A Battle Rages in London Over a Mega-Mosque Plan
By Jane Perlez
November 4, 2007–LONDONâ€”Disputes over mosques have broken out across Europe. Residents from Belgium to France to Germany have expressed unease at minarets competing in the urban landscape with the spires and stones of centuries-old cathedrals.
But the fight raging over an abandoned lot in Londonâ€™s East End is of an altogether grander scale. A large and secretive Islamic sect proposed building what would have been the largest mosque in Europe, smack at the gateway to the 2012 Olympic Games, and within sight of Londonâ€™s financial district.
That plan was sent back to the drawing board to be scaled down, but not before raising a furor of equal size and discomforting questions about the right of Britainâ€™s Muslims to take up a public space commensurate with their growing numbers.
This summer on the Web site of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, more than 250,000 critics of the proposed mosque supported a petition initiated by a backer of the conservative British National Party. Some of them said a large mosque had no right to exist in such a prominent place in a Christian country.
When, around the same time, Karen Armstrong, a historian of religion, wrote an article in the liberal Guardian newspaper commenting favorably about the mosque, the paperâ€™s Web site was deluged with complaints.
In Newham, the borough where the mosque would stand, Alan Craig, the leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance Party in the East End, started a one-man campaign against the mosque a year ago that has grown and gained national prominence.
He began by emphasizing the size of the mosque. But now he focuses on its sponsor, Tablighi Jamaat, a worldwide evangelical Islamic group based in Pakistan with millions of followers that professes to encourage Muslims to be more loyal to their faith.
American and European law enforcement officials say Tablighi Jamaatâ€™s simple message masks a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists. Two of the suicide bombers who attacked the London transit system in July 2005 had attended Tablighi Jamaat gatherings, British security officials said.
Tablighi Jamaat â€œis a separatist organization,â€ Mr. Craig said in an interview in his living room where a picture of the crucifixion of Christ hung on a wall, a cross rested on a bookshelf, and a Bible lay on the coffee table.
â€œThey refer to us as kafir,â€ a term of contempt, he added. â€œThatâ€™s not what we need. We donâ€™t want this mosque in East London. It will be disastrous.â€
That Mr. Craigâ€™s immediate neighbors include a Pakistani family on one side of his row house, and immigrants up and down the block, speaks to the changes in the East End, where South Asian Muslims are among the latest wave of immigrants.
The area has welcomed newcomers to London over the ages, starting with the French Huguenots and including Jews in the 19th century. Now nearly 30 mosques, most of them small, are crowded during Friday Prayer.
The 2001 census shows 34.2 percent of the Newham borough population is white. South Asians and blacks predominate. Christianity remains dominant at 46.8 percent and Muslims make up 24.3 percent.
The driving force behind the plan to build a grander mosque has been Abdul Khaliq Mian, 55, a British businessman born in Pakistan and a longtime follower of Tablighi Jamaat.
In an interview, Mr. Mian explained how in 1996 he helped raise Â£1.6 million, or about $2.9 million at the time, from the Tablighi community to buy an abandoned lot that was once the site of a sulfuric acid plant.
Mr. Mian, who came to Britain at age 11, said that in the late 1990s officials on the Newham Borough Council, which includes Muslims, encouraged Tablighi Jamaat to build a grand mosque befitting the scale of the land.
â€œI was told it was a very, very strategic site,â€ Mr. Mian said. â€œThey said, â€˜Get a planner and the best architect you can and build the biggest mosque you can.â€™â€
An up and coming architect, Ali Mangara, 40, a Muslim born in South Africa, produced a design that envisioned wind turbines instead of minarets, and generous use of gardens, courtyards and restaurants. In all, with the use of awnings as cover, about 70,000 worshipers would be accommodated, Mr. Mangara said.
â€œIt was intended to reach out and bring new people into the complex,â€ he said, showing off a model of his futuristic design.
The size of the congregation and avant garde nature of Mr. Mangaraâ€™s plans fueled Mr. Craigâ€™s opposition. He accused Tablighi Jamaat of seeking financing from Saudi Arabia, though there is debate about this.
After raising money for the land, Mr. Mangara said, the group never provided additional financing for permits to build his design. Several months ago, his plan that had created the furor was dropped, and Tablighi Jamaat pushed Mr. Mian aside, though he remains a follower.
In Mr. Mangaraâ€™s place, an establishment London architectural firm, Allies & Morrison, known for projects like refurbishing Royal Festival Hall, has been hired to build a smaller version, which would hold about 12,000.
A developer, Sohail Sarbuland, a Muslim but not a member of Tablighi Jamaat, has pledged the money for the building permits.
Mr. Mangara and others say any breaking of ground will be delayed until after the 2012 Olympics. The issue will be finessed by a slow design process, and delays in the planning process, he said.
On the 10 Downing Street Web site, the prime ministerâ€™s office notes that no planning application has been made, and makes clear that the government has taken no position.
A London public relations firm, Indigo, which has put up a Web site about the mosque, abbeymillsmosque.com, has been hired by Tablighi Jamaat to speak for it.
An Indigo spokesman, Nick Kilby, said Tablighi Jamaat trustees would not talk to the news media. Phone calls to Tablighi Jamaat drew no response.
Mr. Kilby, whose job is to stem the controversy, said the final design by Allies & Morrison would not be done soon. â€œThe Olympics are not the deadline,â€ he said.