall was an East End legend and a boxing champion, and his cousin Lenny “The Guvnor” Mclean was the most famous bare knuckle street fighter in the country, who was given the title of Briton’s Toughest Man and later starred in the film Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Martin excelled as a young sportsman. However, his career was cut short suddenly one day as he was walking home with friends when two men tried to stab him. During the ensuing street fight one of his friends was murdered in front of him. On the way to the funeral, four of Martin’s best friends were then killed in a horrific car crash. These events changed Martin; his fear of being the next victim catapulted him into a street gang where hard drink, drugs and violence became the norm, although it couldn’t ease the pain and the guilt he was hiding.

The vicious circle continued, until what Martin describes as the ‘best night of my life’: the night six bouncers gave him the worst beating ever. He lay in the gutter smashed to pieces and fighting for his life…. That’s when he made his first prayer and during his recovery, he discovered Islam.

“I’m as English as any in the EDL & Islam is here to stay in the UK.”

Martin explained it had taken him 10 years to fully convert, that reading the Koran had touched him deeply and the Prophet Muhammed became his “superman.”

On how he broke the news to his family, Martin said, “As a budding actor, even wearing a trendy jacket got you labelled a ‘poof’”, so he initially kept his creative pursuits away from his macho community: “I had to hide being in the arts, let alone being a Muslim. It wasn’t easy being different back then.”

On how the media and other commentators bombard Western audiences with a singular, negative narrative around Islam, Martin said there are challenges on two fronts. He’s had to counter those Muslims who promote a radical view of jihad, as well as those who condemn the religion as ‘barbaric’ and unwelcome in Britain: “Islam isn’t the enemy. I’m as English as any in the EDL and Islam is here to stay in the UK.”

His uncle and cousin, who had encouraged him to enter the arts, had passed away before the news about his conversion was properly known. After initially struggling with his identity, where Martin explained he was rejected by both Muslims and others in his immediate community, he came to realise that “being a Muslim is not about lineage, or ethnicities, and I have nothing to be ashamed of. At its core, [my faith] is about my connection with the Creator, finding my inner essence and being a good soul.”

Havva Murat-Başkal, the former deputy editor of Zaman UK, praised the film for “shining a positive light on Islam in the current climate”. This view was echoed by Haringey Councillor Emine Ibrahim who was also “pleased to see the gentrification issue tackled in the movie”, as it affects large parts of London including her own borough.

Others asked Andrew Hulme about the funding challenges he faced in Britain and why the film, which had taken six years from inception to its UK release in February, wasn’t as well promoted in the UK as it has been on the continent, to which he replied:

“It was a film that had no UK funding and a very small budget and its major triumph was being picked as part of the Cannes Film Festival Official Selection in 2014. It got a standing ovation. So most of its interest has come from Europe, France and Germany in particular. In the UK it’s had a tough time. It’s hard to know why.”

One elderly Jewish lady highlighted the fact that the mosque used in the film (in Shackewell Lane, Dalston) was a synagogue before Turkish Cypriots bought it in the 1970s and converted it into a mosque. A young man from the local Orthodox Jewish community training to be a rabbi said his parents came from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds, but he had decided to follow Judaism. He congratulated Martin for“talking about the one God – which is the same God for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Many young Muslims thanked Andrew Hulme for making the film and one British Somalian student told T-VINE afterwards: “We heard about this screening from our filmmaker friends in Spain. We are so glad we came. It’s a really good film and Martin is such a cool guy. He was so open about his life. We hardly ever hear positive news like this in the British media.”

The event was organised by T-VINE Magazine – the UK’s first & only English consumer publication for British Turks. The event was sponsored by inter-faith charity Faith Matters, anti-Muslim bigotry monitoring group Tell Mama, international food brand Aytaç and the multi-award-winning Best Turkish Kebab in Stoke Newington.

See all the photos from the screening and Q&A event here courtesy of Mustafa Koker.