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Mosque under pressure opens doors to visitors

09 August 2013

Madeleine Davies  visits a mosque in east London, and hears the answers to some challenging questions.


Women only: an image of the Maryam Centre, still under construction, at the East London Mosque

Women only: an image of the Maryam Centre, still under construction, at the East London Mosque

EARLIER this year, the Daily Mail published a story, "One country, two religions and three very telling pictures". One picture showed worshippers at the overcrowded Brune Street Estate mosque, in the East End of London, spilling out on to the streets; an adjacent picture showed empty pews at two churches near by. "The story they tell is more revealing than any survey," the reporter wrote. "Christianity in this country is becoming a religion of the past, and Islam is one of the future."

Yet St Helen's, Bishopsgate, a church half a mile from the mosque, has more than 1000 people going through its doors every Sunday.

Nevertheless, watching 1000 men pour into the East London Mosque on a Wednesday evening for the sunset prayer is a humbling experience. It is Ramadan, and at 9 p.m. they have fasted from all food and drink for 18 hours.

Viewed from a room above the prayer hall, the lack of uniformity of the bowed heads is striking. Some wear prayer hats; others do not. Some wear jeans and T-shirts; others wear the thobe (an ankle-length robe). There is no rule, the mosque's media and communications officer, Salman Farsi, says: it is impossible to judge people by their choice of clothing. The prayer is led by Imam Harun Bukenya, who recites from the Qu'ran.

I have stepped through the doors of the London Muslim Centre on Whitechapel Road, next to the mosque, two hours ago - a guest, with other journalists, of the management team. It is my first visit to a mosque.

During the two-hour visit, we meet the executive director, Dilowar Hussain Khan; the chairman, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari; and the assistant executive director, Shaynul Khan. For two hours, they face questions about domestic violence, apostasy, honour killings, forced marriage, and terrorism, answering readily and graciously. Perhaps they are used to this grim litany.

Dilowar Hussain Khan says that forced marriage is taking place, but thinks that it is becoming less common. He says that he believes there are "very few incidents where a Muslim person converts to another religion", but those that do occur are "difficult for the family to cope with". The real challenge is materialism, he suggests, but also a lack of engagement with the Qur'an.

"Most Muslims do not know their own religion. . . Most people follow blindly, and do not understand the actual teachings. . . Most just follow the rituals."

I ask about preachers. Before the visit, I have searched on the internet for "East London Mosque", and discovered an article describing it as "a place for hate". Published on a blog based in the United States, Harry's Place, on 1 July, the article highlights a visit to the mosque the previous week by a Saudi preacher, Assim al-Hakeem, with a link to his answers to a series of questions submitted to his website.

These included topics such as the teaching that Muslim apostates should be executed; that homosexuality is "something that Allah despises"; and that "female circumcision" is "recommended".

Dilowar Hussain Khan says that preachers are given guidelines, and that there are "certain lines they must not cross". They must, for example, use the right language: "They may be saying something right, but the way they have said it is not right.

"The issue we are really having a problem with is gay marriage. You can say it in a way that the gay community will be offended by; but say it in the right way, they will accept it, even though they may not like it." He believes that "imams need training in how to express themselves in a secular, liberal society." 

In the past few months, he says, "quite a few horrifying things have happened. . . All mosques are concerned about security. We are quite vulnerable because we do not watch who is coming or going." Their resources do not stretch to security guards.

He believes that the recent attack at Woolwich was "quite well-covered by the mainstream media - the condemnation by mainstream Muslims". But, he says, "Why do we have to condemn each time something happens? . . . A criminal activity is a criminal activity. There is no collective guilt."

The latest venture at the mosque is the Maryam Centre, a £9.5- million, seven-floor facility dedicated to serving its female population. Still under construction, it includes prayer spaces that can accommodate up to 1000 women, a buggy park, a gym, and counselling services. It will also house a secondary school for girls.

Mr Bari says that "Muslims are suffering where women are ill-educated." The Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, from 2006 until 2010, he was a teacher in Tower Hamlets for ten years, specialising in special educational needs, and now works as a parenting consultant. Some parents struggle with teenagers, he says. "Many parents do not have a clue what is happening in their children's world."

The mosque already runs two full-time schools for boys: Al Mizan (primary), and London East Academy, where time is divided equally between the National Curriculum and Islamic studies. The latest figures show that 93 per cent of pupils achieve five or more GCSEs (grade A to C), compared with 62.4 per cent across the borough.

Tower Hamlets has the highest rate of income poverty in the country: at 44 per cent, it is double the national rate. It is one of the areas of the country hardest hit by the benefit cap, owing to high unemployment (13 per cent), larger house-holds, and high rental prices. Shaynul Khan regards the mosque as a place to tackle these problems: "We are able to motivate people to get out of their chairs, get a job, take a look at themselves in terms of their health and well-being."

Before leaving, the women journalists are shown the way to the women's prayer hall, where about 30 women are gathered. More are expected for the Tarawih prayer, which lasts from 10.50 p.m. to 12.50 a.m.

Out on the street, the 22-metre-high minaret, adorned with a crescent moon, soars into the evening sky. I pass the Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue, next to the mosque. "I always say that if someone from the Middle East comes here, they would see that Muslims and Jews can co-exist," Mr Farsi says. It is a hopeful note to end on.

BY THE time Muslims eat the Iftar (fast-breaking meal) during Ramadan, they have been fasting for 18 hours. This year, mosques across Britain opened their doors to visitors to share the feast, "demystify" Islam, and connect with communities, write Madeleine Davies.

The initiative has strengthened relationships between faith groups. In Leeds, the Makkah Masjid Mosque celebrated the Big Iftar on 27 July, and also delivered food to St George's Crypt, the homeless charity, after choosing it as its charity of the month.

The Chaplain at St George's Crypt, the Revd Steve Dye, said: "The support of the mosque is hugely beneficial in practical terms of donations of food. It is also a clear sign of people from different faith backgrounds making common cause to provide real help for people from right across our community."

The Imam of Makkah Masjid, Qari Asim MBE, said: "Ramadan is a time of giving, of charity, of sharing, of remembering those in need and reaching out."

The meal was attended by the Minister for Faith and Communities, Baroness Warsi, who described it as "a fantastic way of enabling people of different religions, and those of no faith, to visit a local mosque, learn about their role in the community and enjoy some traditional and delicious food".

The Prime Minister has also expressed his support for the initiative, and could be found chopping onions at North Manchester Jamia Mosque on Wednesday, in preparation for its Big Iftar.

In Preston, the assistant curate of Christ Church, Fulwood, the Revd Peter Hamborg, fasted between sunrise and sunset as part of the Experiencing Ramadan event organised by the Preston Faith Forum.

He told the Lancashire Evening Post that next year he would practise Christian forms of fasting during Ramadan: "It's a way of standing in solidarity with our Muslim neighbours. We all need to try and understand this Islamic tradition better if we are to break down some of the misconceptions."

Ramadan concluded on Wednesday evening with the festival of Eid-al-Fitr. On Friday, representatives from the main Christian denominations visited the East London Mosque to hand over framed Eid greetings.


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