An Islamic group fighting to keep its east London mosque, near to the Olympics site, has been described by opponents as a "supremacist movement" that encourages isolationism from wider British society.
Tablighi Jamaat, a global proselytising movement with tens of thousands of members in the UK, is trying to overturn an enforcement notice on its mosque, called the Riverine Centre, after temporary planning permission expired in 2006.
A planning inquiry at Newham town hall will determine whether the group can continue to use the modest collection of buildings. On Thursday it heard that followers of Tablighi Jamaat were taught to "shun integration with all unbelievers in order to be uncontaminated Muslims and to isolate themselves from wider society".
According to evidence from Dr Taj Hargey, an imam who runs a progressive Islamic educational centre in Oxford, the "isolationist dynamic" of Tablighi Jamaat has caused the growth of a "separatist Muslim enclave" in the streets around its Dewsbury headquarters.
Hargey was called as a witness by Newham Concern, a local campaign group which has long opposed Tablighi Jamaat and its ambitions to expand its facilities. The group is behind plans to build a much larger facility at the site, dubbed a "megamosque" by the media, although it currently has no planning application in place.
Hargey told the inquiry that Tablighi Jamaat had "achieved very little for the community" and rejected the group's assertions that closing the mosque would lead to the marginalisation of Muslim youth.
He said: "Over the past 14 years that TJ has occupied the site it has furnished no proven track record of opening their facilities to the wider Muslim community, let alone non-Muslim community. In that time they have not even managed to create any facilities for women. The facility itself currently contributes substantially to marginalisation". He described it as a "supremacist movement with adverse implications for the government's community cohesion policies".
Newham Concern also called Tehmina Kazi, from the group British Muslims for Secular Democracy, as a witness. Kazi, speaking in a personal capacity, said the government's national planning policy sought to promote "mixed and balanced communities" and that Tablighi Jamaat was "particularly inward-looking" because it only engaged with other Muslims. "The main issue is not that they are a socially conservative movement, but the fact they have been reluctant to engage in dialogue with people who are different."
Newham council has said it wants to shut the mosque down over concerns about traffic levels, land contamination and visual impact.
The inquiry continues.
Described here as an innocuous-sounding "local campaign group", Newham Concern was in fact set up by a group of right-wing evangelical Christian agitators headed by Alan Craig. Formerly a Christian Peoples Alliance councillor in Newham, for years Craig used that position to whip up hysteria over Tablighi Jamaat's plans to build a so-called "mega-mosque" on the present site and even stood in the 2008 London mayoral election with that as the main plank of his platform.
(Sadly for Craig, his attempts to expand his base of political support through anti-TJ scaremongering was not exactly an unqualified success. His mayoral candidacy won him a derisory 1.62% of the vote, while voters in Newham delivered their verdict on his record as a councillor by booting him out last May.)
In his campaign against Tablighi Jamaat, Craig has not restricted himself to alleging merely that they are a "separatist" movement – he has also tried to smear the organisation as a promoter of terrorism, despite the fact that Tablighi Jamaat is an entirely peaceful and non-political organisation.
For example, following the failed car bomb attacks on London and Glasgow in June 2007, when it was reported that two of the participants had at one time been connected with Tablighi Jamaat, Craig issued a press release headed "Olympics mega-mosque linked to London and Glasgow car bomb plots – Arrested suspects radicalised by mosque promoters Tablighi Jamaat".
Craig stated: "Tablighi Jamaat radicalises and dehumanises Muslim young men. They have a growing and ominous track record as further young men follow Tabligh teaching about Islam and then go on to plan horrendous atrocities."
The reality is that millions of Muslims have passed through the ranks of Tablighi Jamaat, by attending Tabligh-run classes or by devoting a few weeks or months to Tabligh-organised dawa aimed at the spiritual awakening of fellow Muslims. The fact that a few individuals accused of terrorism have at some point in their lives been associated with the movement is therefore statistically meaningless.
The results of Craig's disgraceful campaign of slander against Tablighi Jamaat, which provided a "respectable" cover for the sort of anti-Muslim propaganda more usually associated with the far right, were entirely predictable.
In 2007 a BNP member named Jill Barham, who at the time ran a rabidly Islamophobic blog under the name of English Rose, posted an e-petition on the number10.gov.uk website that attracted over 280,000 signatures (including one that featured the call to "KILL ALL NIGGERS"). The petition read: "We the Christian population of this great country England would like the proposed plan to build a Mega Mosque in East London Scrapped. This will only cause terrible violence and suffering and more money should go into the NHS."
Support for the petition was organised through the circulation of an email falsely claiming that "Ken Livingstone is planning to use tax payer's [sic] money to build an enormous mosque costing an estimated £100M in the docklands". The email continued: "Wouldn't it be better to spend the money on a new hospital or improved transport facilities anything but such a scheme as this: The mosque will be BIGGER THAN ST PAUL'S!!!.... To vote to 'Scrap the Mega-Mosque' please sign the official Government petition."
Livingstone issued a statement condemning Barham's petition as a "piece of vicious BNP propaganda, based as usual on entirely fabricated information" and called for it to be removed from the Number 10 website: "It is wrong that such invented and falsified petitions provide a platform for those who would like to use them to create tensions among Londoners."
The BNP's Nick Griffin readily admitted that the fascists had publicised the petition on their website and had organised an email campaign to get their supporters to sign it. Barham herself, challenged over her far-right links, conceded that she was a supporter of the BNP but claimed that her decision to launch the petition had been inspired not by the BNP itself but rather by Craig's anti-mosque campaign.
Craig himself refused to condemn Barham's petition. He took the line that it showed the strength of public feeling on the issue and the most he was prepared to say in criticism was that he was "wary of the exact wording of the petition and didn't sign it". Far from attacking the BNP over their lying attempt to whip up fear and hatred against Muslims, Craig instead issued a press release headed "'Hysterical' Ken Livingstone is 'trying to close down legitimate debate' about Olympics mega-mosque says Cllr Alan Craig – Over quarter of a million sign Downing Street petition against the mega-mosque".
This is the man with whom Taj Hargey and Tehmina Kazi have chosen to ally themselves. Both of them are involved with a group called British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which is ever ready to denounce fundamentalism within Islam, yet they have no problem working with a right-wing Christian fundamentalist like Alan Craig. But this is hardly surprising. Hargey in particular has a track record when it comes to aligning himself with anti-Muslim forces to attack his co-religionists and their organisations.
Of South African origin, Hargey lived for many years in the United States, where he was involved in schemes to raise finance for a purported Black newspaper in South Africa and for America's first Islamic university, which he claimed would provide "a fully fledged alternative to the Ivy League". While neither the newspaper nor the university ever materialised, since his arrival in the UK Hargey has had more success selling himself as the voice of "liberal Muslims", even though his influence is limited to running the small and obscure Muslim Educational Centre that he set up in Oxford. To quote Yusuf Smith: "Taj Hargey is regarded by any Muslims in this country who have heard of him as a disloyal, unrepresentative nobody who gets airtime because he tells the media what they want to hear."
The first time most people in the UK came across Hargey was when this previously unknown individual appeared in a star role in John Ware's 2005 Panorama programme "A Question of Leadership", helpfully telling viewers that "there's a virtual apartheid in parts of Britain – self-imposed by those Muslims who regard non-Muslims as Kaafir". Since then, Hargey has established himself alongside the Quilliam Foundation as the go-to man for the right-wing press when they need a Muslim to denounce his fellow Muslims.
In an article for the Times claiming that he was the victim of "Muslim McCarthyites" (the Muslim Weekly had mistakenly described him as an Ahmadi, and he sued them) Hargey wrote: "Islam in Britain has been taken over by the followers of a warped manifestation of the faith. The Muslim Council of Britain, the main Muslim newspapers and many of the big mosques are dominated by men who subscribe to a virulent and backward-looking brand of Islam that has been exported from the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent."
Interviewed for a puff piece in the Daily Mail ("The Muslim cleric who blames British mosques for the 7/7 bombings"), Hargey used the opportunity to renew his attack on the MCB: "These people are religious fascists. The view that Islam is incompatible with British society is something that the Muslim Council of Britain and their hangers-on have promulgated."
When the right-wing press claimed, without any evidence at all to back up the accusation, that UCL's ISoc was responsible for converting the "Christmas Day bomber" Umar Abdulmutallab to violent extremism, Hargey intervened to offer his support. "The radicalisation of Abdulmutallab at University College London, where he was head of the Islamic Society, is no different to the radicalisation of many other students in university Islamic Societies across the country," he told the Daily Mail. "These organisations are an insidious and creeping menace, and in my opinion a crucible of extremism.... They prey on the insecurities and guilt of young Muslims."
Whenever the rights of Muslims come under attack, Hargey's automatic reaction is to line up with the attackers. His response to Sarkozy's proposal to ban the veil was not to criticise this as a shameful attack on civil liberties but to write a letter to the Times declaring that "I commend the French leader for questioning the validity of full-face veiling for Muslim women". When the Swiss voted for a ban on minarets he wrote an article for the same paper arguing that, while the referendum had been "needlessly xenophobic", the ban itself "does not infringe the religious liberty of Swiss Muslims".
When a young Muslim woman took a Buckinghamshire school to court over her right to wear the niqab, Hargey weighed in with the offer of a contribution to the school's legal costs – a stance that won him the admiration of Melanie Phillips. A subsequent (false) report in the News of the World that Muslim girls throughout the UK were to be banned from wearing the veil at school brought the following response from Hargey: "This is fantastic news. It is wrong for Muslims to be given special treatment." When the right-wing press engaged in scaremongering over a plan to build a mosque with two minarets near to the military academy at Sandhurst, Hargey contributed an article to the Times in which he stated that "building twin minaret towers, so close to a renowned military college, is a provocation".
But let us be fair. It would be wrong to give the impression that Hargey is unwilling to defend the rights of religious believers. As he warned readers in a column for the Daily Mail last year: "Make no mistake, a new form of virulent secularism is sweeping through society – and its target is Christianity.... I can see all too clearly the shameful way in which Britain's national faith is being eroded." This was music to the ears of Alan Craig, who referred readers of his blog to Hargey's article, offering it as evidence that, contrary to the views of progressive Christians like Jonathan Bartley of Ekklesia, "there is now active discrimination against Christianity in the UK".
So you can see why Hargey and Craig might be keen to work together. After all, they have so much in common. They both engage in irresponsible attacks on mainstream tendencies within British Islam, thereby feeding right-wing and even fascist campaigns aimed at depicting Muslims and their organisations as a menace to society, while at the same time promoting the myth that it is not Muslims but Christians who are the main victims of religious discrimination in the UK today. They should consider establishing their relationship on a more permanent basis. Perhaps Hargey could set up an Oxford branch of the Christian Peoples Alliance.