I recently published this article in The Muslim News
With the anniversary of the London bombings fast approaching, the Government and the media have their eyes on mosques and imams. They are increasingly calling for them to fall under greater scrutiny. But why are these institutions which are fundamental to the Muslim community not assessing themselves with a critical eye? Isn’t it time that mosques and imams started to lead from the front?
When Muslims started to arrive in droves in the UK in the 1950’s and 60’s, little mosques started to sparkle everywhere like drops of dew on a cool summer morning. They took the form of back rooms in people’s homes, behind shops, a hired room in a community centre. They were a stake in the ground, the flagpole of a recently arrived community making the place their own. Find three Muslims in one location, and you found a place of prayer. On the whole they were run as microcosms of ‘back home’, community centres mainly for men, with classes after school where children learnt the Qur’an by rote, rarely understanding a word that they were reading. The imams were usually brought in from places where the bulk of the local community hailed from: they were links to traditional cultures and teachings.
But those Muslims grew up, they faced new challenges, and most of all, they questioned, and got no answers from their imams who did not speak their language, neither English, nor in content or relevance. A lot of the time, they didn’t bother to go to mosques as part of the daily routine as their families had done before. They claimed that the mosques were no longer relevant, that they couldn’t communicate with the imam, that the faith that was taught there was outdated, not for them. And yet the mosques and the imams pretty much stuck to the way things were. Quietly from within the Muslim community, little beacons of light did start to emerge, trying to change the attitude, approach and significance of the mosque within the community. But these are still few and far between.
It has taken the events of July 7 and the whole of the media spotlight on the institutions of the mosque and the imams to send a jolt through the community. But words like, head, bury, sand, ostrich still spring to mind. The Government and liberal discourse has got it into its spin-filled head that the mosque is the source of all radicalism, and that imams have a huge responsibility to bear, and that responsibility for these hideous tragedies lies on their shoulders. This line of argument is now zoning in on these targets with the proposals of new forms of regulation.
This talk of plans to regulate mosques and imams is deeply worrying and has a dark edge to it. No other faith group in this country is regulated in this way. Why single out the Muslim community for further regulation? The threat to have a Government controlled body – and it can be seen, as nothing except a prejudiced threat – needs to shake the leaders of the mosques and the imams into introducing reform and best practice according to their own requirements and benchmarks. Having been in this country for at least 50 years, the Muslim community needs collectively to assess what the function of the mosque should be, and what it needs to do to achieve that goal. But alas, we’ve been too comfortable. Half a century on, it’s time we took stock. Are our mosques properly funded? Do they have the right spiritual and social facilities? What is their function in the community? Do they serve all their constituents?
The mosque, as any Muslim will tell you, was designed to be the centre of the Muslim social scene. Prayer is of course the defining element of the masjid – which means ‘place to prostrate’. However, even from early historical times its function and resonance was much wider. It was the place for reform and challenge. What happened? The role of the mosque and the imam are now up for discussion. And about time too. It’s time for imams to be given a hard time.
Why are the imams not ahead of the curve? Their very role is to be the zeitgeist, to anticipate change and initiate it. They should be our visionaries and leaders. An imam’s role is, according to the word’s meaning, to lead.
The issue of women with regards to mosques is also a serious one. There are now an estimated 1600 mosques in the UK. It is generally accepted that a large proportion of these do not permit women to enter, or claim that they do not have the facilities for women. There is no active accommodation of women in mosques – no sense that they are an integral part of the mosque. The physical space allocated to women is remembered as an afterthought in the planning of a mosque. Mosque committees rarely have female members, and the balance of power lies with the imam or the (male) chair.
The elders have made huge contributions to the community, often prioritising the establishment of the mosque over personal needs. But the unfortunate reality is that the presence of younger members is on the whole minimal, and again they are unlikely to wield any power. The culture of the ‘murabbi’ or the elder insists that the opinion of the young is downgraded in favour of the elder, irrespective of the merit of the suggestion or action.
It will be hard for those running the bulk of mosques to take these comments, or to embrace the reforms that must inevitably come. They are in comfortable positions of power and have no incentive to change. Not to mix metaphors, but, the times, they are a-changing, and the mosques and imams can either initiate the change and empower the community, or be against it and have it forced on us.