Taken over by extremist Abu Hamza and his supporters in the late-90s, the Finsbury Park Mosque’s congregation dwindled to a handful of radicalised Jihadists. In the decade since Hamza’s removal, chairman Mohammed Kozbar has reverse the mosque’s fortunes and brought thousands of worshippers through its doors.
The door of the Finsbury Park Mosque is open and the warm spring air is blowing through the corridor. Noon prayer has just finished and some men are replacing their shoes in front of an enormous shoe rack at the entrance. I remove my shoes: a brand new pair of Clarks Wallabees. For a second I wonder if it’s safe to leave them here with the door wide open. Then I remember that this is a mosque – people don’t steal from mosques. It’s sort of like a rule.
In fact, people are more likely to give than to take, as evidenced by the donation box with five different slots marked with signs that read “Gaza/Syria crisis”, “Sadaqa” (Arabic for ‘a beautiful loan’), “Zakat” (meaning alms or tax), “Dawah & new Muslims” (presumably for recent converts) and, unambiguously, “The Mosque”.
While the Finsbury Park Mosque is not a charity case, it needs as much goodwill as it can get. A turbulent journey since it was opened by Prince Charles in 1994 saw it taken over by extremist preacher Abu Hamza, under whose tutelage it became a hotbed for radicalised young British muslims, as well as Islamists who had fled Algeria and other countries to seek exile in the UK. Among its congregation at various times before it was eventually closed by the police in 2005, were Richard Reid the Shoe Bomber, Abu Qatada the Jordanian cleric convicted of terror plots who fought deportation for 10 years, and Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 bombers.
The post 9/11 era of rising Islamophobia and negative reporting in the media made things very difficult for British muslims. For those with any links to the Finsbury Park mosque, the problems were magnified.
Its rehabilitation by the local Muslim community, which eventually threw Hamza out, has been led by its chairman Mohammed Kozbar, a Lebanon-born charity worker who came to London in 1990. By forging close ties with the local community, opening doors to non-Muslims, beginning dialogues with other faith leaders and the local authorities and building a strong relationship with local MP Jeremy Corbyn, Kozbar has turned the building into what he describes as, “more than just a mosque.”
When I tell one of the staff at the mosque I am here to see Kozbar, I’m told he’s not in the country. Upstairs in the office, Egyptian duty manager Mohammed Said explains that the chairman is in Lebanon. He invites me to take down his number and call him, before discussing the political situation in Egypt with me: “It’s returned to a military dictatorship. Morsi was good but naive. The Americans helped to remove him, now el-Sisi is back to square one, just like Mubarak.” He shows me the Muslim prayer cycle, explaining that the five prayer times every day are decided by the sun, not the time. In summer, morning prayer can begin as early as 3am.
One of the congregation, a local cab driver with a long beard arrives for a one-to-one meeting about an issue he has, apologetically telling me “as-salamu alaykum. Sorry brother,” and I leave them to it and find a quiet spot to ring Kozbar in the Middle East.
Outside, the traffic trundles monotonously around the busy gyratory system and halts opposite the Arsenal World of Sport and the British Rail station. Conversations from people standing outside Turkish kebab shops, Ethiopian restaurants and Polish off licences drift through the air. Inside the mosque is a different world – an undisturbed haven of tranquility. Quite different to the days not too long ago when Hamza – the eye-patched, hook-handed poster child for fundamentalist extremism – led raucous meetings in the street under police guard.
When I get through to Kozbar, who is visiting family and attending conferences in Sidon, the third largest city in Lebanon, he recalls the mosque’s traumatic history.
When the mosque was targeted [in 2015] when somebody tried to set fire to it, the local community stood with us in solidarity.
“I had never been inside the mosque before 2005, because of the problems facing it at that time,” he begins. “I used to attend the mosque around the corner, Muslim Welfare House, on Seven Sisters Road.”
“We all knew that Abu Hamza had taken over the mosque from the trustees. There were tensions between his followers who controlled the mosque and the congregation. Usually the capacity is 2,000 but only 50 people used the mosque at the time: Hamza’s supporters.
“Unfortunately this led to problems between them and some far right extremists who would come on a weekly basis to protest outside the mosque. The police were present and all of this caused problems for the local community. This is why we thought it was important to bring back this mosque to the community.”
Located so close to Arsenal’s ground, Saturday afternoon matches were a particular source of tension. Football fans are un-PC at the best of times, but the post 9/11 era of rising Islamophobia and negative reporting in the media made things very difficult for British muslims. For those with any links to the Finsbury Park mosque, the problems were magnified. Somehow, this rather un-mosque like, unattractive mid-90s red brick building had become as famous, globally, as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Mosque of Muhammad Ali in Cairo, but for much darker reasons.
“The police tried their best, they closed down the mosque,” Kozbar continues. “It didn’t work. It became worse because Abu Hamza’s supporters started praying outside the mosque in the street, which caused more tension.”
“We were contracted by the local council, the government, the Charity Commission and the police to help solve the problem. They asked us to help and we accepted. We thought that if we help to solve it, it will be good for the Muslim community, wider society and for the country because this mosque was a problem for everybody.”
In 2005, when the mosque reopened with a mandate to completely overhaul its purpose, reputation and ties with the local area, Kozbar became the secretary. With a masters degree in charity management, his day job was consulting and advising charities – often on a voluntary basis – in how to develop their strategies and increase fundraising. In 2010, the trustees elected him chair. A role he was proud to take on, and which he does for free – not as an employee of the mosque.
He stresses the fact that he himself is not a religious cleric or leader, and has no training in leading congregations or studying the Quran. He is also eager to share the credit for turning the mosque around. He’s a modest man and does not crave glory or publicity. One gets the feeling, he would rather not be in the spotlight at all.
In 2014, the mosque’s HSBC bank account was suspended by police because of suspected links to terrorism. It took the mosque three years to clear its name in court. It brought libel proceedings against news agency Thomson Reuters
“We, the local Muslim community, with the help of the Muslim Association of Britain, came in February 2005 and took control of the mosque from Abu Hamza. We were fed up with Hamza but we needed people to take the initiative, and so that’s what we did, we became trustees. Hamza’s supporters left the mosque and they never came back.”
The 12 years since then have flown by, and every day has been a struggle to repair the damage of the past and to project a future-facing positive image.
“We’ve undertaken many projects to turn the mosque into not just a place for prayer but a community centre for Muslims and the wider society.” he says. “We have youth projects. A homeless project where we invite people to come for a meal, to socialise with others and get some advice, help and counselling. We have environmental projects. We had the Visit My Mosque day in February, which around 700 people from the local area attended. We have a school open day where we invite schools to have a tour and ask questions. We have women’s activities. It’s not just a mosque anymore.”
But has that message got across to local people, and to the British public? In 2014, the mosque’s HSBC bank account was suspended by police because of suspected links to terrorism. It took the mosque three years to clear its name in court. It brought libel proceedings against news agency Thomson Reuters which had failed to update its out-of-date database before publishing a report on the mosque for media outlets and financial institutions worldwide to use. In June 2015, the BBC told the mosque’s trustees about the damaging report. Last month, on 1 February, Thomson Reuters was forced to apologise and pay damages. Kozbar, though, is positive about the future and the reintegration of the mosque.
“Local people now see the mosque as a centre open for everybody and we have a very good relationship with them. When the mosque was targeted [in 2015] when somebody tried to set fire to it, the local community stood with us in solidarity. Around 500 people came and protested outside the mosque with us.”
He is also very hopeful that the divides that have existed since the war on terror began 16 years ago can be healed.
Inside the mosque is a different world – an undisturbed haven of tranquility.
“Muslims are trying their best,” he says. “Integration works two ways, it’s not just a one-way thing, and we are trying our best to be part of society. We’re proud to be Muslim and we’re proud to be British, there’s no contradiction between these two things. On Visit My Mosque day, 150 mosques opened their doors and tens of thousands of people went in. That shows how we want to integrate and feel as British as everybody else. We have responsibilities [as a community] and we should have rights too. We should carrying on reaching out and engage positively. We don’t want to be assimilated, we want to be integrated.”
I ask him about the Syrian refugee situation in Lebanon and whether Britain should be doing more to help.
“There are between 1 and 2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which is a small country and poor, so you can imagine how the refugees live,” he responds. “It’s a desperate situation. No food, no work, many of them they live in tents without basically anything.”
“Of course the British government should be doing more to help. If Lebanon can take a third of its population, Britain can do more as a rich country to help refugees rebuild their lives. Most of them are women and children. Imagine children going five or six years without education. What will their future be?”
“We have seen some Syrian refugees at the mosque but there aren’t many in Islington or in the UK because we haven’t taken in a reasonable number of them. They are stuck in other countries.”
He’s outspoken on Trump too. A figure he sees as particularly dangerous to world stability, but as with everything he discusses, Kozbar sees the positives.
“It’s discrimination from Trump, to ban people from Muslim countries coming to the US. But what do we expect from him? He said he would do these things before he was elected. The positive side of this was the reaction of the American people standing up against this ban. Even the judges overruled his decision. There was a lot of solidarity with immigrants, they welcomed them at the airports. The majority of Americans do not accept what Trump is doing, they won’t accept racism towards Muslims or non-Muslims.”
“It’s not just Muslims he’s after,” he continues. “They are just the group he’s started with. He’s against Mexicans, black people, women, the environment, China and so on. He’s after everybody and unless we’re all united and get together to do something about this and stop his actions, everybody will be affected.”