In November 2010, the East London Mosque celebrated its centenary. One hundred years earlier, the Aga KhanFootnote 1 and Syed Ameer AliFootnote 2 convened a public meeting at the salubrious Ritz Hotel where, with support from some sympathetic members of the British establishment, they set about putting in place a strategy for the construction of a mosque in London, one that would be ‘worthy of the capital of the British Empire’.Footnote 3 The London Mosque Fund was founded to finance its construction. Often regarded as the first mosque in London,Footnote 4 the ELM, like many other mosques in the UK, took a long time to materialize. As with other mosques, the ELM also had to move several times during its long history. From the three converted houses in Commercial Road in the East End of London in which it had finally been set up in 1941, following a compulsory purchase order in 1969, it first moved to a prefabricated structure in Fieldgate Street in 1975 and then on to the present purpose-built one in Whitechapel Road in 1985.Footnote 5 This in turn was extended to incorporate the London Muslim Centre in 2004 to meet the needs of the locality's fast-growing Muslim community. The story of its journey enables us to throw fresh light on the changing nature of interactions with wider society and the relationships between London's Muslim community and the institutions of the British state; the latter's expedient character was starkly reflected, for instance, during the Second World War when Churchill and his government sought Muslim support in a global conflict in which the loyalties of Muslims throughout the British Empire could prove crucial.
The ELM's Minute Books record the debates and dilemmas of meetings of the Trustees of the LMF and the East London Mosque Trust from the first one, held in 1910.Footnote 6 They offer a detailed, intimate account of the process of mosque-making, the financial and organizational management of the LMF/ELMT, and its role in building London's Muslim community and its institutions. Drawing on these materials as well as the archives at the East London Mosque and the British Library, this introduction to the context in which these Minute Books were compiled will show how religious activity was shaped by local, national, and international developments. Through this story of mosque-building, we can trace not just a history of immigration but also its connections with empire, trade, and war, and the contours of the process through which the ‘Muslim’ community in London's East End become established.
Considering later minutes alongside more contemporary records, it is also possible in this introduction to explore the role of the ELM/LMC in the evolution of the Muslim community to the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, in the process revealing complex interactions between the mosque, local communities, and the wider society that has come to exist in London's East End since 1951. We can thus explore the changing symbolic and political dynamics of communities and their identities as reflected in the controversies, debates, and tensions generated by such culturally inscribed, visual appropriations of the built environment – mosques as sites for building a sense of community, ‘belonging’, and identity; as sites for resisting what was thought to be discrimination against Islam and Muslims and for their empowerment through assertion of cultural rights; and as sites that are viewed as aesthetically and socially disruptive, posing threats to Britain's heritage and to ‘the British way of life’.
The history of the London Mosque Fund together with that of the East London Mosque Trust is worth telling, not only because it records the early presence of the Muslim faith and Muslim communities in Britain – something that is not widely appreciated – but because its establishment and use was often marked by conflict around sets of issues that continue to exist to this day. Issues concerning the so-called ‘Islamization of space’ and the reactions against such incursions into autochthonous space are crucial in understanding the contested history of many mosques established in Britain. By locating the history of the LMF and Muslim places of worship in London within the context of imperial and global forces, and by examining the long, and often fraught, struggles about how a Muslim sacred space is created, represented, and used, a politics of identity is teased out as increasing pluralization of Britain's religious make-up has gathered momentum.
In the wake of the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks, the mosque, as a socially dynamic and influential multi-purpose community institution, has come under increasing scrutiny as academic and political debates surrounding identity and belonging, the radicalization of young Muslims, struggles for power within and beyond Muslim communities, and policies on integration and social cohesion reach a new pitch. For a Muslim to feel at home, or for a non-Muslim to recognize a Muslim ‘space’, the presence of certain Islamic symbols is important. In Britain, the physical construction of mosques has been part of a process of identity formation, something that has become embroiled with non-Muslim concerns over visible and audible Muslim presence. By exploring historically the dynamic interplay between Muslim experience and the institutions of British society with regard to the struggle for a mosque in London, this introduction seeks to deepen our understanding of how Muslims have sought to establish themselves as an integral part of British society, through a specific kind of place-making.
Here questions are addressed that can potentially provide new insights into a central aspect of an arguably misunderstood minority faith community: what is the symbolic significance of the mosque in Britain for identity formation among ‘diasporic’ Muslims? How does the mosque interact with its local environment – physically, socio-culturally, and politically – and with the communities and institutions surrounding it? Thirdly, and importantly, what functions do mosques and the struggle for their establishment serve? Did they/do they, for instance, reinforce a sense of community belonging and act as ‘a potential bridge to non-Muslim communities’, or did they/do they also represent a site of contestation and social divisions within and between communities? Through a historical exploration of the effort for the establishment of a mosque in London as a religious, community, and social institution, we can gain a better understanding of the relations of power vis-à-vis wider society and within the Muslim community, the sources of inclusion and exclusion of particular groups, and the struggles that were waged to overcome their marginalization.
Wherever Muslims have established relatively permanent communities in the non-Muslim world, history demonstrates that they have sought to form structures that, they have hoped, will enable them to sustain their religious traditions and practices. While mosques have been perceived primarily as spaces for religious rituals, it is accepted that these do not require dedicated physical space. Traditionally, mosques were not places merely for purposes of worship; they also functioned as centres for religious learning and for the propagation of Islam; this was where believers interacted socially, culturally, and, indeed, politically. It is therefore not surprising that this would be the institution to which they would turn when they began to make new homes in Britain. When we look at mosque-building in Britain, however, what we find is that its significance has changed in the diasporic context as it is recreated and re-imagined in new settings.
The London Mosque Fund and the East London Mosque: 1910–1941
In Britain, the earliest examples of attempts to create dedicated ‘Muslim space’ go back to the nineteenth century. Congregations were organized by embryonic Muslim communities, primarily in boarding-houses or converted buildings: in Manchester, for instance, Levantine and Moroccan Muslim merchants held Friday prayers regularly in an ordinary house.Footnote 7 Similarly, boarding-houses catering for Arabs and Somalis in South Shields and Cardiff had rooms reserved for prayers. Abdullah Quilliam (1856–1932), a convert to Islam, set up a mosque, first, in 1887, in a house in Mount Vernon Place in Liverpool, and then, when evicted from there, in West Derby Road in 1891. In 1889, the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, an initiative of an Orientalist, G.W. Leitner (1840–1899) and sponsored by the Begum of Bhopal (Shah Jahan was at the time the female ruler of the princely state of Bhopal in India), was opened on the former's private estate. Though a ‘Muslim space’, the fact that it was created by an ‘agent’ of British authority in India (Leitner had worked for years in the Punjab) meant that it reflected colonial relations of power. Rather patronizingly, Leitner declared the mosque to be ‘proof of British toleration’, to be ‘used in that [same] grateful and reverential spirit’. Indeed, his facilities were to be narrowly limited to Islamic religious practices as he understood them, which meant that he was certainly not prepared to permit their use for the conversion of ‘Englishmen to Islam, or to introduce new doctrines into that faith, or to promote any religious and political propaganda, or to celebrate [what he regarded as] the generally unhappy marriages between Mahommedans and Englishwomen’: in short, only those of whom he approved – Muslims of ‘good family’ background and gentlemanly conduct – were acceptable.Footnote 8 Clearly, this was how social distance between the dominant and subject people and the status quo could be most effectively maintained. Operating under such strictures, the Woking Mosque was never in regular or widespread Muslim use during Leitner's lifetime. After his death in 1899, the mosque was closed down by his family and remained practically empty, and more-or-less unused, until 1912. Contrast this, however, with what happened after Khwaja Kamal-ud-dinFootnote 9 (1870–1932) took it over just before the First World War. Within a few years it became a vibrant centre for Muslims in Britain, a well-attended venue for religious and social festivals alike. Later, during the inter-war decades, a number of Muslim leaders based in London became its Trustees and contributed to its wide range of activities,Footnote 10 while visits by high personages from different parts of the Muslim world enhanced its symbolic importance.Footnote 11
In the absence of a mosque in London, congregations and celebrations of Muslim festivals were organized in an ad hoc fashion. Hence, The Times reported on 22 December 1903 that ‘members of the Moslem [sic] colony in London assembled, under the auspices of the Pan-Islamic Society, in Caxton-hall [. . .] to celebrate Eed-ul-Fitr (The Feast After the Fast). The gathering was thoroughly representative, Persians, Turks, Indians, Moors, Egyptians, Dutch, &c., being present in their national costumes’. The service was conducted by Redjai Effendi, Imam of the Imperial Ottoman Embassy. Joy was expressed at ‘the true Islamic spirit of unity and brotherhood prevailing among Moslems from all parts of the world now residing in the British Isles’, and an appeal was made to the Muslims to contribute towards the Mosque Fund.Footnote 12 Around 1905, Khalid Sheldrake,Footnote 13 a proactive Muslim convert, began conducting prayers at a house in Peckham,Footnote 14 and the Pan-Islamic Society also organized Muslim congregations in rented London halls.Footnote 15 So here we see religious space being created – albeit temporarily – often but not always by ‘diasporic’ Muslims continuing practices belonging to the communities they had left behind. The sense of contrast with the rest of society, and the difficulties of sustaining normative religious practices that were different from those of the majority population, seemed to heighten its merit and the desire for a ‘space’ where such activities could be conducted.
The need for a dedicated place of Muslim worship in London was felt with added urgency in the early twentieth century. The initiative for a mosque came from a significant cluster of Muslim activists in London who had become increasingly self-conscious and possessed the capacity to articulate the concerns and discontents of their co-religionists. Syed Ameer Ali called public attention to the subject as early as May 1908: as he put it,
It does not require great imagination or political grasp to perceive the enormous advantages that would accrue to the empire itself were a Moslem place of worship founded in London, the hold it would give on the sentiments of the people or the addition to prestige and influence that would be gained thereby.Footnote 16
In October 1910, The Times reported further developments:
A movement has been started by Mr Halil HalidFootnote 17 for the erection of a mosque in London. Subscriptions are already being received by the Ottoman Bank at Constantinople from Turkish sympathisers of the movement and the support of all who are interested in Mahomedans in India, Egypt and Turkey in Great Britain will be enlisted.Footnote 18
In the following month, a meeting, presided over by the Aga Khan, was convened at the Ritz Hotel in London, and a committee was formed, with Syed Ameer Ali (the driving force behind the Fund's creation) as its chairman, to collect funds for the construction of a mosque in London.Footnote 19 The fund was opened at the Bank of England, with the Aga Khan promising an initial subscription of £5,000.Footnote 20
The Turkish Ambassador, the Persian Minister, the Turkish Minister at Brussels, Lords Lamington, Ampthill, Avebury, and Ronaldshay, Sir Seymour King, Sir William Bull MP, and three members of the Council of India – Sir Theodore Morison, Sir James La Touche, and Mr Abbas Ali Baig – also joined the Committee. The joint secretaries were Mr C.A. Latif, Major Syud Hasan Bilgrami, and Professor T.W. Arnold, with Mr A.S.M. Anik as treasurer and Mr M.T. Kaderbhoy as assistant secretary. Mr Halil Halid was also a member of the Executive Committee.Footnote 21 For the Muslims involved in this venture, who hailed primarily from Western-educated classes of Indian society – namely, administrators, merchants, and professionals – a mosque in London formed part of a wider set of strategies designed to advance their individual interests as well as the interests of their community. They were certainly receptive to some ‘British’ values and ideas, but awareness of the shortcomings of British society also confirmed them in their Islamic faith and many of their own traditions. While conscious of the contempt and rudeness that they experienced in their encounters with many English people, they attributed these attitudes to an unfortunate lack of understanding. Such Muslims, then, while they accepted the hegemony of existing British values, wanted to push at the boundaries of social and political discourse in order to create more space for Muslim concerns. Take Syed Ameer Ali, for instance.Footnote 22 He had deliberately adopted English as ‘the language of culture and civilised progress’. He regarded himself as a ‘bridge-builder’ and a ‘mediator’ – a key member of the group that saw itself as leading the campaign for Muslim representation in Britain, and that believed that a mosque in London would be an appropriate site through which religious needs could be satisfied, misconceptions about Islam removed, and Muslim interests promoted. As suggested in The Times soon after the formation of the Fund,
To devout Musalmans [. . .] the project will be the more attractive from the anticipation that a place of worship in the metropolis of the Empire for the performance of simple devotions of Islam will tend to secure a larger measure of sympathy from observers in the country not familiar with the tenets of the Muslim faith. Moreover, as the scheme includes the provision of a library of Islamic literature to be attached to the mosque, it will aid the work of scholarly research into the history and theology of Muslim people.Footnote 23
However, their plans faced a number of hurdles, both historic and contemporary. First, towards the end of the nineteenth century, rising political tensions in Europe together with imperial competition meant that attitudes as well as policy in Britain showed increasing hostility towards Islam and Muslims. For instance, the former prime minister William Gladstone, a committed Christian, who had earlier denounced the Qur'an as ‘that accursed book’Footnote 24 and Ottoman ‘atrocities’ in putting down the Bulgarian rebellion in 1876,Footnote 25 gave full vent in 1896 to rising popular indignation against the Ottomans in reaction to their allegedly brutal treatment of Armenians, launching a scathing attack on ‘that wretched Sultan, whom God has given as a curse to mankind’.Footnote 26 Such antagonism towards Islam, perhaps not surprisingly, began to galvanize opinion among Muslims in Britain in defence of the Sultan-Caliph as the key symbol of the umma, or worldwide Muslim community. At the same time, as British foreign policy moved away from support for the Ottomans at the turn of the century, several strands of pan-Islam emerged.Footnote 27 Quilliam, upon whom the Ottoman Sultan had earlier conferred the title of Sheikh al-Islam of the British Isles, defended him against Gladstone's tirade. Muslims in London, too, expressed concern for the umma. Religious festivals became occasions when Pan-Islamic solidarity was vigorously displayed, and British handling of Muslim issues came under thinly veiled criticism. For instance, in 1907, at a dinner celebrating Eid-ul-zuha,Footnote 28 M.H Kidwai, the honorary secretary of the Pan-Islamic Society, referring to ‘the Musalmans [. . .] groaning under the despotism of Lord Cromer’ in the British protectorate in Egypt, called for the KhediveFootnote 29 to be given a free hand in ruling his country. He challenged appeals to Christendom to crush Pan-Islamism – that fight, he declared would be in vain; and he restated that the objects of his Society were very peaceful, that its members were loyal subjects of King Edward VII, and that the Society wanted ‘perfect friendship’ between Great Britain and Muslim sovereigns.Footnote 30 Even the older generation of ‘empire-loyalists’, such as Syed Ameer Ali, could not remain unaffected and strove to influence British policy in favour of the Muslim world through constitutional means, albeit within the framework of the empire. Hence, Ali inaugurated the London branch of the All-India Muslim League on 6 May 1908 at Caxton Hall, with the aim of preserving Indian Muslims from disintegration and pauperization, and, in particular, of seeking equitable representation in the political sphere.Footnote 31
With the Italian invasion of Tripolitania in 1911, pan-Islamic sentiment, simmering away since 1908, boiled over. A spate of memorials, newspaper articles, petitions, and manifestos poured out of London. Agitation was mounted and protest meetings organized with the help and support of prominent British men. At the fifth annual general meeting of the London All-India Muslim League, the Aga Khan said that ‘the recent Turkish war had demonstrated the solidity of [. . .] Moslems [. . .] their interest in each other's welfare [. . .] the trials and tribulations of Turkey had absorbed Indian Moslems [. . .] The currents of feeling were very strong’.Footnote 32 Much disappointment was expressed at the British unwillingness to intervene against the Italian military invasion. These empire-loyalists argued that Islamic feeling towards Britain, especially among Indian Muslims, was changing for the worse, and that this would prove harmful to British interests. While some operating in the ruling circles of the empire expressed sympathy for such views, others within the British establishment, undoubtedly imbued with a mixture of racism, uncertainty, fear, and paranoia, were never confident about the ‘clever Native’. King Edward VII himself epitomized this attitude: when opposing Syed Ameer Ali's nomination for membership of the Privy Council in 1909, he wrote that ‘you never could be certain that he might not prove to be a very dangerous element’.Footnote 33 Nor, given his elitist disposition, did Syed Ameer Ali inspire much confidence even among his own core constituency of Westernized Muslims. While many in the British establishment accused him of ‘rocking the imperial boat’ thanks to his ‘continued attempts to stir up against the British Government in connexion with their Turkish Policy sentiments of hostility and hatred among his co-religionists’,Footnote 34 the emerging Muslim leadership in India also criticized him for ‘selling our community’.Footnote 35
Given the nature of the suspicions surrounding Syed Ameer Ali and other Muslim Trustees of the London Mosque Fund, their relative lack of success in generating adequate sponsorship for the mosque becomes more understandable. The initial enthusiasm evident for the project in different parts of the Muslim world, and its concrete manifestation in the subscription of £7,000 by the Begum of BhopalFootnote 36 and £1,000 each by the Ottoman SultanFootnote 37 and the Shah of Persia,Footnote 38 receded quickly, partly because of the internal troubles in what was still known as Persia and the urgent need to divert funds to relieve distress and suffering caused by the Tripolitan and Balkan conflicts.Footnote 39
As the First World War erupted, the scheme for building a mosque in London suffered a further setback. Ottoman involvement on the side of Germany created hostility towards Muslims at all levels of British society and immediate doubts about the loyalty of all classes of Muslims living within the British Empire. This antipathy was further exacerbated by the Sultan-Caliph's proclamation ordering Muslims who were being ruled by ‘enemy’ governments to engage in a jihad against them.Footnote 40 Not surprisingly, leading politicians such as the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, unleashed in retaliation a barrage of vituperative rhetoric against Islam and the Turks. Lloyd George described the fight against Turkey as a great civilizing duty that would emancipate people from under the shadow of great tyranny, and called the military operations in Palestine ‘the British crusade’.Footnote 41
Nevertheless, despite the deeply negative circumstances, Muslims in Britain continued to pursue the mosque project optimistically. The sources for funding that they could consider were threefold: the wealthier class of Muslims based in Britain; Muslim governments, rulers, and communities elsewhere; and the British government itself. Having largely failed to attract funding from the first two, it was the last source that they decided to explore, with some expectation of a positive outcome. They argued that, contrary to British suspicions regarding Muslim loyalties, thousands of Muslims were in practice fighting for king and country against Britain's enemies, including the Ottoman Caliphate, the paramount symbol of the umma. As Lord Headley, a leading convert, and Maulvi Sadr-ud-din, Imam of the Woking Mosque, jointly declared, by ‘freely pouring out their life blood in defence of honour and for the love of truth and justice’, these Muslims were demonstrating their unequivocal identification with, and commitment to, the British war effort.Footnote 42 Muslim soldiers were therefore entitled to an honourable place in the land for which they were fighting (and often dying). Indeed, they argued that recognition – in culturally appropriate ways – would help to create a bond, as well as mark their acceptance as equal stakeholders in the British imperial polity.
Setting out his case in this way, in 1916 Lord Headley wrote to Austin Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for India, recommending building in London
at the country's expense, a [handsome] mosque in memory of the Muslim soldiers who have died fighting for the Empire [. . .] Just now it would be most politic to mark our appreciation of Muslim loyalty and devotion [. . . It] would have a magical effect [. . .] a gracious and spontaneous act of this kind would be returned to us an hundredfold.Footnote 43
None of this, however, cut much ice with junior and senior officials, who, reflecting accurately the wider mentality of the time, remained generally unsympathetic if not overtly hostile to this project. As Sir Arthur Hirtzel commented: ‘I am dead against it – on grounds of both policy and religion [. . . that] a Christian Government should be party to erecting one [a mosque] in a Christian country is to me unthinkable’.Footnote 44
The extent of negative feelings in Britain towards Ottoman Turkey in particular and Muslims more generally intensified as the war grew increasingly bloody. The British government decided that, rather than address pan-Islamic sensitivities or offer assistance in the building of a mosque in London in fulfilment of Muslim religious needs, even at a time when religion possessed considerable potency, it would adopt a different approach to counter the Turkish threat. On balance, the two-pronged strategy of fomenting an Arab revolt and of recognizing Sharif Husayn of Mecca as the rightful Arab Caliph was considered a more effective option, even though it was acknowledged that Husayn was perceived by non-Arab Muslims as having betrayed pan-Islam and as being manipulated as a puppet by the British. Chamberlain accepted Hirtzel's view and instructed his office that a reply to Headley should ignore the question of a mosque, and tell him instead that ‘the most appropriate form of memorial [. . .] a cemetery with a [. . .] gateway on which might be inscribed the names of the fallen [. . . was] under consideration’.Footnote 45
Matters improved little after the war ended. Muslims such as Syed Ameer Ali, together with the Aga Khan, continued desperately to urge the British government to assure the Caliphate's preservation, even after its defeat.Footnote 46 With the Allies occupying Istanbul and Greek forces, with British backing, penetrating deep into Turkey in 1920, it seemed that the British government was in no mood to countenance Indian sentiments in respect of any revision of the Turkish peace treaty, even though, as the Aga Khan recalled, ‘The Prime Minister [had] told the House of Commons in 1920 that we could not have won the war without the aid of Indian troops’. To the large proportion of the Indian soldiery belonging to the Islamic faith, fighting against their ‘brother Moslems’ had imposed a great sacrifice for which just recompense was due. Hence, the Indian Muslim view was that, in the case of Turkey, the principles of liberty and self-determination of nations proclaimed by the Allies should be scrupulously upheld.Footnote 47
In view of Britain's hostility towards Turkey, antipathy in Britain towards Muslims remained high. This only resulted in further heightening their identification and solidarity with fellow Muslims. Pan-Islamic networks in London became even more resolute in their challenging of the negative perceptions circulating in British society and in their defence of Islam against widespread misrepresentations. Alongside resistance to attacks on the umma through a range of lobbying groups, a desire also grew to construct bonds through collective religious observance. With the number of Muslims in the capital rising steadily, the pressure for a mosque mounted. The Trustees of the LMF at this stage decided to take two measures to secure a dedicated space for a congregation in London. First, they started to conduct Friday prayers at Lindsey Hall, Notting Hill Gate, in central London.Footnote 48 Then they established a namaz-gah (prayer-room) in rented accommodation in Campden Hill Road. Called the ‘London Muslim Prayer House’, it attracted significant numbers of worshippers and audiences to its services after the First World War.Footnote 49 It continued to function as a mosque and a literary meeting place, with the imam of the Woking Mosque (and in his absence Marmaduke Pickthall) conducting congregations there on a regular basis, until 1927, when, with attendances declining, the tenancy was terminated.Footnote 50 Second, the Trustees also renewed their appeal for donations to the Fund. In 1923, Lord Headley and Khwaja Kamal-ud-din, Imam of the Woking Mosque, went on pilgrimage together to Mecca, but while the former was decorated by King Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca,Footnote 51 no financial assistance for the mosque proved to be forthcoming.Footnote 52 With the Ottoman Empire abolished in 1924, the Trustees resolved, in 1925, to invite King Fuad of Egypt, the Amir of Afghanistan, and the Nizam of Hyderabad to become patrons of the Fund in conjunction with the Shah of Persia, in the hope of obtaining financial help.Footnote 53 The expediency of approaching the British government for the grant of a site for the proposed mosque was also considered. But, by 1926, while the LMF had grown to a sizeable amount, it was not nearly sufficient for the Trustees to countenance the construction of a fitting mosque.Footnote 54
Consequently, Syed Ameer Ali launched a fresh appeal in April 1927, reminding ‘the Mahommedan subjects of the King [. . .] and the Moslem nations in friendly relations with England of the crying necessity for a suitable mosque worthy of the position of Islam as a world religion in the metropolis of Great Britain’. According to him, ‘The small mosque at Woking does not serve as the symbol of the dignity of the Muslim faith’. With the opening of the Great Mosque in Paris in July 1926, accompanied by ‘great pomp and ceremony’, he hoped that the
wealthy princes and magnates of India and the countries within the ambit of Great Britain's cultural influence would realise their pious duty, and that his Majesty's Government would give to our efforts the same support and sympathy which has been extended by the French Government to the Mosque in Paris.Footnote 55
Efforts to collect funds in India were accordingly redoubled. Headley went to India and came back with a donation of £60,000 from the Nizam of Hyderabad,Footnote 56 albeit with the proviso that a new trust – its name, the ‘Nizamiah Mosque’ – be created for these funds, with Headley a co-trustee.Footnote 57 In 1928, the ‘London Nizamiah Mosque Trust Fund’ was duly established, a site was purchased for £28,000 in West Kensington, and a well-known English architect was even commissioned to produce the design for a mosque.Footnote 58 However, with the onset of the Great Depression, the chances of adequate sponsorship materializing receded. While, in June 1937, the foundation stone of ‘The Nizamiah Mosque’ was laid by Nizam's heir-apparent, the Prince Berar, Azam Jah Bahadur, in a public ceremony attended by many Muslim and non-Muslim dignitaries,Footnote 59 the mosque itself literally never got off the ground, and the balance of the Fund – which had reached around £77,000 – remained dormant, with the Nizam refusing to make it available for any other mosque projects.Footnote 60
However, the changing context in the 1930s prevented the London Mosque project from fading away permanently. In the run up to the Second World War, fascist states such as Italy and Germany, in pursuit of their imperial objectives, increased their efforts to woo Muslims in the Middle East. The proposals for the partition of Palestine stirred Muslims in Britain as elsewhere in equal measure. Within the empire, as the struggle for Home Rule in India gathered momentum, increased Muslim self-consciousness led to more assertive political demands, first raised in Britain in 1933, for separate communal space.Footnote 61 Through the 1930s, as the key promoters of the project slowly began to die away, the quest for a London mosque was taken up by those who had lobbied energetically for Muslim interests, even though these efforts did not produce any significant outcomes, at least in the short run. For instance, at the end of 1933, Margaret Farquharson, President of the National League, a London-based organization that concerned ‘itself with Moslem and particularly Arab interests’,Footnote 62 wrote to R.A. Butler MP setting out a proposal to build a Muslim Centre in London.Footnote 63 Echoing Lord Headley's earlier request, she stressed that the
spontaneous gesture from the Government of the granting of a Site together with a Parliamentary Grant [. . .] would have a most favourable influence at a critical time, throughout the Moslem World [. . .] the news of such a Grant would create a wave of friendly feeling to the Muslim World through a time of change in a constant, spontaneous, and firm relation to the British Crown, and to the British Government [. . .].Footnote 64
Government officials, however, were dismissive of Farquharson, regarded her as a nuisance and as a person of little consequence, whose requests were unworthy of serious consideration.Footnote 65 Butler responded negatively – he was
reluctant to suggest fresh expenditure of such a nature at the present time when every effort must be strained to achieve economy in State expenditure. You will also appreciate that if the concession for which you ask were granted, it would be difficult to resist similar requests made on behalf of other religious communities.Footnote 66
In January 1938, the baton was picked up by an Egyptian merchant, Ibrahim Mougy,Footnote 67 who met with officials at the Foreign Office to discuss ‘a proposal to found a Moslem Institute in London’. This institute, he was determined, would exclude politics altogether from its scope and function, being nothing more than ‘a religious and social centre for Moslems living in or visiting England’. In contrast to the Woking Mosque, which he claimed was in the hands of the Ahmadiyya sect, his institute would preserve a universal Muslim character, ‘entirely unsectarian and open to Moslems of all shades of religious belief and of all nationalities’.Footnote 68 Yet again, the British government was approached with a request for resources, reminding it that ‘the British Empire comprised the greatest number of Moslems in any Empire in the world, and that British relations with the independent Moslem countries were close and important’.Footnote 69 By offering to found an institute which would be purely religious, social, and apolitical, Mougy hoped that the authorities would find his proposal more appealing than those already on the table. At the same time, he also went public and presented his project of a mosque for London to an audience of distinguished Muslims at an Eid gathering at the Royal Egyptian Club.Footnote 70 But government officials remained sceptical and thought it ‘unwise for [them] to depart in any way from an attitude of strict neutrality or commit [themselves] to giving a blessing to any such scheme as proposed until [they] know more about it and particularly whether it has the backing of influential Indian Moslems’.Footnote 71
Meanwhile, the growth of the Muslim community in the East End of London brought into sharp focus the need for a more local religious space. This was recognized by the Trustees of both Trusts. When, in 1930, Syed Hashimi, the Nizam's emissary, visited London to gauge the situation, he reported to the LMF that
It is, as you know, the East End parts of London where a number of poor Muslims have permanently settled [. . .] these are the people who need most to have a Mosque and some provision for the religious instruction of their children who shall other wise inevitably drift towards irreligion.Footnote 72
He suggested that the LMF should consider building a mosque in the East End from their funds, leaving ‘the project of constructing a grand building’ in central London to the Nizamia Mosque.Footnote 73 The LMF Trustees accepted Hashimi's proposal, but when the LMF requested ‘pecuniary assistance’ for running the proposed mosque, the Nizam excused himself on account of ‘the present widespread financial depression and the many demands on [the] resources within the State itself’.Footnote 74
As the British economy began to pick up after the Great Depression, the lure of London became stronger and ‘jumping ship’ by non-British sailors came back into fashion; this increased steadily until just after the Second World War and with it grew a sizeable Muslim community. As the community expanded, so did their cultural and religious needs and concerns. In 1934, Jamiat-ul-Muslimin was foundedFootnote 75 with the objective of serving ‘the cause of Islam truly by creating facilities for the observance of its principles’.Footnote 76 Its creation reflected the extent to which, over the course of the inter-war period, a number of Indian Muslims had come to London's East End from farming backgrounds in the Punjab and Bengal – merchants, peddlers, seamen, students, and professionals. I.I. Kazi, its first president, from the province of Sind (now in Pakistan), was a barrister. Others had worked up enough resources to set up cafés and lodging-houses to service the maritime workers who frequented the port. Some also ventured into trading and commercial enterprises (apparently, not always lawfulFootnote 77) more widely: ‘There were quite a few Punjabis in Backchurch Lane (Stepney) – they had scent and clothing factories’.Footnote 78 Sahibdad Khan,Footnote 79 for instance, a Trustee of the London Mosque Fund, ran a perfumery business; Ahmad Din Qureshi,Footnote 80 a Jamiat-ul-Muslimin president, was a silk merchant; Said Amir Shah,Footnote 81 treasurer in 1943, was reported to have ‘in his time run Indian boarding houses in the East End, and also had a shop at 36 Old Montague Street’. He was a member of ‘Shah Brothers, Silk Merchants and Warehousemen’.Footnote 82 Such men also helped those who jumped ship with accommodation and advice regarding job opportunities. They were the pioneers who became active leaders of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, and in time were at the heart of running the East London Mosque on a daily basis.
The Jamiat-ul-Muslimin's broader objectives, which these men helped to formulate, called for stringency of religious practice, ‘insisting upon members to observe all the tenets of Islam’, and advocating pan-Islamic interaction ‘to promote the preservation of a permanent union between Muslims of different nationalities [. . .] to provide and maintain a comfortable place to bring together, and promote social intercourse between the resident Muslims, thus creating unity, amity and general brotherhood’.Footnote 83 An address of welcome presented to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Amir Sa'ud, stated that its main effort was directed towards ‘union and organization of all Muslims over these islands’. It noted that the community of Muslims in London – which it estimated at 300, ‘excluding students and occasional visitors’ – lacked a place for regular prayers and hoped that it would be able to ‘procure means for the building and maintenance of a suitable, conveniently located mosque’.Footnote 84
In the next few years, before the Second World War broke out, the activities of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin began to give organizational shape to the local Muslim community. The organization challenged those who, it felt, had behaved in ways that were harmful to Muslim interests. Denigration of Islam and the Qur'an, and attacks on aspects of Muslim identity, were passionately resisted. A significant example of this was the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin's reaction to passages in H.G. Wells's A Short History of the World (first published in 1922) that they felt had insulted the Prophet Muhammad and disparaged the Qur'an.Footnote 85 In response, its leaders decided to mount a strong protest; ‘a party of Indian Mohammedans’ in London's East End ceremonially committed a copy of Wells's book ‘to the flames’.Footnote 86 The Manchester Guardian reported that a march was being organized to visit the India Office demanding the book's ‘proscription’. The Joint Secretary of the Jamiat wrote to the High Commissioner for India, Sir Firoz Khan Noon,Footnote 87 who was also an ex-officio trustee of the London Mosque Fund at the time, that a march would take place from Bank to India House on 18 August 1938.Footnote 88 A leaflet, entitled The Most Cowardly Attack on the Holy Prophet and the Holy Quran, exhorted ‘every Muslim to do his duty towards Islam by joining the march and [. . .] bringing pressure on the author to withdraw his remarks from the book’.Footnote 89 Noon met Muhammad Buksh and Fazal Shah, both leaders of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, and sought to dissuade them from marching. He argued that the exposure of Wells's book was mischief-making on the part of a Hindu journalist, Mr. Rau, and told them that the protest was ‘useless’, since they were
not rendering any service to Islam by falling into the trap of this Hindu, and the best thing they could do was to keep quiet and live peacefully in the East End. After all they were a very small minority and it would do them no good to try and be mischievous in this country, no matter how genuine their grievances were.
He went on that ‘it was no use bringing a delegation of 500 people to [him] or to the Secretary of State, because in a matter like this [they] were helpless’. The ‘freedom of expression’ principles enshrined in British law precluded any useful intervention. Nor could the publishers of the book be persuaded to withdraw it. ‘This is a country’, Noon said, ‘in which there are people who criticise the Christian religion and Jesus Christ’. In a letter from his office he again advised against the organization of the protest march. While he was willing to receive ‘not more than six leading gentlemen’ of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, he strongly deprecated ‘any demonstration whatsoever outside India House’.Footnote 90
All the same, it seems that the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin disregarded Sir Noon's opposition and, since the authorities could invoke ‘no power to prohibit a procession of this sort’, the demonstration went ahead as planned on 18 August 1938. ‘Cries of “Down with ignorant Wells!” and “Allah is Great” could be heard when between 300 and 400 Moslems marched through the City of London’ demanding the banning of the book.Footnote 91 The High Commissioner received a deputation of six men, representing the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin's executive committee, who presented a written petition to him against a passage in Wells's book. The petition,Footnote 92 with 136 signatures, ‘strongly, vehemently and angerly [sic] protested against the false, cowardly and maliciously slanderous statement by H.G. Wells [. . .] against our revered, respected and honoured prophet Mohammed (peace be upon Him) and our holy Quran’. It demanded ‘an immediate public apology’ from Wells. The High Commissioner agreed that the passage in question was offensive and he felt it very much as a Muslim. If there was anything that he could do to get it withdrawn he would be only too glad to help. But in England only obscene or blasphemous books could be proscribed, and blasphemy was only against the Christian religion. Proceedings could, of course, be taken in a court of law by individuals or a society if there was any defamation, but on this the best course would be to consult some of the Muslim lawyers who were practising in London. The High Commissioner ‘would gladly bring to the notice of His Majesty's Government [. . .] the fact that the passage had offended Muslim sentiment very strongly and that every effort should be made to get it withdrawn’.Footnote 93 In fulfilment of his promise to the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin deputation, Noon then met the Marquess of Zetland, Secretary of State for India, and discussed with him what further steps could be taken. It was agreed that a carefully drafted letter would go from Zetland to Noon that would then be conveyed by the latter to the deputation.Footnote 94 For Zetland, it was ‘a matter of deep regret [. . .] that offence had been given to the members of the deputation and those whom they represent, on a matter concerning their Faith. But having regard to the freedom permitted to the expression of views in this country’, he said that he had ‘no power to secure a modification to the passage to which exception had been taken’.Footnote 95 Noon, on receiving Zetland's letter, communicated the Secretary of State's remarks to the deputation.Footnote 96 Copies of it were also sent to the original publisher of Wells's book, William Heinemann, and to Penguin Books, who had published it in a Pelican edition. While the former in acknowledgement merely noted its contents, the latter intimated that they had ‘no authority to alter an author's work without his express permission’ and that nothing could be done ‘in connection with the passage complained of’.Footnote 97 What this episode reveals is that the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, from its base in the East End of London, was already in a position to be able to mobilize Muslims in London collectively to make demands that the British state could not ignore. As we shall see later, the East London Mosque was involved in similar campaigns in the following decades.
In these early years of its existence, the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin also strove hard to achieve its other key objective: ‘to raise funds for building a Mosque in the East End of London’ and ‘By creating an endowment to provide for the maintenance and upkeep of the Mosque’.Footnote 98 Concretely, this meant having a space in which ‘such festivals [and rituals] as the Birthday of Prophet Mohammad, ‘Ashura, Idan [sic] and Friday Prayers’ could be performed. In 1933, the LMF felt sufficiently persuaded to approve expenditure for ‘a Moslem Preacher and Prayer Room in the East End of London’.Footnote 99 The Jamiat-ul-Muslimin's first annual report, in 1934–1935, noted that ‘Friday prayers along with conversazione have been held regularly throughout the last year at King's Hall, Commercial Road’.Footnote 100 Not satisfied with being entrusted with the temporary arrangement of the various religious functions involved, it urged both the LMF and the Nizamia Mosque Trust to ‘build a mosque in the East End of London’, which it claimed had become ‘the centre of Muslim population and the resort of seamen from abroad’.Footnote 101
The search for suitable premises to house the mosque on a more permanent basis continued over the next five years and in 1940, at a cost of £2,800, the Trustees purchased a freehold property in Commercial Road; the first Juma prayer was offered in the new mosque on 23 May 1941. Repaired and remodelled, it was formally inaugurated as the East London Mosque by the Egyptian Ambassador on 1 August 1941.Footnote 102 The Jamiat-ul-Muslimin's Eighth Annual Report, 1941–1942, recorded the opening ceremony, the provision of a library, a medical service, and, with the co-operation of the Indigent Moslems Burial Fund that had been set up by some of the LMF Trustees in 1927, a burial service.Footnote 103 The Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, now based at the same address as the East London Mosque, supervised all these functions. Its influence and representative character, and its crucial role in the organization of the new mosque's activities, were recognized in its appointment as the LMF's agent, with its office in the same premises. This, then, after thirty years, was the culmination of the LMF's efforts. The Fund, which stood at just over £10, 687 on 31 December 1939, could not afford anything on a grander scale.Footnote 104
However, by the time that Hassan Nachat Pasha, the Egyptian Ambassador, announced his plan for a central mosque in London in January 1940,Footnote 105 the British government's position had become more sympathetic. The ‘Arab Revolt’ in Palestine that took place between 1936 and 1939 under the leadership of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, protesting against British support for Jewish demands in Palestine, had caused widespread anxiety (and sympathy) among Muslims worldwide. The British Government, with war looming, was keen to reduce any growing antagonism. With the Axis powers wooing Muslims in the Middle East (indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the German SS helped finance the Revolt), the exigencies of the war quickly converted earlier hostility and the present neutrality into active support.Footnote 106 ‘Experts’ canvassed in both the Middle East and India were broadly supportive of ‘the proposal to provide a site for the establishment of a Mosque in London’.Footnote 107 In Sir Harold Satow's opinion, ‘as a tribute to the loyalty of the Moslems of the Empire, the proposed expenditure would be justified’.Footnote 108 Most thought that such support would help to improve relations with the Muslim world. Firoz Khan Noon, still the High Commissioner for India and ex officio a member of the London Mosque Fund, felt that
The idea of a mosque in London is as excellent as it is opportune [. . .] If an appeal were to issue over your signature to all offices in charge of territory where Moslems reside and if the scheme were also backed by Moslem ambassadors and ministers in London I feel you would get sufficient funds to build and endow a good mosque.Footnote 109
Headley's arguments that had been rejected in 1916 were now unabashedly re-invoked in favour of the project. In a memorandum to Churchill, George Lloyd, the Colonial Secretary, pointed out that it was ‘anomalous and inappropriate’ that in London, which ‘contains more Moslems than any other European capital, there should be no central place of worship for Mussalmans’.Footnote 110 In his letter to the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, Lloyd was even more scathing: ‘It is really a scandal that an Empire which has more Muslims in it than Christians should not have in its capital a place of worship for Mohammedans worthy of the Empire’.Footnote 111 The announcement that such a mosque was now to be built and that the authorities had provided a site, would, in his view, ‘serve as a tribute to the loyalty of the Moslems of the Empire’Footnote 112 and ‘make a good impression in the Moslem world to-day’.Footnote 113 Surely, he said, the support for the mosque project would further reinforce ‘the cooperation in the present war by the world of Islam in friendly interest and sympathy with the British Commonwealth of nations’.Footnote 114
Convinced of the political efficacy of the project, Lloyd, shortly after he became Secretary of State for the Colonies, persuaded Halifax (the Foreign Secretary), along with Amery, to join him in submitting a memorandum to the War Cabinet entitled ‘Proposals that His Majesty's Government should provide a site for a mosque in London’. The memorandum, stating the, by now well-rehearsed, arguments in support of the project, was approved on 18 October 1940;Footnote 115 financial assistance up to £100,000, announced in the House of Commons soon after, was to be a gift or tribute to the thousands of Indian Muslim soldiers who had died defending the British Empire – the form of recognition that, it might be recalled, had been explicitly rejected in 1916.Footnote 116
Following protracted discussions and negotiationsFootnote 117 between the Central Mosque Committee and the government regarding not only the selection and purchase of a suitable site but also the collection of sufficient funds for the construction of the mosque, Regents Lodge – Lady Ribblesdale's property with substantial lands in Regents Park – was acquired at a cost of £60,000.Footnote 118 For the construction of a new mosque, Lloyd had already written to Ali Maher Pasha, the Prime Minister of Egypt, to take the lead, hoping that other Muslim leaders would follow suit.Footnote 119 With the Mosque Committee's requests going unheeded, Amery wrote to Linlithgow, the Viceroy in India, asking him to persuade the Nizam of Hyderabad to transfer his fund to this project.Footnote 120 The Nizam refused.Footnote 121 Realizing that the ongoing efforts were unlikely to bear fruit any time soon, the Mosque Committee decided to make alterations to the existing premises so that they could be put to proper use as a cultural centre as well as a mosque. The property was then transferred to the Mosque Committee, and the Islamic Cultural Centre, which included the so-called ‘Central London Mosque’, was opened, ceremonially marked by King George VI's visit on 21 November 1944.Footnote 122 However, a full three decades were to pass before a building for this Central London Mosque was actually constructed.
Since the property for the Central London Mosque was purchased for £60,000 out of the sanctioned amount of £100,000, Suhrawardy, chairman of the LMF, wrote to Amery at the India Office asking him to consider diverting the residual money from the grant ‘to acquire the land contiguous to the present East London Mosque and Islamic Culture Centre’. It would then be possible ‘to erect buildings in every way suitable for a mosque [. . .] after the War’.Footnote 123 While this particular request was not met,Footnote 124 the British government was aware of the significant role that this particular mosque was beginning to play in shaping the attitudes of an important layer of London's Muslim population towards the war effort, as well as regarding political developments in India. For instance, a secret report recorded that Indian soldiers were ‘frequenting the East London Mosque, attending daily congregations to observe the Ramdan fast’, and that ‘The Pakistan Movement [is] propagating among the troops of the Indian Army in this country and when soldiers visit the Mosque they hear about the scheme whereby Northern India, Bengal and Hyderabad could be federated into an independent Muslim State’.Footnote 125 While the British government had now committed itself primarily to the Central London Mosque project, it did feel that some support for the East London Mosque, with a view to developing understanding of British culture among local Muslims, would help to dispose them more positively towards Britain, especially at this critical time. So, with the approval of the India Office, in the autumn of 1941, the British Council started making monetary grants, as well as providing a variety of literature, to the cultural centre affiliated to the East London Mosque.Footnote 126
The project for which the London Mosque Fund had originally been established – to build ‘a mosque in London worthy of the tradition of Islam and worthy of the capital of the British Empire’ – had still not come to fruition, at least not through the resources mobilized by the Fund itself. What the early promoters of the project had initially envisioned was no ordinary space along the lines of the premises in Commercial Road. Moreover, the congregation that they had had in mind was less the working-class seafaring community of the East End of London and much more the cosmopolitan community of students, merchants, and princes who visited London regularly. The space for which they had lobbied was intended, above all, to stand as a grand symbol of the dignity of Islam and of the power of the worldwide Muslim community – ‘the great “cathedral” [. . .] in the centre of London, of stately dimensions, with domes and minarets in graceful Saracenic style of architecture in a conspicuous position’.Footnote 127 It was obvious, however, that such an ambitious undertaking was unlikely ever to be successful unless wealthy donors were prepared to commit substantial resources. A committee with the right kind of credentials was constituted with this aim in mind. With connections among the educated upper social classes, the higher echelons of Muslim governments, and the British establishment, it comprised men representing a number of Muslim states, headed by the Egyptian Ambassador. King Farouk of Egypt was invited to take a lead and give the project his ‘august patronage [. . .] such a lead [it was hoped] would be a catalyst for the deriving of the resources for the project from the vast Muslim wealth that was there in the British Empire and in friendly foreign Muslim countries’.Footnote 128 But all this was to no avail. Adequate sponsorship for a grand Central London Mosque failed to materialize. Attempts to amalgamate the three existing Mosque funds,Footnote 129 which would have been a huge step towards making available sufficient finances for the project, floundered despite the fact that many of the same Muslim notables in London served on all three trusts. The Nizam could not be persuaded to transfer his funds even when the Saudi Minister personally made the request. He declined because he disliked this new project encroaching upon the one that he had started some years ago; in effect, his refusal stemmed from his reluctance to see the prestige of promoting this project pass from himself to one dominated by Arab interests.Footnote 130 Mougy and the Arabs, on the other hand, did not wish the project to be monopolized by Indian Muslims. Sectarian issues were another obstacle, given that the LMF had been initiated by Syed Ameer Ali, a Shia, and the Aga Khan, an Ismaili. The project for the creation of space to house a non-sectarian universal Islam was holed below the water line by considerations of power and influence.
Indeed, this examination reveals how far the quest for Muslim space was shaped by the institutions of wider society. The British state became engaged in the project for several reasons, among which maintaining hegemonic power over colonial people and social control over what was viewed as a potentially unstable section of the population were probably significant. To achieve this, it sought to ensure that control of the management of mosque committees lay in the hands of men who were either government officials or very closely allied with the government; men who were on the whole operating on the same political wavelength as the rest of the British establishment. But these Muslims were also striving to gain a greater share of power in the imperial domain, and mosque initiatives were one of a number of ways of achieving that objective. Recognizing that the meagre resources available to them within Britain would be inadequate to fulfil their purposes, they sought leverage from other parts of the Muslim world. Hence their identification with pan-Islam was not only a way of increasing their own power in negotiations with the British state but also represented a political strategy for gaining practical support for the realization of their mosque project.
The East London Mosque, as has been the case with some of the more recent mosque projects in Britain, also became a site of contestation with regard to identity and power within London's emerging Muslim communities. This Muslim space was a resource whose use was envisaged differently by various individuals and groups, and thus its control was crucial to the shaping of the activities that took place within it. Such control was exercised through ownership of the premises, combined with a firm hold on the finances. Hence, representation on the various committees and trust boards was hard fought. This is evident in the struggle that began to unroll between the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin (which had only a minority representation on the Trust Board) and the rest of the Trustees of the LMF after the inauguration of the East London Mosque in 1941; we will see how that struggle for control was really about shaping the character of this Muslim space.
The London Mosque Fund and the East London Mosque: 1941–1951
After its establishment in Commercial Road in 1941, the East London Mosque quickly became a site where religious activity overlapped with politics. Since different Trustees represented widely varying views and political interests, there arose considerable tension among them. A comment in a New Scotland Yard report suggested that the British authorities disapproved of politics in the mosque; indeed, they viewed as ‘unsatisfactory’ the use of the East London Mosque ‘as a Pakistan propagandist centre’ for Indian Muslim soldiers who frequented it when observing the Ramadan fast.Footnote 131 However, the chairman of the Mosque's Executive Committee, Sir Hassan Suhrawardy, advisor at the India Office and ‘a sympathiser of the Pakistan National Movement’, allowed its material to be distributed. Nevertheless, when the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin began initiating activities at these premises that were seen as running counter to, or not broadly in line with, those of more ‘establishment’ Muslims, sanctions were swiftly applied. Hence, while a Pakistan Movement pamphlet was freely circulated at the ELM's opening in 1941 under Sir Hassan Suhrawardy's benevolent eye,Footnote 132 pro-Congress members of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin such as Said Amir Shah (whose ‘Muslim Committee was [. . .] violently opposed to the Muslim League and the Pakistan Plan’Footnote 133) were asked to call a halt to activities that were not construed to be strictly in the religious domain. When this instruction was ignored, the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin was given notice terminating its agency status.Footnote 134
There then ensued a ferocious battle between the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin and the LMF's Executive Committee. The Jamiat-ul-Muslimin refused to accept this termination on the grounds that, as the Board and the Executive Committee of the LMF ‘were not wholly Islamic bodies’, they did not have authority with regard to how the Mosque's affairs should be conducted.Footnote 135 Posters were circulated bearing the caption ‘Hands off the East London Mosque and the Trust Fund’.Footnote 136 At a protest meeting attended by some 400 people – primarily Punjabi and Bengali Muslims – Allah Dad Khan on behalf of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin stated that the Trustees were not ‘good Muslims’: they put the interests of the British government before their duty to Islam; similarly, they never came merely to pray, but always had sinister or ulterior motives for their casual visits.Footnote 137 He alleged, with some justification, that it was the India Office that ran the affairs of the East London Mosque through its representatives such as Sir Hassan Suhrawardy and Sayeedulla (who combined the role of Secretary with that of Indian Seamen Welfare Officer for the London area, appointed by the High Commissioner) and that these were the type of Muslims on the LMF whom the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin wished to replace with more ‘conscientious’ and ‘trustworthy’ Muslims.Footnote 138 Jamiat-ul-Muslimin leaders accordingly demanded that a majority of the Trustees and the members of the Executive Committee should be drawn from their organization. Their argument, it must be stressed, did not go unchallenged from other delegates present at the meeting. For instance, the delegate from Newcastle said that
the board of Trustees of the London Mosque Fund had not suddenly become an un-Islamic body. There had always been Trustees on the Board who were not Muslims, and if the Jamiat saw fit to conclude an agreement with the Board in the first place, then the Jamiat could not now legally refuse to accept a notice terminating that agreement on the ground that the Board was not an entire Muslim body.Footnote 139
This was certainly not what the British government wanted, given that the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin leaders were viewed as unreliable figures – political opportunists, active in Indian nationalist agitation, seeking to obtain control of the East London Mosque and the Mosque Fund.Footnote 140 Additionally, in the political context of the Congress-led Quit India movement of 1942, the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin's bid for power in relation to the East London Mosque was a genuine cause for concern, even though officials conceded that ‘certain of its members had worked hard in the interests of Islam and have assisted in many ways indigent Muslims and others who have suffered misfortune. The Jamiat was a live and efficient organisation’, and that, ‘whatever may be said to their discredit, Khan and Shah [Jamiat leaders] commanded far greater support in Muslim circles in East London than the distinguished Muslim Trustees of the London Mosque Fund’.Footnote 141 As correspondence within government circles reveals, Sir John Woodhead, the LMF's secretary, felt strongly that the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin ‘not merely because of its political complexion but also [. . . because] it was made up largely of East End profiteers, ought not to be given a preponderating voice on the Trust or the Executive Committee if that can be avoided’.Footnote 142 The Jamiat's drive for control of the mosque was seen as questioning the status quo and the hegemonic power of the British imperial state. That would not do. Rather, the British authorities wanted ‘their men’ to continue to run the mosque, keeping their objectives and interests paramount.Footnote 143 Muslims such as Suhrawardy and Noon were reliable loyalists, culturally assimilated, cosmopolitan men. The leading members of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, on the other hand, were described in a police report as ‘bigoted Muslims who, on a religious issue, would not hesitate to subordinate all their other interests to the cause of Islam’.Footnote 144 Regarded as rigid in their religious beliefs and practices, they were deemed to be more inflexibly committed to ‘traditional’ Islam and its prescriptions that they had imbibed from their parents and in Indian mosques and madrassas (Islamic schools).
Herein lay the crux of the conflict between the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin and the majority of the LMF Trustees. The chairman of the LMF was authorized to remove misleading impressions caused by the action taken by the Jamiat.Footnote 145 While Sir John Woodhead, taking note of the Jamiat's objections to non-Muslims being on the Management Committee, was happy to hand over the LMF's treasurership to a Muslim, the Trustees hoped that ‘it would be possible for Sir John Woodhead not to resign’.Footnote 146 Given the difficulties that the mosque was then experiencing, the chairman, Dr Hassan Nachat Pasha (the Egyptian Ambassador), who had also led the scheme for the Central London Mosque, suggested at the December 1943 meeting of the Trustees that the management of the East London Mosque be transferred to the committee of the Central London Mosque.Footnote 147 Even though friction between the Trustees and the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin continued, legal action by the former against the latter was avoided. By 1948, Sir John Woodhead, who was still honorary secretary of the LMF, had changed his view somewhat regarding the suitability of Jamiat-ul-Muslimin leaders to be Trustees of the LMF. Writing to Hassan Nachat Pasha, he explained ‘that the trouble with the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin has disappeared and that relations between the Trustees and myself on the one hand and the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin on the other have been satisfactory for about three years’.Footnote 148
Nevertheless, during the late 1940s the locus of power was gradually shifting from cosmopolitan London Muslims to local East End community leaders. With India's independence achieved in August 1947, Sir Torick Ameer Ali, who had replaced Sir Hassan Suhrawardy as ‘the Moslem Adviser to the Secretary of State for India’ in November 1944 and in that capacity had taken over the chairmanship of the LMF, relinquished this role. Three long-standing, leading members of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin – Hatim Attari, Fazal Shah, and Ghulam Mohammad – were elected as Trustees instead.Footnote 149 In many ways, the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, using the ELM as its focus, had already given East End Muslims a more organized sense of community, both through its rudimentary set of religious services and through regular gatherings at religious events in the trying circumstances of the Second World War. It had turned itself into an established conduit for the negotiation of Muslim needs with various government bodies and the institutions of wider society, particularly with regard to what many of those whom it represented considered the proper fulfilment of religious prescriptions.Footnote 150 Accordingly, it financed funeral services for Indigent Muslims and co-ordinated burial arrangements with the London Necropolis Company for their burials at the Brookwood Cemetery in Woking.Footnote 151 In February 1943, the East London Mosque was registered for ‘solemnizing Marriages’.Footnote 152 The Jamiat successfully lobbied the Ministry of Food for the provision to Muslims, along with Jews, of ‘Kosher margarine’ on the surrender of their bacon coupons for ‘cooking fat allocation’.Footnote 153 It protested against what it perceived to be offensive material in the press, such as the ‘publication of the Prophet's picture which along with its caption is misleading, incorrect and mischievous’.Footnote 154 On such occasions as Eid-al-Adha and Milad-un-Nabi, it obtained official authorization for rationed foods such as rice, butter, and sugar, as well as slaughter of a sheep.Footnote 155 It even secured permission from the town clerk of the local council for the use of the council's baths by its members before Eid congregational prayers.Footnote 156
After the end of the Second World War, growing communal conflict in India brought about a sharp rise in Indian Muslim political self-consciousness. Many became disillusioned with the Indian National Congress, which was increasingly perceived by Indian Muslims as an organization that was promoting Hindu interests and nationalism. The two-nation concept – one Muslim, the other Hindu – gathered momentum. In London, Abbas Ali, who had arrived from Bengal to study law, threw himself fervently into the Pakistan Movement, declaring that ‘India is a problem of two rival ideologies’, Hindu and Muslim.Footnote 157 His view was that ‘The Muslim demand for a separate State is just the demand for freedom and peace [. . .] Muslims are against Hindu imperialism as the Indians as a whole are against foreign rule, and are determined “to take control of their own affairs”’.Footnote 158 Such views resonated with many other Muslim settlers in London, including a large number of those residing in the East End. For Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi, a Sylheti and previously sympathetic to the Indian National Congress, the idea of ‘a majority Muslim state where Muslims would be free to perform their religious duties [. . .] a real Islamic state’Footnote 159 now became emotionally very appealing. Demonstrations were organized, and resolutions were passed. Slogans such as ‘Pakistan or we perish’ and ‘Muslims call to arms’Footnote 160 struck a chord; and Friday prayers at the East London Mosque became a focus for the British branch of the All-India Muslim League.Footnote 161
In the period between the partition of British India in August 1947 and the beginning of the 1950s, the Muslim community in the East End grew further as maritime workers began to ‘jump ship’ in greater numbers. The vast majority hailed from Sylhet, a district of Assam that, after a referendum in July 1947, became part of East Pakistan. These included many Bengali Muslim peasants from adjoining Assamese areas who had arrived in Sylhet as ‘refugees’ after Partition and, lacking any means of subsistence, took the opportunity to come to Britain. By 1951, when the Minutes reproduced in this annotated edition end, ‘the community [. . .] from Sylhet living in London had grown to about 300’.Footnote 162 They were generally single and male. Most had had little education. They survived by eking out a living from factory, hotel, and restaurant work or seafaring. Few cared overtly for religion – their attendance at the mosque was sparse, not many fasted during the month of Ramadan, and little consideration was given to the consumption of halal food. Many co-habited with or married English women.Footnote 163 The beginning of the 1950s therefore marked the beginning of a new era in Commonwealth immigration that eventually drew ever growing numbers of Bengalis to London.
The East London Mosque from 1951 onwards
I now turn my focus to developments concerning the East London Mosque's evolution after 1951, when the Minutes reproduced here conclude. Drawing on the later minutes of the ELM Trust it is possible to trace the subsequent history of the mosque as it faced the challenge of ministering to the religious needs of an expanding Muslim community.
As more and more immigrants arrived, their welfare demanded attention. Given its guidance and material support to the community, the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, which (as noted above) had been actively engaged in the running of the East London Mosque since its opening in 1941, became increasingly influential in shaping the religious behaviour of many local Muslims. At the same time, its leading members also contributed to the more secular community organizations, such as the Indian Seamen's Welfare Association, which had been set up in 1943 but which was superseded by the Pakistan Welfare Association (PWA) in 1952. Apart from acting as an interlocutor vis-à-vis the relevant British public institutions, such as the social services, given the discriminatory behaviour that East Pakistanis perceived from the West Pakistani-dominated state institutions, the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin also carried out a lobbying function on the former's behalf in bureaucratic dealings with the Pakistan High Commission. Thus, as demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labour in Britain rocketed in the early post-war years, many East Pakistanis wanted to migrate but were concerned that they were being denied opportunities by the Pakistan government's imposition of restrictions over issuing passports to them. In 1954, at a meeting in the packed Grand Palais Hall in Commercial Road, Bengali PWA leaders (including the Sylheti trade unionist Aftab Ali) called for the lifting of curbs on granting passports to East Pakistanis. As pressure continued to mount, the newly installed Bengali Prime Minister of Pakistan, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, agreed in 1956 ‘to grant one thousand passports to “distressed seamen”, their survivors or nominated dependents’.Footnote 164 Subsequently, rules were further relaxed, allowing men other than ex-seamen to proceed to Britain for employment purposes. Over the next couple of years, two to three thousand men from East Pakistan joined the existing settlers in London's East End.Footnote 165 The ensuing steady stream of East Bengali migrants meant that, by 1962, a community of about 5,000 had become established in Spitalfields and its surrounds.Footnote 166
A number of community organizations emerged to meet these East Pakistani migrants’ social, cultural, religious, and welfare needs. The Pakistan Caterers’ Association was formed in 1960.Footnote 167 Its leaders, who included Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi, Ayub Ali, and Taslim Ali,Footnote 168 owned restaurants, boarding-houses, cafés, general stores, and funeral parlours.Footnote 169 Since the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants ActFootnote 170 meant that migrant labourers were allowed entry into Britain only if they had jobs to go to, the Association – by operating as a sponsoring vehicle – facilitated the granting of work vouchers for Bengali cooks and students who doubled up as waiters in the growing catering industry. Many of these ‘caterers’ were also active in local religious and welfare organizations such as the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, the ELM, and the Indigent Moslems Burial Fund.
Reflecting these broader trends, by the mid-1950s control of the ELM Board of Trustees continued to pass from the more Westernized ‘pro-establishment’ Muslims and those non-Muslims who were closely connected with the British authorities to members who were more deeply committed to encouraging the practice of an Islamic way of life among London's Muslims. The influence of the former was also weakening as the result of the shifting of interest on the part of the ambassador-Trustees from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to an ambitious scheme initiated by the Egyptian Ambassador for the establishment of a grand central mosque in the heart of London's West End. Indeed, the latter did not attended trustee meetings after 1955, while the former no longer took part after 1958.Footnote 171 Along with a number of other Muslim ambassadors, they became Trustees of the Central London Mosque Trust instead. The High Commissioner for Pakistan, while he remained the chairman of the Council of Management, also adopted an increasingly ‘hands-off’ approach. Consequently, local representatives of the East London Muslim community, comprising primarily Jamiat-ul-Muslimin leaders, were now the prime movers in the Council of Management's decision-making processes.
Interestingly, there seems to have been little resistance to the shift in power away from the existing Trustees. Indeed, they were content to make changes in the constitution of the London Mosque Fund that enabled its Council of Management to ‘be drawn largely from residents of the East end of London where the Mosque is situated’.Footnote 172 For Sir John Woodhead, the long-serving honorary treasurer and secretary of the Trust, this was a move in the right direction, as he claimed that he had ‘always considered it right and proper that the Moslems who worship at the East London Mosque, should be actively associated with the management of the “trust”’.Footnote 173 As early as 1948, when seeking approval for the appointment of Fazal Shah and Ghulam Mohammed as LMF Trustees, one of the reasons he gave was that they ‘live in the East End of London and are connected with the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin’.Footnote 174 When, in June 1949, the London Mosque Fund had become a trust corporation, both these men were included among its first Trustees, together with the ambassadors of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, Sir Torick Ameer Ali, and three other leading members of Jamiat-ul-Muslimin.Footnote 175
However, while the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin continued to emphasize the necessity of organizing Muslim lives in line with Islamic principles and values in a non-Muslim environment, its increasing influence in the 1950s on the East London Mosque Trust, which had formally replaced the London Mosque Fund in 1949,Footnote 176 did not necessarily mean a strong move towards stringency in religious outlook or practice. The Trust's objectives in 1954 were set out in relatively ecumenical terms – they were concerned with those matters of the Muslim faith that could be conveniently and properly undertaken by the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin Trust. The most important of these were the establishment in London of a religious and cultural centre for Muslims ‘from all parts of the world’, the provision of ‘accommodation for Muslim students with a view to guiding their activities and helping them to live their lives in accordance with the tenets of Islam’, and to ‘inculcate tolerance and liberal outlook in general’.Footnote 177 The social, educational, and occupational backgrounds of the fifteen Trustees of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin Trust in 1954 seemed to reflect the liberality and broadness of their vision. Apart from the High Commissioner for Pakistan, the Trust membership comprised a former lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, a barrister, three doctors, two students, five merchants, a boarding-house keeper, and, interestingly, a so-called ‘housewife’.Footnote 178
Nevertheless, those who actively ran the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin projected themselves as committed to the ideal of pan-Islamism and to the embedding and promotion of Islamic practices among Muslims in Britain through their activities. While uneasy about the unravelling political crisis in Pakistan, these Jamiat-ul-Muslimin activists from East Bengal seemed, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, to remain wedded to the hope of Pakistan becoming an Islamic state, despite their fellow Bengalis receiving what was often perceived to be discriminatory treatment at the hands of the West Pakistani ruling elite. It would appear that in retaining this vision they were ideologically influenced by two religio-political organizations with which they developed close connections: Tablighi JamaatFootnote 179 and the Jamaat-i-Islami.Footnote 180 Indeed, members of the Tablighi Jamaat, on their periodic visits to Britain, would stay at the ELM premises,Footnote 181 and the JI-inspired UK Islamic Mission, when first founded in 1962, was also initially located there.Footnote 182 Taslim Ali, who emerged as one of the key figures in the East London Mosque for several decades after the Second World War, had already been a member of the Tablighi Jamaat for several years.Footnote 183 In 1960, he was given the title of ‘Honorary Welfare Officer of the Muslim Community of London’,Footnote 184 and four years later he was appointed Superintendent of the ELM.Footnote 185
The provision of welfare services to the Muslim community remained one of the key objectives of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin Trust, though, in this early period, the orientation of all its activities was overwhelmingly religious.Footnote 186 Nevertheless, as the Muslim community in the East End expanded in size, the leaders of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, together with the Trustees of the East London Mosque, became acutely aware of the lack of provision for meeting the needs of their Muslim compatriots. In 1954, explaining the need for a paid welfare officer to combine with the social work that was being conducted voluntarily by members of Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, Sir John Woodhead, as ELMT Secretary, wrote to Mirza Abul Hassan Ispahani,Footnote 187 its then chairman, that the majority of Muslims in the area were poor and
in need of help and guidance in many matters [. . .] In some homes children are neglected and require assistance as regards food and clothing [. . .] not infrequently, hospitals approach the Jamiat for assistance in regard to Muslim patients, and at similar times requests are received from Authorities of prisons in which Muslims are serving sentences of imprisonment.Footnote 188
Leading Jamiat-ul-Muslimin members, such as S.M. Jetha, S.M Hosain, Nawab Ali, and Taslim Ali, who were themselves relatively devout Muslims, established mechanisms (in association with the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin and the ELMT) that would enable Muslims to carry out their religious duties properly. For instance, in 1950, Taslim Ali, with his English wife assisting, was given permission to start a mortuary and funeral service from the ELM premises.Footnote 189 He, Nawab Ali, and their two English wives together founded the first halal butcheries in Britain.Footnote 190 Through the ELM and partly funded by it, they also arranged for the religious education of Muslim children in the local community.
A factor that was to have serious implications for the future evolution of the East London Mosque, however, was the increasing political tension between the two ‘wings’ of Pakistan that had quickly emerged after the country's foundation in 1947. While many Bengali Muslims had been fervently in favour of the Pakistan Movement, they were soon disillusioned by what they perceived as being at the receiving end of cultural condescension, economic exploitation, and political oppression meted out by the dominant West Pakistanis. Resentment at the attempted imposition of Urdu as the national language at the expense of Bengali resulted in violent protests in 1952.Footnote 191 Tensions again rose sharply with the dismissal of East Pakistan's Bengali-led United Front government in 1954.Footnote 192 Relations between East and West Pakistan worsened still further with the onset of Punjabi-dominated military rule in October 1958,Footnote 193 eventually culminating in the establishment on 16 December 1971 of an independent Bangladesh, following a war of independence.Footnote 194 Not surprisingly, East Pakistanis in London also felt aggrieved at these developments. As one influential Bengali resident, Majid Qureshi, put it, ‘the big posts were all held by West Pakistani people. In the Military, in all the Government posts, there was some unfairness’.Footnote 195 More specifically, he had witnessed the ‘[dismissive] treatment of Bengalis by the West Pakistani Officers, in the Pakistan Embassy itself’, where ‘the [West] Pakistanis were all the burra sahibs (“big shots”), and they had Bengalis to serve them only in clerical jobs’.Footnote 196 Newspaper reports in the late 1960s suggest a great deal of dissatisfaction at what appeared to be the High Commission's lack of assistance in dealing with Bengalis’ problems, especially with regard to attacks against them as immigrants in the British press.Footnote 197 The Trustees of the East London Mosque, still under the chairmanship of the High Commissioner for Pakistan, sensed simmering discontent and the growing politicization of the East Pakistani community in London along nationalist lines, and accordingly advised that the ‘Mosque premises be solely used for religious purposes and no political agitation meeting be allowed there’.Footnote 198
While the Trustees of the ELM were successfully able to ‘keep politics out of the organisation’Footnote 199 as far as the struggle for Bengali self-determination was concerned, serious divisions among the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin's leading members, vying to wrest control of the ELM's resources, had surfaced in 1959 and thereafter caused acute controversies and tensions within the mosque, seriously affecting its administration and strategic direction. Complaints regarding representation on the LMF and malpractices at the mosque, including irregularities in its administration, proliferated in 1959; these continued for several years, with individuals from both factions making accusations against each other.Footnote 200 Two rival groups claimed representation on the Council of Management of the East London Mosque Trust.Footnote 201 The Deputy High Commissioner for Pakistan then called a special meeting of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin at the Grand Palais Hall in Commercial Road to resolve the issue. A meeting attended by 200 people unanimously confirmed Zafar Iqbal Qureshi as president.Footnote 202 This vote of confidence did not end the dispute, however, as the ELM Trustees were not fully satisfied that the office-bearers of either of the two factions had been properly elected.Footnote 203 The dispute escalated to a point where abuse was hurled and violence threatened.Footnote 204 Both the factions turned up at the Council of Management meeting in December 1959, though its chairman had ruled, in the absence of ‘proof’ of their ‘true’ representativeness, that neither would be invited.Footnote 205 However, when, as director and secretary of the Council of Management, S.M. Jetha sought legal advice as to which of the two factions should be recognized as the ‘true representative’, it was suggested that the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin should be notified at its registered address of the next Council of Management meeting.Footnote 206 As the two factions operated from separate addresses, the Trust's solicitors informed both that the Council of Management ‘[could] not recognise representatives of Jamiat-ul-Muslimin until it [was] fully satisfied that they were the accredited officers’.Footnote 207 This dispute remained unresolved for years, with the Council of Management appearing content to admit to its meetings the faction that had represented the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin until 1963.Footnote 208
As the 1960s advanced, the East London Mosque Trust, while unable to establish a unified leadership, became increasingly preoccupied with the practical needs and concerns of its growing congregation. A combination of factors – the deteriorating political situation in Pakistan, the introduction of tougher immigration controls, and the continuing availability of economic opportunities in Britain – meant that the vast majority of the migrants opted to settle in their new surroundings. They were soon being joined in large numbers by their families, relatives, kin, and friends.Footnote 209 As they put down local roots, they faced resentment, hostility, and racial discrimination from wider society and its white-dominated institutions. The attacks on migrants were spearheaded by opportunistic politicians, such as the former Conservative minister and subsequently shadow spokesperson Enoch Powell. His ‘rivers of blood’ speech in April 1968 is credited with bringing out 1,000 dockers and 600 Smithfield Market porters to march past Parliament in protest against his ‘victimization’ and in support of his opposition to immigration.Footnote 210
With the emergence of political uncertainties and economic turmoil created by a bloody ‘civil war’, from 1971 the volume of Bangladeshi migrants to Britain, both educated and illiterate/semi-literate, rose sharply, as did the flow of their dependants. During the 1970s, this immigration led to considerable demands being made on schools, health, and welfare services. There emerged a broad separation between whites and Bangladeshis in housing, education, and employment in London's East End – the latter became concentrated in the local garment industry, catering trade, and small shop-keeping sectors. Their lifestyles contrasted sharply. Extreme right-wing organizations such as the National Front took advantage of the rising tide of popular racist sentiments and mobilized significant numbers of mainly white working-class young people against ‘coloured’ immigrant communities, particularly in the East End of London.Footnote 211 Seen as a threat, Asians (predominantly Bangladeshis) in Tower Hamlets were increasingly targeted by teenage ‘skinheads’ and aggressive white juvenile males – their attacks turned sporadically into violent assaults, popularly called ‘Paki-bashing’.Footnote 212 The National Front, which had established a significant presence in Tower Hamlets, was instrumental in instigating these attacks by ‘skinheads’ on Pakistanis.Footnote 213 By early 1970, according to both the Observer and the Sunday Times, they had become a regular occurrence.Footnote 214 In April of that year, The Times reported that Gulam Taslim, ‘son of the Imam at the East London Mosque [Taslim Ali]’, had documented thirty-eight attacks that had occurred in the previous few months.Footnote 215 ‘The Imam’, it stated, ‘had hospital treatment after being kicked in the mouth and hit with an iron bar. The windows of the Muslim parlour next door to the mosque were broken five times in one week. Bottles had been thrown at mourners’.Footnote 216 This racial violence escalated further later in the year. Two Asian employees of the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green were physically attacked, and Tausir Ali, a fifty-year-old Pakistani kitchen porter, was murdered by a white youth in Bow, East London.Footnote 217 The violence peaked in July, when 150 white youths ran amok through Brick Lane, injuring five Bengalis.Footnote 218 The East London Advertiser reported the sentencing of a youth from Poplar, East London, convicted of manslaughter of a Pakistani;Footnote 219 in November 1970 it reported an attack on a Pakistani by two teenage youths.Footnote 220
The East London Mosque, identified as probably the most distinctly visible symbol of the Muslim immigrant communities’ presence in the vicinity, not surprisingly attracted the attention of local racist groups. A letter, signed ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which was delivered to the mosque on 27 April 1970, warned that
it would be wise for 6,000 of you who have crowded into the East End of our capital city, to know that we are not going to tolerate this. You will go home of your own free will [. . .] or we will bomb you out [. . .] Indians and Pakistanis are the creeping scourge of the earth. Get out or die.Footnote 221
Anti-immigrant feelings shared by large sections of the Tower Hamlets white population continued to rise during the 1970s, as did the incidence of racist attacks on Asians. In September 1978, a report compiled by the Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council documented 105 specific assaults, stressing that these cases ‘appear only to skim the surface of what has been happening’.Footnote 222 In those housing estates where they were in a minority, Bengali families suffered violent assaults not just on the streets in their neighbourhoods, where women and children were the easiest targets, but also in their homes, as stones were thrown through their windows, and excrement and petrol bombs pushed through their letter boxes.Footnote 223 Articles in newspapers, which negatively portrayed London's East End Asian immigrants as ‘backward, fearful, and disliked’, actively fuelled antagonism towards them, provoking racist assaults, particularly against the Bengalis. These became a very ugly feature of East End life through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s: ‘in total five Bengalis died in racial violence in London's East End in 1976’.Footnote 224 In June 1978, The Times reported that a mob of youths had rampaged through a Bengali area in the East End of London: ‘they smashed windows, hurled bottles and lumps of concrete and shouted insults as they charged through the street [Brick Lane]. They damaged five shops and a car. And an Asian man whose face was cut by flying glass [. . .] received hospital treatment.’Footnote 225 The National Front gained in strength as it focused its racist literature – and its leaders their speeches around the Brick Lane area – on the growing Bengali community, mobilizing the locality's ‘disillusioned, frustrated and alienated youth’.Footnote 226 Anti-immigration marches were organized through Asian neighbourhoods, and, faced with daily incidents of violence, community leaders such as the Reverend Dr Clifford Hill of the Interdenominational Newham Community Renewal programme warned of the growing danger of the ‘outbreak of a race war’.Footnote 227 As The Times reported, ‘From their pitches [market stalls] they would swear and spit at any Bengalis that walked past’.Footnote 228
The East London Mosque was vandalized on a number of occasions.Footnote 229 In November 1973, Taslim Ali, its superintendent, informed S.M. Jetha, its honorary secretary, that ‘a gang of youths broke windows and a fanlight’.Footnote 230 Jetha reported the harassment experienced by the worshippers to the local police. ‘For some time’, he wrote, ‘we have been disturbed constantly whilst saying our prayers by young people who have been throwing stones at the windows of the Trust's premises.’ Could the police, he asked, not increase their ‘vigilance’?Footnote 231 However, the police force's indifferent response, its apparent lack of sympathy to their plight, and its inability to deal effectively with racial crime engendered frustration and resentment.Footnote 232 The feeling in the community was that there was not much point in reporting such matters. Public statements by police officers on why racial crime was not a priority caused further disenchantment and anger, and confirmed perceptions of police attitudes towards such attacks: for instance, after the April 1970 murder of Tausir Ali, the reasoning offered by a detective belonging to the local police for its lack of effort was as follows:
This could escalate to a civil war in the East End. We don't want it. We're not even sure we could handle it. Regrettably, it's safer in the long run if an occasional coloured man gets beaten up than to have two sides facing each other with all sorts of weapons.Footnote 233
A report by the Pakistan Workers’ Union insisted that the police were unable to give them adequate protection.Footnote 234 Others in the community offered examples of the police's unsatisfactory response. When Taslim Ali, who combined his role of superintendent with that of imam of the East London Mosque, was assaulted from behind by a gang of skinheads while fastening the shutters on a friend's shop in Commercial Road, he reported the incident three times and claimed that nothing was done.Footnote 235 As ‘race-hate attacks’ continued, immigrant businessmen in Forest Gate, East London, accused police of ‘inefficiency’ in responding to emergency calls for help as white youths provoked violent confrontation, shouting and swearing, and smashing windows of a restaurant with bottles.Footnote 236
What caused a deterioration in relations between these immigrants and local and national institutions was the latter's lack of willingness to treat the former's concerns in ways that would infuse trust. Influenced to some degree by the negative portrayal of Asian immigrants, particularly in London's East End, public representatives and government officials refused to accept that the police's attitude towards attacks on the local Bengali community was in the least bit questionable. Even Peter Shore, the Labour MP for Stepney and Poplar, who had praised ‘the people from Sylhet’ (a significant and rapidly growing population in his constituency) for showing ‘great initiative, and courage as well as adaptability in making the immense change from village life [. . .] to that of a great modern city’, and had criticized the media's depiction of Asian immigrants in his area as ‘backward, fearful, and disliked’ for causing offence and upset to the Asian community, nevertheless insisted that the police had made a special and very thorough investigation of the twenty-two incidents that immigrant organizations had highlighted to him. Perhaps even more dismaying for the East End's immigrant community was the dismissive refusal of the Home Secretary to recognize the racial nature of the assaults on Pakistanis. In a letter to Peter Shore, Reginald Maudling declared that, while he accepted that ‘assaults, some of a fairly serious nature had been committed against Pakistanis’, that the robberies had occurred, that windows of immigrants had been broken, and that children had made themselves a nuisance outside their homes, all these occurrences were typical of what went on generally in this part of London. In his view, crime figures did not support the claim that ‘Pakistanis’ were being exclusively singled out and, for him, ‘the situation as a whole had been greatly exaggerated’.Footnote 237
As racial attacks mounted, the East London Mosque's leadership struggled to develop an effective strategy to protect the communities that the institution represented. As a Pakistani welfare worker put it, ‘we told people to keep quiet, not to go out at night unless really necessary, and to stick together when coming home from work’.Footnote 238 The mosque was acutely aware of the hostility that the community was experiencing. Suleman Jetha, secretary of the ELMT, had brought it up in his report at one of the Council of Management meetings, referring to it as ‘the present hardships and suffering [that are being] inflicted on our brethren especially in East London, where a handful – commonly known as skinheads – are committing these cowardly acts on lonely law-abiding Indians and Pakistanis’. ‘On one occasion’, he continued, ‘30 to 40 hooligans tried to damage their shops’. Apparently, only ‘the timely arrival of a few brethren’ saved the situation. But aside from this ad hoc ‘fire-fighting’, all that Jetha was able to suggest was for the Pakistan High Commissioner, still the Council of Management's chairman, ‘to take this matter to a higher level to the Home Office and to see that these vagabonds and thugs are properly punished and due vigilance and protection is given by the Metropolitan Police to these innocent victims’.Footnote 239 That the ELMT had thus far been unable to develop a coherent plan of action was reflected in the speech that Salman Ali, the Pakistani High Commissioner, gave when he visited the East End of London after the murder of Tausir Ali. At a meeting attended by over a hundred local Muslims (including victims of attacks), he was unable to offer anything more than an expression of his concern about the increasing frequency of attacks on life and property.Footnote 240 The Trustees argued that they did not want to provide the skinheads and the National Front with ‘the oxygen of publicity’ that they craved. Instead the mosque, perhaps a bit naively, wanted to ‘open up a dialogue so that they could come to know it better’.Footnote 241
The community and ELM leaders continued to work with representatives of the police, the church, and other relevant institutions. But reporting racial incidents to the police had not, it seemed, improved the situation significantly. Realizing that the police were still failing to protect the victims of racial attacks, the leaders initiated independent community action. Street patrols, along the lines that had proved successful ‘in the Euston area where the [Pakistani Workers’ Union] had four or five groups standing by to rescue Pakistanis or hit back at attackers’, were formed in East London. In the Brick Lane area they were supported by the Anti-Nazi League in organizing their self-defence.Footnote 242 As the problem worsened, they combined with the largely white Anti-Nazi LeagueFootnote 243 to combat the National Front, which had become increasingly active and aggressive in Brick Lane. For instance, in June 1978, in a demonstration organized by the Anti-Nazi League, some 2,000 people marched through Brick Lane in protest against violent anti-Bengali disturbances of the week before.Footnote 244 A month later, another demonstration occupied the site habitually used by the National Front to sell their party newspaper and other inflammatory literature.Footnote 245 When Altab Ali, a young Bangladeshi machinist was murdered in May 1978, the community was outraged. A mass rally was planned. More than 5,000 Asians marched peacefully in protest against what they regarded as the racial killing of a Bangladeshi. Starting in St Mary's Churchyard off Whitechapel Road, where Ali had been repeatedly stabbed, the procession made its way to Hyde Park and then on to 10 Downing Street where a petition was handed in.Footnote 246 The Anti-Nazi League joined the march, along with trade unionists. Dissatisfied with the way police were dealing with racist attacks in Tower Hamlets and Newham, Bengalis in London's East End called for a Home Office inquiry on policing;Footnote 247 an action committee against racist attacks, reported in the local press as ‘the first move towards Asian vigilante patrols in the East End’, was set up soon after the news of Ali's murder,Footnote 248 and, while a conference of immigrant organizations supported ‘the formation of multiracial community self-defence groups in immigrant areas “to complement and assist the efforts of the police”’, it decisively rejected a suggestion to form vigilante groups.Footnote 249 In July 1978, responding to an Anti-Nazi League call, Asian traders and factory workers in the Brick Lane area struck for a day against ‘racialism’.Footnote 250 In September 1978, the East London Anti-Nazi League, in response to the National Front march into the East End of London, decided to ‘occupy’ Brick Lane.Footnote 251
During this period, the East London Mosque remained on the sidelines and preferred to play a calming role behind the scenes. While the Trust showed its support for the Anti-Nazi League's efforts by making a donation of £25,Footnote 252 there is little evidence to suggest that the mosque officially participated actively in its campaigns. Similarly, three years later, in a spate of racist incidents in East London (including Poplar and Spitalfields)Footnote 253 that included Mrs Baris Khan and her three children being burnt to death in Walthamstow in what was suspected to be a racially motivated arson attack,Footnote 254 while a protest march organized by the Khan Massacre Action Committee took place locally,Footnote 255 the mosque, while it recognized the racially violent nature of the deaths, confined itself simply to offering prayers for the four victims.Footnote 256
Based on this cumulative experience, a perception emerged among London's East End Pakistani/Bangladeshi community in the 1970s that the institutions of wider society could not be trusted to take up their concerns in a fair way and that the only strategy open to them if they wanted their issues addressed (in particular the problem of racial attacks) was to form their own community organizations that would represent them more robustly and effectively. Given that the East London Mosque had not been able to offer any credible approach or leadership for the defence of the local Muslim community, a viable alternative seemed to be to organize actions on the basis of common ethnic and cultural distinctiveness and interests. In this process, in the 1970s and the 1980s, community groups in Tower Hamlets were helped by a number of policy developments at the governmental level. In order to regenerate the declining local economy and improve the environmental and housing conditions of an area where the proportion of the Bangladeshi population was increasing rapidly, and in recognition of its ‘special needs’, Bangladeshi pressure groups, especially tenants’ associations and youth groups, were encouraged with allocation of resources. Government-funded centres were established to help Bangladeshis in respect of housing, education, employment, health, women's rights, recreation, and community relations. Consequently, Bangladeshi voluntary organizations in the area expanded quickly, though this did not happen without conflicts among various sections of the community. Of the 112 organizations in the Borough of Tower Hamlets, a substantial proportion were run by Bangladeshis.Footnote 257 For instance, the Kobi Nazrul Centre, named in honour of a famous Bengali Muslim poet, opened in October 1982 with the remit to organize Bengali cultural events. The Bangladeshi Youth Programme offered advice and guidance to Bangladeshis in areas of housing, employment, and social and welfare services – it also organized recreational activities. The Bangladeshi Educational Needs in Tower Hamlets was likewise set up to co-ordinate the improvement of educational resources for Bangladeshis, especially in Spitalfields.Footnote 258
While still trailing the secular voluntary bodies in attracting community support and recognition from the institutions of wider society, given the Greater London Council's commitment to addressing the specific cultural (including religious) needs of its hard-pressed minority ethnic communities in the context of urban regeneration, the mosque leaders conducted tough negotiations with the GLC between 1969 and 1982 that enabled them to make a relatively successful transition from what were by now rather dilapidated premises in Commercial Road to the grand building in Whitechapel Road. It is worth looking in detail at this process through which the East London Mosque was able to articulate the particular interests of some layers of the local Muslim community and arrive at the threshold of being accepted as a significant representative for them.
As part of its plan for the redevelopment of the Commercial Road area for social housing, in December 1969 the GLC had made a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) to acquire the premises in which the mosque was located, but with the proviso that the Trustees of the mosque should not be required to vacate it until an alternative site had been found.Footnote 259 From the Trustees’ perspective, this decision had not taken their needs sufficiently into account and they immediately protested against the order. Major E.W. McArthur (in whom the mosque found a doughty ally), secretary of the East London Federation of Industry and Commerce (of which Jetha had opportunistically become a memberFootnote 260), argued that Muslims were being ‘ignored and ridden over roughshod’, with the result that the needs of local Muslims were being ‘disregarded just to fit in with the plans of the GLC’.Footnote 261 He asked why, when ‘considerable attention’ was normally given to the retention of religious buildings in redevelopment and planning, no such consideration was being afforded in this case. He urged that the mosque, which now served an estimated 12,000 Muslims in the area, should be excluded from the CPO. The GLC officials, while agreeing that ‘most places of worship were left undisturbed’, argued that in this particular case it was not possible to do so for practical reasons. In their view, Muslims were not entitled to special consideration where ‘the greater good of the greater number’ was concerned – as in the re-housing of people in good accommodation.Footnote 262 Proposals for offering them alternative accommodation were under consideration, and a synagogue in Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, had been offered.Footnote 263 Indeed, Jetha, accompanied by other members of the ELMT, visited the synagogue but rejected it on the grounds that it was ‘too big’.Footnote 264 McArthur, on the other hand reasoned that, given that ‘the two religions were “virtually at war” negotiations between them would be impossible’.Footnote 265 Despite the Trustees’ spokesman pressing their case robustly, the Secretary of State for the Environment confirmed the CPO.Footnote 266 That left the Trustees seeking the maximum amount of compensation possible. They showed great tenacity in the ensuing negotiations, which finally ended in an agreement between the GLC and the ELMT in November 1982.Footnote 267 This stipulated the permanent relocation of the mosque to a site held by the Planning Committee on the south side of Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets. When the temporary relocation of the mosque to Christian Scott School was deemed unsuitable, the Council agreed in May 1974 to erect a temporary mosque – at a cost of £45,000 – in Fieldgate Street, to the south of the proposed permanent site, to which the Trust moved in May 1975.Footnote 268 Lengthy discussions then took place between the Trust and the Council in its role as planning authority, with the Trust wishing to construct a building that could accommodate the expanding Muslim community and hence required a much larger site than that occupied by the original mosque. In 1982, in the final settlement, £192,000 was paid to the Trust in compensation for the Commercial Road premises and a further site was allocated, costing the Trust £25,000.Footnote 269
The East London Mosque and increasing Islamic observance
In the 1980s, the East London Mosque emerged as one of the more influential institutions of London's East End Muslim community. Its increasingly important role was shaped by a number of internal and external social, cultural, and political developments. First, the ‘civil war’ in East Pakistan in 1970–1971 meant that, given its devastating impact, those migrants who might have thought of returning to Bangladesh under normal circumstances decided to settle permanently in Britain – sojourners had turned settlers. The passing of the 1971 Immigration Act effectively put a stop to Bengali primary immigration and the vast majority of those who were allowed to enter were family members. As families reunited and settled on a more permanent basis, the communities that they formed began to change in their attitude to life in Britain, to its people and its institutions. The arrival of families had broadened the scope of interaction with wider society, especially over matters concerning education, health, and social welfare. At the same time ‘chain migration’Footnote 270 had brought along distinct ethnic, linguistic, and regional residential clustering, leading to the establishment of communal organizations as effective channels for conducting business in areas of need. Segregation ensued along village-kinship, ethnic, and sectarian lines. These Muslim immigrants became anxious about the fate of their cultures, traditions, and values. They wanted to create the best possible conditions for practising their faith as they understood it, and they also wanted to ensure that it would survive through its effective transmission to future generations. With this further growth and consolidation of the Bangladeshi immigrant community in East London, bodies with a distinct Muslim identity, such as mosques, were able to gather substantial resources through contributions from individuals and groups within the communities, which, in turn, enabled them to grow and become firmly established. Community identity began to be defined relatively more strongly in religious than in ethnic terms. Mosques took on many of the services that had previously been offered by the minority ethnic organizations that had received the overwhelming share of the public funding disbursed during the 1970s.
The Conservative Party's victory in the 1979 general election prompted a substantial dismantling of the policy of multiculturalism that had been at the heart of previous government policy, as far as ethnic minorities were concerned, since the 1960s. The policy changes wrought by Margaret Thatcher's government during the 1980s, especially its restrictions on local government support of community organizations, had a radical impact on the development of Muslim organizations. This was further exacerbated by the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. With the sidelining of the minority ethnic groups in the East End, the balance of power shifted increasingly to those groups who saw Bangladeshi concerns primarily through an Islamic prism. Mosques – the ELM perhaps rather more than the Jamme Mosque in Brick Lane – became an important form of self-organization for Tower Hamlets’ Muslim community. Never having relied on public resources, they appeared relatively more independent and less compromised, though it soon became clear that their dependence on funding from the Middle East was bound to have some effect on the shaping of their perspectives and strategies. With funds drastically reduced for secular community groups, bodies with a distinct Muslim identity (which, in the past, had received few resources from the state and so had had to rely largely on contributions from individuals and groups within their communities) survived the Conservative government's onslaught on sources of support for the voluntary sector relatively well, and emerged with an enhanced profile in the eyes of the authorities.
As the role and influence of the East London Mosque increased from the 1970s, its Trust witnessed vigorous debates about what the mosque did or should do. Its chairman, still – rather anomalously, bearing in mind the Trust's Bangladeshi links – the High Commissioner for Pakistan, suggested that the mosque, apart from being a place of worship, should also act as ‘a cultural and meeting centre for the community’.Footnote 271 As a centre for families, ‘womenfolk and children’, it should offer religious instruction for adults and children.Footnote 272 The Council of Management accordingly discussed issues such as the accrual and disbursement of financial resources; the provision of welfare services such as funeral arrangements, marriage facilities, donations, and loans; and the performance of other forms of ritual. The ideological influence of the Deobandi tendency emerged in a range of areas of the mosque's policies and functions.Footnote 273 This could be seen, for instance, in discussions about the role of the imam and the qualifications required for the performance of his duties. Indeed, the appointment of a qualified imam became part of a ‘prolonged discussion’.Footnote 274 Eventually, it was agreed that the selection criteria for such an appointment would be based on the Shariat.Footnote 275 In this regard, a sub-committee of the Trust was ‘appointed to go into the question of Shariat’.Footnote 276 After much deliberation it suggested the appointment of
a Sanadyafta Aalim MaulviFootnote 277 and [. . .] HafizFootnote 278 who should have [. . .] knowledge of Arabic & Urdu and if possible English and Bengali languages, and who should give daily classes to children, Guide Adults in their day to day MasailsFootnote 279 and lead Five Times Prayers as well as Juma Prayers with Sermon according to practice and traditions.Footnote 280
That the Sub-Committee held a particular doctrinal view regarding what it considered to be the Shariat with regard to the qualifications for an imam is made clear in the following note:
growing the beard to the required length according to the Sharriyat-e-Muhammadi S.A.W.,Footnote 281 and to do such act as trimming or cutting shorter the hairs or shaving the beard is Entirely HaraamFootnote 282 [. . .] for which there is no IkhtilaafFootnote 283 or differences of Interpretation by Muftiyanul UmmatFootnote 284 of India and Pakistan. An Imam who does not have a proper length of beard [. . .] and still performed the Prayers, then such prayers are Makrooh-Tehreemi which is very near Haram.Footnote 285
Later, when Isa Mansuri was appointed as the Pesh ImamFootnote 286 he soon attracted criticism from some members of the Trust. However, it was unanimously decided that if he were to be replaced, the candidate would have to meet the qualifications laid down by the Shariat Footnote 287 – he would be assessed by the Trustees on the quality of his delivery of the sermon (khutba) and how he led the Friday prayer.Footnote 288 The criteria for the selection of the mosque's imam formulated by the sub-committee and the authority invested in its report clearly reflected the growing ideological hold by Deobandis over the mosque's affairs.
This growing Deobandi control, which could trace its influence there back to very soon after the Second World War, began to create unease among many Muslims arriving from East Bengal, who traditionally had tended to be of the Barelwi persuasion.Footnote 289 Doctrinal cleavages within the West Pakistani–East Pakistani communities in London's East End were further widened by the political crisis into which East Pakistan/Bangladesh was plunged from the beginning of the 1970s. During the ‘civil war’ in 1971, the Jamaat-i-Islami, given its pan-Islamic vision and political ambitions, had supported the Pakistani state's efforts to retain ‘East Pakistan’ as part of the Muslim realm.Footnote 290 Those who ran the East London Mosque at the time, irrespective of their ethnic affiliations (Punjabi, Gujarati, or Bengali), saw themselves as Muslims and Pakistanis. While the Bangladeshi proportion of the East End's Muslim community was increasing rapidly, the membership of the Council of Management of the ELMT in the 1970s remained ethnically very mixed – Punjabi, Bengali, and Gujarati. It seems that these leading men at the ELM could not let go of the sympathies that they had acquired through a close association with TJ/JI ideologies and personnel; these sympathies had deeply penetrated their consciousness over the years and had come to guide their practice. On a more practical level, continuity with the past was reflected in that many of the Committee of Management's meetings were still held at the Pakistan High Commissioner's offices. While many other political issues, especially those of direct concern to Muslims, were considered at the ELMT meetings, curiously there is not a single record in the Minutes of that time regarding the catastrophic events of the war and their impact in Bangladesh, even though tensions among Pakistani immigrants had been running high and had erupted into violent clashes, leading The Express to note that a ‘civil war’ was breaking out in the East End ‘among Pakistani loyalists and supporters of the East Bengal separatists’. Petrol bombs were reported to have been hurled at ‘West Pakistani traders by militant Bangli Desh [sic] extremists’.Footnote 291
Clearly, as mentioned earlier, the political upheaval in what became Bangladesh caused many people there to move to Britain. These new arrivals included people who had either been involved in the struggle for Bangladesh's liberation or who had opposed East Pakistan's secession. However, the majority of the Bengali Muslims making Britain their home at this time considered themselves as victims of ruthless West Pakistani actions. Furthermore, perhaps the majority of Bangladeshis, especially those belonging to the first generation, were coming to find the East London Mosque's style and its rejection of Barelwi practices as bid'a (‘heretical innovation’) indigestible. The widening doctrinal cleavages in the congregation of the East London Mosque gradually led to a substantial proportion of these Bangladeshis seeking the establishment of a mosque in which they felt more at ease. In 1976, some worshippers broke away, purchased the synagogue in Brick Lane, and converted it into a mosque, leaving the East London Mosque even more firmly in the Deobandi camp.Footnote 292
This split did not, however, mean the end of conflict in Fieldgate Street. The struggle between the two factions of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin for representation on the Council of Management of the Trust that had taken place at the end of the 1950s re-ignited in 1976. The faction of which Mohammad Irshad Baig was now the president, and that had thus far been excluded from the ELMT, renewed its request to be admitted.Footnote 293 Again, when this group, led by Messrs Baig, Aslam, and Malik arrived at an ‘ordinary’ meeting of the Trust on 1 August 1976 in the hope of obtaining entry, emotions became charged;Footnote 294 they were allegedly ‘insulted and thrown out’Footnote 295 of the meeting.Footnote 296 In November 1976, it yet again unsuccessfully sought representation on the Trust, something for which, it claimed, it had been ‘fighting’ since 1964.Footnote 297 Feeling frustrated, this group arrived in full strength at the ‘extraordinary’ meeting of the Council of Management on 2 February 1977 to plead its case; but again there was uproar.Footnote 298 The decision regarding who should represent the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin on the Trust was, on the suggestion of Illahi Bakhsh Somroo (Minister at the Pakistan Embassy and Council of Management chairman at this meeting) deferred to a future public meeting of the Muslim community. At the Trust's next meeting it was decided that, as the present members representing Jamiat-ul-Muslimin had been participating for the previous fourteen years, they would be allowed to continue.Footnote 299 Thus, by the beginning of 1978, the control of the mosque was firmly in Deobandi hands. The Pakistan Ambassador was dispensed with as chair of the Council of Management, and ‘an active’ chairman, A.T.M. Abdullah (a barrister), was elected instead.Footnote 300 This move marked a watershed in the mosque's administration, with the Trustees seeking to put it on a more professional footing.Footnote 301
At the same time as the local Muslim population of the East End began to pay greater attention to their religious practices, the mosque's guidance in its daily affairs increased. Among its activities, it issued fatwas on halal meat and certified halal butchers.Footnote 302 For those who wished religious recognition of their marriages, the mosque could provide nikah certificates on the presentation of the registrar's certificate.Footnote 303 It provided a mortuary and made arrangements for funerals and burials.Footnote 304 It offered guidance in respect of inheritance and, certainly in terms of donations to the mosque, it ignored English law in favour of the Islamic law of inheritance. An important example of this was when Syed Monawer Hossain, a long-time Trustee died in 1973, leaving two-thirds of his property as a gift to the mosque in his will.Footnote 305 This move would certainly have been valid under English law. However, the Mosque Trustees decided to apply Sharia law, as they understood it, and to keep only one-third, disbursing the rest to his nephew Mahmud Hossain and other heirs.Footnote 306 All these functions increased the mosque's influence among sections of the local Muslim community. As its influence increased, so did the tussle for control of the substantial and growing resources that it was accumulating.
While the dispute about who should represent the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin on the ELMT faded in the next few years, concerns about the running of the mosque's affairs simmered within the congregation.Footnote 307 On 24 December 1981, the discontent became manifest. Over 100 Mukthadis (‘prayer performers’) of the East London Mosque signed and sent a petition to its secretary in which they articulated a number of their complaints. The petition accused the secretary of misuse of mosque funds, as well as the mismanagement of fitra Footnote 308 donations and loan distribution. It complained that the imam did not lead all the daily prayersFootnote 309 (as he should have been required to do),Footnote 310 that the fitra money was not being distributed fairly and equitably to the deserving, that tens of thousands of pounds of loans were being approved to those who were either themselves members of the Trust or closely connected with the Trustees, and that ‘the proper teaching of children was not being done as the imam was not available’.Footnote 311 At a well-publicized General Public Meeting held on 7 February 1982, many of these questions were addressed by the chairman and the secretary of the ELMT,Footnote 312 and the Mukhtadis’ challenge was seen off for the time being.
It should be noted that, while it is true that some of the challenges mounted against the mosque's leadership in the 1980s stemmed from ‘grievances between the large Bengali community and the mosque's ruling committee’, this was not essentially a sectarian tussle between JI/Deobandi and Barelwi rivals within the mosque. Rather, it represented a conflict that was instigated by personality clashes, ethnic divisions, and ambitions of power, at the heart of which lay the drive to secure control of the mosque's substantial resources and decision-making apparatus. By the end of the 1980s, the struggle for power had descended into an unprecedented level of bitterness and violence. In 1987, local newspapers reported that the police had been called to intervene in fights between rival factions within the mosque.Footnote 313 The following year, a feud between rival Muslims erupted into violence there on New Year's Day, when youths armed with staves and iron bars clashed with scores of worshippers during the Friday lunchtime prayer service and had to be separated by the police. The fighting, ‘the worst in a series of incidents’ at the mosque over the previous six months, was thought to have started when a notice appeared on the mosque building that fifteen Muslims were banned from entering by a High Court injunction. Among those banned was the sacked imam, whose expulsion had become one of the chief causes of the dispute between part of the congregation and the mosque's management committee.Footnote 314 His defiant holding of Friday congregations, apparently under police guard outside the mosque over several weeks, helped to provoke the clashes.
A further bone of contention at this time was who controlled the very substantial financial resources accumulated by the mosque. As the congregation grew, so did the mosque's wealth, with donations through zakat Footnote 315 and fitra and income from investments running into thousands of pounds. Those who sat on the Trust had full control over decisions about the disbursements – inevitably, loans were approved to other like-minded religious establishments and mosques, such as Dawat-ul-Islam, Glasgow, the Waltham Forest Muslim Association in East London,Footnote 316 and the Talim-ul-Islam Madrassa, Dewsbury,Footnote 317 while the loan application of the predominantly Bengali Tawakkulia Society of Bradford,Footnote 318 which belonged to the Barelwi persuasion, was deferred.Footnote 319 The Trustees’ awareness of the concerns of the umma, combined with their pan-Islamic sympathies, meant that they were also prepared to provide financial help to those in need internationally – for example, the ‘Iranian victims of war’ with Iraq, and the ‘Afghan Mujahideen’ (fighting against the Soviet-backed Afghan regime).Footnote 320 Support was demanded for the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese upon Israel's invasion of the latter's territory in 1982.Footnote 321 Relief was provided for the victims of the cyclone disaster in Bangladesh and, interestingly, for the earthquake victims of Italy, showing empathy for humanity at large.Footnote 322 In the disbursement of loans to individuals in the Muslim community – to start up businesses, for hard-up students, and for distressed women – the decisions seemed to be based on an ad hoc consideration of each case, reflecting the client–patron relationship that seemed to be at work here.
As early as the mid-1960s, there had also emerged concerns regarding the religious legitimacy of the Trust's investments and the incomes derived from them. Government stocks and bonds, into which funds had been invested in order to generate income to meet the Trust's expenditure right from the inception of the LMF in 1910, had begun to cause much unease among the leading members because of their interest-bearing character.Footnote 323 As a source of income, these were felt to be Islamically unlawful.Footnote 324 Alternative methods of Islam-compliant income generation were suggested. For instance, in 1970 the honorary secretary, Jetha, suggested investment in equities and offered his own property, a house, for sale to the Trust. This investment, he argued, could generate rental income, a religiously legitimate source, instead of earning interest.Footnote 325 A finance sub-committee was set up to investigate the matterFootnote 326 and, after its meeting in May 1970,Footnote 327 its recommendation to the Council of Management to purchase the property was unanimously accepted in September 1971.Footnote 328 Examination of ‘ways and means of utilising interest money’Footnote 329 that would be ideologically acceptable did not stop. Soon afterwards, it was agreed that monies derived from interest-bearing investmentsFootnote 330 should only be used for social welfare purposes and not for the purposes of the mosque.Footnote 331 So, a separate welfare fundFootnote 332 was opened, from which nothing could be spent on mosque expenses.Footnote 333 The Memorandum of Association was amended to stipulate that any income from interest-bearing funds would ‘not be spent towards the promotion of the objects of the trust not being in conformity with the Sharia Law and [that] such funds shall be spent for the care and upliftment of poor and needy Muslims’.Footnote 334
From the early 1980s, the vision of what the mosque represented was largely shaped by men such as Suleman Jetha, Taslim Ali, and Mueenuddin Chowdhury. Their ideas regarding its structure and activities continued to be influenced by TJ or JI strategies. Because of these TJ/JI connections, both ideological and programmatic, with similar formations in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, when it came to the next stage of the mosque's development – the construction of the new mosque to replace the temporary, government-financed building in Fieldgate Street – the Trustees looked to potential sources in those quarters for financial support. Apart from the Trustee Tariq Rafique's suggestions to the mosque's building committee for fundraising such as house-to-house collections, sponsorship from founder members and other influential persons and organizations, and donations from Muslim businessmen, banks, and insurance companies, their ambitious multi-pronged plans for the new East London Mosque (the likely cost had mounted to £1.5 millionFootnote 335) included fundraising trips to Jeddah, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Cairo. The Trustees also sought help from the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh. In their negotiations for compensation from the GLC, they again enlisted the support of the Muslim trustee-ambassadors. Hence, the election of Khurram Murad of the Islamic Foundation (closely associated with the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan) as one of the new Trustees may well have obtained the mosque project a sympathetic hearing from potential benefactors in the Middle East.Footnote 336
The strategy paid off. While the Mosque was able to negotiate compensation of around £200,000 from the GLC and to accumulate some £700,000–800,000 through individual donations from local congregants, it was the generous donations from the Middle East, from wealthy Muslims, and, in particular, £1.1 million from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia that enabled the achievement of the £2 million needed for the completion of the new mosque building.Footnote 337 However, this also meant that the mosque remained firmly within the Deobandi/JI/Wahabi ideological nexus.
Over time, the more the mosque succeeded, the more its influence in the community grew, bending community practice to its religious prescriptions. Those who disagreed had already left to join other mosques, such as the one in Brick Lane. While it is undoubtedly the case that the East London Mosque's authority came to be disputed by substantial sections of the East End's Muslim population – its ideological position and religious guidance is by no means hegemonic – nevertheless, it has continued to exercise considerable influence over significant sections of this population and acts as an interlocutor vis-à-vis many institutions of wider society, locally and nationally. Through its interactions with influential people in a wide range of Muslim countries, it has gained a measure of recognition as a representative of particular layers of British Muslims. When the new building was inaugurated in 1985, its symbolic importance was demonstrated by the cosmopolitan character of those who were assembled on that occasion – the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia and the Imam of Kaaba, local MPs and the Mayor of the Borough of Tower Hamlets, and Muslim and non-Muslim dignitaries from around London and other British cities. That had also been the case at the Foundation Stone-laying ceremony in September 1982,Footnote 338 when Akbar Ali from Kuwait, who had initially anonymously donated £100,000 towards the mosque building fund, had been the chief guest.Footnote 339 It seems that the mosque leadership also tried to show that it genuinely wished to engage with the process of integration in the evolving multicultural and multi-faith community that the East End of London had become, and of which Muslims were now an integral part. Indeed, Suleman Jetha, who was the chairman of the Trust in 1982, hailed the construction of the mosque, adjacent to the synagogue and a nearby church, as the building of ‘a new Jerusalem!’Footnote 340
From the time of its 1985 opening in Whitechapel Road, the East London Mosque steadily deepened its role in the affairs of the local Muslim community as the politics and discourses of identity changed their orientation from ethnicity to religion. One influential factor that strengthened the ELM's hand was its association with Islamism,Footnote 341 whose global appeal had risen rapidly. With secular radicalism retreating under attack from the new Right, Islamism seemed to offer persuasive solutions to the needs and concerns of many young Muslims, most powerfully with regard to matters of their identity and self-esteem. After the 1986 local election, the Liberal/SDP alliance's reintroduction of housing policies in Tower Hamlets, differential entitlements and allocation that had favoured white families at the expense of their Bangladeshi counterparts, and that had been shelved in the early 1980s as inherently racist, resulted in further disillusionment with the mainstream political parties among large sections of the Bangladeshi community. With their secular community groups increasingly sidelined, local Bangladeshis saw greater possibilities of being more effectively represented by such entities as the mosque even though it viewed their concerns through the Islamic prism. Not having relied on public funding, it (along with other mosques) appeared relatively more independent and less compromised, though it soon became clear that dependence on funding from the Middle East was bound to have some effect on the shaping of perspectives and strategies. Moreover, having survived the Conservative government's onslaught on sources of support for the voluntary sector rather well, bodies with a distinct Muslim identity (which, in the past, had received few resources from the state and so had had to rely largely on contributions from individuals and groups within their communities) emerged with an enhanced profile in the eyes of the authorities.
The position of those who wished to emphasize Islamic needs was strengthened in schools, and also in mosques, prayer halls, and madrassas. Community identity began to be articulated relatively more strongly through religious institutions, where Muslim solidarity could be publicly celebrated, and rather less so on the basis of ethnic affiliations, family, village, and class. Indeed, between 1986 and 1990 Islamist groups associated with the East London Mosque intervened on a number of communal issues, including provision of halal food and prayer facilities in schools, as well as The Satanic Verses protest. The controversy over Salman Rushdie's novel (which was partly set in Brick Lane)Footnote 342 that erupted in 1989, was a watershed in the shift from the politics of ethnic identity to those of religious identity. Muslim protesters right across Britain were greatly agitated by the book's perceived attack on the Prophet; ‘Cockney Muslims’,Footnote 343 already feeling embattled by British racism, felt that they had been insulted by Rushdie's satirizing of their religion – he had offended their deepest beliefs and values. The opposition from the British establishment and the public at large, who saw the Muslim agitation as an attack on the principles of free speech, thought, and expression, was equally intemperate and condemnatory. In Britain and the West more generally, it was the core values that produced the fault lines between Muslims and wider society, the liberals arguing that no one ‘should be killed or face the threat of being killed, for what they say or write’;Footnote 344 many committed Muslims countered that no one should be free ‘to insult and malign Muslims’ by denigrating ‘the honour of the Prophet Muhammad’.Footnote 345 Instead of sympathy, Muslims found themselves attacked by wider society for their perceived rejection of British values. East End Muslims accordingly vented their anger in public meetings organized both in the Brick Lane and East London Mosques and at large rallies in Hyde Park. The Young Muslim Organisation,Footnote 346 which, in alliance with anti-racist groups (Bangladeshi and otherwise), had previously spearheaded the movement against the National Front and racist violence in the East End of London with encouragement from the East London Mosque, participated energetically in the protests against Rushdie. At the rally in Hyde Park in February 1989, ‘the chants of their [YMO] leaders could be heard above all others’.Footnote 347 Abdal Hussain Choudhury co-ordinated the UK Action Front's demonstrationFootnote 348 and preceding march from the East London Mosque.Footnote 349
These initiatives dovetailed with wider processes of Islamization, undertaken by groups such as Dawatul IslamFootnote 350 and the Tablighi Jamaat among East London's Bangladeshi community, in close association with the East London Mosque, which encouraged a greater conformity with regard to the dress code and religious rituals as defined by Islamist activists. Furthermore, during the 1990s, events in the Middle East (the first Gulf War in 1991), Kashmir, and eastern Europe (especially the plight of Bosnian Muslims) helped create an ever deeper sense of being part of the global Islamic community and of being ‘Muslim’. Perceived injustices abroad resonated with discrimination at ‘home’, creating a powerful sense of Muslim identification. Post 9/11, the coalescence of these factors played a significant role in hastening the move towards Islamization within the Muslim community of Tower Hamlets, especially among the younger generation, most significantly through the growth of Islamist organizations, such as the YMO and the Islamic Forum of Europe,Footnote 351 which, with the demise of the Left, were able to present themselves as a persuasive political alternative, thereby accentuating the influence of the East London Mosque among local Muslims.Footnote 352
The support for the East London Mosque also increased during this period because, having accumulated considerable experience of dealing with British institutions, its leadership came to be seen as having engaged effectively in the public sphere: it had gained recognition alongside other special interest groups and functioned with similar agendas, its distinctiveness highlighted primarily by its explicit Muslim identity. Local politics provided the main arena in which it developed and exercised influence, negotiating skilfully with various dimensions of local government, seeking compromise, and reaching ad hoc deals in a typically British fashion. By the end of the twentieth century, the East London Mosque was indisputably one of the more influential institutions of London's East End Muslim community. This was reflected when, in November 2001, the Prince of Wales joined in the breaking of the fast during Ramadan.Footnote 353 Later that same evening, he spoke at the launch of the construction of the London Muslim Centre, ‘congratulating the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre’ on all that it was doing, and promising to ‘take the closest personal interest’.Footnote 354
In strengthening its role and influence within this community, the East London Mosque was helped in no small measure by the coming to power of New Labour in 1997. The state's multicultural policies began to move away from the recognition of purely ethnic claims to encouraging faith groups to play a bigger part in civil society and local governance. The government declared that its departments sought ‘to ensure that [faith] communities [were] given the opportunity to participate fully in society through voluntary activity and other faith-based projects and that the Government [was] committed to working closely with them to build strong active communities and foster community development and civil renewal’.Footnote 355 The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre (opened in 2004) accordingly declared their commitment to the provision of broad ‘holistic, culturally sensitive services for the communities of London’.Footnote 356 For its part, the Tower Hamlets Borough Council's sympathetic engagement with local Muslim institutions was reflected in its regular communications and dealings with the East London Mosque and its willingness to draw the mosque into their ‘partnerships’.Footnote 357 The mosque's role in helping the police and the Tower Hamlets Council to put a stop to ‘Bangladeshi upon Bangladeshi’ gang violence was widely acknowledged.Footnote 358
In 1998, one particular campaign, led by the East London Mosque, ‘demonstrated their strengthening position both within the community representation and in the struggle for local resources’.Footnote 359 As part of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO),Footnote 360 it waged a determined struggle to prevent the Borough Council giving a property developer permission to build ‘luxury flats’ next to the mosque. It mobilized thousands, who marched through Whitechapel, demanding that the local Council allow the land adjacent to the mosque to be purchased by the mosque and developed as a community centre. Throughout the year, the mosque continued to lobby the Council for the extension of its premises. When it appeared that the Council was reconsidering the developer's scheme, the mosque mobilized around one hundred worshippers, who ‘laid siege to council offices in Bow claiming planners had gone back on a promise over the future of the Whitechapel mosque’.Footnote 361 Eventually, after two years of struggle, a solution ‘agreeable to everyone concerned, especially the local community was found [. . .] and planning permission was granted for the Mosque to build a community centre and 40 low cost homes on the site in collaboration with the Bethnal Green and Victoria Park and LABO Housing Associations’, a solution that met the ‘needs of the local residents and worshippers at the mosque’,Footnote 362 and which was broadcast by the mosque as an example of ‘a genuine partnership with the Council’.Footnote 363 By the time that the building of the London Muslim Centre began in 2001, the Council ‘were fully on board and ready to advertise their involvement. Their website described the London Muslim Centre as the result of innovative joint working between the Council and its partners in the Tower Hamlets Partnership, the East London Mosque, the Greater London Authority and the European Development Fund.’Footnote 364
Finally, let us look at this process of Muslim space creation from the vantage point of 2010–2011, the year of the East London Mosque's centenary celebrations. In 1910, the LMF's initiative for a mosque at the heart of imperial Britain was a way of asserting Muslim presence and symbolizing community belonging; it was a relatively modest attempt to embed distinctive cultural values in a new environment. At the same time, by inviting involvement of non-Muslims in the management and activities of the project, a process was started through which social and cultural bridge-building could be carried out and some degree of inclusion in the mainstream attempted. On the other hand, the British establishment and state were prepared to support the mosque project strictly on grounds of political expediency. Post 9/11 and 7/7, growing Islamophobia in wider society, a British foreign policy that is perceived by many British Muslims as inimical to Islam, and the draconian measures introduced by the Labour government to combat Islamist terrorism have tended to alienate significant layers among British Muslims. It should also be remembered, however, that, to counter radicalization especially among young Muslims, the local authorities have viewed the ELM, though not unreservedly, as a relatively ‘moderate’ religio-political partner. Perhaps the reason why many parts of the British establishment saw the ELM as a moderate mosque was because it openly rejected groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT):Footnote 365 the period 1992–1995 saw physical confrontations in the prayer area of the mosque, with YMO members ejecting HT activists from the premises;Footnote 366 the mosque further attracted heavy criticism from HT and Al Muhajiroon when it took to encouraging the Muslim community to exercise their right to vote in the 1997 elections. Incidents of physical struggle occurred with the Saved Sect in 2007, when the East London Mosque organized a careers day with its mainstream partners such as the London Development Agency and the Job Centre, encouraging careers in the Metropolitan Police and the armed forces. Members of the Saved Sect accused the ELM of ‘selling out’.Footnote 367 The mosque believed that funnelling resources through its hands enabled it to contribute to its goal of community cohesion in Tower Hamlets. From 2002, initiatives such as ISAP, Way to Work, and Faith in Health were designed to ensure that the whole community would benefit. Particular care was given to ensure that non-Muslims would be comfortable in accessing services that addressed common concerns such as unemployment, health inequality, and school attainment.
That said, in many ways, the community that was being built was increasingly socially encapsulated and separated from local non-Muslims. As Sarah Glynn has pointed out, the ELM and its affiliates now provide ‘the means for local Muslims to live in an increasingly separate social sphere, almost from the cradle to the grave’ – replacing other ethnic voluntary bodies as a channel for providers of local services. Its ever-expanding programme of activities includes a so-called Islamic playgroup, Islamic summer schemes, sports activities organized in what is described as a ‘sound moral atmosphere’, gender-segregated youth groups, advice on jobs, and, for Muslim women and the elderly, a wide range of cultural, educational, and recreational activities. At Ramadan, Muslim Community Radio invites listeners to ‘tune in with the whole family’.Footnote 368
By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the East London Mosque was clearly an important player in terms of shaping the attitudes and behaviours of substantial sections of the local Muslim community. That it enjoyed a great deal of support within them can be gauged from the hundreds of thousands of pounds of individual and corporate donations that it received for the construction of the mosque in the early 1980s, as well as the millions that it collected to build the London Muslim Centre in the new Millennium. The 15,000 worshippers attending the Friday congregation at the inauguration of this Centre in June 2004, according to the Muslim Council of Britain, symbolized the ‘triumph of community spirit’,Footnote 369 providing ample evidence of the level of popular support commanded by the ELM. The BBC reported that more than 18,000 congregated for Eid prayers there in 2008.Footnote 370 Through these developments, the local Muslim population has become more deeply connected with the mosque and in doing so has ‘increased [the latter's] authority as arbiter of all aspects of life’.Footnote 371
More generally, the ELM has been able to present its Islamic prescriptions as the only valid way of life. This has also meant that, from outside its core constituencies, the mosque has recently come to be accused of harbouring extremists and propagating ‘jihadism’, even though it has been unequivocal in its condemnation of the 9/11 and 7/7 atrocities. Despite its self-proclaimed commitment to ‘British’ values of democracy, fairness, tolerance, and rule of law, it is still suspected by some observers of aspiring to a radical Islamist transformation of society.
An alternative assessment of the East London Mosque's pronouncements and actions, however, may suggest that it has tried to go as far as it can in coming to terms with the plurality of British society while remaining true to its core values and ideals. Understood in this way, it could be argued that the ELM is not playing any kind of conspiratorial double game, but trying, quite pragmatically, to achieve the best possible outcomes for its constituency, keeping as much as possible to its own frame of reference. This does not necessarily mean that the ELM is not committed to community cohesion as declared in its public pronouncements. But it wishes to promote this cohesion within the framework of its, perhaps inevitably exclusivist, Islamist strategy for attracting people to its standpoint; a strategy based on social activism and civic participation, governed by a religious ethos. Hence, it welcomes an open engagement with non-MuslimsFootnote 372 (exemplified through the development of the Tower Hamlets Interfaith Forum (THIFF), a multi-faith network that demonstrated unequivocal solidarity in the aftermath of 7/7).Footnote 373 But, arguably, it does so primarily as part of its aspiration of creating an Islamic Britain. In practice, this means that, while the ELM has been successful in creating cohesion within layers of the local Muslim population, it has perhaps done so at the expense of its relations with those who are outside its fold.
While there is no official estimate of the number of mosques in Britain, there may now be well over 1,600, with scores in London alone.Footnote 374 In carving out this religious space, while Muslims have continued to confront many of the same issues with which they had to grapple before, they have succeeded, through mosque-building, in becoming recognized as significant contributors to the enrichment of Britain's cultural and religious landscape. This has been possible in large part due to the settlement of several million Muslims in a Britain radically different from the one in which the LMF began its campaign in 1910; a Britain in which Muslims as citizens see themselves in a different relationship to wider society and its institutions. With regard to the present-day East London Mosque, one of the largest in Britain, we discover that, as the Muslim community in the East End of London has grown from a few hundred to tens of thousands,Footnote 375 so too has power (or control) within the East London Mosque gradually shifted from individuals and institutions far removed from the local community to its direct representatives. The growth of the community has given it greater stature in the eyes of the institutions of wider society, a change that is reflected in its physical and administrative structures and in the character of its activities. That it is able to assert considerable autonomy and authority in institutional decision-making also vouches for the relations of power between the community and the state. And its impressive buildings tell us about the changing relations of power in an increasingly plural Britain. They suggest the increasing capacity of Muslim communities to mobilize resources needed (the London Muslim Centre affiliated to the East London Mosque alone cost £10.5 millionFootnote 376), not only from within the community but also from the wider Muslim world. Yet, because the construction of the East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre was funded in considerable measure by the local community itself, this has given it a greater sense of ownership and ‘belonging’ in the locality in which it is based. The investment needed to put down permanent mosque structures, the establishment of facilities for the religious education of Muslim children, and the appointment of a salaried imam marked the commitment to settle. All of this means that the mosque and its institutional growth have become important markers of community formation. It has become a convenient place for social gatherings and a resource for women, children, and elders, accommodating a crèche, counselling and advisory services, and a library. It has played an educational role for non-Muslims by hosting visits from local schools, and is active in inter-faith dialogue.
The history of the East London Mosque since 1985 has been, in some ways, a narrative of struggle, in which the efforts and sacrifices of Muslims have been met with suspicion and opposition of public authorities and powerful residents' associations. First, there were the prolonged and tortuous negotiations regarding the shift from the Commercial Road premises and then to Whitechapel Road. Soon after, a dispute arose regarding the azan (call to prayer): worshippers demanded an increase in the number of calls, while local residents and businesses complained to the Tower Hamlets Council and the Secretary of State for the Environment about the ‘noise nuisance’. The local press reported, ‘Ritual chants summoning thousands of East End Muslims to worship twice a day hit a sour note with local residents’, with Tower Hamlets Council receiving ‘a flood of complaints’Footnote 377 and considering ‘legal action to “pull the plug” on loudspeaker broadcasts [of the azan] from the East London Mosque’.Footnote 378 Jetha, the long-serving chairman of the Trust, countered by accusing complainants of being ‘intolerant’ towards other religions: ‘I suspect’, he remarked, that ‘the real reason behind many of these complaints is racial prejudice’. The complaints to him smacked of double standards, since nobody, he suggested, objected to the ringing of church bells.Footnote 379 Local Muslims angered by the dispute urged their religious leaders ‘to INCREASE the volume of the prayer calls broadcast’, claiming that they could not hear the ‘ritual chants’.Footnote 380 Eventually, a compromise solution was reached by reducing the volume.Footnote 381
Since the events of 7 July 2005, the ELM/LMC has been targeted more sharply than ever before by the media, politicians, and think-tanks, often with their own axe to grind. Indeed, many of the ELM's detractors view it as a Janus-like organization – they claim that, while its public image is that of a ‘moderate’ Islamist organization with a ‘moderate’ message, significant evidence in relation to its internal communication with its members betrays a radical and subversive Islamist hidden agenda. For instance, the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, ‘Undercover mosque’ (broadcast on 15 January 2007), and Denis MacEoin's report, ‘The hijacking of British Islam’, published in October 2007, for the ‘Conservative think-tank’ Policy Exchange,Footnote 382 suggested that, among other things, the East London Mosque provided a home for extremist, separatist, and sectarian literature. ‘This literature’, MacEoin declared, ‘not only condemns non-Muslim society, but also frequently denigrates other Muslims – those whose standards of Islamic observation are deemed by authors to be insufficiently pure or rigorous’.Footnote 383 In 2010, Andrew Gilligan's ‘Britain's Islamic republic’, shown on 1 March, again on Channel 4, claimed that the ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic Forum of Europe, based in the London Muslim Centre and thought to be closely associated with the East London Mosque, was an organization in possession of an extremist ‘Islamist’ ideology. Gilligan asserted that it was not the moderate ‘social welfare’ organization,Footnote 384 committed to community cohesion and tolerance, that it claimed to be; on the contrary, he argued that it sought to exploit, through ‘deceit’,Footnote 385 the democratic process, and to ‘infiltrate’Footnote 386 the local Labour Party (whose secular values were opposed to those of the IFE), so that it could ‘subvert the local council’ and bend it to its own programme.Footnote 387 Gilligan's claims, however, were strongly denied by non-Muslim local activists involved in collaborative work with the ELM. Footnote 388
The fact that Gilligan's report drew on evidence in support of his accusations furnished by individuals in the local Muslim community, as well as IFE documents,Footnote 389 suggests that considerable tension still exists between competing interests and ideological positions in the community, who are determined to challenge and undermine the influence that ELM/LMC exercises within it. In a letter to The Guardian, a number of community activists representing many ‘impeccably non-sectarian Muslims [. . .] who are capable of opposing both racism and fundamentalism’, as well as some organizations based in London's East End, while condemning the ‘visible rise, in some parts of the country, of anti-Muslim bigotry’, also expressed ‘legitimate concerns about the leadership of the East London Mosque and the Islamic Forum of Europe’, for allowing ‘intemperate clerics to speak on its premises, some of whom have promoted values antithetical to those required in a tolerant and progressive society’.Footnote 390 These clerics, so the letter claimed, had intimidated and bullied other Muslims into accepting their contested theology as undisputed truth. Similarly, when the English Defence LeagueFootnote 391 threatened to march in Tower Hamlets to protest against a meeting organized under the auspices of the Federation of Student and Islamic Societies, a broad-based coalition (including the Brick Lane Mosque), while condemning the ‘fascist EDL’, also criticized the Islamic Forum of Europe for claiming to ‘act as the sole representatives of ordinary Muslims [. . .] operating under the direction of their parent organization Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh’.Footnote 392
It appears that Islamophobic media attacks and anti-Muslim street mobilizations have become part of a ‘culture war’ in which particular relatively influential anti-Muslim groups and politicians in British society, threatened by the growth of Muslim institutions as embodiments of Islamic power, pursue a range of strategies to weaken them. In this situation, for its congregation at least if not for the Muslim communities more widely, the ELM/LMC represents a fortress to be defended. In a climate fraught with anxieties and threats regarding identity, in an increasingly plural Britain, the contestation of cultural values and rights has become much more politically intense. As opposition to cultural and religious symbols has grown, resistance to this ‘backlash’ from wider society has resulted in the strengthening of community solidarity. The more that popular concerns about ‘militant Islam’ and its erosion of ‘a British way of life’ have risen, the more a sense of being under siege has developed, increasing determination among groups of Muslims to present a united front in the face of this onslaught.
The ELM/LMC, too, has fought back. It denounced, for instance, the Gilligan documentary as a ‘distorted and utterly misleading portrayal of the East London Mosque’, which, it said, ‘[t]hrough factual errors, innuendo and an extraordinarily disingenuous selection of commentators, [left] viewers with an entirely false impression of the Mosque’. It reiterated its openness to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, its commitment to the promotion of religious and social tolerance, and its opposition to and condemnation of ‘violent extremism in all its forms’. The mosque's representatives, in a lengthy statement in early 2010, declared that it
actively encourages the congregation to engage in the democratic process, particularly voting during elections, without ever suggesting who to vote for; no organisation or person – and this includes IFE – is allowed to canvass for political parties or candidates in the Mosque or London Muslim Centre. While we try to ensure that those who use our facilities, including for speaking engagements, reflect the values of moderation and tolerance we hold and adhere to, on rare occasion it may be that someone, speaking at an event for which a room or hall has been hired for example, says something we neither agree with nor approve of. It would be very misleading to characterize our Mosque on the basis of these few exceptions, rather the norm of the great diversity of the speakers who maintain the highest standards we aspire to. It is not possible for any organisation in a position such as ours to vet and approve in advance every statement to be made by every speaker addressing audiences at the Mosque and Centre. Intellectual, political, social and religious debate is one of the cornerstones of a democratic society and many organisations (including the ELM and LMC) permit a wide range of speakers who hold varied and often conflicting views. Self-evidently that does not mean that the organisations in questions support or espouse every view expressed by every speaker they host and it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise.Footnote 393
When the English Defence League marched through central London in March 2010, with placards including the demand ‘Close the East London Mosque now’, the mosque was able to assemble a powerful coalition of public figures, politicians, and religious and trade union leaders calling for solidarity and support for it.Footnote 394
What has happened in the century-long struggle to build the mosque that now stands on Whitechapel Road has thus depended a great deal not only on the size and composition of the Muslim community in London but also on the structure of religious life in British society and the relationship between the state and religion. It was in this nexus that the East London Mosque became a site for cultural negotiation and identity formation for local Muslims. By looking at this particular process of mosque-making, we gain a clearer sense of how particular Muslim spaces (in this case mosques) arose out of negotiations between local and global concerns, competing and conflicting interests, dominant and subaltern loyalties. Indeed, what the unfolding history of the East London Mosque symbolizes, and the Minutes of its Trustees’ meetings reveal, is the complex growth of the Muslim presence in Britain as it has become steadily and ineffably woven into the fabric of both local and national British society.