Britain’s Mosques are Burning 4 April 2013

The mosque is a powerful symbol of belonging for British Muslims, which is perhaps why it has been the focus of many who would prefer a monocultural Britain.

The British Empire, the empire upon which the sun never set, faced its twilight in the middle of the twentieth century. Britain, a small island but with an ambitious colonial project, changed the world more significantly perhaps than any previous empire. The pomp of Alexander the Great and the viciousness of the Mongols could not compare to the wealth accumulated by Empire, nor the scale of the atrocities committed by it. Following the Second World War however, there was no doubt that the days of an imperial Britain were over. Britain had only just survived the war, and at a terrible cost.

To rebuild a broken nation, Britain looked to its colonies, namely the Indian Subcontinent (over which the British Raj was dramatically losing control at this point). Britain needed cheap labour, and a mass of young unemployed men in India was the answer. These economic migrants, mainly from parts of what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh, joined other migrants in Britain (usually Arabs and Africans who had worked at British ports). There were certainly Hindus amongst these recent migrants, but the majority were Muslims. Unsurprising perhaps, considering that at its height the British Empire ruled over more Muslims than the Ottoman Caliphate.

For the time being, the first generation of migrants saw Britain as a relief from the poverty of an India ravished by the economic exploitation of colonisation. The British Raj would surely soon leave India in totality, and in the meantime, they could earn a respectable wage contributing to the UK’s post-war reconstruction. However, not everyone did migrate back, even if they intended to. Soon, these temporary migrants became slightly more permanent. There were many reasons to leave, by the 60s and 70s, racism and hostility to migrants increased. Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech cemented the idea that migrants were unwelcome. Yet, despite these pressures, and the prevalence of what sociologists call the ‘myth of return’, the short-term Muslim migrants began to think long-term about where they would be calling home.

Away from the immediate concerns of food and shelter, Muslims can be trusted to seek one more basic need – to establish a spiritual home. Wherever you find Muslims, you will find mosques. The same was true of Britain’s small but sizeable Muslim population.

Fast forward several decades to 2013 and the picture has changed dramatically. The 2011 census confirmed that rather than being a migrant population, the majority of British Muslims were born in the UK. Diversity increased too, with many Middle-Eastern and African Muslims joining those from the sub-continent, alongside a growing population of white, British-born converts to Islam.

Britain has some 1600 mosques. Most are small terraced houses, others converted churches and chapels, and a small handful purpose-built.  The early mosques in the 1960s were built by low-income labourers, who often sought a place to fulfil their spiritual desires and little else, but the modern mosque does much more. It is a community centre, a school, a place of social gathering. Mosques are not only places of congregational prayers but also provide counselling, advocacy, sporting activities and so on. The most active mosques are also key arenas of civic participation, joining campaigns and lobby groups on issues as diverse as the Living Wage and safer communities.

Aside from the practical needs met by the modern British mosque, there is an important symbolic value. When the Prophet Muhammad and his followers were persecuted out of Makkah, they emigrated to Yathrib (now called Madinah) a city slightly further north along the eastern coast of modern day Saudi Arabia. They joined there a community of recent converts to Islam. Together, they began building a new community, and at the heart of this community a masjid, or mosque – a place to worship God and to really make Madinah home.

Just like the early Muslims, British Muslims establishing a mosque in a locality is indicative of a sense of belonging. It is an investment into the local landscape.

Perhaps it is the powerful semiotic role of the mosque that means it is the greatest focus for Islamophobic attacks and prejudice. The rise of Islamophobia in Europe and elsewhere can be traced historically to the earliest Muslim presence in the UK. Abdullah Quilliam, a Victorian lawyer and convert to Islam, established a mosque in Liverpool in the late nineteenth century. As one of the earliest British mosques, and one which was particularly active, it faced what academic and historian Ron Geaves described as a constant low-level abuse in the form of vandalism and intentional desecration.

In 1996 the Runnymede Trust published its research on Islamophobia against British Muslims, noting an increase in both attacks and the narratives that support them. Unsurprisingly however, the situation has become substantially direr since the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and 2005 attacks in London. It is beyond the scope of this article to look at all the causes behind Islamophobia – but it is clear that media reporting on Muslims is a significant factor in normalising and indeed encouraging hatred toward Muslims.

The overrepresentation of coverage on British Muslims in the media and the discourse used creates a narrative that supports the conclusion that Muslims are violent, aggressive, criminally minded and diametrically opposed to ‘British values’. A simple example from my own experience is the arrests of a number of Muslims in Wales under the Terrorist Act. When these attacks took place, I checked my figures and found that a larger number of white, far-right extremists had been arrested in Wales (one even under the Explosives Act) than Muslims, but the media reported more on the Muslims than on the far-right extremists and so a distorted pictures emerges in public consciousness that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists than others. Add to this the constant news published on trivial topics such as ‘women-only’ sessions at swimming pools or Muslim women who choose to wear the niqaab and the situation is primed for an aggressively anti-Muslim rhetoric.

The media, essentially, acts as a confirmation bias for the far-right and Islamophobes, and thus begins a vicious circle, as the same individuals point towards the media coverage on Muslims to recruit others into their hatred and mindset, and very often, these manifest in actual attacks.

Which leads us to the main topic of this article – the significant and worrying attacks on British mosques, spearheaded by the far-right.

The ‘Ground-Zero mosque’ in New York (a community centre that contained a mosque, planned to be built several blocks away from Ground Zero) is an example of how a community project can be twisted by rhetoric to became a focal point for contesting ideas. It is not only the US that faces these issues however. Dozens of planned mosques in the UK have faced opposition from far-right groups. A large mosque planned for the suburbs of London faced protests from the EDL after it was branded a ‘mega-mosque’ by the Daily Mail, run by a supposedly extremist organisation (in reality, the founders, Tablighi Jamaat, have no connections to any violent extremist groups and advocate a message of self-development amongst Muslims).

Likewise, when a Muslim community in Wrexham purchased a disused former Miners Institute, the EDL and WDL took it as an opportunity to construe the Muslim community as aggressively attempting to dominate the town’s local history. Note the building was on the market for several years with no buyers, and the mosque management plan to open part of the building as a museum honouring the history of the Miner’s Institute.

Such opposition is given professional support by the likes of Gavin Boby, a former member of the EDL and a planning lawyer by vocation. He calls himself as a professional ‘mosque buster’ who claims his skills have already prevented 17 mosques from being built, and offers his services for free to those who request it. Through his ‘Law and Freedom Foundation’ he campaigns against mosques.

It is not the organised and at least legal opposition to mosques that is most worrying however, it is the aggressive, violent and sometimes fatal attacks on mosques that provide the most concern.

In the picturesque rural market town of Chipping Norton, the local Muslims organised to purchase a small property to open a place of worship. The plans immediately faced opposition from a spectrum of both locals who considered the mosque too ‘un-British’ and the national English Defence League who considered it an affront to British values. There were, as always with the EDL, demonstrations against the mosque, and a significant amount of lobbying to the local council. Ultimately however, the local planning council approved the mosque and it was believed the issue was finally laid to rest. That is however until the landlord of the property received threats that should the mosque be opened, it would be burnt down. Given the nature of the threat, the contract was terminated and the mosque plans abandoned.

The threat of arson is not an empty one. In February 2011, the Shotton Lane Social Club in North Wales burnt down following what was described as a ‘deliberate’ arson attack. The Flintshire Muslim Cultural Society had proposed opening a mosque at the site – a move that was contested by the English Defence League. Only a few weeks later, the arson attack took place.

In March 2011, a church that had been purchased by the Islamic charity JIMAS to be reopened as a Muslim-run community centre was also subject to an arson attack. The fire left the former-church in smouldering ruins.

In December 2011, Stoke on Trent mosque also suffered an arson attack, in this case, two members of the EDL were later convicted.

In April 2012, Bury Park mosque was subject to an arson attack. Although no culprits were found it was considered clearly deliberate. A mosque only a few miles down the road, Medina Mosque, had also recently been vandalised – in this case windows smashed and EDL graffiti on the walls.

In fact the list of mosques in the UK that have been damaged in arson attacks goes on – Edinburgh in 2001, Birmingham Central Mosque in 2006, Livingston in 2007, a proposed mosque in Lincoln in 2008, the Usmani Mosque in Leicester in 2012 and so on. This in a backdrop of other mosque attacks in Europe and the US.

There is an emerging pattern in many of these mosque attacks. They are in the context of an increasingly Islamophobic media narrative that portray Muslims as foreign, aggressive and as ‘other’. The mosques tend to have already seen protests or opposition to their presence from the far-right. The attacks are deliberate, and in most cases, culprits are not found. When culprits have been apprehended, they have links to the far-right.

It is worrying to think that, perhaps one day; these covert attacks on mosques will translate into something much more overt, potentially fatal (the Oslo killings are a chilling reminder of a sole gunmen can achieve). Baroness Warsi recently commented that Islamophobia is so widespread that it is considered appropriate for dinner-table talk – an indicator that it is not simply the far-right who are promoting these messages but that they have entered public consciousness more generally. If this trend continues, we should all be worried.

There are ways forward however. Politicians must first recognise the seriousness of Islamophobia and the threat posed by the far-right. Oslo has shown the real and significant danger posed by nationalist extremists, especially those with hatred for Islam and Muslims. Policy, funding and counter-terrorism units should not wait until the situation has become fatal. There needs to be a concerted effort against the rise of far-right extremism. Counter-terrorism strategies in the UK currently only pay lip-service to white supremacists and fascist extremism; this has to change.

The media too must take responsibility – first to appropriately address the way in which they report stories involving Muslims and second, to end the narrative that means only stories that bolster the image of a foreign, violent and radical Muslim are reported. The Leveson Enquiries have shown that tabloid media has no qualms about breaking the law and bending the truth for a headline that will sell papers.  We too, as consumers, must also begin taking action. By objecting to reporting that is biased and consuming media from sources that provide an accurate picture.

Finally, faith leaders and community leaders should begin to recognise the danger of a fragmented society and re-double efforts to work together to end Islamophobia and indeed other forms of bigotry.

The mosque is a symbol of belonging of British Islam. Those who prefer not see Britain as a place which is organically home to Muslims will no doubt continue to oppose mosques, and even attack them when all else fails. The question is not simply about Muslims and Islamophobia. It is about what kind of Britain we want to live in.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

British Mosques, Features, Islam