The politics of faith
Mosques are both religious and social centres for the communities that use them, encouraging worshippers to gravitate towards them and so changing the local
Home from home 177 population and landscape as they move into the neighbourhoods surrounding the mosques, set up local businesses and begin to shape the environment in new ways. In part, the public demonstration by Sunni Muslims of anti-Ahmadi sentiment in southwest London which I came across during fieldwork, and some of which I describe here, was a consequence of the success of local Ahmadis in redeveloping the post-industrial site of a disused dairy into a large and active mosque and the resulting inflow of Ahmadis to the area so that they now form a visible local minority. It is also, in part, the consequence of the greater visibility of Ahmadis in public life at both the local and national levels in politics, a visibility that is evidence of growing middle class aspirations within the Ahmadi community. Had the Ahmadis not become such a significant local population centred on the Baitul Futuh Mosque and had their numbers in some electoral wards not substantially increased over the years, the level of sustained hostility towards them might not have been quite so visible. But changes in local demographics and the presence of Ahmadis in public life were not the only causes of hostility directed against the Ahmadis.
Conflicts rooted in the politico-religious history and contemporary politics of the sub-continent have also been played out in southwest London where the local Muslim population, both Sunni and Ahmadi, go about their everyday lives. This happened very publicly during the 2010 national election campaign in Tooting in the Borough of Wandsworth and is illustrative of how Pakistani politics may directly impact UK Muslim communities and so also impact on British national elections.14 On 29 March 2010 the Tooting Islamic Centre invited a speaker from the London branch of Khatm-e-Nabuwat, to give a talk. Khatm-e-Nabuwat, as previously noted, is an organization which exists solely to bring about the end of Ahmadiyya Islam and is today linked with the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan (Kennedy 1989:93ff). It was also listed on the Muslim Council of Britain's website as an affiliated organization until 2016 when it was suspended pending an inquiry by the MCB into allegations made in the media which centred on the discovery of leaflets encouraging violence against Ahmadis in one of their mosques. The Charity Commission for England and Wales also conducted an inquiry following a BBC news article ‘dated 10 April 2016, that alleged that literature calling for the killing of members of the Ahmadi community was displayed at the [Khatm-e-Nabuwat] charity’s premises, which is the mosque’ (2019:3). The Charity Commission concluded that the trustees of the Khatm-e-Nubuwat Centre had not fulfilled ‘their duties and responsibilities under charity law’ and issued them an ‘official warning’ (2019:9-10).15 But that is to jump ahead almost a decade from events that took place in Tooting, southwest London and just down the road from the Baitul Futuh Mosque.
From local and national newspaper and television reports, pro- and anti-Ahmadi websites, interviews with local council officials and members of the Ahmadi community, and debates held in the British Parliament, it appears that the 29 March 2010 talk at the Tooting Islamic Centre was at the root of the anti-Ahmadi leaflets (with titles such as ‘Deception of the Qadiyani’), that were soon found on shop windows and reportedly also distributed on the streets in Tooting and other local areas. The leaflets urged Muslims to boycott Ahmadi businesses and to avoidinteracting with Ahmadis. The local Wandsworth press reported that the Khatm-e-Nabuwat speaker had said:
I don’t know why our sisters or mothers are talking with these Qadiani and making friendships. ... I know in this road, Tooting high street, all of the shops who are selling to Qadiani.
Don't make friends with them.... they are trying to deceive you, they are trying to convert you from Islam to Qadianism.
These and other events, unsurprisingly, were reported to the local police, and under the supervision of the borough commander, the most senior police officer in Wandsworth, the speech given at the Tooting Islamic Centre by the Khatm-e-Nabuwat speaker, Abdul Rehman Bawa, was translated from Urdu to English to determine if there was sufficient evidence for a prosecution. While the speech was considered clearly unpleasant, it was eventually decided that while it had come close to inciting violence it had not actually done so explicitly enough to guarantee a reasonable likelihood of conviction under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. Therefore the police, after Crown Prosecution Service review, decided not to take the matter any further. But they did, I have been reliably informed, make clear to the Tooting Islamic Centre that they would be keeping a close eye on what happened there in future.16 Attempts in the months that followed to mediate and reach some acceptable understanding, if only a local one between the Ahmadis and Tooting Islamic Centre, failed to reach a positive outcome. The MP for Tooting and shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, organized a meeting at Wandsworth Town Hall on Monday, December 13 2010 to discuss the Ahmadis' concerns: ‘It was attended by Mr Khan, Wandsworth police borough commander David Mus-ker, Wandsworth Council Leader Edward Lister, four representatives from the TIC [Tooting Islamic Centre] and nine representatives from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association (AMA)’ (Oates 201 Od). According to Oates, reporting in a local newspaper ten days later, a ‘joint statement was due to be issued ... on behalf of the TIC and the AMA, but so far no statement has been agreed and no further meetings have been planned’ (Ibid.). As far as I am aware, no statement was ever issued.
It was also in 2010 that the the first Westminster Hall debate17 on the Ahmadi issue in the UK took place, and an all-party parliamentary group for the Ahmadiyya community was established. And it was the year in which, in Lahore Pakistan, on 28 May, two mosques were attacked by members of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan during the Friday prayers (Nijhawan 2010). As Nijhawan (2010:430) put it: ‘Among recent attacks targeting other religious minorities . . . this was ... the most spectacular and lethal assault in a post-Partition history of social and political mobilizations against Ahmadis in Pakistan’. It was in the aftermath of this attack that, as Jane Ellison the conservative MP for Battersea, noted:
The Ahmadi Muslim community in the UK has noticed... [a] disturbing trend in the months since the Lahore massacres.... the persecution of Ahmadis has intensified in tone and frequency around our country, particularly in southwest London. There have been the incidents ... of intimidation during the general election [though this was before the Lahore killings], and posters and leaflets with aggressive and derogatory messages have appeared around the area. I have been shown images of posters put up in Scotland that denounce Ahmadis as infidels and publish their place of worship. That leaves those observing the poster to read between the lines.
(Westminster Hall Debate 2010)
One unexpected consequence of the anti-Ahmadi hostilities in southwest London that became a matter of urban planning concern, is that the acts of a small minority of extremist Muslims, prepared to use violence in Pakistan and to stir up hostility towards the Ahmadis in the UK, were strategically commandeered by non-Muslims in their attempts to foil planning permission for the building extension of the Fazl Mosque in Southfields. However, before I turn to the connection between mosques, town planning and the discourse of fundamentalism and terrorism as used by local non-Muslim residents in the Ahmadi case, I wish to suggest that the more typical forms of anti-mosque protests which take place across the UK and Europe may signify rather more than mere racism, fear of migrants or Islamophobia (e.g. Gdle 2011; Allievi 2009). Rather, in many places what appear to be anti-mosque protests are, in fact, more than manifestations of simple antiMuslim prejudice; they are often complex articulations of concerns about control of public space, social justice and changes in communal life. Such concerns may coalesce around plans by minority faith and ethnic groups to build places of worship because these buildings make public a minority’s long-term goals in material form, require acceptance of a change in the urban built environment and compel local people to generate new discourses to accommodate changed realities (Astor 2012).
When the Baitul Futuh Mosque in Merton was in the planning stages, and as it was under construction from the late 1990s to its opening in 2003, the expected local response included residents writing to the Council to protest against the proposed mosque on the grounds that local amenities would be negatively impacted by the development. Some suggested that the derelict Dairy Express Plant not be turned into a mosque but into a residential home for the elderly instead. Others feared violence between Muslims and non-Muslims in the area and a local rise in Muslim fundamentalism. The British National Party (BNP), a right wing and anti-immigrant organization, went so far as to stage a protest outside the mosque site on 17 November 2OO2.1S The ultra-nationalists who organized it argued that all mosques in the UK should be closed down to prevent ‘terrorism by Islamic extremists worldwide' and were either ignorant of, or did not care about, the fact that the Ahmadis are themselves the victims, and not the perpetrators, of such violence.19 The demonstration, however, failed to attract many people and the organizers were left to claim, somewhat unconvincingly, that although numbers at the protest itself were small, they had the support of many of the motorists driving past. Some of the residents I spoke with recalled posters opposed to the mosque on walls and lampposts and even in the windows of private houses at this time. And one person remembered thinking that a mosque on the derelict site would mean no partying, no drinking and no late-night music, all of which made her consider that it might not be such a bad idea after all, and certainly better than turning the site into a night club or rehabilitation centre for drug addicts which were also suggestions put forward for the redevelopment of the disused dairy. This same interviewee, however, did say that many people thought the neighbourhood would be fundamentally altered because of the mosque as the white population left to be replaced by South Asian Muslims. She considers that this has indeed happened over the last ten years and now believes some local schools cater mainly for children who are of South Asian Muslim heritage, and more specifically for Ahmadi Muslim children.
While some residents and right wing political groups use acts of violence by a minority as justification for their protests and Islamophobic attitudes, assuming that all Muslims are the same, others in southwest London used the same acts of violence in a more focused and distinctly targeted fashion to argue, not that Ahmadi Muslim mosques are the source of such violence and radicalization, but that they might attract such violence to the neighbourhood. In short, as potential victims of violence, Ahmadi Muslims should not be permitted to expand or build as this puts ‘innocent’ non-Ahmadis at risk of being caught up in sectarian Mus-lim-on-Muslim violence in an otherwise quiet and peaceful suburb. The approach taken by local residents opposed to mosque extension did not, in southwest London therefore, follow the more routine and familiar local resident concerns that the Ahmadiyya mosques, simply because they are mosques, would be institutions fomenting radicalization (Langer 2010; Shah, Dwyer and Gilbert 2012).
This line of thought and this strategic form of opposition to mosque development is certainly more sophisticated and clearly more knowledgeable of actual local and international Muslim factions and sects than many superficially similar anti-mosque protests. That such a strategy has been employed is clear from both interviews and a study of Wandsworth planning records for the Fazl Mosque in Southfields, and is one that has worked, up to a point. It is a strategy that has been organized and led by mainly white, non-Muslim, middle-aged and often retired middle class professionals who live in the streets that surround the mosque where a terraced family home now costs in the region of £ 1,250,000 and a semi-detached house in a neighbouring street sold for just under £3,000,000 in 2O14.20 It is clear, for example, from the many letters sent to Wandsworth Borough Planning Office over a period of years, that pro-forma letters have been designed and circulated for those who wish to protest but are less able to draft their own responses. This accounts not only for the lack of explicit racist and Islamophobic statements in letters to the Council about the mosque development plans, and which are more readily heard when speaking directly with local residents, but also for the persistence and organization of the protests over many years. One home I visited near the mosque had what amounted to an anti-mosque development coordination office in the front reception room of the house. Minutes of resident opposition group meetings, plans, letters, strategies, cuttings from newspapers, official
Home from home 181 documents and more were systematically organized and stored in a series of box files. And Wandsworth Council’s own planning records have archived this opposition movement over the years. In the early 1990s planning applications to extend the Fazl Mosque and build residential accommodation for the Imam of the mosque were refused. Among the reasons cited for the rejection of the planning applications were: ‘The changes which have occurred since the Imam arrived’ and ‘the changes which appear to have occurred in the nature of the activity [at the mosque]’.21 Part of the mosque’s problem was that from the time it was built in the 1920s to the application for expansion in the 1990s the area had become a predominantly middle class residential area and the Borough Plan recognized:
[T]he importance of protecting and enhancing the environment seeking to control the nature and scale of non-residential development in predominantly residential areas so as to minimise noise, traffic and other intrusion. Non-residential uses will only be permitted if compatible with a residential environment, of a limited scale and of benefit to the local neighbourhood.
(File no. 92/W/0503 The London Mosque, Wandsworth Council Planning Office [Microfiche])
In other words the Borough Planner had resorted to an argument based on the ‘subjective problematic of amenity’ to refuse planning permission (Naylor and Ryan 2002:52). Another reason given for the refusal of the planning application was that the khalifa had only relocated to southwest London in 1984 when it became impossible for him to continue to live in safety in Pakistan. Local residents, but not the Council, dated the increase in numbers attending the Fazl mosque from this time and considered that the arrival of the khalifa was responsible. In the early 1990s the Borough Planner’s take on this, as the Council’s Assessment of the Appeal Proposal (point 5.1) explaining why planning permission had not been granted makes clear, was that:
The Council is concerned that the scale of the building proposed has arisen from the world leader locating at the premises. This may not be a permanent arrangement and the Council and neighbours are concerned that a permanent solution to a temporary problem is proposed.
(File no. 92/W/0503 The London Mosque, Wandsworth Council Planning Office [Microfiche])
However, noting resident concerns that this local religious building was no longer just for local use, the Council also stated (point 5.5):
Whilst the general level of worship and demand upon the site has increased over the years, there does not appear to have been a marked change since the world leader has made [. . . the mosque] effectively the world headquarters of the organisation. There has been an intensification of activity. Neighbours have expressed concern about this and that the emphasis of the sitehas shifted with the site attracting a world-wide audience rather than a local congregation and that the on site activity has altered with greater emphasis on other activities associated with international organisational matters rather than local religious/community activity.
This change in use, if substantiated, it was further suggested, might even amount to ‘a material change of use’ (Ibid, point 5.9) with potentially significant consequences for the mosque itself if fresh permission had to be sought for the activities now taking place on the site.
The Ahmadis themselves made the case to the Borough Planner that the Imam had no choice but to live at the mosque for security reasons and confirmed that the ‘present Imam is also the head of the international Ahmadiyya community’.22 This situation was one that local residents themselves took up in the consultation on the mosque expansion to argue that the quiet and pleasant residential setting of the mosque made the location ‘unsuitable as world headquarters of an international movement’ and they objected to what they considered to be the ‘fortresslike arrangements with sentries’ arguing, contra to the Ahmadis, that they did not consider there was ‘a “security risk” to the leader of the community [and] therefore no need for the world leader to be housed on site'. Yet, one well-informed local resident who wrote to oppose the expansion plan included in his 1992 letter a copy of an earlier letter he had sent in 1991 about a prior planning application in which he had written:
In 1924 when the mosque was first erected the Ahmadiyya movement was a relatively minor sect within the Islamic faith. It has since grown very considerably in size and importance, and its development in the UK has been helped by the considerable number of immigrants following its teachings. The presence of the Head of the Conununity since 1984 has led to increase in importance of the site and of the number of visitors who come to see him, as acknowledged in the Authorities [sic] letter to you.
It is unfortunate that the permission was given in 1969 for the creation of the ugly office/residential/hall block which conflicts with the residential nature of the neighbourhood. It is inevitable that the growth in size of the movement has led to further approaches for additional office/residential accommodation. This is firmly opposed by the local residential conununity. There is no reason why the administrative/organisational side of activities should be on the same site as the mosque: it is a convenience which is obtained at the expense of the neighbours. I urge that the Council press the movement to take all organisation and administrative matters away from the mosque site which be left solely as a place of worship.
The application cites the wish to provide more appropriate living conditions for the Head of the community and his family. His presence at. . . Road is a matter of considerable concern to local residents. As the position is understood, his life is under threat and he has bodyguards with him all the time. In addition there are security guards at the premises. I should like to know specifically what weapons the bodyguards and security guards carry and whether it has been agreed by the Council and the Wandsworth Police. I am sure you can appreciate the concern of surrounding residents on this issue.
Meetings held in the past have not been fruitful; they have degenerated into accusations of racial prejudice, religious feeling, etc. all untrue.23
This letter was part of the organized and systematic opposition to further extension or development of the Fazl Mosque in Wandsworth in the early 1990s. It is particularly interesting because it demonstrates just how much knowledge of Ahmadi Muslims local residents have and it notes the threat of violence against the khalifa which local residents were already aware of and used strategically, but at this point, not very directly, to make their case against the Ahmadi mosque extension planning proposal. The letter also demonstrates an awareness of the anti-Muslim sentiment, racism and inter-ethnic tensions discussed in my interviews but which the official planning documents contain very little explicit reference to.
More recently, in 2010, the Ahmadis again applied for planning permission to develop the Fazl Mosque. While a Wandsworth Council Committee recommended approval of the new application, councilors voted against it, once again on the grounds of amenity.24 However, by 2013 planning approval, with some restrictions, had been granted by the Council and a modified redevelopment of the mosque site agreed. This 2013 planning agreement was not what the local residents, who by this time were also writing openly to state their fears of terrorist acts in the suburban streets of Wandsworth, wanted. The concerns of the residents were summarized by the Council in their committee minutes as: ‘Security measures heavy handed and obtrusive, increase in security not acceptable. Chances of terrorist attack would increase, should disclose security risks’.25 And in one letter, dated 14 February 2012, a local resident listed some 17 reasons for denying the Ahmadi mosque extension planning application, with point 16 reading:
Neither planning application [sic] show the intrusive use of CCTV, guard house complex fences / walls around the site which are viewed by residents as intrusive and threatening as well as out of keeping with a faith site. Given that other sites of this faith have been bombed in Lahore in 2010, any increase in size of this building will make this an even more attractive terrorist target and place residents and users at even more risk than present.
In this case Wandsworth Council appear to have used the persistent attempts by the Ahmadis to get planning permission for their mosque site, and the equally persistent opposition by the neighbours to prevent this, to reach a compromise which enabled the Council to enforce a rectification of planning contraventions that it had no other way of enforcing. Wandsworth Council had long been aware that about ten residential houses, owned by the Ahmadis immediately surrounding the mosque had been used as offices and guest accommodation for the community rather than as private residential homes. Local residents had complained of their occasional use as large-scale hostels with marquees straddling several back gardens set up to accommodate large numbers of guests as well as causing disruption to amenity with noise, lighting and cooking taking place for large numbers of visitors. As the buildings had been used as offices and guest accommodation for many years, in some cases since 1989, the council had no means of enforcing a change of use on the Ahmadis.26 However, when planning permission was given to redevelop the mosque site, allowing for a new residence for the khalifa, new office space and a redesigned mosque space, the Council also included restrictions which require the Ahmadis to return the houses they own 'to residential use . . . with the integration of the office use into the site’.27 By this means the Council, in effect, gave both sides something they wanted but neither side got everything they were after. The Ahmadis got better facilities for the khalifa and worshippers in their mosque, and the non-Ahmadi local residents got the houses owned by the Ahmadis returned to residential use thus improving this aspect of local amenity as these houses can no longer be used as offices or to house large numbers of visitors beyond the normal capacity of a small family home. It would appear that in this case it is the Council that has found the means to compel the Ahmadis to comply with planning regulations by permitting some of the planning application they had submitted to go forward and, at the same time, to improve local amenity for nonAhmadi residents by restricting how the Ahmadis can, in future, use the houses they own close to the mosque.
In March 2018 the Fazl Mosque was listed as a Grade II listed building on the basis of its historical and architectural value and the impact of any future development now has to be considered in the light of this (Noakes 2018:8). A planning proposal from 2015 to redevelop the site to ‘enhance and reveal the architectural significance of the Mosque and improve the physical and aesthetic links between the Mosque and the wider Site, thus enhancing the historical significance of the Mosque’ (Noakes 2018:18) but which also included a new multi-function hall was again opposed by local residents. Opposition included the usual traffic and amenity concerns but, perhaps with an eye to increased attention to environmental concerns, also feared that the proposal to fell some trees on the mosque site might lead to an increase in levels of air pollution. And yet others stated they were happy to have a local mosque but not one which was viewed as the ‘hub for a growing and international religion’ and, utilizing the new Grade II listed status of the mosque, some also argued that the new development would be ‘too high, too close and too bulky to show off and enhance the beauty of the listed asset’ (Objection comment 5115344). The proposal for redevelopment of the Fazl Mosque site was approved by the Council in 2016 but because of the Grade II listing this had to be reconsidered and approved again on 27 March 2018 with conditions attached. Yet, some of the local residents’ objections to the development of the Fazl mosque site, including improvements to residential accommodation for the khalifa, and the continued use of the site in a quiet residential area as the world headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Muslims themselves became matters of history when the khalifa, his administrative offices and hence the global headquarters, relocated to the Ahmadi site Islamabad, in Tilford, Surrey, on 15 April 2019.