Mosque open-days are a first step towards making them truly part of the British social fabric.
The 7th of February saw the Muslim Council of Britain organize a ‘Visit My Mosque Day’ to increase understanding of Islam and ‘demystify’ them to wider society. Antipathy to the construction of new mosques far exceeds distrust of Hindu temples or Jewish synagogues. Even if formal complaints rest on prosaic objections like parking and noise restrictions, the frequency of such complaints highlights the sensitivity of a visible, public display of Islam in Europe. Objections to mosques need to be understood against the wider context of Islamic ‘territory’ within cities.
Two good examples of the role of mosques in place-making are found in recent ethnographies. Katy Gardner’s study of Bangladeshi Sylhetis in East London observes how the East London mosque, with its call to prayer (adhān), marks out part of the borough as an Islamicised space. Bangladeshis had initially seen Britain as an unsuitable place for Bangladeshi women. It was only in the late 1970s, after an increase in the Bangladeshi population, that the area acquired the halal butchers, mosques, madrasas and Muslim burial spaces that marked it out as a suitable place to raise a family.
Marta Bolognani provides another example in her study of Mirpuri Pakistanis in Bradford. She reports stories of pioneer migrants, keeping themselves to themselves and unpolluted by the West. Their early labours produced the mosques and Muslim institutions, often located in old terraced housing that would make Bradford an attractive and familiar place for other migrants from rural Mirpur. A second stage of the articulation of Islamic space within Bradford came in the aftermath of the Satanic verses controversy, when Pakistani vigilantes ‘cleaned up’ prostitution in the district of Manningham and monitored ‘unIslamic’ behavior by Muslim women.
The settlement patterns of Sylhetis and Mirpuris, who together make up c.40 per cent the Muslim population of the UK, remain highly segregated: they have not undergone the same degree of suburban dispersal of many Hindu migrants. The higher institutional requirements of these populations is a factor in this: The symbolizing of safe Muslim space through new building makes these places destinations for further waves of chain migrants.
Sean McLoughlin has described mosques as spaces to resist assimilation, manage self-help and navigate social exclusion. But their central role in the transmission of Muslim identity between generations has had a number of negative consequences for those who live nearby. One could well imagine, for example, how the vigilante policing of places like Manningham or Tower Hamlets might include the victimization of any woman perceived to be behaving inappropriately, according to a conservative male Muslim onlooker.
The reason that mosques need ‘demystifying’ by the MCB is because many mosques cater to restricted ethnic groups and are served by Asian-born imams with poor English. Even converts to Islam report that they are looked on with suspicion in mosques that cater solely to Pakistanis or Bangladeshis.
Much of the antipathy toward mosques is tied to the continuation of chain migration from rural South Asia. Nevertheless, we can still identify a number of initiatives that would help to integrate mosques into the wider urban fabric. If Islam is to be a religion that is integrated into a British context, rather than being a vehicle for the customs of distinct migrant groups, then we will need mosques that serve the whole of society.
The first is to recruit imams from Britain and to encourage the use of mosques as a space to discuss Islam as a theology and a morality from a critical perspective. Currently education in mosques frequently just reproduces Islamic symbols and lament wrongs done to a global Muslim umma. Principled and sympathetic engagement with local issues is a key requirement for building bridges with the rest of society.
The second is for mosques to forego foreign funding. Saudi Wahhabi sponsorship of Muslim curricula encourages a retreat from wider European society that undermines trust between members of different religions. And foreign funders may desire prestigious signs of Muslim power, rather than being sensitive to the circumstances in which European Muslims actually live.
Thirdly, I would endorse the calls by Sayeeda Warsi for a mosque architecture that is sympathetic to a British urban environment rather than echoing the buildings of South Asia. What may be a matter of diasporic nostalgia for one community may be highly invasive to others.
Fourthly, the kinds of initiative supported by the MCB should be a much more regular occurrence. One possibility might be to lease out or share the mosque itself or rooms next to it with other users, as is commonly seen in churches. Similarly, black churches in Mile End pioneered a very successful ‘adopt a cop’ programme, where policemen came to speak during the service about issues of local concern. Something similar could be done for mosques.
If local residents feel ownership of and responsibility for a mosque, then this will provide a natural platform for the development of friendships across religious divides. If this can be achieved, mosques will cease to symbolize ‘Muslim space’, and come to represent ‘our space’, a symbol no more alien than Catholic churches or Nonconformist meeting houses.