Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A malicious campaign

Amid alarmist and misleading stories, more than 260,000 people have signed a petition against a so-called 'mega mosque'. Reposted from Guardian

Inayat Bunglawala

July 18, 2007 2:00 PM

Today happens to be the deadline for signing an e-petition on the No 10 Downing Street website to oppose the building of a so-called "mega-mosque" in East London. The petition, started by a "Jill Barham", reads as follows:

We the Christian population of this great country England would like the proposed plan to build a Mega Mosque in East London Scrapped. This will only cause terrible violence and suffering and more money should go into the NHS."

As of midnight last night, this petition had attracted more than 263,000 signatories, making it far and away the most popular petition currently on the No 10 website. For some time now, incendiary emails have been circulating falsely suggesting that a "mega mosque" was to be built in West Ham with a capacity for more than 70,000 worshippers with the cost being met by public funds provided by the Greater London Authority.

Papers like the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard have played to this gallery by running alarmist stories and online polls about the "mega-mosque".

In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat, the global Muslim missionary group that has owned that particular 18-acre site in West Ham since 1996 made it clear that they have not yet even submitted their plans to the local authorities in Newham Council and in any case the proposed mosque they would like to build will actually have a capacity of around 12,000 people, not 70,000. The Tablighi Jamaat have set up a website specifically to respond to the misinformation being spread regarding the proposed mosque.

And in a statement issued yesterday, the GLA also sought to clear up the confusion:

There are not now, and have never been, any plans by the Mayor or Greater London Authority to spend any public money on such a mosque. Indeed, it would be illegal for the Mayor of London to do so...The particularly vicious nature of the campaign against a possible Muslim place of worship in East London should be condemned by all of those who support the long established right of freedom of religion in this country, and all the more so as it is based on information which has long been established to be factually untrue.

There are currently around 1,700 mosques in the UK. While the earliest UK mosques were simply converted houses, as many British Muslims have become relatively wealthier in recent years they have donated money for larger, more prestigious, purpose built premises. The same has also happened with other minority faith groups; it's just that because there are more British Muslims than the combined total of British Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists, you are generally more likely to see a mosque near where you live in the UK than you are a Hindu mandir, a Jewish synagogue, a Sikh gurdwara or a Buddhist temple.

And in what could be an inspired move, the Tablighi Jamaat have recently appointed Allies and Morrison - the people behind the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall - as their architects for the proposed West Ham mosque. Most mosques around the UK are functional rather than beautiful and it would great if the Tablighi Jamaat could take a lead in this area.

I don't really know who this "Jill Barham" is but the embittered tone of her petition reminds me of an interview I did for BBC Radio Oxford a couple of years back. I was on with the Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens who was complaining that British Muslims were generally more serious about their faith than Christians were and that Churches were in decline, while the numbers of mosques was increasing.

It was clear that Hitchens was aggrieved at what he thought was a declining religiosity among Christians. I don't know whether this is true or not, but complaining about Muslims building their own places of worship does not seem to be a very ethical way of arresting a perceived decline in Christianity.

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