"Please change our masjid's 'Theme'" (or management, or both) 
From time to time I receive feedback from people anxious to make as clear as possible to me that they are authoritative representatives of the management committee of a masjid. They vary in tone from the conciliatory to the outraged, and they want me to change the Theme that I have attributed to their masjid, to one which is as bland and uninformative as possible, e.g. "All welcome" or "Sunni", or "Mixed". There is actually nothing I would rather do than be able to re-label any masjid "Inclusive" or some similar adhective - actually that is the very objective of this website.

But I am not doing this work in order to deceive or mislead people. Some feedback accuses me of causing fitna by stating that a particular masjid is "Deobandi", or "Salafi", or "Sufi-Bareilvi" etc. Let me make very clear, if you are responsible for running a masjid, and that masjid is not a private club with invited guests only, but is a service for the Muslim community and the public beyond, then it is absolutely my responsibility to use the information available to me to let people know as accurately as I can, what theme, flavour, atmosphere, practice, tradition, or whatever, your masjid propagates, whether or not they intend to visit it. Yet instead, you, responsible officer of your masjid's committee, are asking me to collude with you to hide that information from the public, to deceive and mislead, even when those facts are widely known in your local community. You probably believe that the fact that I have published that knowledge will somehow discourage people from attending your masjid. You may believe that the information embarasses your masjid. In either case, it is not for me to hide these things, it is very much for you to change them!

As I repeat over and again on the MuslimsInBritain.org website,

* almost all UK masjids are organised with closed, unaccountable managements and only a small number of people permitted to provide any kind of religious content, and that strictly in line with the masjid's theme.

* It is this that causes fitna (trouble, enmity).

* The fitna is profoundly exacerbated by imams of such masjids who use their privileged position to teach their congregations to be sceptical and hostile towards other practices, sometimes with outright takfir against them.

* Masjids sustain coteries of people who co-operate to preserve the status quo and ensure that no alternative practice gains a hearing in the masjid.

* Because of this intellectual lock-down, anyone who is unhappy with the way the masjid is run is driven to work outside the masjid's circle, even if he prays in that same masjid five times a day.

* The most frequently dissatisfied users of the masjid are converts such as myself, though we may be few in number.

* The second most frequently dissatisfied, are Muslim youth.

* Around any masjid with unaccountable management and inflexible, exclusive religious practice (i.e. every masjid in the UK) you will find discontented groups, mainly young, often including a convert, unhappy with the status quo.

* The groups range across the whole spectrum of different ideas of what it means to practice Islam.

* Most will be groups with very valuable contributions to make, if only you didn't keep blocking them out.

* But in numbers of cases will be some who are very interested in militant extremism.

* You, masjid management, imams, can't tell one from another - you see them all as hostile ...
... because they all challenge you and your absolute control of the masjid.

* That's why you shut them out and why you get the shock of your life when one of those groups drags your masjid into the headlines and you have to tell the press the unbelievable fact that you knew nothing about them.

* If you made space for alternative viewpoints in your masjid, you'd quickly see who were the decent Muslims trying to do something better than you.

* And the only ones who would be hiding their activities from you would be the ones you really need to worry about.

* It is you, masjid management committees, imam in your pocket, who create the conditions in which your own children and their convert friends get mixed up in bitter, hostile ideas that quickly turn to atrocious acts of violence against your own neighbours. At first they are driven out by your hostility to any new ideas they try to bring to your community. Then they learn to carry on out of your sight, just like all the other dissenting groups. Then when one of them is so far gone that he or she thinks the only act that will make its mark, shake you out of your complacency, 'wake up the Muslims', it will be too late to save the reputation of your masjid.

It is an easily demonstrated fact that most 'terrorism' cases in the UK involve one or two Muslim converts usually with a few born-Muslim 2nd/3rd generation, and that they do their business right under the noses of the masjid regulars without anyone in the privileged circle having the slightest clue what they are up to. The pages of this blog and the 'Political' pages of the MuslimsInBritain.org website explain how it happens.

So ... the penalty paid by locked down masjid management, ethnic/tribal exclusiveness and narrow religious 'themes' is a community that is destroying itself and the community around it. Occasionally, tragically, the consequences of masjid intransigence are literally a matter of life and death.

So, masjid manager, until you yourselves do away with your exclusive themes, learn that it is you who have to change your ways. You can no longer afford to block any request for masjid events other than those your best buddy the imam approves of. Imam, know that your smug, clever speeches that warn your congregation how this or that activity or ritual of this or that other sect brings its participants to the brink of hellfire, is insulting, offensive, and ignorant. The people you are insulting are sitting right in front of you in your Friday Jumu'ah. You are the source of fitna.
Muqtadi, know that while you make yourself comfortable among your coterie, in cahoots with your committee, backbiting against some individual that tries to introduce some people to some aspect of Islam that you reject, that it is you that is the source of fitna.

The fitna you all create, trustee, committee, imam, influential muqtadi, is the very thing that makes everyone in the community know that your masjid is the unassailable Bareilvi masjid, Deobandi masjid, Salafi masjid, ... You create the 'themes' I diligently record and publish. (Don't even get me started on the tribal, racial exclusive masjids!) You want me to hide, disguise, deny your efforts? No, I will not conspire with you.

If you genuinely want to promote the idea that your masjid is not rigidly themed, there is a huge amount you can do, and I will try to help. But be warned, I will be very sceptical of platitudes about how everyone is welcome in your masjid. (Imagine what kind of awful place it would be if that wasn't true!) Catholic churches, the British Humanist Association, even the EDL, can all make that claim, and with more justification than some masjids!

I will want to see demonstrable proof, in publicly accessible forms, of activities that occur regularly and frequently in your masjid, that clearly break down the barriers between any and all of the Muslim factions and ethnicities that live in your area. Such a list might include mix of the following:

Ta’alim from Maulana Zakariya’s (RA) Tablighi Nisab
Gusht in the manner of Tabligh Jama’at
Ghousia Kathm, Urs shareef, Gyarwee shareef or similar activities
Ta’alim from Kanz-ul Emaan of Ala Hazrat Ahmad Raza Khan (RA)
Ta’alim from the work of Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah (RA)
Ta’alim from the work of Shaykh Nasruddin Al Albani
Jaloos and Maatm or Zanjeer zani commemorations in respect of Imam Hussain (RAA)
Urs Syedna Abdullah Fakhruddin RA in the fashion of Dawoodi Bohras
Muraqabah qalb dhikr of the Naqshbandis
Tafsir from Tefhim ul Qur'an of Abdul 'Ala Maudoodi(RA)

It might include the employment voluntary or paid, of imams in rotation, from each of the major madrassahs, especially those that carry the burden of notorious disdain for each other.

Yes that is quite a challenging list - including items that I myself would struggle with, but that is the point - you claim that your masjid is the community's masjid, that it is open to everyone, that you don't define yourselves by some narrow criterion that excludes all but a single instance from a list such as the above. So either be true to your claims and open up, or accept that you are sectarian as I have described you, with all the dangers I have highlighted.

I will want to see clear evidence that your imams and alims and amirs and committee members are actively propagating mutual respect towards other sects' beliefs and teachings, with open and honest discussion of the points you disagree with, without disrespectful and insulting insinuations about the quality of someone else's iman. Salafi, you know you can't see into the heart of another Muslim so how can you claim to judge the imaan of a Sufi. Sufi, you cannot claim that a Salafi who loves the Sunnah so much that he practices every hadeeth he finds, is not a greater ashiq than you.

When did you ever see one imam sharing a lecture with an imam from a rival sect? Never? Well now is the time to start!

You will need to construct clear codes of conduct, published, and very likely adorning the walls of your masjid: No more "No one is permitted to make any announcements etc except ..." Instead I want to see, "No one is permitted to use insulting or derogatory language about another Muslim's beliefs or practice. No one is permitted to deny any group or speaker the right to disseminate their material by speech, leaflet or formal event in this masjid. Any question of the Islamic basis of another's beliefs or practice must be conducted with the utmost regard for respect and tolerance of diversity, and must be based on mutually agreed definitions of what the differences actually are." (I would welcome suggestions for the kinds of rules that could be formulated to promote the required degree of mutual respect.)

All these examples of activities that transcend your dogmatically maintained, sectarian themes have to be real, with a proven and published track record, not just aspirations. Every masjid has aspirations of capturing the hearts of the Muslim neighbourhood, of course it does. That is why so many are named 'Central Mosque', 'Markazi Masjid', 'Jamiya Masjid' etc. even when they exist as an end of terrace house in the seediest corner of a backwater estate. The struggle against sectarianism will not be won by aspirations, only by you giving up your mimbar to share it with people you currently despise.

Now lets come on the the accountability bit. You want MuslimsInBritain.org to state that your management committee is not exclusively Pakistani? (or Bangladeshi, or Gujerati ...? ) Which country does your imam come from? Born in Britain? trained in Britain? Probably not. From the same country as you yourselves? Thought so! Why should that be, if not to maintain the ethnic self-serving exclusiveness of your masjid? How were you appointed to the committee? By election? Election by whom? Did you publish the date of your meeting? How did you decide who could vote? What does one have to do to become a member? What language do you conduct your affairs in?

Very occasionally I am pleased to note the diversity of a masjid's management committee, though inevitably disappointed that there appears to be not a single convert/revert among them, even less, any one from an indigenous origin. It is a matter of continued incredulity to me that, after 60 years of a substantial Muslim presence in Britain, and continual claims of many thousands of people within this country embracing Islam, practically every one of our one and a half thousand masjids is without even a single indigenous British committee member. One would have supposed that if Muslims were serious about their commitment to life in this country that all but the most parochial backwater would have most of the key posts and many of the imam-ates filled by just such people. The Muslim community's failure to even recognise this as a problem speaks volumes for the perception the non-Muslim community has of Muslims in Britain. It is uniform across the UK, with the exception of the peculiar Masjid al-Falah in Norwich and arguably also Brixton Masjid. However, if you are truly intent on achieving constructive diversity, I suggest that you set a firm aim to add an indigenous Muslim convert to your committee as being one of your public aims of the highest priority. Then we can talk seriously about integration in which everyone is welcome in your masjid.

So, if you want MuslimsInBritain.org's directory to record your theme as something like "Sunni" or "No specific theme" and your management to be recorded as "Diverse" then you know what to do. For my part I will be thrilled to make these changes to my database and publish them. Meanwhile the sectarian rot continues unchecked, because you, masjid committee, are too selfish to see the damage you have done.


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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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The beard 
Last week two Muslim boys were put in isolation at a Catholic school and ordered that they must return to school "clean" shaven. Coincidentally this weekend I made a trip to the Imperial War Museum with my daughter and we spent a lot of time in the Holocaust gallery there. There were many things in that gallery which would and should leave one shaking, not least how the Nazis' first systematic use of production-line killing was the extermination of disabled and mentally impaired people, especially children. One of the less distressing exhibits was footage of a Nazi SA gang forcibly shaving Jews' beards and payots (locks of hair) in the early 1930s. Inconsequential compared with what followed, yet very telling, how a minority was singled out for public humiliation in an environment where a more powerful group sought to impose its own definition of acceptability in its efforts to draw popular favour. I do not believe for a moment that the Head Teacher, Xavier Bowers, is part of a neo-Nazi vanguard of course. But I do believe that he would not have imposed this humiliation on his pupils if this was not a time when populist journalism could muster widespread anti-Muslim prejudice just as the proto-Nazis used anti-Jewish prejudice to gain advantage in the 20s and 30s.

Mr Bowers has the temerity to define Islam himself: 'Xavier Bowers told the Lancashire Evening Telegraph: "We have not taken this decision lightly. I have spent quite a lot of time researching the issue and speaking to Muslim elders. There is nothing specifically written in the Qur'an about wearing a beard. It is a choice those boys are making. However inclusive we are, we have standards to maintain."' Muslims have standards too, and included among them is the religious code that one lives one's life in accordance with the Sunnah. The repeated command of the Qur'an is, "Obey Allah and obey the Messenger of Allah!" (Qur'an 24:54 and many other verses), and the Messenger of Allah (S) stated plainly, "Whoever obeys me certainly obeys Allah." (Bukhari, Muslim, al-Nasa'i, Ahmad, and Ibn Majah). Many elements of the Sunnah, the way of life of the Messenger of Allah (S), are transient things, applying sometimes, abrogated at others. But one Sunnah was practised by him, 24 hours a day, every day of his life, and continues, for all we know, for every moment in his kabr, his grave, in Madinah. That one Sunnah is the beard. It is an explicit command: "Lengthen your beard and clip your moustache." (Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Hambal) How was it practised? The answer, as with all of the Sunnah, lies in what is recorded of him and of his companions (R). Not one single male companion kept his beard shorter than a full fist's length anywhere around his face. (For the moustache, his advice was to trim it short, never longer than a grain of rice; trim it right down to stubble as one of the fitras every Friday before Jumu'ah salaah.)

The "choice the boys are making" is to practice their faith. It is not for Xavier Bowers to state what is and what is not within the Muslim faith. As for the Muslim elders supposedly consulted, yes there are no doubt many of sufficient age to have been numbered among those who arrived as total strangers in the 1950s and 1960s, who had no masjids to attend, who left behind halaal food and their families in order to make some money out of Britain's invitation. Many of them are still there as trustees of masjids that are so set in the ways of the village that young men and women despair at finding meaningful Islamic practice from the lectures of the imams these elders employ. Their inertia, and the opportunities it creates for others to humiliate young Muslim men, are a very large part of what drives young Muslims to seek alternative sources to define their religion.

It is also an element of what motivates Muslim parents to find alternative sources of education, and hence Muslim faith schools. My own experience as a parent, of Muslim faith schools, is such that there is not one I would recommend, for a variety of reasons, which go beyond the scope of this blog article. One reason however is that they echo the same sectarian prejudices as UK masjids and their competing sects, indeed they are usually founded and run by the same vocal advocates of particular sectarian viewpoints. And are run with the same cynical contempt for diverse Muslim perspectives: you will find more adherence to a diverse multi-faith curriculum in a typical Muslim school's RE lesson than in many non-Muslim schools; but you will most likely hear just one Muslim sect's perspective in the same lesson, with alternative practices condemned unequivocally. Worse yet, by extension, you will find apalling racism directed at racial minorities within the class and among the pupils - this is my own children's first hand experience.

A Muslim free school accused of imposing strict Islamic practices, such as segregated classrooms, has closed following an inspection by Ofsted. The BBC reported that unnamed former staff members of Al-Madinah, which opened as a free school in September last year, had alleged that girls were forced to sit at the back of the classroom, and that female staff members, including non-Muslims, had been forced to wear the hijab. However the article states, "Last week, the interim principal told the BBC that he had not received any complaints from colleagues regarding the dress code and that pupils were not being segregated, with girls and boys being treated equally." Whatever the case, the strict Islamic ethical code does not require any segregation between children pre-puberty. Post-puberty the notion of separation in a co-ed class is not at all what Muslim parents would send their children to an Islamic school for - the classroom is not modelled on a jama'at in a masjid. Separate schools, yes, in common with many secular and faith-based schools, but the entire rationale for that falls apart in a segregated classroom.

Non-Muslims being forced to wear hijab? Can I invent the term "Islamical Correctness" to define nonsensical reduction of ethics to absurdity? If someone is not a Muslim, he or she is not required to adhere to any Islamic dress or food or behaviour custom whatsoever. If you don't want to see a non-Muslim lady's hair, then either don't look or stay indoors out of harm's way. Even in the masjid itself, even at the time of salaah, there is no Shari'a basis for requiring visitors to cover their heads. They aren't going to walk around in front of you during the salaah - there simply won't be space to do so unless you've arranged your salaah without a sutrah, and even then, so what? What about when you make your salaah out in the open in public (where it is meant to be seen). Are you going to interrupt your salaah when a non-Muslim woman walks past and is glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, bare ankled or worse? Please stop the nonsense of imposing Islamic habits on non-Muslims, it achieves nothing. And, Mr Xavier Bowers, please stop imposing your ritual humilation and your contempt for their religious practice, on Muslim pupils - you are not helping your religion or theirs, nor your school or their education.

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Aylesbury, home of Samantha Lewthwaite 
Sherafiyah Lewthwaite, born Samantha, has been a figure much speculated upon in the last few days. She grew up in Aylesbury, where she married and lived with Abdullah Shaheed Jamal, Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 bombers up to the morning of 7th July 2005. Coincidentally I was in Aylesbury this weekend, and renewed my acquaintance with its masjids (mosques). I last visited Aylesbury in November 2009, and my visit this Saturday showed me nothing at all new, sadly, as I shall explain . . . .
It is the strong conviction of this website’s author, demonstrated over and over again, that whatever an individual’s motives for taking the path of violent extremism, in the case of practically all Muslim converts, it is the abject failure of the UK Muslim communities at large to meet the proper needs and expectations of converts that drives significant numbers among them rapidly into extremism. The engine that drives converts away from the civil, reasonable mainstream is the deep rooted, exclusive sectarianism that permeates every masjid in every town in Britain. Aylesbury hosts clear examples of this, but there is nothing extraordinary about Aylesbury. In a nutshell, militant or civil, neither Lewthwaite nor Lindsay ever had a hope of fitting in with the host Muslim community there, and their prior experiences briefly in Huddersfield would have been pretty much the same. “Abdul Dayan, the imam of the Jamia Ghausia mosque in Aylesbury, said that Lindsay did not attend, and did not mix with the largely Pakistani Muslim community.” This is not a case of Aylesbury masjid locking out extremists, it is Aylesbury masjid, like nearly all of Britain's 1500 plus masjids, being completely incapable of escaping from its own tribal sectarianism and adjusting to a plural, multi-ethnic, diverse Muslim community that has room for converts to flourish healthily. UK masjids' failure to overcome sectarianism, and the closed, self-referential Muslim institutions that result from this, leads directly (i) to extremism among those left out, and (ii) to the community's failure to recognise and address dangerous militancy right under its collective nose - a subject about which we have written extensively.

Until 2009 there was only one flavour of Muslim that was acceptable in Aylesbury, and in its main masjid and an offshoot madrassah, that is utterly true to today. The Muslim community there is almost entirely rooted in the rural district of Mirpur in Pakistani Kashmir. This is the case with nearly all of Britain’s Pakistanis, they are networks of families from either Mirpur or Jhelum, a very similar district in the Punjab. These networks of families are strongly bound in traditional village Islam, in which deviation from the predominant strain of Bareilvi-schooled, Sufi- oriented Islam is regarded as treachery, as delinquency. Even to take a pledge of allegiance with a Sufi shaykh from a tariqah outside of the family’s village custom is regarded as a challenge to the authority of the predominant tariqah and its pir or principle spiritual guide. While I can say nothing about the credentials of the Aylesbury Kashmiri families’ customary tariqah, it is well established that many such arrangements are in effect, lucrative family businesses that bind together influence and money in exchange for a supposed gateway to spiritual purity and salvation. In Britain, these cultural ties to the original villages in Punjab and Kashmir are held rigid through masjids that are run by committees of elders who maintain with the utmost vigour, the control of the masjid, from Aylesbury to Worcester and 417 other masjids besides, not to mention the local masjids of the other three 7/7 bombers in Leeds and Batley.

Anyone who visits one of these staunchly Bareilvi masjids and doesn’t visibly conform to the required rituals, is regarded as either an imbecile or a hostile threat. Remember to kiss your thumbs at the mention of the name of the Messenger of Allah (S); don’t stand for the salaah in jama’at until the statement, “qad qamaatis salaah”, and even then, not before the imam rises; stay in your place at the end of salaah and recite with gusto the statement of faith as a dhikr; . . . and many more such clear indicators that you belong, that you aren’t going to rock the boat, that you aren’t going to raise the curiosity of the impressionable local youngsters who are largely baffled by their elders’ customs, and draw them away into a deviant practice that will forever condemn them. The rituals of Bareilvi Islam, Ghausia Kathm, Gyarwi Shareef, the aforementioned gestures, are obscure even to those who practice them, so their children are especially vulnerable to anyone who brings along any simpler, more essential flavour of Islam.

Most important of all, the rituals are almost impenetrable to any convert to Islam, whether attracted to Sufi mysticism or not. Through being separated from the knowledge and practice of their originators such as Shaykh Ahmad Raza Khan of Bareilli (R), they have become empty and meaningless cultural accretions. But this essay is not about the validity of Bareilvi practice, it is about the way in which those who run these masjids perceive any other kind of practice whatsoever as being a challenge that must be removed, and the ways to remove it are to ostracise anyone who thinks otherwise, ostracise anyone who tries to introduce anything different, and by employing an imam that is qualified by the eloquence of his crushing rhetoric against the known enemy, which is usually understood to be Deobandi-ism, and collectively anything that can be branded “Wahabbi”, the ultimate pejorative. The influence of the imam over the congregation is self-evident, so it is vital for the committees of elders to engage as imam someone who is tied irrevocably to the home village clan, and definitely not an imam with recognisable pastoral skills, lest he carve out his own following. Ability to speak English is utterly irrelevant firstly because the rhetoric required is written out in high Urdu, not even the patchwork Urdu recognised by the local clans, and secondly because of paramount importance is keeping the local flock vehemently in line – they are the families whose elders run the committee and whose donations pay for the elaborate marble extensions.

At an early stage of his induction into Islam, Germaine Lindsay expressed the apparent need to learn Urdu, an experience not dissimilar to my own, when I had in fact expressed a desire to learn Arabic, but my mentors patiently explained that all the important literature of Islam was written in Urdu. I was equally patient, and tried, but the daftness of that assertion was not lost on me, and I recognised perfectly well that it was a manifestation of my mentors’ inability to explain the subtle complexities of their interpretation of Islam in English, notwithstanding the elegant simplicity of the creed. In Lindsay’s case, he clearly met with the same problem, and found his initial Muslim hosts unable to provide any more than the most rudimentary explanation of the faith. Inevitably he went elsewhere to look for answers.

Indeed any convert Muslim dropping in on such a cosy community as Aylesbury’s Muslims will be seen initially as a charming novelty, then an embarrassment as he or she asks some pretty obvious questions like what the imam is talking about, in English, if you please, and ultimately as a threat, as he or she returns having learnt from some other, entirely reasonable source or perhaps more dour or troubling one, any one of a dozen alternative interpretations of Islam, all of which appear to accord more closely with the Qur’an and the Sunnah, spelt out in plain, logical English. The threat becomes reality when not only does the convert discover that there are other, more accessible sects besides the incumbent one (which may not be Bareilvi, it is more likely to be Deobandi, but with its own version of protective exclusivity), but that as a conspicuous convert he rapidly attracts the attention of other dissenters who hitherto were stymied from dissenting openly, by the inertia of the local stitch-up. During this phase, the discontented convert always flits between different sects, all underground in relation to the incumbent one, different versions of Islamic practice, and in some cases such as Lindsay, decides to damn them all, not least in sheer frustration at their parochial exclusivity, their lack of care for any Muslim and any kind of Islam outside of their own village home-from-home in urban Britain. Lindsay’s actions, and the other bombers’ too, were as much about shaking the complacency of the Muslim ‘establishment’ in the west as it was about shaking the west.

On Saturday I asked one elderly, full bearded gentleman about whether there were any converts using Aylesbury Ghausia masjid. He replied circumspectly, “a few”, so I asked for some more precision, which he gave as “one”, so I asked about the one, having an obvious interest as a convert Muslim myself. Continuing his circumspection, he confessed, “maybe less than one”, shrugging, so I gave him an understanding smile and thanked him for his assistance. Meanwhile, some volunteers were working on the Masjid’s PA system. Not content with the customary “one, two, testing” routine, they prefixed it with the full, “As-salaat o as-salaam alayka ya Rasulullah, as-salaat o as-salaam alayka ya Habibullah” (‘salutation and peace to you oh Messenger of Allah (S), salutation and peace to you oh Beloved of Allah (S)’) before continuing with the standard two digits test. To many, such a recitation addressed directly to the Messenger of Allah as if he is present, is anathematic polytheism, and to a fully subscribing Sufi it is at best vexing to explain, yet to these electricians it was an essential element of belonging to their masjid.

I made my salaah in front of the mehrab, and photographed its mosaic decoration, recording the words “Ya Sayedi, Ya Rasulullah” (O leader, O Messenger of Allah) fixed into the very fabric of the building. Again, for any Muslim not indoctrinated with Sufism, prostrating towards such a device may well be regarded as an invitation to polytheism - it has the blunt effect of telling them, "Go away, if you stay and make your salaah here, we will force you to conform to us." When I left, it was to record among other things, the name of the masjid, “Ghausia” i.e. attributed to the desired abilities of the 6th Islamic century Shaykh Abdul Qadr Jilani (R) to intervene in matters requiring a Divine solution. This name was parenthesised by the inevitable “Ya Allah” and “Ya Muhammad”(S), proclaiming to any advocate of any ‘deviant’ sect that they would only be tolerated for as long as they kept their mouth firmly closed and if they didn’t like what they saw, then tough.

This was the atmosphere of Aylesbury’s main masjid since it was originally founded in a house in 33 Buckingham Road probably in the late 1970s. Sufficient alternative viewpoints had accumulated among the younger generation that by 2009, the Deobandi-flavoured masjid I visited then had only just been acquired, in a disused pub on the Southcourt estate on the south western edge of town. Yet absolutely nothing has been done to address the root causes of Lindsay’s disaffection:

o Next to nothing in English
o Nothing to recognise that recent generations don’t carry their elders' feuds with them
o Nothing to get over the insular (and racist) exclusivity of the UK Pakistani/Bangladeshi/Gujerati or other local tribal Muslim ‘establishment’
o Nothing to involve newcomers in the management of the masjid
o No sign of UK-trained imams, and (other than the Salafis and Deobandis) no capacity to do so (yet masjid projects being raised costing millions)
o Nothing at all of tolerance towards other versions of Islam
o Continuing enmity towards any other sect, and ostracising of its advocates

Indeed complacency runs deeper than ever, Bareilvi establishment figures especially are extra quick to curry favour with politicians and use jibes of ‘extremist’, ‘Wahabbi’ against their rivals to gain advantage over them or deny their rivals access to influence or resources. Meanwhile convert Muslims such as Germaine Lindsay or Samantha Lewthwaite are driven away from Bareilvi-oriented communities, along with anyone else, militant or moderate, guilty or innocent, who happens to disagree or who looks to have undue influence that might undermine the village elders and their stranglehold on hundreds and hundreds of UK masjids. This is not about the Islamic validity of Sufism or Bareilvi practice, it is about local community leaderships' intolerance of difference or dissent, and its autocratic and unaccountable grip on masjids, madrassahs and other Muslim institutions. The consequences are already disastrous for Muslims in Britain, and the disasters will continue: Germaine Lindsay was not the first and sadly Lee Rigby's murder will probably not be the last, whether or not Samantha Lewthwaite has a case to answer in Nairobi. Current lurid press coverage of her is 100% speculation, but her inability to be absorbed into the Muslim mainstream fits the experiences of the vast majority of other converts to Islam.


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The right to dress. 
Twice today news items surfaced whose import was to allow Muslims (and anyone else) to dress how they please. Birmingham Metropolitan College ended their ban on hoodies, hats, caps and veils after "more than 9,000 people signed an online petition set up by NUS Black Students' Campaign calling on the college's principal, Dr Christine Braddock, to remove the ban. ... Aaron Kiely, NUS Black Students' officer, said: 'This ban is a complete infringement on the rights to religious freedom and cultural expression and is a clear violation of a woman's right to choose.' He added: 'We call on Birmingham Metropolitan College to reverse its decision and respect the fundamental rights of its diverse student population to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and cultural expression.'

Also today, "A Muslim woman has been allowed to make a plea in court while wearing a face-covering niqab after a judge agreed a compromise in which she was identified in private by a female police officer who then attested to her identity." This was after the judge had previously adjourned the trial when she had refused to remove her veil.

In both cases the institutions had claimed the need for facial identification. In college, is it really the case that wherever any student goes, he or she is tracked in order to be identified? Obviously not in any meaningful sense, unless each and every door has a barrier and a pass checker and a means of matching the pass to its bearer - that argument, the argument cited over and again, is specious. In practical terms, in this society whose institutions are utterly addicted to total video surveillance, it is completely straightforward to track and analyse each and every individual as they move from place to place, without any of the increasingly high resolution imaging technology ever needing to see anyone's actual face. Furthermore only the most obtuse among us will claim to fail to be able to distinguish between one woman (or man) and another - human vanity alone is sufficient to ensure that one woman's abaya, burqa, raincoat, labcoat, chador, hijab, niqab, hoodie or crash hat is distinct from another's, without even considering height, build, gait, mannerisms, baggage, boots or bodymist. On the contrary, there is little that is more conspicuous in public than a heavily veiled woman. (Or man ... the 21st July 2005 bomber who fled dressed in a Somali-style burqa was captured on video at Birmingham coach station. The onlookers didn't know they were staring embarrasedly at a bomber, they just thought it was a big and clumsy man in bad drag looking for a discreet Ladies to change out of his frock.)

There are very few occasions when anyone requires to make a positive identification between someone's ID card and his or her face, and Muslim women in niqab are perfectly capable of meeting those requirements when they arise, just as the less obtuse among us are perfectly capable of making reasonable adjustments to make this simple. Biometric technologies make this less and less of a problem anyway. The other argument is about access to justice and the court hearing process. Here again, common sense easily demonstrates that the judge or court officials have no consistent reason to require anyone to remove their niqab if they choose to appear in court with it. Court appearance is theatre even when it has the highest moral purpose. The streetwise thug presents himself in the dock in the sharpest creased, slick new grey suit with impeccable haircut, his act is intended to distance himself as far as possible up the social scale from the character he played in his alleged drunken brawl. If the argument about face is about the ability of court participants to judge facial expression as communication, then that right extends to the right to remove screens from witnesses so dramatically presented in court that they cannot even look in the mirror without breaching the Official Secrets Act. The dramatic tension is enhanced further by the inability to put a name to the secret face behind the screen, 'Officer X' is the name to the face of official obscurity when the requirements of justice are subservient to the requirements to preserve official enigma. Even so, if justice requires a person's facial expression to be on display, justice will not be served for the numbers of people who endure visual impairment. If it is acceptable for them to be denied sight of facial expression, then there is no difficulty for the rest of us to be denied the same. In this particular case the issue arose at the point when the defendant was required to take an oath that she was herself. Aside from the vanishingly faint prospect that someone would actually choose to appear in court as someone else, to have the other person's indictment heaped upon them, we are all, in public, precisely who we present ourselves as. It is her own choice to present herself with niqab veiling her face; she is well aware of the hostility and prejudice this engenders from a society intolerant of personal expression by anyone deemed to be alien, and she puts herself at the mercy of the court to set aside such prejudice; she certainly achieves no material benefit from it, so there is no rational reason why she should not be permitted to wear exactly what she pleases in court, any more than that she should be permitted to say exactly what she wishes to when it comes to giving evidence or defending herself.

These two cases contrast sharply with another case of Muslims and dress. The tables are turned and we find Muslims apparently railing against the mode of dress adopted by others. This was brought to my attention in a message sent to the MuslimsInBritain.org website a few weeks ago. At first I took it to be a racist, Islamophobic rant, but reading more closely I realised the sender had a very valid point. The sender kicks off with the statement, "I have written on many Muslim pages on face-book about ANTI WHITE RACISM, about the blatant racism shown to the indigenous WHITE people of this country." He goes on, apparently confirming my intent to dismiss his diatribe, "Of course I’m a racist, I TRADITIONALLY hate the English and despise the Catholics, Irrespective of colour or wealth." The capitals are his own. His concluding lines would have hastened the missive into the bin, but I followed up his link, in the Daily Mail. Now the Daily Mail is one of the prime sources of Islamophobic mythology and fiction, as Peter Oborne investigated in depth, in 2010. But if what the Mail reported was true on this occasion, it was Muslim community arrogance beyond belief. Two men, for charity, demeaned themselves utterly by dressing in Borat-kinis and walking, for charity I must repeat, around the streets of Solihull to Birmingham. All they did was to walk through Sparkbrook during Ramadhaan, and received sufficient abuse from onlookers that the police escorted them away. Now there is a case to answer for the level of depravity that popular culture can sink to, but that case lies with Sacha Baron Cohen and his lime-green jock strap couture, not with his imitators. The Daily Mail quoted, "Local butcher Irshad Armani, 22, said: 'It was disrespectful for the men to come here half-naked. This is a Muslim area and we don't want to see that.' ... 'People were fasting and we do not want to see anything considered impure or dirty during such an important month. That is why people were so upset by it.'"
Pausing to cringe for a moment, I resume. "disrespectful", "half-naked"? I don't think the byelaws of Sparkbrook include stipulation of 'black tie' for guests! "Muslim area"? Most certainly not - there are no preconditions to qualify for residence in Sparkbrook. "People were fasting ..."? So get on with fasting and stop minding other people's business.

Let's explore this point for a moment. Ramadhaan is about one thing above all else, it is a celebration of the Qur'an. Fasting is mandated on Muslims and the disruption that fasting causes to one's daily routine, is perfect for dedicating the newfound time it creates, to burying oneself in the Qur'an. Beyond that, Muslims, Muslims mind, not others, are prevailed upon to hold themselves back, act with patience, and avoid the sins that they would think nothing of at other times. There is nothing about Ramadhaan that requires Muslims to be mollycoddled or treated any differently then as any other time. If you don't want to see anything dirty or impure, very simple, don't look. That is what the Sunnah expects, and that applies 24 hours a day, every day of the year. But then, who are you, Muslim, to say that some activity of a non-Muslim is dirty? It would be facile to list the range of sins, dirty and impure, that the average Muslim is content with in his everyday life, but arrogance certainly seems to be one of them. Meanwhile, Muslims do not need any special considerations during Ramadhaan, except, when appropriate, the opportunity to break the fast at the specified time, which takes perhaps five minutes and need be nothing more elaborate than the Sunnah, i.e. a very few dates and some water. You either take the time out and dedicate it to the Qur'an, not to worldly matters, or you get on with the same daily routine minus the meals. Anyone who has not learnt patience during Ramadhaan, has not completed his Ramadhaan.

Back to the question of dress. The Daily Mail article quotes, "Iqbal Khan, 25, a carpet shop owner, added: 'They came here saying it was for charity, but what they were wearing barely covered their private parts. ... We see people come and go doing charity around here - black, white, Asian - but it is not appropriate to do it in a bad way, dressed as they were, especially when this is mainly an Asian and Pakistani area.'" This is complete tosh: The only thing a Muslim has any right to be concerned about regarding a non-Muslim is the possibility of him entering the faith of Islam. Other than that, the Shari'ah duty of a Muslim is to safeguard his neighbours and see to their welfare, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. So we Muslims have no business in paying the slightest concern to any non-Muslim's dress, appearance, personal habits, diet, lifestyle, career or character. If you don't like it, just look away. Meanwhile as a Muslim you are commanded in the Qur'an: "Obey Allah and obey His Messenger!" Obedience to the Messenger of Allah (S) is unequivocally to live according to his Sunnah. If you want to fulfil your religious obligations as a Muslim in a non-Muslim land, it is very easy: live, dress, behave in the manner of the Sunnah and take the Sunnah to wherever the people are - on the street, in the workplace, on the beach. Let them see you, and never, ever judge them for what they do who are not Muslims.

Insha'Allah this discussion points out the hypocrisy of those of us who demand special consideration for ourselves in manner of dress and appearance, yet who claim the privilege of telling others how they must behave in their own neighbourhood. We can and should dress as Muslims - the shame is on the Muslim men who mislead themselves into thinking they can dress as non-Muslims and still expect Muslim women to hold fast to the Sunnah that they despise for themselves. When the same people then think they can tell non-Muslims how to behave, they should look to see their arrogance leave them in loss.

Further developments

Jeremy Browne, Liberal Democrat minister in the under-age (or at least unrepresentative) but consenting, marriage between his party and the Tories that passes for government, courts favour with the populist press by saying that the government should consider legislation to prevent young Muslim women being forced to wear niqab. Facts were ever the enemy of policy debates in this government, but the fact is that in the UK there is not a single case, not one, of any person being forced to veil their face. No one - and I challenge you to do so - can provide a single instance of such an occurrence in the UK, and were anyone to try to coerce veiling, the practicalities of achieving this would be monstrously absurd.

The facts are that every single Muslim who wears niqab, face veil, does so by her own choice, and very often flying in the face, so to speak, of most of those around her. Motives for veiling do vary, some do so through pure religious piety wishing to adhere to the Sunnah of the wives of the Messenger of Allah. Others season their piety with assertion of identity - no Muslim is ashamed of her or his faith, and the heaping of calumny on the faith by all manner of populist bigotry only makes them more determined to stand up and be counted for their beliefs. Others, similarly, spice their niqabs with defiance, more often than not, of their own parents and the culture that led the latter to throw away everything that got in the way of making money out of their time in the UK. The bottom line is simple nevertheless, wearing the niqab is a conscious and deliberate choice, exercising the basic woman's right to choose to dress how she wishes.

Britain is not France, we do not suffer under the burden of religious and racial bigotry and do not need to window-dress racism in hypocritical claims of "Laïcité" by chaining our society's principles to a fragment of late 18th century political philosophy. Britain should not be afraid of tolerance and is not afraid of difference and diversity, and is certainly not afraid of freedom of expression. Britons should be very afraid of a weak government that chooses to whip up populist prejudice in defiance of facts - that is the path to authoritarianism. The right to self expression, the right to dress just as much as the right to write and speak, are fundamental human rights, and to undermine any one of these is a doorway into darkness.


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