"Within one day we managed to reclaim this mosque for the community. It is not just a mosque now. It is a community centre for people whether they are Muslims or not. It is about humanity." With these words, the Chair of the Trustees of London's Finsbury Park Mosque, Mohammed Kozbar, opened a news conference of British Muslim leaders this week. They warned that the government is making enemies of those best placed to address violent extremism.
Chaired by author and journalist Victoria Brittain, the packed news conference heard leaders of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and the Cordoba Foundation think-tank repudiate terrorism, and argue that they were on the frontline of defending the country against violent extremism.
They were responding to Prime Minister David Cameron's written statement to Parliament on 17 December 2015, announcing the outcome of an inquiry into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain. Although Mr Cameron said the Brotherhood had influenced groups in the UK, he said the organization would not be banned in the country.
'Active partners in a security dialogue with the police'
The inquiry acknowledged that the "MAB were active partners in a security dialogue with the police and collaborated with the police in ejecting Abu Hamza, the militant Salafist preacher, from a mosque in north London. The MAB have participated in the governance of this mosque ever since."
Omer El-Hamdoon, the president of the MAB, said his association had no links with the Muslim Brotherhood. He said the MAB's social welfare projects included youth projects "teaching them useful life skills and steering them away from the scourge of criminality."
"These organisations are the first line of defence, at a social level and a national level, to speak to those who are vulnerable to the preachings of ISIS (so-called Islamic State) and tell them there are better ways and peaceful ways and constructive ways of venting their frustrations," said Anas Altikriti, the head of the Cordoba Foundation.
The choice of Finsbury Park Mosque as the location for meeting the media was symbolic of many Muslim organizations' community welfare efforts.
"Ten years ago, this would not have been a place where you would want to come or be welcome" said Victoria Brittain. "The transformation of this mosque into a pillar of the community is an extraordinary and impressive achievement."
The single day that marked the beginning of the change was Saturday 5 February 2005, says Mohammed Kozbar. "That was the day we took control of the mosque from Abu Hamza supporters." Under the firebrand preacher, now serving a life sentence in the United States on 11 terrorism charges, the mosque became a symbol of Islamist extremism in Britain. "Extremists from both sides, including the far right, used this mosque to justify themselves," said Mohammed Kozbar.
'Now we are a role model'
"Now we are a role model to other mosques and community centres. We say no to division, no to racism, no to hatred. This is our message," he told reporters.
In October 2014, the Finsbury Park Mosque was awarded the "Visible Quality Mark" by Community Matters. The Visible Standards that promote quality and best practice in the charity and community sector are endorsed by the Charity Commission. It was the first mosque and the third faith organisation in the country to receive the award.
Mohammed Kozbar was born in Sidon, Lebanon, and travelled to the UK in 1990, completing a masters degree in Charity Management at St Mary's University. In addition to serving as Chair of the Trustees at Finsbury Park Mosque, he is also a member of the Islington Faiths Forum and a vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain.
Under his leadership, in addition to its religious services the mosque offers a range of other programs, open to people of all faiths or none. These include a youth club, sports sessions for swimming, football, and gym, IT training, parenting skills sessions, community advice, as well as surgeries for MPs, local councillors and the police.
It has opened its doors to a "meals for all" scheme for homeless, poor and vulnerable people, described as the city's "invisible population". Every Thursday evening it offers free meals, games and advice from social workers. It recently hosted a programme with SPIRIT, the organisation which gives training on how to become an Energy Saving Champion, to lead a program on reducing energy use--saving water, switching energy tariffs, debt relief, repairs and other local benefits.
"We want to help people, regardless of background, says Mohammed Kozbar. "The scheme is open to everybody: Muslims and non-Muslims. For a couple of hours, they can have fun and forget about whatever problems they may have."
For those who hold to the belief that the UK's Muslims are "silent on terror" - as yet another newspaper headline recently proclaimed - they would do well to read the joint statement by the eight London mosques after the Paris massacre of November 2015:
Today many of us woke up to the news of what is a horrific crime against innocent lives in Paris. Such barbaric attacks, committed in the name of our religion is unjustifiable.
We feel deeply saddened by this news and we wholeheartedly send our condolences to the families of the deceased and we pray to God to safeguard us all from the wrong doings of criminals wherever and whoever they might be.
The perpetrators of this heinous act go against the fundamental teachings of Islam, which encourages the safe guarding of human life. Allah says in the Quran: "Whoever saves a life it is as if he has saved the life of the whole of humanity." -(Quran 5:32) This also means, whoever kills a life it is as if he has killed the whole of humanity!
We, the Islamic centres in UK, strongly condemn the killing of innocent lives and strongly oppose the usage of Islam as the reason behind such un-Islamic acts.
We are British and we will protect our society from the malicious misuse of Islam to hurt any citizens from our communities.
In this time of difficulty, we urge people to stay calm and not play into the hands of terrorists who seek to divide our society. It is important to remember that these attackers show no bias between Muslim and Non-Muslims alike in their crimes.
If you would like to check all this out for yourself, the mosque is having an open day Sunday 7 February from 12 - 6pm. This is the seventh annual open day. Usually hundreds of people from the local community come along. It's part of the national #VisitMyMosque initiative. There will be an exhibition, films and a tour of the mosque and you can have your hand painted in ornamental henna designs and your name written in Arabic - and ask any questions you want.Suggest a correction