The revelation a few weeks ago of the Gaddafi regime's US-UK spy links, and the allegation that MI6 planted Libyan spies in British mosques to hunt out terror plots, caused great consternation in the Muslim community and within civil liberty circles. It may not be surprising that the British intelligence services had informers monitoring suspected violent extremists, including in places of worship; but it is deeply disturbing that such high levels of information-sharing took place between a developed democracy and a crude autocracy.
The Gaddafi regime was a pariah for decades and rightly-so: brutal repression of freedoms and human rights was commonplace. The Blair government brought Gaddafi in from the cold, it is true: but the complicity in spying is simply inexcusable.
The Coalition has rightly initiated an inquiry but it is difficult to say whether that will give us the full picture. Gaddafi's time in Libya is now over, but successive governments' flirtation with him in recent years is going to haunt our reputation for some time.
However, the main question is: Are mosques really a problem in our country? Why are governments so suspicious of *mosques* in particular?
Sadly, the story of this suspicion goes a while back. In contemporary times, finding problems with 'places of worship' started with our 'religiously motivated' Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in the aftermath of the 7/7 atrocities in London. Although there was no evidence whatsoever that those suicide bombers were in any way radicalised by mosques, Blair suggested the closure of places of worship in summer 2005 (after his 'rules of the games have changed' speech in August 2005). This was strongly opposed by not only Muslim organisations, led by the Muslim Council of Britain, but also by top police officers, backed up by the Church and civil liberty groups. As a result, the Government dropped the closure proposal in December 2005. Unfortunately, this created further divisions between the Government and the Muslim community, which continues even today.
There are approximately 1,500 mosques in Britain; many of them are small makeshift prayer rooms in shops, unused halls or terraced houses up and down the country. They were established primarily by the first-generation Muslims who needed prayer places, personal and family counselling on theological matters and other religious facilities such as wedding and funeral venues. Over the decades, some purpose-built mosques have been added to the mosaic of the British landscape.
Apart from being religious and spiritual centres, mosques are supposed to serve the community and build bridges between people, in line with the teachings of Islam. Mosques are expected to be at the forefront of community development with facilities to provide knowledge, skills, education and training to enhance the capacity of worshippers and contribute to the social empowerment of local people. If most British mosques, small and large, could play positive roles in bringing communities together and creating a sense of social belonging and civic responsibility with high quality services, the Muslim community could minimise its educational under-achievement, social deprivation and over-representation in the prison population.
Sadly, a good number of our mosques are struggling to cope with these needs. Yes, there are limitations in terms of physical space, resources and planning laws. But there is naivety and a lack of professionalism in many mosques, often run by first-generation Muslims. Some mosques are stalling in their interaction and engagement with the younger generations and with women. Others have difficulties in accommodating diverse groups from within their congregation. There is a mixed picture, with examples of achievements and disappointments. Raising standards in education and child protection is still an area that needs serious attention from the mosque management committees and local authorities.
However, apart from Finsbury Park some years ago (about which former Special Branch policeman-turned-academic Bob Lambert has written at some length) I am not aware there is any evidence that British mosques are being deliberately used for extremist or subversive purposes. Some right-wing think tanks and bloggers have been trying for some time to blow up the shortcomings of the mosques to depict a depressing picture of the Muslim community. But their analyses do not stand scrutiny. It is vital these cynics spend some time acquiring first-hand knowledge how most mosques are struggling to serve their congregations and how, in spite of their limitations, they contribute to wider society.
My view is that mosques are, in general, providing a huge service to Muslims and their local communities. But they need introspection and renewal to make sure they remain, and can become, more effective. They need dedicated and talented young people in their management committees and proactive multilingual imams to interact and engage with people from all walks of life. Positive initiatives, such as the Muslim Council of Britain's mosque capacity building project and Faith Associates' mosque management, governance training and support in recent times have tried to address some of these issues. More is needed, however.
Mosques have been, and will remain, the Muslim community's spiritual anchor and communal focal and centrepoint. But they cannot remain prayer places with their doors shut at other times, indifferent to the needs of younger people and the rest of the local community. They need to open up, wake up, and work with all sections of their community. Not just other faith groups - though that is a good place to start - but non-faith organisations, the police and other public and private sector organisations.
In return, it is imperative that law-enforcement authorities value the contribution of the mosques and do not alienate them through covert and undignified spying of congregations. Muslims are partners of peace in our society. They expect the same respect as equal citizens of our country - no more, no less.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a parenting consultant. He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). The views expressed in this article are the author's own.