“We feel a strong sense of responsibility. We think we should be role models to other mosques and other faith places, to deal with extremism and any other problems... But we [as Muslims] want to feel we are part of the wider community. We want to be British citizens, not second-class citizens, and we want to feel we have duties, responsibilities and rights as well.” (Mohammed Kozbar)
Have you heard of the Finsbury Road Mosque? Possibly the name may ring a bell, but perhaps not. We usually remember people rather than places.
What about the Imam Abu Hamza who was based at Finsbury Road? I suspect that name may be more familiar, and if, of course, one mentions “hook-handed hate cleric”, to take the way the press reported him, you will almost certainly know of him.
As the Telegraph reported at his trial:
“The Finsbury Park mosque was long known to have served as a clearing house for radical Muslims after Hamza arrived as imam in 1997. His hate-filled rants inspired attendees such as Richard Reid, the failed “shoe bomber”, Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the 9/11 terror plotters, and Mohammed Sidique Khan, one of the four suicide bombers who blew themselves up on public transport in London on July 7, 2005.”
It is clear from the trial that he was also involved in the training of terrorists.
The hook handed cleric must be a godsend for people like Gavin Ashenden, who surprising dropped his titles on BBC Radio, including Queen’s Chaplain (which always accompanies him like a trained corgi), for a more familiar “blokey” style – “call me Gavin”. No doubt his calm, measured tones were meant to persuade the listener, and I fear he had some small success in that.
But let’s not forget that stirring up mistrust and fear and eventually hate does not always come with priests ranting like Ian Paisley used to do. The path to hate is paved with sweet intentions, rather like the magic Turkish delight that seduced Edmund in “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Not that I would accuse the Reverend Ashenden of being thoroughly evil like the White Witch, but he can certainly cast a spell over listeners with his misguided notions, and to suggest (as he did, without evidence) that the poor dead Kurdish child was moved to make a better photo opportunity is simply to pander to the propagandists of hate.
Gavin Ashenden at present both on BBC Radio Jersey, and in his JEP column, is fuelling fear and mistrust about Muslims. These are incidentally those fleeing the extreme form of Islam in the Islamic State, lest we forget.
But what we have forgotten to remember, to use a phase coined by Michael Portillo (for his excellent Radio 4 history series) is what happened to Finsbury Park after Abu Hamza, and indeed, what is happening there today.
This is not the stuff of news stories, because it is not about preachers of hate,
“A young man hands out candy to passers-by and Sunday afternoon visitors are welcomed through its open doors with cups of tea and biscuits. It is hard to imagine that a decade ago this place of worship was a hangout for some of the world's most notorious and deadly jihadis.”
“In ‘Visit My Mosque Day’ at Finsbury Park earlier this month, children proudly lined up to perform for guests. A boy dressed in galabiyya [Islamic dress for men] and holding a British flag was joined by girls in headscarves. Together they sang songs, and recited poetry praising their faith.”
And indeed following Hamza's 2005 detention for inciting hatred, and even before his trial, a new group of trustees, including local residents, were brought in to flush out the radicals.
Khalid Omour, one of the mosque's trustees said:
"The mosque basically was hijacked by a group of people who were utilizing this platform, which is a place of worship, and it wasn't used for the main purpose it was built for. When we came in 2005, the local community here, from all sorts of walk of life, decided to take the initiative by really drawing a line under that era and build a new era ... of positive image, positive service, community engagement."
And it has been having open days every year long with inter-faith meetings addressing issues in the local community.
The mosque continues to receive “nasty” emails and letters. There is still a lot of work to be done. They are still fearful of journalists or those purporting to be journalists who may come to muck-rake and misrepresent what they are doing, and in fact locked up a journalist for 30 minutes while they called the police to check his credentials.
The manager of the Mosque, Mohammed Kozbar, said: “He asked if he could come and talk about the changes we have made to the mosque since Abu Hamza. For a few minutes he asked those questions, then he started asking about lots of different things. Not that we have anything to hide, but we felt he had misled us and was trying to ambush us to create a story.”
“We started to worry he was a malicious journalist, especially as we have had bad experiences in the past, so we asked to see some photo identification to prove who he was. He couldn’t do that, so we called the police. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to keep him there, but we were worried. We offered him tea and coffee while we waited, it wasn’t like he was in prison.”
Clearly the Trustees are still feeling fragile after the decade of an extremist takeover and wary of anybody asking questions. I can understand that and sympathise: I have been preparing an article on changes in safeguarding in Jersey, and was met with perhaps understandable suspicion by one clergyman.
In August this year, there were new initiatives. As the Islington Tribune reports:
“Homeless, poor and vulnerable people can now get a meal, some shelter and company for a few hours each week thanks to Finsbury Park’s Meal for All project. Around 20 people have been attending the Finsbury Park Mosque on Thursday evenings for soup and bread since the scheme started earlier this month, with the numbers expected to rise during the winter months. Advice and support is also on hand from homelessness and drug charities. The mosque leadership took inspiration from nearby St Thomas’ Church, which runs a similar scheme and with which the mosque has a good relationship.”
Mohamed Said told to the Tribune: “We are part of the community. We open our mosque for everyone – we are not just a mosque but a community centre.” The centre also holds youth clubs, attended by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and regular open days.
The mosque’s office wall proudly bears an award from Islington council for services to the community.
And they are also involved in the refugee crisis:
On Friday, September 4, the mosque raised a total of £7,000 for Human Appeal, a charity whose refugee crisis emergency appeal is targeted at helping people fleeing from their homeland of Syria. Mr Kozabar said: “We have to fulfil our responsibility as human beings.”
Can we leave behind a legacy of fear? While Gavin Ashenden talks of an Islamic takeover, Britain’s past history bears testimony to other kinds of religious discrimination.
It was once feared that Roman Catholics would take over in places of power, and they, and non-conformists, were excluded from Parliament.
Jews were looked upon with suspicion, and even in the 1930s, there was an underground anti-Semitism, often among the aristocracy as well as elsewhere.
I’ve lived long enough to see the residual effect of this in the 1960s. In school, Catholics and Jews did not take part in school assemblies, and there was this mostly unspoken feeling that “they were not quite like the rest of us”. There was a notion that Catholics would blindly obey their priests, and of course in the USA, the notion that a Catholic President would do the bidding of the Pope. There was still the lie being promulgated that Jewish people could not really be proper citizens, because they didn’t owe any allegiance to England, or for that matter Jersey.
Thankfully, those days are mostly gone, but the new scapegoat, the new outsider, is the Muslim in our midst. The same kinds of fears and prejudices surface – they all want Sharia law, just as a Catholic president would have made America an offshoot of the Vatican.
Some may want Sharia law, just as some Catholics – as seen in States debates – are unhappy with Jersey’s position on abortion. Some Christians have in the recent past in the States born testimony to unhappiness with gay couples adopting, or lowering the age of consent to match that of heterosexual couples. They wanted Jersey to tow what they perceived to be the Christian line. You can read that in Hansard, where the words “sodomy” and “buggery” are there to see. But this weekend has just seen a Gay pride march. The tide is turning against one kind of prejudice. Let’s not start another.