After it came to light that the terrorist behind the Manchester attack, Salman Abedi, regularly attended the local Didsbury Mosque, also known as Manchester Islamic Centre, the trustees were quick to publicly dissociate themselves from Abedi’s actions. After all, Abedi’s worrisome behavior has been reported to the police by many members of Muslim community, including his family members.
Also, Didsbury Mosque spared no hard words for the atrocity commited by Abedi, calling the attack “an act of cowardice” that “has no place in Islam or any religion.” The public statement was read by one of the trustees, Fawzi Haffar, who said that the doors of Islamic Centre are “open to all,” and that they have served people from “all backgrounds and faiths, from our food and clothes banks, to all our interfaith dialogues.” The director of the centre’s trustees, Mohammad el-Khayat, concluded: “Manchester is a city with a great history and a prosperous and bright future. The Manchester Islamic Centre is proud to be part of this great city of Manchester.”
The Other Side of Didsbury Mosque
Judging by the tweets of the aforementioned trustee, Haffar, the calm, serenity and peaceful attitude that he proclaimed in public statements about his mosque’s activities seem to be off-limits for Jews. “The more these radical and fundamental #Jewish invaders attack #Moslem and #Christian #Arab holy areas in Palestine, the more hate there is,” he wrote, also retweeting tweets that compare Israelis to Nazis. Some of his other mature and deeply philosophical musings on the subject include tweets such as “You killed our #prophet Jesus and pretend you are our friends, you #ZioNazi are baaaaaaaad,” and “You are so ignorant!!! Your time will come and if you are a #Zionist then I know you will be gone.”
Another high-profile member of the local Muslim community, Dr Siema Iqbal, hailed in the media as an anti-extremist, also seems to have a relaxed definition of extremism when it comes to Jews, tweeting suggestions of moving Israelis to the United States and leading the protests against a Manchester-based shop selling Israeli products, among a very nice group of protesters who had been “arrested on suspicion of hate crimes on more than one occasion.”
Even if one wants to write off these unfortunate details as an individual’s personal beliefs that have nothing to do with the official positions of the Didsbury Mosque, the center’s activities will disappoint. The mosque hosted speakers with anti-Semitic, homophobic and what one can comfortably call extremist views. Among them have been Abdullah Hakim Quick, Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari and Abu Eesa Niamatullah.
Is Loving One’s Nation Halal?
While trustees of Didsbury Mosque claim to be “proud of being part of the Manchester community,” some of the sermons heard between the walls of the building paint the very same Manchester as jahhiliyah filled with traps. Now, it is not expected of any religious preacher to advocate for the lifestyle of Mick Jagger, but some of the appreciated guest speakers in Didsbury Mosque are known for taking it a notch further than just telling their congregation to steer away from sin.
In the words of Abdullah Hakim Quick: “What does an erosion of traditional values mean for Muslims? It means that they will leave the deen. They will take on another lifestyle. As the Prophet (SAW) said ‘You will follow them inch by inch and foot by foot until they crawl into a lizard’s hole.’ You will crawl in there with them. And they said ‘Is it the Christians and the Jews?’ And he said ‘Who else?’ You will follow them inside of the hole.”
Apart from this detail, an hour-long sermon by Abdullah Hakim Quick in Didsbury Mosque mainly revolved around the future of Islam, young people in the Muslim community and “seeking Islamic solutions” to the problems of poverty, violence, disease and drug and unemployment. Fair enough—yet despite preaching unity and understanding, he makes it clear that these values are reserved for the Ummah, which should stand and act together in the face of “The Other’s” attacks on their identity, mentioning the drawings of the prophet Muhammad as an example.
In the videos uploaded to Didsbury Mosque YouTube channel, the preachers Abu Eesa Niamtullah and Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari speak about relatively neutral subjects—excellence and justice. Whether these excerpts are the entire sermons is not clear, but both of the preachers have a long track of anti-Western sentiments that they openly preach in mosques around Great Britain, in the media and on the internet.
“The problem, of course, comes when you want to put your identity above that [the Ummah] and you start to be more loyal, and start to be more favorable to the people from your own nation and praise them, and support them, and look after them more so than the people from your primary nation, which is the nation of Islam,” said the charismatic Abu Eesa Niamtullah in one of this other sermons published on YouTube.
Just in case someone wants to engage in “(inter)faith dialogue,” Niamtullah made his position on holders of different opinions crystal clear: “We want to warn our community that these secularists, that these liberal people who call themselves Muslims, are the biggest danger within our community at the moment. And we have nothing to do with them. Whether they want to agree with us or not, that’s their prerogative.” Niamtullah also holds unfavorable views of Jews, homosexuals and women in the workplace, and he believes that blasphemy should be punishable by death, both for Muslims and non-Muslims. Some of the links leading to his teachings on the website he originally founded, Prophetic Guidance, disappeared in the meantime.
Muhammad ibn al-Kawthari spoke in Didsbury Mosque about the importance of being just “even to the non-Muslims and Jews,” in a tone that suggests they are some sort of exotic lizards, rather than people. In some other sermons found throughout YouTube, he also makes it clear that these groups of people are not owed anything more than basic courtesy. “The reason for this impermissibility of saying peace (salam) to non-Muslims is not to show them respect. When one greets them for a need, it is not out of respect,” he said, adding that it is prohibited for Muslims to make close friendships or be intimate with non-Muslims. His vision of justice also includes stoning those guilty of adultery and fornication and amputating the arms of thieves. Needless to add, al-Kawthari is no fan of Jews, homosexuals, outgoing women and apostates.
Didsbury mosque can also boast another famous attendee, the militant Salah Mohammed Ali Aboaoba, who told a court that was where he raised money for the al-Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which has been banned in Britain since 2005 as a terrorist organization. The mosque denied his claims.
In this jolly atmosphere, a government-employed coordinator, Samiya Butt, who is supposed to implement the mercilessly trampled counter-extremism strategy Prevent, seemed to follow the rule “if you can’t beat them, join them. ” Funded by taxpayer money, she openly supports the group Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), which runs various conferences that host speakers with a wide palette of aformentioned views, including those of Niamtullah.
On top of everything, last week, after the attack happened, an audience member on BBC’s Question Time claimed he was given an “anti-West” leaflet in a very expensive package with DVDs at Didsbury Mosque’s open day. The leaflet claimed that “modesty, shame and honor have no place in Western civilization,” while one of the members of the Didsbury Mosque community claimed that the handout was “not official.”
Living Apart Together
Didsbury Mosque cannot, and should not, be held responsible for the terrorist attack committed by Salman Abedi. After all, nobody is going to go and kill kids at a pop concert just because a guest speaker in a local mosque told them that Ariana Grande is morally decadent. The fact is that even among those who hold deeply anti-Western, undemocratic beliefs, only a minority is likely to commit or plan terrorist attacks. However, Didsbury Mosque, with its track record of questionable guest speakers and trustees’ bigoted attitudes and behavior, does contribute to the broader social and political context from which terrorists come.
Ten years ago, Munira Mirza, Abi Senthilkumaran and Zein Ja‘far conducted an in-depth study of the British Muslim population for the think tank “Policy Exchange.” The report was called “Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism.” The findings did not paint a bright picture of the present or future of the integration of Muslims into British society.
Religion was the most important thing in the lives of 86 percent of the surveyed people. A third of them said that they felt more in common with Muslims from other countries than with non-Muslim British people. More than a third of polled Muslim teenagers and adolescents believed that leaving Islam should be punishable by death, compared to one-fifth of over-55-year-old Muslims. Two-thirds of surveyed people said they are content with living under British law, while 28 percent would prefer living under Sharia law. The percentage in that group, again, was doubled among young people. Among 16- to 24-year-olds, 13 percent admired al Qaeda, compared to only 3 percent among the elders. More than half preferred Muslim women to wear the veil. Among young people, the percentage rose to 74 percent. Around 37 percent expressed the belief that “one of the benefits of modern society is the freedom to criticize other people’s religious or political views, even when it causes offense” while more than half didn‘t share this attitude.
Regarding scholarly interpretations of Sharia law, the respondents were often deeply divided on the issues. Just over a half of polled Muslims said that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to marry outside of their community, and 43 percent of them believed that a woman cannot marry without the consent of her guardian. More than 60 percent believed that homosexuality should be illegal. Almost half of polled Muslims said that Sharia law should be interpreted in order to fit modern ideas, while 39 percent objected to that. Similarly, the belief that British society offers young people moral and cultural values was split 50-50.
The authors of the report warned about the increasing religiosity of Muslims in the UK, especially among the young population. “Whilst the number of actual or potential terrorists remains small, it can be construed as an extremely acute expression of a broader shift towards the ‘Islamicization’ of identity throughout Europe, and a growing interest in neo-religious ideas. Various indicators demonstrate this: increased wearing of headscarves amongst Muslim women; greater cultural identification with transnational Muslim identity—the ummah; growing membership of Islamist political groups and youth associations; an increase in anti-Western and anti-Semitic attitudes in Muslim literature and websites; and greater demands by Muslim groups for Sharia-compliant education, and financial and legal frameworks,” the report noted.
Just like terrorism is driven by a number of factors—ideology, disenfranchisement, poverty, foreign policy, personal life—the same can be said for increasing religiosity. The authors mention several reasons for this phenomenon, seen as a part of a search for meaning and community. Among them was the influence of Islamist groups operating from abroad, which gained fertile ground after a weakening of older collective identities—“notably the undermining of Britishness and the decline of working-class politics, which has led to a feeling of disengagement amongst young people more generally.”
This weakening of national identities and disillusionment with the Western world, however, does not belong solely to Islamists. “Prominent members of the anti-globalization movement attack the ‘greedy’ consumerism and materialism of capitalist society; culturally relativist social theory bemoans the dominance of ‘Euro-centric’ scientific and cultural knowledge; environmentalist groups celebrate the spiritual richness of pre-industrial, rural life; and certain strands of radical feminism condemn the sexualization of women in the West, leading to the bizarre claim by one Muslim feminist that ‘just about everything that Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available to Muslim women 1,400 years ago.’ To understand the appeal of Islamism, we should think about how it feeds off a number of broader cultural trends in our modern age,” the report stated.
Once the praised and hailed multiculturalism moved into the sphere of political process, it encouraged a “narrow and parochial” sense of belonging, reinforcing social fragmentation and competition between groups. The report noted that demands are no longer made for material or political equality. Instead, groups fight for a certain type of clothing, halal meat or blasphemy. “In this context, younger Muslims are much more conscious of their difference to the mainstream and more aggressive in asserting their identity in the public space,” the report concluded.
The recommendation for reversing this process was abandoning identity politics by engaging with Muslims as citizens, rather than through their religious identity. It called for recognition that Muslim community is not homogenous and that intellectual debate challenging anti-Western ideas should be had without fear of offending.
Have We Listened?
A decade after the report was written, it seems like none of this advice was taken. The love affair between British Labour and Islamists is official, embodied in party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who occasionally delved even into open endorsement of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The Labour Party managed to nurture rabid anti-semitism in its ranks, though only Ken Livingstone suffered the consequences. Hijab is officially “the symbol of feminism.” Islamists have gained much potency in Muslim representative bodies and the media, as evidenced by outlets such as The Independent and The Guardian, who often give them a platform without any critical or factual scrutiny. The “intellectual debate” about problematic trends within the Muslim community is still stuck in the phase of denial.
A study conducted by ICM Unlimited for the Channel 4 documentary “What British Muslims Really Think” in many ways reflected the findings of “Living Apart Together” almost ten years later, with an added bonus of a palette of anti-Semitic attitudes. In some other respects, it did show a slight one-digit shift towards overall integration.
On the other hand, some of the polls conducted lately showed some tendency to play around with semantics to draw out acceptable answers and pretend that the problems outlined in in-depth polls don’t exist. In a survey conducted by BBC in 2015, 96 percent of the respondents said that they feel loyalty to Britain, and 93 percent said that Muslims should always obey British laws. These questions evaded the tricky nuance of asking people which identity they put first, or how much loyalty they feel to the ummah compared to British society. Second, obeying the laws of the land is not even remotely questionable in Islam, and the poll avoided asking people would they rather live in accordance with British or Sharia law. Yet the poll started digging its own grave somewhere around the question regarding drawings of Prophet Muhammad. More than 70 percent felt deeply offended by them. More than 80 percent felt that attacks against those who publish them weren’t justified. However, as the questions went on, the percentages started dropping. Can acts of violence against those who publish images of the Prophet be justified? Somehow, the percentage of those who disagree dropped to 68 percent. Sympathy for Charlie Hebdo attacks? Condemnation dropped again, to 62 percent. Muslim clerics who preach that violence against the West can be justified are out of touch with mainstream Muslim opinion? 45 percent didn’t think so.
Interestingly enough, according to this survey, 55 percent of Muslims felt that their views were represented by the Muslim Council of Britain. In the “Living Apart Together” survey, only 6 percent named the Muslim Council of Britain as their representative, and 51 percent felt that no Muslim organization represented their views. So what caused this dramatic shift, given that 10 years apart, attitudes on questions of culture, Sharia and religion remained relatively similar? Back in the day, the leadership was under scrutinty for links to the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-I-Islami, as well as “straddling an uneasy line between mainstream political engagement and the imperatives of Islamism.” This hardly changed throughout the years. Actually, the situation has only been aggravated for the past decade. So, either BBC conducted a sloppy survey, or something changed within the Muslim population or the way the MCB is reaching and affecting them (perhaps the rise of social media?).
So, while it is clear that British Muslims are predominantly satisfied with living in Britain, see it as their home and condemn terrorism, that doesn’t mean that all of them are necessarily well-integrated, or that there isn’t an alarming percentage of questionable views in spheres which are a crucial part of broad social consensus in British society. It also doesn’t abolish the presence of numerous vocal groups within the community that thrive on the narrative of victimhood and “us versus them” alienation in order to sell extremist ideology. Farzi Naffar and Siema Iqbal are hateful bigots. Abdullah Hakim Quick, Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari and Abu Eesa Niamatullah are proselytizers of hateful ideologies. They all had their platform and place in Didsbury Mosque, and they all escape scrutiny for their beliefs, so how is one surprised that one member who shared a solid amount of opinions with them simply went a step further and committed a terrorist attack?
The vicious circle never ends. The official position of the British government is to walk on eggshels eternally and be scared of some sort of apocalyptic Islamophobia outbreak that might swallow every single Muslim on the island, if they cease to ignore hateful high-profile individuals, groups, shady dealings and even their connections to terrorists. This gives a lot of ammunition to far-right parties who point out the obvious, and then take it a step further by attacking the entire Muslim community. Further on, Islamists use this to peddle their point: “See? We told you! They are against you and everything you hold dear. We’re the only ones who can protect you.” The Muslims who disagree (and most of the time, they comprise a solid percentage) have a choice: either raise their voice and risk being vilified, or quietly disagree for fear of both vilification and Islamophobic backlash.
“The obsession of politicians and the media with scrutinizing the wider Muslim population, either as victims or potential terrorists, means that Muslims are regarded as outsiders, rather than as members of society like everyone else,” Mirza, Senthilkumaran and Ja‘far wrote in their report. In the aftermath of Manchester attack, some will tirelessly try to convince us that Didsbury is either source of all evil or religious temple of sugar, spice and everything nice. What is in the middle—the truth of the mosque’s contribution to a culture of Muslim non-accountability and alienation—remains burried somewhere deep in the rubble of a failed multiculturalism project.