Last week, Dispatches and the Sunday Telegraph claimed East London Mosque was the headquarters of a secretive, fundamentalist political network. The Revd Angus Ritchie, Director of the Contextual Theology Centre blogs on local Christians’ experience of the Mosque:
Whether you read the papers, surf the net, or watch the TV, the media seems full of allegations against East London Mosque. Martin Bright claims it “plays a central role in promoting a sectarian Islam”. The Independent notes the Detroit bomber worshipped there. (On closer investigation, it turns out he attended three times – in a mosque that has six thousand at Friday prayers.) Last week’s Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 alleged the mosque and its allies were building ‘Britain’s Islamic republic’ here in Tower Hamlets– a shadowy conspiracy to place extreme Muslims in positions of power.
A frequent theme of such attacks is that the many dignitaries who visit and praise the mosque are naive – descending on Tower Hamlets in search of feel-good photo opportunities, while those who live ‘on the ground’ know the mosque to be a more sinister operation.
The truth is very different.
All too often, it is the journalists who descend on Tower Hamlets – in search of alarmist headlines. By contrast, those ‘on the ground’ know the vital role East London Mosque has played in promoting Muslim engagement with the wider community.
Broad-based community organising is now flavour of the month – through the good offices of politicians as diverse as James Purnell, Boris Johnson and of course Barack Obama. Fifteen years ago it was a very different story. East London Mosque was a crucial foundation-stone in London Citizens, the capital’s community organising alliance. It joined what was then an embryonic movement. Without the Mosque’s involvement and support, it would not have burgeoned into an alliance of 150 religious and civic groups – winning £25 million for low-paid workers in the capital, and influencing all three parties in their response to the credit crunch.
Not so quick, I hear the conspiracy theorists reply. Perhaps an alliance like London Citizens gives the mosque the cover it needs to advance a more sinister agenda? If East London Mosque was now climbing on the bandwagon of community organising, that claim might seem less ludicrous. But the mosque has been a loyal and constructive ally from the start – a crucial catalyst for the growth in relationships and in trust across the faiths and cultures of Tower Hamlets.
Neil Jameson, London Citizens’ lead organiser, says this of the East London Mosque: “They regularly send their leaders on our training. They work amicably and respectfully with Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus and with Trade Unionists of faith and of no faith. I have visited, trained and worked alongside their key leaders for more than twenty years and can testify that they have been outstanding and loyal members of the alliance.” When an alliance which embracing atheist trade unionists and leading evangelical churches speaks of the mosque in such glowing terms, it’s time for the scare-mongers to listen up.
The depressing tide of suspicion and vitriol places Muslims – here in Tower Hamlets and across the country – in an impossible position. If they do engage in politics, they are damned as sinister conspirators. If they don’t, they are damned as isolationist.
It is time the rest of us accepted our Muslim colleagues for what they are: people who share the same streets and neighbourhoods, and many of the same hopes and fears as any other citizen. Christians who have lived ‘on the ground’ in East London for many years know them as colleagues and as friends. There are preachers of hate and violence in every community. We know that the best antidote to this is face-to-face contact and action together on issues of common concern. We are proud to count East London Mosque among our greatest allies in that work.