In the early hours of a Monday morning in January 2003, 150 police officers clad in body armour and slip-on overshoes forced their way into Finsbury Park Mosque with a battering ram. Inside they found scores of terrorist paraphernalia, including chemical warfare suits, false passports, a stun gun, gas masks, handcuffs and hunting knives.
The raid, codenamed operation Mermat, was the first of its kind in a British mosque, and caused shockwaves throughout the community. At the time the mosque was led by Abu Hamza, the one-eyed, hook-handed, extremist imam. Although Hamza was not charged in connection with the raid, which centred on an alleged plot to produce ricin poison, operation Mermat marked the beginning of his downfall. He was dismissed from the mosque 14 days later by the Charity Commission and was later imprisoned for intent to incite racial hatred.
But for all the reports of the fate of Hamza and his fellow extremists, little was said about what became of the largest mosque in Islington and the Islamic community in Finsbury Park, an oversight which its new imam, Ahmed Saad, is keen to rectify.
“When I go for talks outside the mosque, an event here, a talk there or a debate there, people will say ‘are you from the notorious mosque’? The media is not very interested in covering the good activities as much as they would be in covering anything bad; if there was something wrong they would rush to cover it.”
But there is something good happening: the Mosque has changed, and for the better. In February 2005, a new board of trustees appointed by the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) took over the mosque. Abu Hamza’s supporters were banned from the building. The new management team set out to give the mosque a new sense of identity, “a new ethos”. Dr Azzam Tammi, a central figure in MAB said at the time that the mosque had to stop being a “headache for anybody who cared about Islam”.
“The mob who had taken over were not interested in teaching Islam or offering services to the community – they were simply interested in promoting hatred.”
Those days ended when the new management began. Pasindu Kithpura, a member of the community says: “They rebranded everything. It’s not called Finsbury Park Mosque any more, it’s the North London Central Mosque. We’ve got a new ethos and more people are coming back. The community sees that it’s changed.”
Now, more than one thousand people attend the main prayers on Friday, its youth club is being awarded prizes from the Metropolitan Police for organising a litter pick up in the area, and the mosque’s newsletter boasts of it being awarded the prize for best Islamic centre in Europe.
Speak to those who live next to the mosque, on St Thomas’s Street, and they’ll confirm that things are different. One points to its minaret, sticking out into the sky over a row of red bricked terrace houses, saying: “There are no preachers shouting outside, or demonstrations anymore. I’m proud to live next door to it now.”
Engaging the community
Imam Saad, who came to the mosque in January 2007, says at first it was hard to engage with the community.
“When I came here, we did not have a permanent Imam who could speak for the community and who spoke English.”
So Saad created activities, such as its award-winning youth club, aimed at attracting the community back to the mosque by word of mouth.
“A change is never easy. First of all for creating a change you need to get the trust of people. Once they trust you then they will feel there is a change happening. To get the trust of people you need time to spread your name in the community and let them know what you’re doing. You need to know them and you need them to know you. This has taken quite a long time, about a year and a half.”
“More mainstream than extreme”
He says the biggest challenge was the low turnout on Fridays, the main prayer day.
“People would listen to the sermons I gave and give feedback. People said I had touched on problems in their lives. They realised the Friday sermon was talking to them; it’s more mainstream than extreme. Then they realised it was safe and they came with their problems.”
But it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Imam Saad says that some individuals in the community were unhappy at his moderate approach: “In every community one or two people will be off track… but people started to defend me and stand up and tell people off. We were empowering the community to stand up against extremism and say ‘this is not welcome in our mosque’.
“From an Islamic perspective, violence is wrong. Religion is not about violence or terrorism or spreading fear in the heart. It’s about spirituality and connecting with God.”
Now, early on a Monday morning in March, seven years on from the police raid, the Mosque’s doors are wide open. Walk in and you’re confronted with a notice in English and Arabic asking visitors to take off their shoes as a sign of respect. Next to it, sit rows of colourful toys ready for the children of the community to play with. An electronic board fixed to the wall announces the prayer times for the day, and there’s a stack of notices on a shelf, announcing the opening times of its in-house gym, youth clubs and martial arts lessons. Upstairs, in a conference hall, a group of women sit laughing and talking in a circle, waiting for the afternoon’s prayers to begin. This is a vibrant community centre, not a space for extremist preaching.
“Muslim and British aren’t two identities, they’re one”
So what’s the future for the mosque? Imam Saad says its greatest challenge is to continue engaging the community and Muslims everywhere: “Muslims in Britain need to feel comfortable being British and Muslim because Islam, as much as any other faith or creed, has got nothing to do with where you live; it’s about providing you with facilities to be successful in your society. Muslim and British aren’t two identities, they’re one.”
Image credit – wikimedia