Muslims in Harrow expressed deep frustration today that their mosque had been targeted by anti-Islamic right-wing protestors whose demonstrations in Birmingham last month led to a series of arrests and street battles with Asian youths.
Harrow Central Mosque, which is located in the heart of London's most religiously diverse borough, was forced to place security guards on their doors as police maintained a heavy presence in response to calls from right-wing protestors to demonstrate against “Islamic extremism” on the anniversary of the 11 September attacks.
The English Defence League, and a group calling itself Stop the Islamization of Europe, was planning to hold the demonstration later this afternoon outside the borough's main mosque, a multi-million pound building which is currently under construction and will provide a prayer space for the area's 35,000 Muslims.
Both groups were behind a series of controversial protests in Birmingham and Luton where demonstrators paraded through the streets shouting anti-Islamic slogans and fought running street battles with incensed Asian youths.
The English Defence League, which first surfaced in the spring, have since been banned from holding any marches in Luton for three months but activists have been using social networking sites such as Facebook to spread their protests across the country.
Stop the Islamization of Europe is inspired by a right-wing group in Denmark of the same name who have held regular protests outside mosques ever since cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad appeared in a newspaper sparking riots across the Muslim world.
Elders at the mosque said the timing of the protests were particularly insensitive because it fell not just on the anniversary of the 11 September attacks, but also during Ramadan, a deeply spiritual month where Muslims fast from dawn until sunset. In an emotional speech during midday prayers the mosque's imam, Ajmal Masroor, called on his followers to go ignore any protestors and resist the temptation to retaliate.
In one reference which generated widespread laughter he remarked: “My father always said to me, 'If a dog bites your leg do you turn around and bite the dog back?' Of course not.” Unlike other far-right groups such as the British National Party – which campaigns on an anti-immigration ticket – both the EDL and SOIE seem to campaign primarily against Islam, rather than all immigrants.
Over the summer the English Defence League have staged approximately half a dozen demonstrations across the country and their emergence has concerned many anti-racism campaigners who fear they could be a sign of rising Islamaphobia within some sectors of British society. Their leaders continue to keep their identities secret and they tend to organize supporters using the internet.
They claim to be a peaceful organisation but a number of their members have been arrested during fights with Asian youths in Birmingham. Stop the Islamization of Europe is currently run by a man called Stephen Glass, who runs a website which uses the strapline: “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamaphobia is the height of common sense.” He has promised to hold a peaceful protest.
“It will be peaceful from our side,” he said. “We mean what we say and we say what we mean regarding racism, because we don't tolerate any kind of racism, but Islam itself is another matter.” “We are against any form of totalitarianism and basically we regard Islam as the nastiest form of totalitarianism ever devised. We fundamentally oppose any introduction of sharia law into England, the UK and the European Union.”
But Ghulam Rabanni, the General Secretary of the mosque, said Mr Glass claims that his group was not racist was “laughable”. “For me this protest is just another form of racism, they are simply here because they don't like Muslims,” he said. “People like that try and claim that they are not racists. But then they say Islamaphobia is somehow the height of common sense? It's racism, simple as that.”
But Mr Rabanni was also critical of anti-racism campaigners from Unite Against Fascism who ignored the mosque's pleas not to hold a counter demonstration. “All these people have come from outside the area to start up trouble in an area that has never had any racial tension. It is very sad.”