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London's 'Madina' Mosque Sits Between Two Types of Extremism

London's 'Madina' Mosque Sits Between Two Types of Extremism

Sunday, 12 November, 2017 - 11:15
Listening to a sermon at Al Madina Mosque in Barking, East London. Roughly 9,000 people attended the morning prayer sessions during Eid al-Adha here in September. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Behind a glass door inside Al Madina Mosque, Ashfaq Siddique stands at ramrod attention, his eyes darting. He is the mosque’s guiding spirit. He is also a former policeman with Scotland Yard. He is scanning live feeds from 36 closed-circuit cameras that monitor everything from the prayer hall to the ablutions room. He is searching for trouble.

None in the parking lot, where white nativists routinely throw nails over the walls to puncture the car tires of those praying inside. Nor in the main hall, where takes place arguments against democracy with mainstream imams.

This morning, the problem is overcrowding. So many Muslims now live in the working-class East London neighborhood of Barking that roughly 9,000 people attended the morning prayer sessions in early September to begin the holiday of Eid al-Adha.

“Upstairs is filling up — start moving them to the upper hall of the community center!” Mr. Siddique, 50, shouts into a yellow walkie-talkie.

Few, if any, major Western cities have been more open to Muslims than London. More than 12 percent of Londoners are Muslim. Eighteen months ago, this became the first Western capital to elect a Muslim mayor, a milestone for residents proud of their multicultural ethos.

Now, though, religious hate crimes are up nearly 30 percent, primarily against Muslims. At his mosque, Mr. Siddique is hiring extra security guards to protect his congregants. Muslim women have complained about being spit on, or cursed.

What has brought these tensions to the surface? Brexit and terrorism.

Britain’s unexpected vote in June 2016 to exit the European Union — only a month after London elected Sadiq Khan as mayor — was fueled by a nationwide campaign infused with anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant venom. Then, after a decade without terrorist attacks, this year Britain has suffered four, including an assault by extremists in June that killed eight people at London Bridge and Borough Market.

Even as crowds of Londoners came out to mourn — and to show their commitment to the city’s inclusive spirit — the dynamics of daily life shifted for many mainstream Muslims. Brexit and the terrorist attacks have given bigots license to express hostility, many Muslims say, or to label them all as terrorists, or to tell them to go home — as if London were not their home.

“People feel they have the right to be open about Islamophobia,” said Saima Ashraf, a local council member in Barking and a French-Palestinian immigrant. “Or to be open about their racial views, or just to be a bit more nasty.”

The Brexit vote stunned many Londoners — the city voted heavily to remain in the European Union — but not Mr. Siddique. His borough of Barking and Dagenham was one of the few in London that voted to leave, and it did so by a margin of nearly two to one. Many whites there saw a vote for Brexit as a vote against immigration and Islam.

For years, Al Madina Mosque has sat uncomfortably on a fault line between the Islamist radicalism of the terrorist attacks and the white nativism intertwined with Brexit.

Mr. Siddique has also clashed with Peter Harris, a local politician based a few miles to the east in Dagenham. Mr. Harris has made a career out of thwarting the opening of Muslim prayer facilities.

The tensions in Barking once seemed peripheral to London. No longer. Mr. Siddique knows some conservative Muslims in Ilford scorn his support for the police. He also knows that the growing crowds at his mosque, like the rising numbers of Muslims in the city, terrify some of his white British neighbors.

“We get both kinds of extremists,” Mr. Siddique said, and in the middle is us.”

Two years ago, the borough council approached Mr. Siddique with a proposal. It would make available the empty grounds of a former pharmaceutical factory if Mr. Siddique could raise money to build a cricket training facility. It was seemingly a win-win — a sports complex that would be open to the public, to be built at no public cost. Except that the plans, as with many public buildings in Britain, included a quiet room for prayer.

And that the empty property was in Dagenham, under the watchful eyes of Mr. Harris.

“I almost fell out of my chair,” Mr. Harris said of the moment he read of the prayer room in the planning application. “There would be room for thousands of Muslims.”

The factory grounds are still empty, a point of pride for Mr. Harris.

Nativism has a long history in Barking and Dagenham. Neo-Nazi skinhead gangs roamed its streets in the 1970s, and in local elections in the 2000s the far-right British National Party won about 20 percent of the vote.

For decades, Dagenham was dominated by a Ford factory, which once employed as many as 40,000 people, but the company moved its last production line abroad in 2002.

Other big manufacturers followed. The “white British” population fell from 81 percent in the 2001 census to 49 percent in 2011 (across London, it’s 45 percent).

Many pubs and other businesses have closed. The pub across the street from Mr. Harris’s service station is now an African grocery.

In the Eastbrook, around the corner, dozens of patrons, all white, said they had voted for Brexit to stem the influx of Muslims.

“The culture has changed completely,” said Mark Stubbs, 59, a roofer. “The English, traditional people are just not there anymore.”

Look, the mayor of London is a Muslim! If nothing is done about it, they are going to be running this country.”

The New York Times

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