• Has EDL pressured Luton Council into not selling to a Muslim group?

    I came across this incident today – plans to sell a hall to a Muslim group have been shelved, seemingly after pressure by the EDL.

    I don’t know anything about this particular mosque, but it does seem as though the council has behaved in a very peculiar fashion. They didn’t even inform the Muslim bidders that their decision had been reversed, leaving them to find out in the newspaper.

    Here is the story:

    PLANS to sell a large site in High Town to a Local Muslim group have been put on ice by Luton Borough Council.

    A campaign had been set up against the sale of the Old Drill Hall site by Darren Carroll, a relative of English Defence League leaders Stephen Lennon and Kevin Carroll, who claimed to have collected 1,500 signatures on a petition demanding the site was used for affordable housing.

    Luton Borough Council said the site had been originally intended for housing, but economic conditions meant it had to sell the land on the open market.

    But yesterday the council said a ‘change in government policy’ had meant it had had to suspend the sale of the site, in which MA Community Centre (Masjid-e-Ali) were understood to be the preferred bidder.

    The organisation is currently based in Moor Street but wanted to move to the Old Drill Hall and create a community centre, which it said would be open to people of all faiths.

    A spokesman for the council said: “The property was placed on the open market and a marketing campaign was implemented which invited bids by means of an informal tender process. A number of bidders engaged in the process and the council did identify a preferred bidder (Masjid-e-Ali Community Centre).

    “However, in the time which elapsed through that process, policy guidance changes have emerged from central government with regard to provision of housing and educational needs.

    “These changes have required a review of the process of site disposal across the authority. The government has set a new policy framework for the provision of affordable housing and has altered the funding stream by which this can be achieved. This new policy guidance only came into force in February 2011.

    “As a result of this change to guidance, elected members have now directed officers to look again at how all site disposals – not just the Drill Hall site – are dealt with as part of a wider review of policy and procedure so that these new objectives can best be addressed. Officers will recommend changes to the wider policy and procedure on surplus site disposals to a future meeting of the executive.

    “In the light of this review, the executive decided to suspend the bidding process of the Drill Hall site in the 11th hour.”

    MA Community Centre were only made aware of this breaking news via the Luton News Paper & feel that this decision is unreasonable & unfair as LBC had completed all checks and issued a draft contract for approval. MA Community Centre feel LBC have given into pressure from a facist Group the so called EDL (English Defence League) following their recent march in Luton.

    MA Community Centre plans were to regenerate the site as a Community Centre with new & improved recreation facilities for all the community that would also house NHS Walk In clinics, rehabilitation Centre & many other social & welfare services for “ALL” the local community.

    A petition has been created which you can sign up to (anonymously if you wish) here:

    One Luton resident told me: “The council needs to know that EDL are not the only arbiters of what goes on this town.  This is a diverse town.”

    This is not about this particular mosque – we need to ensure that this kind of u-turn behaviour is put to a stop.

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  • A boost to women-friendly mosques

    This article was published today at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

    A report is being launched today focusing on mosques that have demonstrated good practice in relation to women’s involvement and participation.

    Five key criteria for assessing “women-friendly” mosques were distilled by holding over 100 interviews with Muslim women and listening to what the they themselves wanted. These were: a separate prayer space for women, services and activities geared towards women, such as childcare, women’s training or mentoring sessions, an imam accessible to women or a female scholar, the inclusion of women in decision making and women holding office on the mosque committees.

    Out of 486 mosques that were invited to participate in the benchmarking exercise, the “top 100” are listed in the report as “five star” and “four star” mosques. The list is prefaced by pertinent verses from the Qur’an to set the context for the report’s impact in the Muslim community. They make for interesting reading, and I’d encourage anyone interested in what the Qur’an has to say about the equality of participation to take a look.

    I have a few quibbles with the methodology. Of around 1600 mosques in the UK, only 486 were asked to participate, and this was not a representative sample. And the authors admit that it’s just a start. The 100 women interviewed to identify the five criteria may or may not have been representative of the schools of thought, age and ethnicity the UK Muslim population.

    But, you know … so what? From reading the report I sense that this was never meant to be a piece of quantitative analysis. What is important about this report is that it should ignite a public discussion about women’s participation in mosques, why it’s important and how to achieve it. The report highlights some of the key criteria that women feel are important to them, and we get a qualitative sense of the challenges. It’s a great first step.

    And here’s my advice on where the report needs to go next: it needs to be rolled out across all mosques – and ideally all faith centres (Muslims are not the only ones with issues around gender participation). We need to identify the factors that led to high women’s participation in mosques, and we need to share that best practice across faith centres.

    Mosques are already a vital part of British civic society. And, as society gets “bigger”, community run organisations that cater for local needs will become increasingly important – even more than they are now. So our job is to make them the best that they can possibly be. Encouraging and then institutionalising transparency, standards and best practice is part of that work. In this regard, the support the report’s launch is receiving from the Mosques and Imam’s National Advisory Board (Minab) which was set up to encourage standards and best practice across mosques, is an excellent partnership.

    Mosques have been set up through the voluntary efforts of ordinary working Muslims up and down the country in order to build a sense of community, and to offer moral and emotional sustenance. In addition to this, they provide a range of services from English and computer classes, to yoga and crèche facilities, to gyms and function halls. At a time when funding will no doubt become scarce, such services are important. In particular, where they offer support to women and young people they need to be encouraged. When stories of violence come to the fore it is usually where mosques have not been able to deliver a high level of support and services tailored to its community’s needs.

    This report echoes wider societal concerns about women’s participation in the public square. If we look at the criteria where four-star mosques fell down, the lack of women’s inclusion at a strategic and operational decision-making level was one of the key failings. But this is an area where women’s participation is generally problematic.

    In the political arena, much has been rightly made of the fact the Cabinetis only 14% female – a measly four women. But it’s a wider issue than that – only 21.8% of MPs are women. And the corporate sphere is little better. Only 12.2% of FTSE 100 directors are female, and only four companies have female chief executives.

    So let’s see this report as a small step towards that wider social goal of women’s inclusion and participation in the civic arena. Looking through this wider lens will almost certainly effect much faster and more effective change.

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  • The meaning of minarets

    This article was published in the latest issue of EMEL Magazine.

    What is the difference between a church spire and a mosque minaret? This is a question that has pre-occupied me since late 2009, when the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban minarets, carrying the motion by 57.5%.
    The ban has provoked controversy, and it is likely to be taken to appeal on the grounds of being a violation of religious freedom and expression. Church spires are remarkably similar in size and shape to minarets, and Switzerland has plenty of the former. Yet the population invests different interpretations to the two, even though the stone and mortar are very similar. What is the meaning we ascribe to such materials, and what is it that gives them their different meanings?
    Given the political climate and increasingly strong anti-Muslim sentiment, this difference in reaction to minarets and spires comes as no surprise. It is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle of seemingly small and disparate trends: proposals to ban the niqab and the hijab; the pride in calling yourself ‘Islamophobic’; or the recent proposals for profiling. Politics to one side, what is it that gives a faith building its sacredness? Whether Muslim or otherwise, is faith really to be found in the confines of four walls designated as ‘place of worship’?
    The Muslim populations in the UK arrived in stages from the beginning of the 20th century. Mosques were immediately set up primarily to meet the spiritual needs of prayer. They were ‘virtual’ mosques – hosted at community centres, schools or other hired buildings for the duration of the community needs. Their temporary function reflected the fact that many Muslim immigrants saw their own presence in the UK as temporary.
    As time passed, a sense of permanence was invested in the worshippers’ lives as well as their place of worship. Buildings were bought and converted, and more recently purpose built. Many converted buildings are topped with a small green dome, or other physical attributes that denote the traditional typology of a mosque – large dome with minaret. The immediate needs of the community, along with constrained budgets mean that the functions offered by the mosque are prioritised over its form.

    Although this is understandable, it is very sad. After all, one of the functions of the mosque ought to be for the beauty of its form to inspire worshippers, to engage them with the sublime, to create a connection to the transcendent. More than anything, the mosque ought to resonate fiercely with the worshipper’s surroundings and the culture that they are steeped in. This allows the individual to understand their own status as a unique individual while at the same time being part of the wider community. It allows the community to understand its own relationship to its surroundings and express its own nature amongst a community of communities. After all, human beings look different, speak different languages, dress differently – shouldn’t the mosques where they gather communally and worship communally, show variation in keeping with their local cultures too?

    It is the people that make the faith building sacred. If you have ever stepped into an empty place of worship, the overwhelming energy and sparkle is electrifying, as you, the human being, bring meaning into that place.

    That is why a minaret that looks so much like a spire can cause such anxiety and prejudice – because it is not the building that is the issue, it is what the building represents. Those who voted for the ban are expressing their negativity to the people who bring it to life.

    Under this analysis, we must be conscious of the fact that some Muslim countries also show immense negativity towards places of worship for other faiths, although there are promising signs that this is slowly changing. The constraints placed on churches, synagogues and temples are against the spirit of respect inherent in Islam for other religions.
Even more significant however, is the fact that these constraints indicate that Muslim countries also see faith buildings simply as expressions of political meaning. Whether it is Switzerland or Saudi, Italy or Egypt, we need to see places of worship not as expressions of ‘otherness’ but rather as places where human beings can spark their own spiritual connections, and resolve the very human tension between individuality and being part of a community.

    Far left image: Fraunmester Church in Zurich, Switzerland.
    Left image: Mahmud Mosque in Zurich, Switzerland.
    Other than age, the church spire and mosque minaret look remarkably similar, so why do they mean such different things?
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  • Faith buildings and urban environments: mosques, minarets and multi-faith

    Towards the end of last year, the Arts and Islam programme held an intriguing seminar about the relationship between faith buildings and the urban environments that many of them inhabit.

    My review:

    The mosques that I went to as a child, were of two types. The first were ephemeral fleeting locations: hired halls, school rooms, community centres. They functioned as mosques only during the time that they were populated by Muslims, melting back into their ordinary functions as soon as the last worshipper had left.

    The second kind were permanent structures, with the dedicated function of being a mosque; but somehow they were still lacking in confidence, constrained by lack of time, resources and vision. Purchased from owners who found the large buildings too costly to maintain as a result of disuse or disrepair, they were often old town halls, churches and even schools. They offered benefits such as being well located with large halls to accommodate worshippers. But the bathrooms were too small for the ritual ablutions, the floors too hard for prayers, the qibla that points the congregation to Mecca at a crooked angle to the building, and most likely in need of restoration.

    What baffled me most – even as a child – was the crowning of these new buildings with a little green dome. I understand why it was done – a symbolic marking of the building’s new life as a Muslim centre. Was it necessary though, I wondered? And what was the impact of these and similar architectural changes on the aesthetics of existing – often historic – buildings? And did it enhance the worshippers’ faith?

    These questions have been bubbling away in my mind for many years, so imagine my delight in finding a seminar hosted at a Muslim centre, and inspired by Muslims, focusing on the spatial relationships of faith buildings with their community and environment. Why had I never come across such a discussion before?

    The seminar was prescient – coming only weeks before the Swiss referendum on whether to ban the building of minarets. 53.4% of the population turned out to a vote which carried the motion to ban minarets by 57.5%. The ban has provoked controversy, and has been called a violation of religious freedom and expression, but it highlights the significant meaning which people attach to faith buildings. Church spires are remarkably similar in size and shape to minarets, and Switzerland has plenty of them. Yet the population invests different interpretations to the two, even though the stone and mortar are very similar. It might be naive to wonder why this might be, but when
    approaching this question from an architectural rather than a political perspective, it gets to the very heart of this seminar’s question about how faith buildings influence and interact with their surroundings.

    The seminar was part of the This Is Not A Gateway (TINAG) Festival, a weekend of presentations, debates and forums on the city and urban citizenship. It was co-sponsored by Arts Council England’s Arts and Islam initiative, and in his introduction the director of diversity Tony Panayiotou made a bold statement: “Arts can help young people from turning to extremism.” I wondered whether, by extension, was the same true for faith architecture? I have always maintained that those who have been seduced by violence have not found it in mosques, but rather have been alienated from them. Was it therefore possible that a well-designed, well-built, well-implemented faith building could inspire souls and minds in positive ways?

    You can read the full review here:

    or here:

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  • Segregation: A Muslim woman writes

    This article was published today in The Times Online

    Gender separation is not inherently sexist. We have single sex toilets, stag do’s and hen nights, boys nights out and Anne Summers party nights in, as well as single sex schools, monasteries and convents.

    Every culture has places and occasions where men and women find themselves congregating towards each other through custom, nature or by design.

    I’m deliberately not using the word segregation – a word that carries far too much baggage with its connection to apartheid in South Africa, and the Civil Rights movement in the US. For segregation was premised on a lesser value being placed on those who were being segregated away, and that lesser value meant that they were deserving of less opportunity, respect and participation.

    Separation in itself is not discriminatory because in theory – we’ll come on to talk about practice in a moment – it treats both genders equally. In the theory of separation men and women have equal respect and rights, equal access to opportunity and resource, but are also given the space to flourish or relax in a single sex environment.

    India Knight wrote beautifully about how our culture has many moments of joy where men hang out with men, and women with women, and that we have no need to be in a mixed sex environment all the time.

    The separation of the sexes is always a hot topic for debate. It was always widely held that both boys and girls gained better results in single sex education.

    Boys and girls are more likely to take a wider range of school subjects including those which are not considered ‘typical’ of their gender when in separate schools – girls taking more sciences and boys taking more arts – and more likely to go onto careers less typical of their gender and more suited to their talents.

    Women educated in single sex schools also go onto earn more money. In the working world the policy was always to encourage women to broaden their choice of professions out of the usually ‘women’s professions’ and get more men involved in things considered feminine.

    In a recent study by the University of Cambridge, amongst a sample of 20 countries, those which have more occupations dominated by one sex have more equality in pay between the sexes overall, contradicting assumptions about the advantages of bringing men into traditionally women-dominated occupations and women into male-dominated occupations.

    These examples are not to distract us from the topic in hand, nor to discuss the methodologies or accuracy of their findings and not even to suggest they are directly comparable to the issue we are about to discuss.

    Rather they should set the landscape to a more sophisticated debate on separation and illustrate two points.

    First, that this is a nuanced topic with many complexities. There is no simple right or wrong to policy and execution and the issue of separation permeates all aspects of society.

    Second, this issue of separation is not limited to “Muslim weddings bad” as an MP raised last month.

    Jim Fitzpatrick MP for Poplar and Canning town, which has a large Muslim population, was invited to a Muslim wedding but on arrival, finding that the men and women were to be seated separately, decided to leave, and tell the press about it.

    I wrote about it at the time, disappointed that he was rude enough to make a fuss about a private matter, and surprised that he was ignorant that many Muslim weddings are separated, in both the UK and around the world, and have been as far back as I can remember.

    Gender separation definitely is discriminatory when it normalises male behaviour as the “baseline” and the male side robs the female side of the equation of access, agency and participation.

    This is an extremely problematic area in the Muslim community.

    Let’s for the moment assume that there is no intent to discriminate, but that Muslims feel as though creating a physical boundary for gender separation is in line with Islamic principles.

    Even from this starting point, even those Muslims who support it must acknowledge the reality that the physical arrangements exclude and diminish women’s participation simply because of the arrangement of physical space and location.

    Those “holding the microphone” have control “from the men’s side” and it becomes a kerfuffle to make even a comment from the women’s side. This is not about social occasions of enjoyment like weddings, but serious civic institutions where decisions about the life of the community and its future take place.

    Sometimes women aren’t even invited or told they “don’t need to be there”.

    Herein are the clues which are more revealing about what really lies beneath. Sometimes the sound system is poor, there is no visual, or women are not even in the same room or building. The rooms are smaller, dank, poorly ventilated, or hurriedly found to plonk the women into.

    Those Muslim men who don’t believe me should perhaps investigate these rooms for themselves.

    Not all mosques are like this – the ones I attend have seating in the same room, or separate rooms but with excellent facilities for both men and women.

    When the less favourable locations are challenged about the lack of facilities for women they say that there isn’t enough space to fit the men and women, or the women prefer to stay at home, or so on.

    This makes it apparent that it is the same gender discriminatory attitudes that are often prevalent in wider society rearing their ugly heads here, but hiding behind the false statement that it is religiously “required” separation that makes it so.

    I don’t buy it.

    If it was important to have women there, if it was a natural instinct to include women as Islam dictates, then space would automatically be found.

    The separation can cause other problems too if not carefully patrolled – women become anonymous and indistinguishable. When events are reviewed, their presence and participation is unrecorded. And of course their talents remain untapped for the benefit of the community, which is a great loss. Participation in the running and management of a community is then denied to women – when it never was in Islamic history.

    In Islamic thinking, separation stems from the importance placed on modesty in public – this covers modest clothing (for men and women), modest behaviour (for men and women) and humility (for men and women). In a society which has sexualised almost every aspect of life this can appear a stark contrast or possibly even austere. But for many Muslims the call for modesty is actually a relief from adverts that hallucinate naked men and women in supermarkets after wearing certain deodorants, or the constant debates about body images of female celebrities (she looks like a pre-pubescent child vs. she’s put on a few pounds on holiday).

    The debate on Muslim dress almost always seems to be hijacked by notions that men are uncontrollable lust-monsters who would ravage a woman as look at her, and that women are nothing but sexual objects that need such extreme protection that they can’t be in the same room.

    Frankly I find the former insulting on behalf of men, and the latter infantilising and patronising on behalf of women.

    By instituting a physical separation as the vessel for modesty-management the responsibility for modesty is devolved to the physical partition rather than necessarily imbuing the men and women with the social graces of modesty and respect in the way that they interact with each other.

    Personally, I believe that there is a time and place for separation, and a time and place where a cohesive participation is required. In either scenario it is the behaviour that is primary, for me the physical separation is simply about allowing a space for both men and women to unwind, relax or flourish – as with all the examples I quoted at the beginning.

    Those who insist on separation as a requirement of religious law in order to exclude women’s participation are actually hiding prejudice behind the law.

    For law is always a product of the values and ethos of a community – the law serves a community’s vision rather than dictating how the community should behave. And the Islamic ethos is that men and women are equal creations, that have equal value and equal responsibility in the life of the community.

    The Koran talks about men and women being equal “garments for each other” and “finding peace and tranquility” in each other.

    Those who wish to uphold physical separation, as well as those who want to make clear that separation is not discriminatory, must make extra efforts to eradicate the difficulties of access and participation that usually come for the women. They need to make doubly sure that resources and respect are fully provided so that women can be fully functioning and valued members of society.

    It’s a bit like thinking of the Yin-Yang symbol in representing the male and the female. They interact with each other, but don’t need to be constantly mixed up or in each other’s pockets. Neither can one be completely excluded. When you get the balance and the interaction right you achieve a fully functioning whole.

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  • Muslims 2.0?

    I’ll be speaking this evening at an event hosted by the Radical Middle Way entitled “Divan 2.0: Wired Warriors for the Soul of Islam”. It will be a panel discussion and Q&A between some of the UK’s most active cyber citizens.

    So here are some of my inital thoughts: the web has certainly opened doors for Muslims – especially young Muslims – to have their voices heard and hold discussions that had very little space elsewhere. I’m one of those and my blog is testament to how the web helped me discover and shape my voice. But I do worry that there is a lot of yelling that goes on, and that we have lost the ability to discern wisdom and learning from polemic. And how does the invisible, intangible blogosphere fit into the social structure of a faith that is built around physical congregations such as the Friday prayers and the hajj? Are we destined to turn into two parallel ummahs, those who go to the mosque and those who go online?

    Come along to the event to hear the panel talking about Wired Warriors for the soul of Islam

    Date: Friday 22 May 2009
    Location: Old Theatre, London School of Economics
    Address: Houghton Street (off the Aldwych) London WC2A 2AE
    Time: Doors open 6:45 pm; Starts 7:15 pm; Ends 8:45 pm

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  • The Problem of the S-Word

    Let the tabloids and politicians spend their time foaming at the mouth over words like Shar’iah, we should be spending our time pioneering services and solutions to meet our community needs

    Shari’ah is once again big news. The Lord Chief Justice has said that, “There is no reason why Shari’ah principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.” His comments follow a speech earlier in the year by the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been discussing the role of faith in the public sphere and had used the issue of Shari’ah courts as an example of where this could be done. The Lord Chief Justice commented about that speech: “It was not very radical to advocate embracing Shari’ah law in the context of family disputes, for example, and our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the Archbishop’s suggestion.

    Predictably, the tabloids went berserk, and sadly some of our sound-bite simplistic politicians followed suit. What a furore! This was a simple discussion about civil arbitration, a provision that is rooted deep in English law. As Madeleine Bunting wrote in the Guardian, “Because of the provision for mediation by a third party in English civil law, there is already a degree of accommodation for Shari’ah law in our legal system.” In fact, she argues, if we don’t want Shari’ah we would have to remove the “fundamental option of mediation outside the legal system when agreed by both parties… [which]…will require a pretty radical reform which would stir up a lot of opposition.”
    Clearly then, our politicians and media are not concerned with the actual essence of what the mediation process will be, but more upset about the word ‘Shari’ah’ itself.
    The Shari’ah courts were a solution that Muslims created to deal with life for their new communities in the UK. It is important that we are clear that it is absolutely right and proper that a community should be able to create structures and institutions to support its individuals and families to operate smoothly and according to its principles and values. Of course those structures should and do operate within the law of the land. However, their creation was based on models familiar to the communities from their countries of origin, where the decision-making role of the ‘court’ was its primary purpose. The courts in those countries would have been supported by more accessible and prevalent mosques and Imams, and a community that was most likely majority Muslim. Most of these support services – which acted as buffers to problems and disputes before the final limit of legal jurisdiction – are not easily available to us in Britain.

    So today, Muslims turn to bodies like Shari’ah courts as much for their Islamic decision-making status, as increasingly for their pastoral services. However, dealing with disputes requires counselling, therapy and support before a case can reach any final definitive verdict, all of which are an extension of a legal court’s traditional role. Individuals who are trapped in a dispute – whether marital or of another personal nature – want both support and recognition for their distress, which today they find may not be available elsewhere. They wish to feel the supportive hand of guidance and authority in resolving their pain based on the same principles by which they try to govern their own lives. It is therefore exactly in this grey area between civic dispute and any mediation ruling that an arbitration service based on Islamic principles can add tremendous value to our community.

    Those who participate in the existing Shari’ah courts give a great deal of their time and energies, but in order to achieve this goal they need more skills and resources, more focus, more participation from the community to meet the growing needs for pastoral care. We need more women, more counsellors and more youth workers to name but a few of the skills required.

    Most importantly what they need – what Muslims need – is to give themselves the freedom to think more freely about the purpose and function of such resources within the community. We must not diminish the need and importance of such mediation and resolution centres. They are a vital component of Muslim community institutions. But thinking of them within the prism of decision-making only, carries so much history and expectation with them that sometimes it can become impossible to create new models of operation.
    Will we ever find the freedom to dive into the very essence of our needs and pioneer new tools and methodologies to meet our changing times and circumstances? Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph says, “Do not bring up your children the way that you were brought up, because they live in different times.” We live in a different time, and we need to pioneer new solutions.

    Note: Cartoon is taken from Spirit21’s own MagicMuslims superheroes, visit

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  • Launch of mosques advisory board, and Spirit21 comment on BBC

    Last week a new body called MINAB – the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board – was launched. This was following two years of consultation and dialogue amongst Muslim organisations. Mosques have always been an issue facing the Muslim communities – not because of the ‘terrorist threat’ that the media would like to have you believe that they pose, but simply because they are failing to meet the needs of their constituencies.

    The BBC wrote a piece exploring some of the issues, which included an in-depth interview with me, referring to the writings I’ve made elsewhere about the role of mosques and Imams.

    In an article entitled “The battle over mosque reform” it was revealed that apparently Spirit21 is “an influential blog with readers across the cultural and religious spectrum. Her [Shelina’s] commentary on Muslim Britain has a following among key government figures.”

    Let’s hope key officials are paying attention then.

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  • Guardian Comment is Free: More than two sides to this story

    I’ve just posted the following article on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site. Check it out:

    Hate literature and extremism are issues that need to be addressed, but it’s sad that the media seek binary reactions to British mosques. ” More

    Listen very carefully, I will say this only once. Or maybe twice. In fact, I find myself having to repeat it ad infinitum … the literature that the Policy Exchange and the rightwing press have been flagging up as “found” in mosques, is indeed loathsome. Yes, I’m a Muslim, and I don’t like it; I don’t agree with it and it does not represent the views of the broad and diverse Muslim communities in the UK. The irony of the fact that this genre of literature is published and distributed out of Saudi Arabia – whom our government routinely supports and protects – should not be lost on anyone during the current visit of the Saudi monarch.

    I’m glad these “exports”, which have been coming into the UK for more than 20 years, have finally gained attention. I’m not so glad that this narrative is crystallising beneath headlines such as “hate-filled mosques”. Is this to support the subtext that the people who go to mosques are hate-filled too? Should we add it into the toxic mix of integration, terror laws and Hizb ut-Tahrir? A small minority do indeed have some shocking and violent views. (Note: another “denouncement” that I must make incessantly as a Muslim.) However, it’s sad that our reporters seek binary reactions to British mosques. Is that cutesy mosque next door to you really a bomb-making factory? We need to ask ourselves difficult questions about whether beneath these headlines lurk ugly attitudes. How does Britain really feel about mosques on the high street? Is Britain really as prejudice-free and welcoming to those of other faiths and cultures as it claims to be?

    Hurrah for Hazel Blears! She is going to save the day! Yesterday she announced a £70m package aimed at addressing extremist influences that proliferate in “ungoverned spaces” such as the internet, snooker halls, bookshops (this goes without saying) and of course, the so-called “hate-filled” mosques, for which £25m has been reserved. The very fact that she has done this means she has bought into the dangerous and flawed premise that mosques are inherently bad places filled with bad people. It is reminiscent of “You’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.”

    It is an eerie echo of the two-part thriller that Channel 4 is airing called Britz, which tracks the lives of two British Muslim siblings. One chooses to be a spy, the other a bomber, and the drama asks the stark question: “Whose side are you on?” It makes me cross. I’m not on either side, and I will not choose between these simplistic and reactionary choices. I’m on the side of making this country a better place for everyone and preserving the right to determine how and where I worship while maintaining harmony in civil society.

    I believe Blears is genuine in her intentions but is going about it in the wrong way. Who will “approve” what can and can’t be said in mosques? Whose interpretation of Islam and the issues facing Muslims will be rubber-stamped by the government for mass communication? Inayat Bunglawala makes a similar point about bookshops with reference to what can and can’t be stocked in “Islamic” bookshops. Who should dictate what can and can’t be said in these ungoverned spaces that Blears has described? So far, the Saudi-influenced views have been setting the pace. Swinging the pendulum to the extreme in a different direction will only be a hollow and short-lived victory.

    Which Islam will be the British gold standard? Will mosques be kite-marked for government approval before youths aged 16-35 are allowed to enter? Or perhaps a Michelin star rating system would work better?

    I often joke that the mosque I frequent is my “local”. I don’t drink alcohol so a pub is inappropriate for my desire to socialise as well as spiritualise. The mosque, however, is perfect: a reinvention of the social club meets faith centre. My “local” holds charity fundraisers for Darfur, Kashmir and Iraq. It has yoga classes, and computer lessons. Elders can receive health advice which they may be unaware they need. There is extra school tuition for children. Young mothers can get together to alleviate boredom, isolation and depression.

    To reiterate (yet again!), mosques, just like Muslims, have responsibilities to exercise good social citizenship by working to eradicate extreme and violent views. But equally, their very presence can be a source of community support and cohesion. Think of them as a revival of the community centre that once tied localities together, a new kind of “local” on the high street.

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  • Are we on a path towards government approved mosques?

    Hazel Blears, minister for Communities and Local Government today announced 70m pounds to help Muslim communities tackle extremism and radicalisation. They will set up websites, ‘help’ Imams, discuss identity and go into mosques to discuss citizenship and other nice fluffy stuff approved by the government as its preferred form of Islam. Is it a slippery slope to government approved mosques, or have the media headlines distorted the truth to fan the flames of mistrust?

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