“You watch how we get angry.” — Abjol Miah, activist, Islamic Forum for Europe
Authorities in London have rejected a controversial proposal by a radical Islamic group to build one of the largest mosques in the world near the city’s Olympic Stadium.
Prominent Muslims have responded to the news by vowing to punish the Labour Party in future elections unless the decision is reversed and the application to build the mosque is approved immediately.
The Strategic Development Committee of the Labour-led Newham Council, the local authority for the London Borough of Newham, unanimously decided on December 5 to reject an application by the Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat to build a “super-mosque” in West Ham, East London, amid fierce opposition and concern from local citizens.
Had the application been approved, the super-mosque, known as the Abbey Mills Riverine Center, would have held up to 10,000 worshippers, making it the largest religious building in Britain and the largest mosque in Europe.
By comparison, Britain’s largest cathedral, the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, can hold no more than 3,000 worshippers, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of the iconic features of the London skyline, has a capacity of 2,500.
The 6.6 hectare (16.5 acre) site, about one mile from the 2012 Olympic Village in West Ham, would have included two 40-foot minarets, an Islamic library, a dining hall, tennis courts, sports facilities, eight apartments for visiting Muslim clerics and hundreds of parking spaces (photos here).
Much of the funding for the super-mosque, which was estimated to cost around £100 million ($160 million), was expected to come from Saudi Arabia.
The project to build a “contemporary Islamic sacred space” was so massive in scale that critics said the mega-mosque was actually a smokescreen for an ambitious plan to establish the first Islamic Sharia-controlled enclave in East London, where more than 25% of the population is Muslim (compared with about 9% in London as a whole).
The construction plans were submitted by Tablighi Jamaat, a controversial Sunni Muslim missionary movement with roots in India. Tablighi Jamaat, which in English means “Society for the Spreading of the Faith” or “Proselytizing Group,” is the largest group of religious proselytizers of any faith in the world.
Tablighi Jamaat is active in Southwest and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, and has contributed to the explosive growth of Islamic religious fervor and conversion around the world.
Although Tablighi Jamaat promotes itself as open and socially integrated, and strives to project a non-threatening image, the group has been accused not only of radicalizing young Muslims, but after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, members of the group were also accused of having ties to Muslim terrorist organizations.
In addition, two of those responsible for the suicide bombings in London on July 7, 2005, Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan, as well as failed shoe bomber Richard Reid, have been linked to a Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.
Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of a group that attempted to bomb London’s public transport system on July 21, 2005, attended a Tablighi mosque in East London, and the “fifth bomber” in the July 21 plot, Manfo Kwaku Asiedu, attended a Tablighi gathering in Dewsbury for three days.
The group also operated from mosques in Walthamstow, east London, and High Wycombe, Bucks, where several of the 2006 transatlantic airline plotters worshipped. Assad Sarwar, the bomb maker, and Waheed Zaman, a biochemistry student, both joined weekend camps run by Tablighi Jamaat.
American security officials have called Tablighi Jamaat a “recruiting ground for Al Qaeda,” and French intelligence officials have described the group as an “antechamber of fundamentalism.” The French Tablighi expert Marc Gaborieau says the group’s ultimate objective is nothing short of a “planned conquest of the world” in the spirit of jihad.
An estimated 3,000 of the mega-mosque’s supporters, some of whom travelled to London from as far away as Bradford and Birmingham, gathered outside Newham Council’s town hall ahead of the decision on December 5. Some of them held signs reading: “15 years of waiting. Not a day more. Vote yes to the Riverine Center.”
Later that evening, the Newham Town Council announced that all eight councillors on the Strategic Development Committee had voted to reject the Tablighi mosque application on the grounds that the building was “too big” and would not serve the needs of the local community.
After the meeting, Councillor Conor McAuley, Newham Council’s Executive Member for Regeneration and Strategic Planning, issued a formal statement: “Councillors have considered this application at length and with great care before deciding to reject it. The council undertook a rigorous and extensive consultation about the proposals in the run-up to this decision.”
McAuley added: “Our planning policies promote the development of the Abbey Mills site for a mix of residential, employment and community uses, to help create a new local center near West Ham station and regenerate the area. The creation of new homes and jobs are a priority for Newham Council. It is not considered that this application is consistent with these policies. There are also concerns about the size of the proposed buildings and impact on parking and traffic in the local area.”
He also said: “Apart from the proposals being contrary to the planning policy for the site, they are also unacceptable for a number of other reasons. These are: the proposed mosque building is too big and would have an impact on important historic buildings nearby; it will generate too much traffic resulting in people parking on local residents’ streets; the site is heavily contaminated raising safety issues which are not properly addressed by the application; the application proposes keeping existing buildings on the site, which are poorly designed.”
The decision followed an extensive public consultation which resulted in 29,888 responses: 26,139 in support and 3,749 against.
Tablighi Jamaat had been requesting permission to build the mosque since 1999 (the original plans called for a mosque with a capacity for 70,000 worshippers) and said the building was needed to accommodate the followers it has across London.
In 2005, a former Newham town councillor, Alan Craig, launched a campaign called “Mega Mosque No Thanks” to stop the project, which he said would have resulted in the establishment of an “Islamic ghetto” in East London.
After Newham Council announced its decision to reject the mosque application, Craig said: “I’m opposed to both the nature of the group and the size of the mosque they want to build. We have freedom of religion and if Tablighi Jamaat wanted to build a neighborhood mosque, that’s fine. But they want to build a massive headquarters in an area that cannot support such a building.”
Some local Muslims had also expressed concerns that it would give one Islamic group too much dominance over the community.
The decision by Newham Council was immediately denounced by supporters of the project who vowed to fight on and seek a judicial review to overturn the decision.
The leader of the Tablighi community in East London, Alauddin Ahmed, was quoted by the BBC as saying: “There are 90,000 Muslims around the borough. The Muslim community is growing and there is need for bigger worship [facilities]. We are extremely let down. We think it is unjust because of the demand of the local people and the Muslim community.”
Alan Craig, the anti-mosque activist, said: “Tablighi Jamaat has shown they have deep pockets and are determined to fulfill their ambition for a massive international center on this site irrespective of local concerns. We can expect them to appeal over the heads of Newham Council to the Planning Inspectorate at Bristol, as they have done successfully before, and that this issue will drag on much longer yet.”
Muslims have also warned the Labour Party that it will pay a price for turning down the application. Abjol Miah, a leading activist for both the far left Respect Party and the extremist Islamic Forum of Europe said: “I think a lot of people tonight that weren’t political have become political. It is a shame we have Labour councillors and committee members here. You know we have the London council elections in 2014 and I think the residents are going to be thinking differently. They are going to get more active. It is a time for change for Labour. You watch how we get angry.”
Newham Council is also engaged in a separate legal fight against Tablighi Jamaat, which currently uses part of the Abbey Mills site to house the London Markaz (also known as Masjid-e-Ilyas) as a temporary mosque complex that can accommodate up to 2,500 people.
Newham Council says Tablighi no longer has permission to use the site and has taken legal action to compel the group to stop using the Abbey Mills site as a mosque and to demolish temporary buildings.