Odious as they are, the Harrow mosque protests will make our community of Muslims and non-Muslims stronger
Sunday saw the return to Harrow of the English Defence League (EDL) and another group, Stop the Islamification of Europe (SIOE) for an anti-mosque demonstration. The last one was held three months ago to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The groups were protesting against the building of an extension to Harrow Central Mosque, an extension that will include multi-purpose conference suites, a fitness centre, library, nursery, IT centre and a coffee shop all accessible to the public. The mosque has held open days for the local community, engaged in important local interfaith work and played its part in building good community relations. Which is why there was widespread support from both religious and secular leaders for the mosque and its work at its press conference on Tuesday.
Harrow mosque had extended an invitation to SIOE to discuss what their concerns were and to open up lines of communication. This offer was flatly rejected in favour of public grandstanding. SIOE's current position – as articulated by its spokesman on Comment is free – is that all Muslims are extremists and those that claim to be moderates are lying. It is not entirely clear how promoting this worldview without inciting hatred or violence is possible.
The EDL managed to muster 15 protestors and the SIOE another 15. Both came and left Harrow at different times. However, despite their farcical turnout, the very threat of their presence required a huge police response of 800 officers that will probably cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. From the SIOE's point of view this is a low cost, asymmetric war of attrition. Their members simply turn up in their small numbers – or threaten to turn up – knowing full well the expense to the taxpayer and to community relations. Their calculation is that only a handful of young Muslims need to be provoked into overreacting for the headlines they seek. The fact that is often overlooked is that the mosque or "community elders" have as much control over these youths as non-Muslim "community elders" do over theirs. In the end, most young Muslims chose to vote with their feet and not to attend.
However, this kind of anti-Muslim bigotry has resulted in some interesting new dynamics. An attack on a mosque is an attack on a very sacred institution – as an attack on any place of worship would be. Muslim professionals who would otherwise not have been involved in mosque activities came forward to assist the mosque. In the past professionals have often been so disappointed with the competence of those managing the mosques that they have tended not to invest their time and expertise in them. Some mosque managers have also been quite content with this arrangement, running them on tribal lines, more suited to Pakistani villages than British cities. Given the external threat now directed at mosques and the need for them to raise their game in the public domain, there might now be a greater convergence between these two groups.
Sunday also saw a much welcome boost to interfaith relations with Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and non-faith leaders pledging support to the mosque. One journalist at the mosque on Sunday joked that he thought he'd turned up at the local synagogue given the numbers of Rabbis present. Some Jews, in particular, feel a wary sense of the risk that darker chapters of Europe's history might be repeated. This provided a powerful response to the SIOE who had come waving Israeli flags in order to provoke a response.
Will the anti-Muslim bigots come down to Harrow again? Possibly. They are part of a Europe-wide trend against its own minorities. However, so long as communities remain firm in their opposition to all forms of bigotry and extremism then, in the long run, it may make us all a bit stronger.
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