"Notorious cleric visited mosque where terror brothers worshipped" read Monday's front-page headline of the Daily Mail. The story was in response to the recent news that a number of Cardiff youths have appeared in a recruitment video for ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The Daily Mail argued that Cardiff mosque, Al-Manar Centre, played a key role in radicalising the boys to fight.
As someone who was born and bred in Cardiff, and is researching the life of a British mosque towards a PhD, I was bewildered and frustrated by the accusations. British mosques host an incredibly diverse and dynamic range of activities that contribute immensely to life in Britain. From Muslim scout groups, to educational endeavours such as GCSE and A-Level tuition, to interfaith events - this is the reality British mosques. Added to that, mosques coordinate numerous fundraising events - a recent study by The Times found Muslims are the most financially generous religious group, something attested to within the holy month of Ramadan which will see over £100 million raised and donated to charity - much of that fundraising done via mosques. Mosques also contribute to local causes, such as organising foodbanks and addressing issues such as domestic abuse and violence against women.
You might be thinking that perhaps Al-Manar Centre is a bad egg, but the Daily Mail's only evidence of its radicalising nature was a single lecture at the mosque given by Saudi Arabian speaker Shaykh Muhammad al-Arifi. Although there are legitimate criticisms one can make about the Imam on his views towards Shia Muslims, he has never previously been accused of encouraging men to fight in Syria or elsewhere, and there is no evidence to suggest this. Besides, would a speaker approved by the Saudi government really be encouraging involvement in ISIS whom the Saudi government is in opposition to? Add to that the fact that all the mosques in Cardiff, including Al-Manar, recently came together to author an anti-extremism leaflet titled "What Islam Really Says...". The leaflet provides a counter-narrative to the messages of division and hate that violent extremist groups spout and was launched officially a fortnight ago in the Senedd but has previously been distributed in Cardiff's mosques during Friday prayers. The Daily Mail's argument of radicalisation at Al-Manar mosque simply doesn't make sense, and even the smallest amount of research can tell you this.
The story has developed further, with some journalists now asking whether the Salafi movement within Islam is responsible for radicalising the young boys. Unfortunately it is a classic case of confusing religious conservatism with radicalisation. Those familiar with the Salafi movement in the UK and abroad are aware that Salafi scholars have very often been at the forefront of condemning and challenging violent extremist preachers - something author and journalist Innes Bowen makes clear in her book on British Islam.
However, it isn't just misunderstanding mosques must contend with, but outright hatred. TELL-MAMA recorded dozens of mosque attacks over the past two years, particularly after the killing of Lee Rigby, the most serious of which include bombings and arson. The most notable case was that of Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukranian PhD student who detonated three bombs at mosques in the Midlands after murdering Mohammed Saleem, an elderly Muslim pensioner. Groups such as the English Defence League, prior to their implosion, regularly protested against the presence of mosques and more recently, Britain First have staged 'invasions' in which they film themselves aggressively entering mosques and harassing worshippers.
I don't think I'm alone in fearing that rushed headlines and poor journalism can lead to mosques being further demonised. Far from being hotbeds of radicalisation, mosques are places of religious devotion and civic engagement for countless British Muslims across the country.