To oppose extremism, European Muslims must speak up and be heard by those in power
Finsbury Park Mosque used to be a fixture on the front pages and bulletin headlines a few years back. The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 generously provided a pulpit for Abu Hamza, the ranting, zealous self-proclaimed imam of that mosque. He was a reel identikit baddie, portly, hateful, with one burning eye and a hooked hand. After he was extradited to the USA (for reasons still unclear) the mosque once again became a quiet place of worship. No more noise, drama, sinister plots or propaganda. The media and public were no longer interested.
Then, after midnight on June 19 a van was driven into worshippers close to Muslim Welfare House, near the Mosque. One person was killed, others injured, some seriously. Finsbury Park Muslims were back in the news. But in a ‘good’ way this time. They were victims of what seemed to be a hate crime.
The Imam, Mohammed Mahmoud, protected the van driver from mob revenge. He is British-Egyptian, a London lad who loves to cook biriyani. He has transformed the mosque, made it a safe and calm place for quiet believers. The nation was in shock. Can there really be such well-adjusted British Muslims? How many? Why do we not see or hear them? Yes there are, hundreds of thousands of us. Maybe it is time more was known about the unseen, unheard, largely contented and well-integrated European Muslims.
Mahmoud, like Sayeeda Warsi, mayor Sadiq Khan, Lord Ahmed, BBC presenter Mishal Hussein, Sky political editor Faisal Islam, Muslim volunteers and charity workers, countless others, are good Muslims and good Britons. They are not conflicted, not consumed by anti-Muslim racism. Time on earth is precious and they use it well.
Several Muslim organisations across the UK and mainland Europe are promoting democracy, secularism, human rights, gender and gay equality and mutual respect.
Such individuals and collectives challenge inveterate pessimists such as the neo-con Douglas Murray or the French intellectual Michel Houellebecq who believe in an inevitable clash of civilizations.
My own Shia community, the Ismailis, are guided by the Aga Khan, an enlightened, savvy, internationalist, well connected leader, respected by royals, presidents and prime ministers. His lineage goes back to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and son in law, Ali. This July we celebrate the diamond jubilee of this remarkable Imam, who funds schools, hospitals, development programmes, universities, architectural masterpieces around the globe.
Ismailis live in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, other South Asian countries, in Africa, North America, Australia and Europe. The mountain people of Xinjiang in China are Ismailis so are most of the beleaguered inhabitants of Salamiyah in Syria. In 2015, a historic agreement was signed between the Portuguese government and the Aga Khan to establish a permanent global Ismaili seat in that country. It will be like a small Vatican, a hub of considerable influence. This month the Aga Khan donated 500,000 euros to victims of the devastating forest fire which swept through central Portugal.
We are thought to be the most educationally and successful Muslims in Britain. Men and women can lead prayers and people pray in whatever clothes they wish. None is judgemental or authoritarian.
Ten days ago Sadiq Khan attended an event at our main mosque and centre and praised the contributions we make and our life/faith balance. In her book, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent, Innes Bowen writes: ‘Ismailis have shown that integration into Britain does not mean losing one’s Islamic identity.’
Reformist Bohra Shia Muslims, many of whom live in the Midlands, are also at ease in the west and with their evolutionary faith. In some mosques believers get green, amber and red cards depending on how hard they have tried to pray, not to sin, drink or smoke. No one is excluded because faith is always something one strives for, a work in progress, a jihad in its truest, deepest sense. They are proud to be British and some see themselves as the Quakers of Islam.
Ahmadiyya Muslims, arguably the most modernist of sects, built their first beautiful, white Fazl mosque in Southfields, London in 1925. Most of them moved west because they, non-violent believers, were and are still savagely persecuted by traditional Sunni Muslims in South Asia and elsewhere. Women are not discriminated against, education is highly valued, so too tolerance. Still they survive and thrive.
In 1982 they built the first mosque in Spain after the Moors were banished. In 2003, they raised money to create the biggest mosque in Britain. The striking building is in Morden, south London.
I am not trying to diminish the real and frightening presence of radical ideas and Islamicist violence which is likely to get worse in the years to come. These guys hate moderate followers of Allah more than they hate ‘infidels’. The numbers attracted to Islamicist nihilism is growing. Modernist Muslims could once choose to live unobtrusively, without drawing attention to our progressive practices and beliefs.
We no longer have that choice. To effectively oppose extremist Muslims and racists, quiet, contented European Muslims must now speak up and be heard by those in power. We hold the keys to a more propitious, shared future.