Author: Mehmood Naqshbandi
Publisher: City of London Police
Release Date: 2006
This Guide comes with a commendation from Bob Lambert, a police officer well-respected within the Muslim community: “essential reading for police colleagues engaged in policing Muslim neighbourhoods across the country.”
The 88-page Guide comprises 11 chapters and a glossary. Topics covered include: essential beliefs and practices; Islam’s place in the world and in Britain; the Mosque or masjid; Muslim routines and the Islamic calendar; Birth marriage and death; Integration and friction; Work, food, drink and social etiquettes; Hygiene; and Arabic language, personal and organisation names. The book utilizes an Arabic colophon – Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him – each time there is a reference to Prophet Muhammad. To a discerning non-Muslim reader this ought to convey the unique spiritual bond of love and respect which Muslims have towards their Prophet and thus place their disquiet over the Dutch cartoon incident or the ongoing promotion of Salman Rushdie in context.
Naqshbandi’s observations on mosques and imams should be required reading not just for those engaged in community policing but also Muslim organizations committed to improving the quality of services and making these institutions more inclusive to young people and women. He is particularly severe on ‘factionalism’, both ethnic and ideological, and lack of transparency and good governance. Annual general meetings, for example, can be organised surreptitiously and “thus become very inaccessible, one of the many complaints of young Muslims about their elders. The paucity of mosque budgets also defines the calibre of their staff employed as imams, “there are no material incentives that lead anyone raised in Britain to choose this career and they cannot have expectations of British working conditions and wages”.
The author is careful not to tar all mosques with the same brush. He notes that Charity Commissioners interventions have been rare: “in spite of the obvious problems of the vulnerability, management of masjids to take-over, only in one case out of 1300 to 1400 masjids, that of North London Islamic Centre in Finsbury Park, has this kind of power struggle had sinister consequences, and in that case the main factors were not constitutional but a weak committee stuck without a trained imam for significant period (they had sacked two), followed by sustained violent intimidation by the supporters of the ad hoc imam (Abu Hamza Al Masri)”.
Perhaps in a subsequent edition, the author may consider adding a footnote to his reference to the North London Islamic Centre and Abu Hamza. According to one trustee, “we tried to get him arrested but he is never apprehended. I asked Scotland Yard what they were doing. There was suspicion the police had another agenda”. At his sentencing in February 2006 (for race hate and possession of a terrorism manual) The Guardian noted that according to a former MI5 agent who infiltrated the mosque, Abu Hamza was allowed to operate by the security services as long as he did not threaten Britain’s national security. “Both the agent and a close associate of Abu Hamza say the cleric was an unwitting informant on other extremist Muslims. It emerged that over a three-year period the cleric had met repeatedly with MI5 and Special Branch”.
In a more recent intervention in The Guardian the author has noted that “mosques are generally run by ultra-cautious, elderly committees from an exclusive clan whose decision-making is not open to any other users, male or female. A cheap imam is employed full-time to prevent chancers from volunteering for the role. Their sermons tend to be amazingly bland, vague and irrelevant. Muslim youths complain that the mosques have nothing to offer them, and the extremists tend to hold their meetings in youth clubs, not in mosques, where they have no influence” [11th December 2006].
In October 2005 the Home Office published proposals for a law that would have allowed the Police to go to court for the issue of a ‘Requirement Order’ to persons ‘controlling’ a mosque to stop activities deemed ‘terrorist (the Home Office’s “Places of Worship’ consultation in October 2005). The Government’s premise was that mosques served as the incubators of tendencies to criminal activity. These proposals were eventually withdrawn after protests from a range of faith communities, but the episode indicated that policy during Mr Blair’s watch was made without consulting the experts close at hand in the City of London Police.
The author provides a unique statistical table of mosques by various tendencies: Deobandi, Bareilvi, ‘Maudoodi masjids’, Salafi masjids, Arab-speaking, Shia masjids. The author’s terminology of ‘Maudoodi masjids’ is quaint and unhelpful. He identifies 60 such mosques, presumably separate from ‘Deobandi masjids’ as “approx. 600”. The term has been applied to mosques that form part of the branch network of the UK Islamic Mission, a national association established in the 1960s by Pakistanis settling in Britain with strong connections with their homeland’s Islamic political party and reform movement, ‘Jamaat Islami’. Maudoodi was of course the founder of the Jamaat, but he died in 1979 and the discourse has moved on. Moreover not a single mosque in Britain is named after him. If Naqshbandi is seeking to highlight mosques that are politically active- his terminology is “political-oriented Muslim groups” – then this is an example of the superficial stereotyping his Guide ought to be free of. Why stigmatise political activism in this way? After the Bradford disturbances of Summer 2001, it was the UKIM mosques, because of their very culture of political awareness, that were the first to conduct a post-mortem of events and work out ways of improving community relations.
If the terminology ‘Maudoodi masjids’ is a throw-away remark then fine, though it conveys the notion that a section of Muslims remain trapped in a 1960s/70s mindset unable to adapt to changing circumstances in Britain. This is condescending to say the least and not an accurate reflection of the type of debate and discussion that really goes on. However if the terminology reflects a disproval of Muslim political activism, then the matter is more serious. It would mean that there is one criteria for synagogues, mandars and churches, and another for mosques. What of Israeli ambassadors visiting synagogues and making rousing appeals? What of the Chief Rabbi rallying support round the IDF during the recent attacks in Lebanon? What of the Catholic Church’s political pressure on government on the issue of agencies placing children for adoption with homosexuals? In any case Naqshbandi’s terminology leaves non-Muslims with an erroneous impression, perhaps next expecting ‘Sayyid Qutb mosques’ or even ‘Qaradawi mosques’!
The author is well-qualified to refine the mosque classification and establish a template for other researchers. For example it would be useful to distinguish between mosques that are solely places of worship, and the emergence of multi-purpose institutions like the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in West London, or the Whitechapel Mosque/London Muslim Centre in the East End. The Muslim community is evolving and adapting, and so too are its institutions. Professor Ceri Peach and Richard Gale’s research offers further quantitative insights into the growth of the mosque network, particularly the take-off in mosque projects after 1985 . They note, “exotic religious buildings, some of exquisite beauty, have been built on unlikely inner-city sites”. The community entered into a rapid phase of mosque building projects, but – as Naqshbandi’s perceptive comments tell us – without adequate attention to the underlying infrastructure needed, such as imams training.
In the Guide’s preface Mr Naqshbandi states that he converted to Islam in 1982. This has undoubtedly given him a first-hand feel for Muslim life. When describing Eid at the end of Ramadan he observes, “gifts of money are given by parents to children, nephews and nieces, cascading from generation to generation, leaving the youngest of the family flush and the eldest destitute, at least for the day”. So the Muslim community does have a human face! With some revision and update, the Guide has promise to be a definitive document offering a well-rounded view of the community, warts and all.
M. A. Sherif, 2007