Masjid Directory Theme and Management
Masjid Theme is a contentious topic on the MuslimsInBritain.org website. Factionalism and sectarianism around mosques/masjids is widely recognised but treated by most masjid managements as a taboo subject, because every masjid will proclaim that it welcomes anyone of any persuasion, and this is manifestly true (except Ahmadiyya). Nevertheless, however welcome you are made to feel, every masjid will expect you to adhere to the practice that prevails in that masjid, and will treat you with hostility if you try and perform any other Islamic practice than that approved by the imam and committee even while the imam and committee claim that their masjid is for the whole Muslim community and has no allegiance to any particular sect.

Sectarianism is the biggest problem facing Muslims in Britain, yet it is the one that few masjids acknowledge as their own, and none has a constructive strategy for tackling it. Even the handful of masjids that do recognise a problem, treat the problem by simply shutting out any activity associated with all of the main sects - they become literally exclusive, the opposite of inclusive, and the consequences are identical, dissenting sects drift around the periphery, seeking out like-minded fellows and others who may be open to persuasion. This shadowy periphery of dissent, whether it is around explicitly sectarian masjids, covertly sectarian masjids, or even explicitly non-aligned masjids, creates the environment in which secretive militant extremism thrives. To sum up the lengthy explanation you will find on the Tackling Extremism pages of my website, there are three vital ingredients to tackling militant extremism in the UK Muslim community:

(i) Masjid managements and imams must be transparent, accountable and inclusive of diverse factions. But this cannot happen while they and their congregations remain sectarian, because opening up of access to masjids and their management risks take-over by a rival, hostile sect.

(ii) Therefore Masjid management, imams and congregations must learn tolerance and mutual respect of diverse sects among themselves. But tolerance and mutual respect cannot occur while politicians and the media demonise ordinary, responsible and respectable sects such as Deobandis, Islamic Movement, and Salafis, or even politically challenging, but nevertheless tame, entities such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

(iii)Likewise therefore, Government, politicians and the media must cease denigrating and demonising Muslim sects, groups and speakers. This will not be easy for politicians and the media, because both depend on garnering popularity with their markets and voters by exploiting popular prejudices. However until they do, there is little incentive for Muslims to stop being defensive and insular. Which brings us neatly back to (i) again.

MuslimsInBritain.org exists to address all three of these issues:-

(i) I publish 'Theme' and 'Management' ethnicity information even when masjid managements themselves object, because I need to break the pretend taboo and bring the issue into the open.

(ii) I publish information about sectarian activity and actions by masjids that encourage it, as well as guidance on how to overcome it, including thos interpretations of Islamic practice that encourage tolerance and mutual respect.

(iii) I publish information that confirms MuslimsInBritain.org as the authoritative source of accurate and independent practical information about the UK Muslim community and its institutions, information that is frequently cited in official and academic documents and reports. I then consciously use that hard-earned privilege to take apart the notions of some factions being 'good' and others 'bad', the notions of a conveyor belt to terrorism, a network of militant recruiters, or of 'extremist' masjids, imams and preachers.

Instead, I show that the problems above are the very ones that create the conditions in which militant extremism to thrive in spite of the efforts of masjids, imams, managements and community leaders to counter it. The fact that the problems I identify are largely in the gift of Muslims to address puts me at loggerheads with those Muslims who consider only the external factors, government policy and government militarism to blame. They are not wrong, but they are demonstrably not wholly right - you can and should oppose what seems to have turned out to be a largely self-defeating government policy that has added oil and cordite to the bonfire.

The fact that the problems I identify have not been solved by banning orders, terrorism legislation and reactionary and mob-handed policing and prosecution, demonstrates that militant extremism is not corralled by doctrines and memberships, it persists because many young Muslims in the West feel rightly that they are obliged to shout out at injustice yet are all too often locked away for merely reading polemics about it.

Most Sunni masjids in the UK adhere to either the "Deobandi" or "Bareilvi" themes, the arch rivals of the Indian subcontinent since the nineteenth century. Outright rejection of both of these by younger generations has spawned a steadily growing number of "Salafi"-oriented masjids purporting to return to the roots (as-Salaf) of Islam. Maudoodi's "Islamic Movement" had an early influence on masjids in the UK but these remain unchanged (small) in size or number since the 1970s. The rivalry between these four principle factions runs astonishingly deep, yet are founded on the most obscure and trivial of differences. All are "Sunni", yet each will claim to be the exclusive custodian of Sunni belief. All include "Sufi" roots, though among these four predominant sects only the Bareilvis celebrate them, and most Salafis would never swallow the fact of the Sufi-inspired practices of instigators such as Ibn Taymiyya or Shah Waliullah Delhvi. All are strident in their claims to adhere to practice rooted in the original three generations of Muslims, the Salaf as-Salihah, roots of goodness. Yet their respective imams and advocates invariably regard each of the other as deviants, traitors (munafiqeen) or even polytheists. Shi'a are a much smaller minority in the UK than in the world as a whole, and are much more straightforward about the particular Shi'a sect their masjids promote.

In Sunni masjids, traditional or modernist, dissenters are perceived of as a threat, and are blocked from organising any activity in the masjid. However none of the traditional factions has any relevance to Muslim converts (and little relevance to Muslim youth) who therefore usually find themselves among dissenters against the Muslim mainstream establishment and are often drawn to Salafism, whose practice is coherent and easily accessible in English, and usually encourages engagement with the wider community. Even so, disillusioned by the 'mainstream', dissenters often adopt controversial and challenging positions - mostly benign positions, but some choose militant extremism, and having been marginalised by their local masjid, they disappear - a few resurface in the press under shocking headlines after some atrocity or arrest.

MuslimsInBritain.org seeks to undo the pattern of denied but obvious factionalism and its consequences for dissenters, and the first step MiB.org has taken is to highlight the factional allegiances of masjids and thus challenge the complacency of masjid managements, all of whom deny that they have a problem of extremism. The most culpable masjids are actually those that claim to be the most anti-militant, 'moderate' ones. This is because they blame militancy on their closest rival factions in rival masjids (e.g. Bareilvi-oriented masjids frequently blame Deobandi and Salafi ones, labelling them 'Wahabbi'). (It should not be necessary for me to say this, but I do need to in order to avoid any misconceptions about my objectivity: I have well-defined allegiance with Sufi practice and have close familial links to the Bareilvi establishment; therefore recognise that the stress I place on positive achievements e.g. of Salafis is borne out of earnestness for the truth, not out of any personal desire to promote their doctrines or those of any other faction.)

Practically all masjids fail to provide tolerant, mutually respectful, constructive and knowledgeable dialogue with dissenters among their own congregations. Standard fare for many Friday sermons is a direct or oblique diatribe by the imam against the practices or supposed deviant beliefs of his alma mater's rival madrassah. So the second thing MiB.org seeks to do is encourage mutual tolerance of diversity, openness and accountability, so I highlight as much information as I can about who runs the masjid and for whom.

Note that almost every masjid in the UK is an independent, locally run and locally financed institution. Unlike established churches and synagogues, there is no overarching, controlling entity or central authority such as the Church of England. Sunni Muslims themselves are mostly shy of sectarian allegances, and usually refute the idea of denomination, yet factions and sects are endemic among almost all conscientious Muslims. Many will only make salaah behind an imam who adheres to their own specific interpretation of Sunni Islam.

Accordingly, the management committee of practically every masjid that has ever been set up in the UK has either had the explicit aim of preserving the religious roots of its own members or has selected an imam who himself will embody just one tradition, the sect that trained him. The imam's job security depends entirely on adherence to the committee that employs him. Even in the small number of masjids that try to put aside sectarianism, the usual result is to narrow permissible practice down to the most basic fundamentals, to everyone's frustration.