Inclusive and Accessible Masjids 
I went to the London City Circle last night, for the first time in a couple of years, to their "Making Mosques Inclusive" discussion. I was somewhat disappointed insofar as the panel of liberal and inclusive presenters really didn't address the hard questions, who to include, who to exclude, who to make the decisions and how. For the liberal-minded cosmopolitan youth, inclusiveness is about women, disabled, con/reverts, and access to management and control of community resources, which means most of the time, the local masjid, all worthy stuff, but what about militants and supposed militants, what about when one sect exploits elective processes to try and take over, what about sex and gender challenges, what about those who won't pray behind a rival faction's imam, those who assert takfir and the people they target? These are the real, hard issues that cause masjid committees to lock down their management and lock out meetings of those they consider disruptive. Tolerance and inclusiveness are two-sided, each side has to be willing to compromise, and each side has to learn to speak respectfully of the other. One hundred and fifty years of bitter sectarianism in the Indian sub continent alone is not going to wither away after a meeting such as this.

Take militancy. Once upon a time, not only Muslims, but non-Muslims too, were able to have open debate that included people with militant and extreme views on all manner of subjects. We have lost that ability and regressed as a civil society because of it. No self-respecting leftie student ever gained any credibility by claiming that the world's problems could be solved through multi-party, representative, parliamentary democracy. Jack Straw was once the chair of Leeds University Socialist Society. Many entities have gained unjustified notoriety through media scaremongering. Hizb-ut-Tahrir may not be everyone's cup of tea but its UK branches are not only innocuous, but actually very valuable: what better way to address youth apathy at the political process than to provoke heated (interminable) discussions about the political structures required to run the world? And they are Allah's gift to the secret police ... any plain-clothes plod with a bit of gumption will find them standing conspicuously on picket duty on the street outside of the masjid, keen to buttonhole anyone stepping out, with an unstoppable spiel of all the woes of the Muslim world and how to end them. Once the HT minion realises he's just invited the old Bill to the next branch meeting, he'll be dead sure to demonstrate his commitment to civil engagement for a good many years to come - actually I am not being cynical here, if the authorities can just stop themselves from their macho counter-terrorist rhetoric and recognise that talking about political action is actually a normal, healthy thing to do, that there is no "conveyor belt" through organisations such as HT, then a sensible, informed discussion on the street is very likely to have a benign effect on those engaged. At the very least, the fact of the young man's exposure to the Law in political mode will make him wary of mixing in any darker conspiracy. Meanwhile back at the masjid, the only strong but very poor reason why inclusiveness doesn't include HT is because Maulana-sahab doesn't understand a word of what they are talking about, and not one single committee member has a single counter-argument to debate with them. Salafis have regularly been branded as 'fundamentalists', extremists etc in the media, and there are plenty of examples of their doctrinal enemies exploiting this to block them out. Yet not only are Salafis generally by far the most effectively engaged with wider society, they provide the most attractive offering for the majority of reverts/converts as well as being the most effective at undermining militant argument.

What about gender politics in the masjid? This is a vexed issue. Very few masjids are purpose-built, though 74% overall provide facilities for women. (You can get my full and latest statistical report on UK Masjids here (PDF) or on the sidebar.) However these vary hugely. Aberdeen's masjid closes its facilities to women for Jumu'ah specifically to make enough space for men. (Women are quite welcome at other times.) A grandly finished warehouse conversion in Batley has an elaborate space for men and an equally elaborate one for women alongside ... the women's hall is kept locked except for special events! Thank you to Halima Karwa for bring our attention to Side Entrance, very informative!

Ultra-liberal entities such as the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, that Halima Karwa presented on, often get a very easy ride in the media, such that one might get the impression that they are in the vanguard of community change. But imams, masjid committees and Mr Khan comoonty lidders (Adil Ray has a lot to answer for!) are utterly oblivious of their existence and will probably remain so outside of cosmopolitan London. The MiB directory lists just two masjids that I have themed "Modernist", and my concern is that all these have done is created yet another sect albeit unnamed (though I have needed to name their 'theme') that is as exclusive as the rest. Indeed I took the trouble to note Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, MECO's administrator, with her claim, ". . . avowedly forward-looking Muslim group, we are not only interdenominational but also multicultural and non-sectarian." sadly undermined by one circulated email from her with the words "toxic Wahhabi-Salafi-Deobandi ideology, which flagrantly defies authentic Islamic precepts". As I said, MECO is just as sectarian as all the rest.

The hardest issue of all, for any movement towards inclusive masjids, is to overcome the deep-rooted takfir rhetoric of the mainstream traditional, and indeed upcoming, sects that are the themes of almost all the UK masjids, and are themselves reflections of sectarian manifestations worldwide. Bareilvis and many other Sufi-oriented organisations and their advocates at the very least will slander Deobandis with the phrase, ghustaq-e-rasul, insulters of the Messenger (S), but when push comes to shove, are perfectly happy to call them munafiqeen, traitors to Islam, and I have heard the argument that they are 'deniers of the Qur'an'. All because Deobandis and Tablighi Jama'at are exceptionally cautious regarding Sufi practices (their roots and ongoing inspiration are of course Sufi though). While I am greatly simplifying 100 years of bilious rhetoric, it is necessary to make clear that for their part Deobandis and TJ have no qualms about describing Bareilvis and most other Sufi practitioners (except themselves) as qabar pujaris grave and saint worshippers, i.e. polytheists, kaffir. Salafis for their part regard both of these rival deep traditions as mushrikeen, idolaters, in common with anyone they can label soofee (to be pronounced with a sneer). I once witnessed two simultaneous maghrieb jama'ats in Streatham Masjid, one behind the other, because the Deobandis would not pray behind an Islamic Movement (Maudoodi) imam. And various commentators have advised readers of various web-boards not to use the MiB directory variously because I list "Qadianis and Shi'a", or because I list non-Sunni (read non-Bareilvi) masjids. Regarding Qadianis, I make very clear the several reasons why they are included in the map (but not the search nor the satnav or smartphone downloads). Furthermore, especially in this context, while very few of the people reading this will ever have had any dialogue with an Ahmadi, for those of us that have, it is extraordinarily important that those dialogues are conducted in an informed and restrained manner - the current generation of Ahmadi youth is vulnerable to external influences (you and me) to a degree never before seen. The steaming frothy diatribe of the dedicated Qadiani hunters is something that needs to be shut down immediately. Not only that, but if you really want to bring your masjids out of ethnic obscurity, you will have to learn to share public events with Qadianis, at least for those of you who live in the same areas - see my map for details - and when you do, you will need to learn to express your differences in ways that don't make you sound like janglee villagers! You will need to be able to disagree with Ahmadiyya in terms that you both agree are matters of fact.

Shappir Alim presented on the circumstances of Palmers Green Mosque, MCEC, in North London. This is a masjid that I have followed with intrigue over its history, trying to fathom its direction as I kept the directory up to date. I learnt that on one level MCEC is wide in its inclusiveness - it makes its rooms available to various groups, "including Shi'as" and the wider community. What was disappointing for me was that it doesn't actually tackle the hard stuff; when it comes to the sectarianism which fragments the UK Muslim population, it has a simple and far from novel solution: "groups" are not permitted in the masjid. We were given to understand that e.g. there would be no Tablighi ghusht or ta'alim, no Bareilvi salaat-o-salaam after Jumu'ah, etc.

For all their good intentions, this is not inclusiveness, at least not in a form that will address the expectations of the vast majority of masjids in the UK. Indeed, there are a modest number of other masjids that enforce a vanilla flavour of Islam on their congregations - the litmus test comes when you have to pick one imam; I have yet to meet an imam who can guide his congregation through that situation without either telling them nothing at all or giving away hs own prejudices and thus driving away a significant part of the congregation.

These are tough topics, and it is all too easy for me to carp on the sidelines. That was never my intention, instead I would like to remind readers that the MiB site does include some detailed suggestions about a path towards countering sectarianism and making the masjid an inclusive place, suggestions which explicitly address the hard issues. Here is where they are.

Let me now move onto Accessibility. How many masjids have any of the following? Step-free access to the masjid? Step-free access to the masjid for women? The very idea is barely conceivable for those who are familiar with the designated women's areas for the 74% of masjids that claim to have facilities for women. How about this? Wheelchair-accessible toilets? Wudhu spaces? For women? How about visual and aural impairment aids such as clear signage, clear public address, sign-language translators (even competent English translators would be a nice-to-have!). I made a resolution that I would start to include this information in the directory and in the statistics. In one sense that will be very easy, zero plus zero equals zero. Just as I have collected the masjid data over thirty years, so I will need a lot of time before the accessibility data becomes anywhere ear complete. Please help with this - use the contact form for each masjid (you can find it at the foot of each masjid's entry page) and copy back to me the answers to the following:

First hand or based on the masjid's claims?
Women's facilities for regular salaah, Yes or No
Women's facilities for Jumu'ah, Yes or No
Step-free wheelchair access to masjid for men, Yes or No
Step-free wheelchair access to masjid for women, Yes or No
Step-free wheelchair access to toilets for men, Yes or No
Step-free wheelchair access to toilets for women, Yes or No
Step-free wheelchair access to wudhu for men, Yes or No
Step-free wheelchair access to wudhu for women, Yes or No
Clear signage, notices and written material in men's area, Yes or No
Clear signage, notices and written material in women's area, Yes or No
Clear public address in men's area, Yes or No
Clear public address in women's area, Yes or No
Use of assistive technology, translators or sign language: Items

If you can't find the individual masjid in the MiB directory, note that the MiB Google Maps search will take a wide range of geographical and name search criteria, else use this general contact form instead.


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