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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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