A vast change for the better in the declared outlook of British Muslims has occurred in a very few years. Our press finds it easier to report bad news, and the attack at Finsbury Park certainly falls into that category.
This horrible assault has intensified the fear among Muslims that they will attract aggressive rudeness, or worse, if they so much as venture outside their front doors: a fear about which I shall say something at the end of this piece.
Coming so soon after other horrors, including the attacks at Westminster, the Manchester Arena and London Bridge, and the Grenfell Tower fire, the attack in Finsbury Park can easily intensify the fear that our tolerant, live-and-let-live civilisation is doomed.
And yet the van attack has also drawn attention to an altogether more hopeful development. The Finsbury Park Mosque, just across the railway from the Muslim Welfare House where the attack occurred, used to be a byword for terrorism.
It was opened in 1994 by Prince Charles, as ever in the vanguard of attempts to embrace new movements and secure for them a treasured place in the heart of the British Establishment.
But within a few years it had been taken over by Abu Hamza, an Egyptian cleric who had lost both hands and one eye in an explosion, probably while fiddling with some device designed to inflict terrible harm on his enemies.
As Jason Burke reported in The Observer on 17th February 2002:
“MI5 recruited worshippers at Finsbury Park who opposed the hardline stance taken by controversial Muslim cleric Abu Hamza, who often leads prayers there, and asked them to help monitor the activities of extremists. Early last year the agents told their handlers that several groups had been taught to strip and reassemble Kalashnikovs in the mosque’s basement…
“Several men involved with the al-Qaeda group have already been linked to Finsbury Park mosque. Feroz Abbassi, a computer engineer from Croydon held by the US in Cuba, was ‘indoctrinated’ in the mosque, according to his parents. Jerome Courtailler, arrested in Holland for allegedly plotting to blow up the US embassy in Paris, prayed there as did Djamel Beghal, Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, all of whom have been linked to al-Qaeda by investigators.
“Three former MI5 agents interviewed by The Observer said that the mosque’s reputation drew radical Islamists from all over Europe. One recalled white Swedish converts to Islam who had sought out the mosque because they want to take part in ‘the Jihad’.”
Even the British Establishment, which can be ludicrously keen to turn a blind eye to danger, could not ignore this. The following year, the Charity Commissioners, assisted by the Metropolitan Police, shut Finsbury Park Mosque down.
Abu Hamza continued preaching on the pavement, and inciting hatred, until arrested in 2004, after the United States requested his extradition. In 2012 he was at last deported to America to face trial, having exhausted every legal expedient, and in 2015 he was convicted, and handed a life sentence which will mean life.
Meanwhile, in 2005, the Finsbury Park Mosque was reopened with an entirely new board of trustees, provided by the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). And on its website, it declares the values of neighbourliness and community service which now inspire it.
It feeds the homeless, holds open days and welcomes local dignitaries, including the representatives of many different faiths, to special occasions such as Iftar, the breaking after dusk of the fast of Ramadan:
“Finsbury Park Mosque (FPM) and The Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) organised their joint annual Iftar gathering at Finsbury Park Mosque on Thursday 14th June 2017. More than 60 prominent guests including Politicians, Faith and Community leaders, Councillors, Police officers and Journalists attended the event. The Guest of Honour Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn MP, the Leader of the Labour Party was joined by other distinguished guests including the Leader of Islington Council Richard Watts, The Islington Mayor Cllr Una O’Halloran, Sheikh Haytham Tamim, Bishop Paul Hendricks, Dr Anas Tikriti the head of Shura of the Muslim Association of Britain, David Rueben from the Golders Green Synagogue, Malia Bouattia the ex NUS President, The Revd Jennifer Potter the chairman of Islington Faith Forum and the superintendent of Islington Police Nick Davies. Other distinguished guests including, The Revd Jonathan Brewster from Christ Church Highbury, Steven Derby the director of Interfaith Matters, the General Secretary of CND Kate Hudson, Bruce Kent, Father Danial Sandham from St. John’s Church, Victoria Brittain journalist and writer, the former Chief Superintendent in Harrow Dal Babu, Barrister Hugh Tomlinson QC, Chris Nineham the Vice Chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Councillors Andy Hull, Asima Shaikh and Caroline Russell and Julian Weinberg from Forward thinking.”
Alert readers will note that this is a distinctly left-wing group of dignitaries, with a somewhat Stop-the-War flavour. But in this part of London, the Establishment does have a left-wing tinge, and the local MP, Mr Corbyn, has just been re-elected with a majority of 33,215 over the Conservatives.
Even more highly informed readers may point to claims of links between the Finsbury Park Mosque and the Muslim Brotherhood. An official report commissioned by David Cameron described the MAB as “dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood” – a claim that the MAB denies.
Peter Oborne has written in vehement defence of the Muslim Brotherhood, as an Islamic organisation which engages in electoral politics, while John Ware, no less forcefully, accuses it of playing double games.
Sir John Jenkins, who wrote a report on the Brotherhood for David Cameron, pointed out that it has supported Hamas against Israel. So, one might add, has Mr Corbyn. Indeed, the origins of Hamas certainly lie in the Brotherhood, though it said recently that there is now no link.
However worried (or unworried) one may be by the Brotherhood, it seems clear that most Muslim organisations in the UK are now far quicker to condemn terrorist outrages than was the case even a few years ago, and that this is a very good thing.
It is also pretty evident that it would be monstrously unfair, and impolitic, to place Muslims under a cloud of suspicion simply because of their faith.
Yesterday afternoon I visited my friend Foyezur Miah, who for the last 14 years has run Queen’s Crescent Community Association in north London. Speaking in a personal capacity, he said there is “a massive issue of hate crime” committed against Muslims.
He added that “after the Westminster attack, I stopped wearing the Islamic attire”, for there has been a great increase in attacks on Muslims, including acid attacks, which have not yet been properly reported:
“Muslim women are often the only people you can see who are representative of Islam, and unfortunately they are largely the victims of hate crimes. And when you go to the police station there’s barely any police. We need more and more police on our streets. If you go to a police station to report an attack you have to queue up for two or three hours of your time to give a report. That’s not the fault of the Metropolitan Police – they can only do so much with the resources they have.
“My biggest concern is that we’re moving into this new age, we’re taking United out of the UK and bringing division and inequality into our communities. We worked long and hard to bring a rich and diverse community where we all here are British citizens.”
His 11-year-old daughter does not wear a headscarf, but he is frightened of allowing her to walk to school on her own. His wife, who was born and and brought up in this country, does wear a headscarf,
“but she feels very frightened – she has to put the Chubb lock on when I go to work. She’s heard news of her friends being attacked. We live in fear of being attacked, in fear of losing someone who you love. I’d like to see more police officers patrolling round my streets.”
Abdus Samad, who chairs the Bengali Workers’ Association, again in north London, said of Islamophobia:
“It puts us in a difficult position as Muslims – your children getting racist abuse at school, people looking at us. You feel you’re not living in the same London as six months ago. It is very worrying for us Muslims and for anyone of colour – Sikh, Hindu or whatever.”
Paul Goodman called yesterday on this site for “a Parliamentary inquiry into anti-Muslim hatred and violence”. While welcoming the condemnation by eminent Muslim representatives of terrorist attacks, we must also ensure that ordinary British Muslims feel safe from persecution.