Visit My Mosque: The unintended consequences of journalists’ power and influence. 
[I have updated this slightly, following news of Cathy Newman's apology and the revised understanding of events following publication of sequences of Streatham masjid's security video today, 12th February. I am pleased to say that little of the substance of my first entry requires change, and the concluding paragraph especially, stands its ground well. Changes are in bold italics.]

A single tweet by Cathy Newman scuppered the most substantial effort so far that UK Muslims have made to respond to the Charlie Hebdo murders. In hindsight it was quite predictable, but that is the unique feature of hindsight. Nevertheless there are valuable lessons to learn.

Firstly beleagured Streatham Mosque. I know this masjid very well, and for several decades. It does have facilities for women: in the past there was a partition across the main hall, and around the turn of the century they tore down a redundant workshop and built a women's hall from new. (At 1 minute 13 seconds into the video, there is actually a lady coming in to worship at the masjid.) It is also an affiliate of the MCB, and has a management committee with many members that are close to the MCB's supposed prevailing "Islamic Movement" ethos - an ethos which, incidentally, in the UK is quite strong on the involvement of women in its affairs. But it wasn't a knowing participant in the "Visit My Mosque" initiative. It is nevertheless a very busy masjid, with a wide range of activities hosted there. On the unfortunate Sunday noon morning, it was receiving a trickle of visitors for early afternoon salaah hosting a Somali children's supplementary school I believe (not even an Islamic madrassah class, but regular schooling from volunteer teachers), though I have not had that confirmed. Most mosques, masjids, have nothing so adventurous. Almost all mosques will actually be locked up and deserted between the pre-sunrise Fajr salaah and some time around noon, so had the Channel Four journo picked almost any other (non-participating) masjid, there would have been, not a surprised and suspicious man to turn her away, but the more traditional locked door and unanswered doorbell, and no story.

Secondly, Streatham Masjid's committee member and the unlucky fellow who intercepted Ms Newman. Tact and public relations skills are not part of the usual prerequisites for a seat on a masjid management committee, and certainly didn't feature here. The committee member was quoted as saying:

“There was nobody from the management or committee at the mosque that morning […] The person who turned the journalist away must have been someone with no authority - a worshipper. About 60% of our group is Somali, many of whom do not speak any English, so I think there was confusion. I intend to take action and find out what exactly happened, but I would like to apologise to Cathy Newman for what happened",

which, if true, betrays a not uncommon level of disdain that far too many management committees have for the riff-raff that trouble to worship in the average masjid. It is certainly a quote worth holding on to when I repeatedly make the case that masjid management committees are widely recognised as inept, unaccountable, intolerant and obstructive. A whiff of racism also hangs on the air, and there is a back-story here concerning Streatham masjid and its Sahel incomers. As for the ability to use appropriate English, another issue I have, then one has to ask who has more to improve on between Cathy Newman’s interceptor and the committee member. I have elsewhere highlighted the difficulties faced by anyone intending to drop in on their local mosque: locked up, or unable to converse in English, or rather twee notions of what the visitor’s religious belief might comprise, the absence of any sensible reception facility, the expectation that the imam will in faltering English, run through the “five pillars” of Islam without being able to explain anything about what Muslims do or think or believe. Even, and I have seen this, through ignorance of conversational English, the supposition that the visitor has come to make shahadah, i.e. become Muslim. (There is no record of any conversation in the video, so nothing to suggest any inappropriate words by anyone speaking with Ms Newman. However the committee member's reported response therefore sounds even more inept.)

Thirdly, the MCB and the “Visit My Mosque” idea. Very laudable, lots of good intentions. Very telling, however, that of the 1600 or 1700 masjids in the UK (depending on how I count them), only 20 were able to actually participate. The MCB should have been well aware of the consequences of widespread publicity, with puff pieces in all the major newspapers, yet minimal explanation of what to expect and where to expect it, or explanation of what would happen if the visitors turned up at any of the one thousand, six hundred and eighty or so non-participants. The MCB gets a lot of flak, some of it justified, some of it not, and much of it simply the unmoderated projections of fears and prejudices that permeate the UK's Muslim community. It is not the representative body of all UK mosques, and should desist from its claims about 500 affiliated organisations without much more careful explanation of what they are and what their affiliation means. 199 are masjids, mosques, by my counting. Others are schools, welfare groups and pressure groups. When I last collated the data, no less than 79 affiliates were incarnations of the various elements of the UK’s Jama’at Islami (‘Islamic Movement’) institutions, e.g. UK Islamic Mission (South Birmingham), UK Islamic Mission Midland Zone, Islamic Forum Europe (West Midland Branch), etc., which it would not be unreasonable to suppose, adds up to a single person! (In the laborious work I have done to identify masjids around the UK, I took the UK Islamic Mission’s list of branches, which is at face value a list of mosques, and discovered that a considerable number of them are private family homes – no doubt enthusiastic supporters, but hardly branches. Another point to take issue with about the MCB is just how current its affiliate list is. How many of the entities have paid their fairly minimal membership dues this year, compared with the numbers of lapsed affiliates, for whom it is not in the MCB’s interest to delete? My count added up 19 that by my reckoning no longer even exist. I will re do my statistics, because the MCB’s affiliates list has changed since I last did this, but a brief glance at it still looks very familiar to me. The MCB is very much less than the sum of its parts.

I was amused and flattered by the BBC’s report on the Visit My Mosque initiative. Juxtaposed to a link stating, “More than 20 mosques were expected to take part.” linking to the MCB’s list, was a link to my MuslimsInBritain.org statistics report, covered by the text “The figure is a small proportion of the total number of mosques in Britain, which is estimated to be 1,750.” followed by the jewel in the crown, “The MCB said only 55-60% of mosques were affiliated to it, and the total includes small establishments such as prayer rooms in schools and offices.”! I have often taken issue with our glorious leaders’ innovative use of English, but Mathematics is my home ground. And 199 out of 1750 does not equal 55 or 60%! 11% may be nearer the mark. (And the first aid room in my office right now, is definitely not an MCB affiliate, even though it is where I and my colleagues make salaah in office hours.) Contrary to most criticism, the MCB genuinely tries to be inclusive of sectarian interests, and my statistics demonstrate that, except for the caveat about the currency of many affiliates’ status. However it will never be more than a fairly self-referential small group of enthusiasts in its current form. There is no representative body of Muslim interest in the UK. The MCB, for all its failings, is the only one that has tried and that has not been driven entirely by exclusive sectarian interests, and should be given credit for that. The problem for such a limited body, though, is that sectarian interests dominate the UK Muslim community, and a small group of enthusiasts at the heart of the MCB must be honest about what limited interest they wield, must be honest about their affiliates, must look for better ways to be inclusive, and must thereby avoid setting grand expectations about important initiatives like “Visit My Mosque”.

Here’s a suggestion. MuslimsInBritain.org is a one-man-band. (It never, ever claimed to be the voice of UK Muslims, just a well-travelled harpie on the side!) Notwithstanding that, if you want to organise a similar event with lots of publicity etc., give me enough warning and share your plans. I may be able to set up map and collateral information that would help make it easy for intending visitors to find participating masjids and set expectations more appropriately.

The Visit My Mosque event itself was low key and trivial, but nonetheless important as part of the process of engagement. A single faux pas by a person totally unconnected with the event, received more, and damaging, publicity than the entire effort. Cathy Newman, you aren’t naïve to the influence you yourself wield. A moment’s thought before your tweet, and a little background work, not only to find which mosques were participating, but also to understand that mosques are not 24 x 7 drop in centres. They don’t even keep office hours. And the people who use them do not have degrees in public relations or catering. Your tweet was revealing: its response showed up failings in local mosque management and ability to engage, it showed up the limited role the MCB has in guiding UK Muslims. But it also showed just how precariously positioned the Muslim community is, to an impetuous rejoinder by a prominent media player. You and other journalists, and your counterpoint alter egos, the politicians, have grave responsibilities towards community cohesion. Take your responsibilities seriously please!

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