Mosque-Busters and Mega-Masjids

27/03/2013 13:09 GMT | Updated 26/05/2013 10:12 BST

It's difficult having an image problem, most of us would admit that Islam currently has an image problem, though that is to do with perceptions of Islam.

Those reflecting on Muslims in England have compared their recent situation to that of Irish Catholics in the 19th and early 20th century. Unwelcoming signs used to read 'No Blacks, No Irish'; it's a small step to imagine 'no Asians' or 'no Pakistanis'.

Despite the IRA's worst efforts, I don't recall people saying 'all Catholics are terrorists'. The level of distrust and fear of Muslims has (sadly) reached far greater heights. Recent survey data, quoted by communities minister Baroness Warsi, indicated that three-quarters of Brits think that Islam is incompatible with being British. Strikingly, about 80% of Muslims in this survey said that they were proud to be British. In fact, they were 'more proud' than non-Muslims.

Anti-Muslim negativity crystallises around a few issues:

  • Shari'ah - ironically, this is about being a good Muslim, shari'ah is another word for the way a Muslim lives their life
  • Oppression of women - a cultural projection and a cultural problem
  • Terrorism - by a small majority who are terrorists, rather than Muslims
  • Halal meat - possibly ignoring general inhumane animal-rearing processes
  • Muslim presence - e.g. the threatening and dominating mega-mosque narrative

Baroness Warsi also said: "I don't need to give you story after story about the mosque that's been attacked or the women who have had their headscarf ripped from their heads, or abused for wearing religious dress".

Muslim-friendly Christians can also be on the receiving end of abuse for responding positively to mosque developments or being welcoming of Muslims. As I write this, I have been both encouraged by Christian-Muslim news from Aberdeen. A great good news story was reported in mainstream media of a minister allowing local Muslims to pray in his church because they were having to pray outside in the rain. However, he was criticised for being a 'Good Samaritan' and called a traitor. My article is here.

Mosque-developments can provoke almost visceral reactions, and opposition to mosque-building is getting stronger and more organised. The mosque has become a focus for anti-Muslim negativity. 'Mosque-busters', created in 2011 has become increasingly active and successful, 'winning' virtually all its campaigns against mosques around the country. It is a war against a phantom enemy, relying on whipping up hatred and intolerance, so much for 'British values'!

Some of the responses to mosque developments:

  • Proposed mosque in Bletchley - British National Party (BNP) campaign, thankfully unsuccessful
  • Leicester - pig's head left outside community centre being used for prayers. The English Defence League (EDL) has been actively campaigning against it. There has also been a visit by Nick Griffin of the BNP.
  • A disused Lancashire church due to be developed into a mosque was subject to an arson attack
  • Leicester - masjid based in former council Portakabin, a non-Muslim passerby described it as a 'bomb factory' while I was standing outside with a local priest
  • Sunderland - a long-running campaign against a mosque development
  • London - of course there is the infamous 'mega-mosque', no closer to getting planning permission, let alone being built, in Newham. Some Christians regularly gather to pray 'against' this development, surely an irritation to God whenever they meet to 'pray'! Perhaps one day I will make my way there and offer prayers of peace with a Muslim colleague ...

I have been in many masjids around the country, in some of them very little other than prayer goes on. In many there is an attached community centre with community projects. I wonder how many mosque-haters have been inside a mosque?

The lawyer who runs 'Mosque-busters' clearly has rather different ideas about mosques: not as places of prayer but as centres of hate and intolerance.

We need to tell better stories about places of worship. I deliberately visited a London mosque on 21/7/05 to show solidarity with the Muslim community. It was a safe and spiritual place to be in, removed from actual or planned atrocities carried out in the name of 'Islam', the reality being that 'the Qur'an says no'. I told a friend later I had walked into a mosque. He was surprised. 'You mean you can just go in?'

Finally, I offer the example of the imam at Aylesbury mosque. I took a group of Christians there and he welcomed us into God's house, not his. Christians and Muslims need to cool things, not fuel division and hostility. My vision is of people of both faiths speaking generously about each other. As a group of Christians and Muslims we produced this statement encouraging us to be more open to each other.