United bigots of the “mega-mosque” campaign

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BBC Radio last week broadcast a programme called Turning Right, which probed the British National Party’s lame attempts to hide the thuggish and criminal natures of a number of its major activists, including its leader, Nick Griffin. Griffin made little effort to conceal his real opinions, asserting that he now believed what he had to, because he would otherwise be extradited to France (“otherwise”, for example, includes maintaining his devotion to Holocaust denial). The programme also gave airtime to an outfit called the Christian People’s Alliance, which they claim drove down the BNP’s support in its white, working-class east London “heartland” by concentrating on local issues. However, the CPA and the BNP are on the same side on one issue: opposition to the so-called “mega mosque”, which is proposed for a site near to the main Olympic stadium. An examination of material issued by the CPA, however, reveals its reliance on misinformation and bigotry.

The CPA actually has three regional sites linked off its main page: Scotland, Wales and Newham, the east London borough in which the Olympic village is to be built. One of its councillors, Alan Craig, who is not actually the councillor for the area which includes the mosque land, has made a series of YouTube videos purporting to “expose” the Tablighi Jama’at, which intends that the mosque will serve as its markaz, or centre. Craig claims that there will be no Islamophobia, that he is not opposed to mosque-building in general, and that he respects Muslims as his fellow citizens (his party even put up a Muslim candidate in the recent local elections in Scotland, but according to Osama Saeed, did not draw attention to their anti-mosque campaign). His objection is simply to the fact that it will be the Tablighi Jama’at running it. He seems ignorant of the fact that the TJ, or Deobandis, control several mosques in London already, including Queen’s Road, Walthamstow, and perhaps most of those south of the Thames, including Balham, Stockwell, Streatham, Norbury, Croydon (London Rd and Cherry Orchard), Wimbledon and one in Tooting.

Craig has made a series of YouTube videos outlining his case against the TJ and their plan. This one is called Meet Alan Craig:

The half-truths start pretty early, with Craig claiming that the mosque is known as the “Olympics mega-mosque”, when in fact this is a name its opponents call it. Muslims, other than the sectarians who have thrown in their lot with Craig, call it Abbey Mills Mosque or the Tablighi markaz or Masjid Ilyas, or the mosque of the prophet Elijah, peace be upon him. The jama’at, who acquired the land in the early 1990s, did not intend it as a showpiece “mega-mosque” at all, but as a place big enough to hold large gatherings, as they commonly do. The idea of turning it into an Olympic showpiece came as a result of the Olympic bid.

In this video, Community Impact of the Olympics Mega-mosque, Craig “celebrates” the fact that some 120 languages are spoken in Newham and that it is one of the most diverse places on the planet and that he loves living there. He claims that the TJ, however, have “previous”, having built their European headquarters in Savile Town, Dewsbury, and that since that mosque was built, the streets around it have become a “parallel society”, a Tablighi enclave or ghetto in which 95-97% of the residents are Tablighi Muslims. He claims that this is no accident, that the TJ are separatists and isolationists who like to separate themselves from the “degenerate West” and the unbelievers. He claims that such an attitude is very different from the teachings of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), who is reported as having told his disciples to be a “salt and light” in society.

In my own experience, TJ mosques tend to get built in TJ-sympathetic areas, which is why there are two mosques in Gloucester and both are TJ. The people Craig claims moved into the area surrounding the Dewsbury Tablighi centre must have come from somewhere, and if they all came from other areas which had been served by Deobandi or Tablighi mosques, are those mosques closing down? All evidence shows that mosques are not closing down, and that old churches and even pubs are being turned into mosques. Furthermore, it is all very well to talk of being “in society” when you dominate that society. Muslims, like other ethnic minorities, seek to live with people similar to themselves, so that they have a high chance of meeting people like themselves on a daily basis, something white people take for granted as most of the country has a white and at least nominally Christian majority. In London, there are clusters of people all over the place: Africans in Peckham, Afro-Carribeans in Brixton, Portuguese in Stockwell, Bengalis in Whitechapel, Arabs in numerous parts of inner west London, Jews in several pockets of north London. In east London also, Muslims with the TJ live alongside people of other races and religions and with Muslims of other persuasions.

Tablighi Jamaat and Violence is perhaps the most unpleasant watch for a Muslim of all these videos. It makes a lame attempt to link the TJ with violence. Bear in mind, we are talking about the TJ’s activities in the UK here, not what some of them do in Pakistan. We are also talking about actual Tablighi activity, not about attitudes common amongst Tablighis.

Craig tells us that the TJ “say quite clearly, and quite publically, that they do not participate, they do not believe in, they do not preach violence”. He first challenges this with the fact that a number of British Muslims who involved themselves in terrorism were associated with the TJ, including Richard Reid, two of the four London bombers and a number of those arrested in connection with the August 2006 “airline terror plot”. The fact that people have passed through the TJ does not make the TJ responsible for their decision to carry out acts of terrorism; Reid, as is well known, was best associated with the Finsbury Park mosque, and those associated with extremism there were definitely not TJ. Asif Hanif, who carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, was definitely not TJ (when he was in England, he worshipped at Hounslow mosque, which is associated with the Bareilawi grouping, which is opposed to the TJ). Proving that someone went on a jama’at outing or two does not mean that the jama’at encouraged them to participate in terrorism. Muslims have access to other sources of teaching, particularly if they go to university.

He quotes one Marc Gaborieau, a Paris-based academic, who claims that the TJ’s aim is “a planned conquest of the world in the spirit of jihad”. The rhetoric of jihad is sometimes used, but invariably in connection with their non-violent activities. I remember watching a number of people volunteer to go off on various Tablighi activities, none of them remotely connected with violence, and the announcer talking of them “going in the way of Allah”, which could be said of going to fight but also of participating in any work which involves effort of some kind. The use of the word tabligh is significant here: it means propagation, or preaching (the name is sometimes translated as “preaching party”). He then cites Yoginder Sikand, who he claims is a Muslim (he is not), citing an anonymous sympathiser claiming that the TJ is preparing Muslims for “lesser jihad”, in other words, “physical warfare against the enemies of Islam”. Whether this statement is true or not, the important issue is how they do that - because there is no evidence that they are providing weapons training, for example. All they do is to take groups of (mostly) men out of their usual setting to spend a few days reading inspirational stories about the Companions (radhi Allahu ‘anhum) and perhaps doing a bit of basic study, while separating themselves from (some of) their usual worldly comforts.

He explains that the “distinctive thing about Tablighi Jamaat” is that they deliberately and carefully try to emulate the life of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), by such things as sleeping on the floor and brushing their teeth with twigs (as if they simply use any old twig, rather than a particular type of wood which has anti-bacterial properties). Because the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) was personally involved in 29 battles, this emulation, according to Craig, is inconsistent with not preaching jihad. Besides the fact that the battles of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) were mostly aimed at fending off attempts to destroy the community, and Islam with it, or at combating armed, brutal religious frauds, the fact is that following the sunnah is something all Muslims aspire to to one degree or another. The TJ happen to emphasise Islamic dress, coming as they do from the relatively liberal political environment of the Subcontinent, where it is possible for men to wear Islamic dress and not be presumed hostile to the state, as is the case in parts of the Arab world. In his lame attempt to smear the Tablighi Jama’at with association with violence, he has instead smeared Muslims generally, demanding that the TJ be asked to “renounce the life of Muhammad” (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) before they can be trusted as a non-violent group. The fact remains that what makes a group violent is what it does, and there is no evidence that the TJ has been behind any violent activity whatsoever, particularly in Europe.

In this video, he talks about the funding for the mosque, which he claims will cost £100million or more, perhaps even £300million. He claims that every Muslim he has spoken to “has no doubt whatsoever” that it will be funded by Saudi Arabia, and that its only the Saudis, “or rather the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia”, that have the money for such a project. This conveniently ignores the fact that the character of the other Gulf states differs greatly from that of Saudi Arabia: they are more liberal in their outlook, more traditionally Muslim as opposed to Wahhabi, and while, with the exception of Kuwait, they are dictatorships, they are much less socially repressive, particularly to women. It is not “beyond doubt” that Saudi Arabia will fund it. If this is a stumbling block, another donor could be found, which many Muslims (including myself) actually find preferable. He then alleges that the TJ have a “track record” (a phrase he uses often), that their Dewsbury headquarters was funded by the Saudis through the Muslim World League, that it indicates some sort of link between Wahhabism and the Deobandi grouping of which the TJ are part, and that Shaikh Bin Baz was very warm towards them and suggested co-operation between Saudi Wahhabis and the TJ.

He then talks about a debate he had in Hyde Park (presumably he means Speakers’ Corner, a notorious venue for pointless and fractious arguments over religion and sometimes politics) with supporters of the mosque, saying that we can have such debates in this country because Britain has a strong Christian heritage. “You see, the Gospel of the Freedom of Jesus Christ leads straight on to social and political freedoms, and this country has its political freedoms because it has its Christian heritage,” he opines. Of course, anyone who has studied the history of Europe knows that Christianity was never associated with political freedom until Christianity lost its hold on the state: there is a long history of religious persecutions, of mob violence (such as the “no-popery” riots in England), of anti-Semitism, of burnings of reformers as heretics, of mutual excommunication, and of repressive politics right into the 1970s in western Europe. He then tells us that the Saudis do not permit churches to be built or women to drive - as if these facts should have any influence over how a mosque funded by them should behave! He offers no evidence, of course; virtually everywhere in the Muslim world except for Saudi Arabia, women can and do drive cars, and many countries have placed restrictions on religious proselytism, not all of them Muslim countries (Greece and Thailand, for example). Still, his attack on Saudi Arabia is based on the presumption that it is they, and not some other wealthy donor, who will fund the project, and this is not certain. The Saudis are far from being the only oil-rich Muslims around.

In his final video, The 2012 Olympics, Craig argues that the supposed aim of the mosque being “the hub of an Islamic quarter” is antithetical to the Olympic ideal of people of different races and religions coming together “in the name of sport”. He argues that we should not want an Islamic quarter, any more than a Christian or American or Chinese quarter. The fact remains that such districts already exist in London, the clearest example being that any Chinese person who desires easy access to Chinese food and company can easily head for Chinatown, for example, in Soho. The districts around the Olympic village already have a high Muslim population, but Muslims coming from abroad to watch the Olympics (or to work at them) might not find the halal fried chicken and Indian food outlets of east London to their tastes. I agree that having an Islamic quarter right next to the Olympic village is impractical, but then, the mosque is not being built in a residential area anyway, and the likelihood of the Olympics being a melting-pot for foreign tourists (most of them only here for two weeks) is slim. People will come in groups, mostly from one country (indeed, the opening ceremony is likely to see competitors marching with their national teams, not just mixed in together), and may strike up conversations over beer or coffee but very few of them will make lasting friendships. That is how London is already: it’s not a little village where everyone knows each other, it’s a big, impersonal city (something I have often heard people from northern England remark on: the lack of community compared to what they know, and I am talking about Muslims and others here). If they come in a large group, the chances are that they will sit and eat and drink together, or with their hosts (who might well be of the same ethnic background, religion, or family, or all three).

Of course, many Muslims have reservations about this mosque. I am not sure the Tablighi Jama’at are the right people to run a multi-national mosque for Olympic participants, spectators or workers: they are rather conservative and have a tendency to look down on Muslims who do not practise Islam their way - but then, after the Olympics are finished and the tourists gone, it will likely revert to the use that was intended when the Tablighis bought the land: as a community mosque and markaz - that is, if gentrification does not push the local Muslim community out. I fail to see why a mosque should cost £100million to build, or even a tenth of that. If they are going to spend masses of money, they should make the mosque beautiful, which the present proposal certainly is not - it’s an “iconic” modernist design, and such buildings have a history of being detested by those who use them, however many architectural awards they win (see earlier entry). (Update: the modernist plan referred to, by the Mangera Yvars architectural practice, was considered but has been turned down.) However, this does not justify the use of smears and half-truths to deny a section of east London’s existing population their right to a community facility that they need. The Tablighi Jama’at have had a markaz in London for years; they need a new one because it is too small for the number of people that come every week.

As for the Muslims who are supporting the anti-mosque campaign, the fact is that their concerns are sectarian, and go back decades. Some of them would, if they were able, prevent the construction of any Deobandi or Tablighi mosque anywhere in the world; some of them regard the Deobandis themselves as hypocrites or even as unbelievers. They know full well that the Tablighi Jama’at are not a security risk in this country, whatever they tell the media; they seek to curtail their activities because they dislike them for their own, mostly historical, reasons. Muslims who are not blinded by sectarianism should oppose this unholy alliance and its bigoted campaign.

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