London: Disputes over mosques have broken out across Europe. Residents from Belgium to France to Germany have expressed unease at minarets competing with the spires and stones of centuries-old cathedrals in the urban landscape.
Crusader Craig: He began a campaign against the mosque a year ago.
But the fight raging over an abandoned lot in London’s East End is of an altogether grander scale. A large and secretive Islamic sect proposed building what would have been the largest mosque in Europe, smack at the gateway to the 2012 Olympic Games, and within sight of London’s financial district.
That plan was sent back to the drawing board to be scaled down, but not before raising discomforting questions about the right of Britain’s Muslims to take up a public space commensurate with their growing numbers.
This summer, on the website of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, more than 250,000 critics of the proposed mosque supported a petition initiated by a backer of the rightist British National Party. Some of them said a large mosque had no right to exist in such a prominent place in a Christian country. When, around the same time, the historian of religion Karen Armstrong wrote an article in the Guardian commenting favourably, the paper’s website was deluged with complaints.
In Newham, the borough where the mosque would stand, Alan Craig, the leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance party in the East End, started a one-man campaign against the mosque a year ago that has gained national prominence.
He began by emphasizing the size of the mosque. But now he focuses on its sponsor, Tablighi Jamaat, a worldwide evangelical Islamic group based in Pakistan with millions of followers that professes to encourage Muslims to be more loyal to their faith.
Tablighi Jamaat “is a separatist organization,” Craig said in an interview in his living room, where a picture of the crucifixion of Christ hung on a wall, a cross rested on a bookshelf and a Bible lay on the coffee table.
“They refer to us as kafir,” a term of contempt, he added. “That’s not what we need. We don’t want this mosque in East London. It will be disastrous.”
That Craig’s immediate neighbours include a Pakistani family on one side and immigrants up and down the block speaks of the changes in the East End, where South Asian Muslims are among the latest wave of immigrants.
The driving force behind the plan to build a grander mosque has been Abdul Khaliq Mian, 55, a British businessman born in Pakistan and a long-time follower of Tablighi Jamaat. In an interview, Mian explained how in 1996 he helped raise £1.6 million (Rs13.14 crore), from the Tablighi community to buy an abandoned lot that was once the site of a sulfuric acid plant.
Mian, who came to Britain at 11, said that in the late 1990s officials on the Newham Borough Council, which includes Muslims, encouraged Tablighi Jamaat to build an especially grand mosque. An up-and-coming architect, Ali Mangara, 40, a Muslim born in South Africa, produced a design that envisioned wind turbines instead of minarets, and generous use of gardens, courtyards and restaurants.
Because Tablighi Jamaat operates in secrecy, Mangara said the leaders never made their case against Craig publicly. Several months ago, Mangara’s plan, which had created all the furore, was dropped, and Mian pushed aside.
In Mangara’s place, an establishment London architectural firm, Allies & Morrison, known for projects such as refurbishing Royal Festival Hall, has been hired to build a smaller version, which would hold about 12,000 worshippers. Mangara and others say any breaking of ground will be delayed until after the 2012 Olympics.
©2007/INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE