For their attackers, mosques are seen as places of "difference"

Chris Allen's research has shown that mosques are rarely just seen by as places of worship.

It remains to be seen whether the blaze which destroyed a community centre and mosque in Muswell Hill, north London this week was a reprisal attack against Muslims in Britain for the murder of drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich a fortnight ago. If so, it will be another to add to the dramatically increased number of incidents to have been reported to Tell MAMA, the government-funded third party monitoring project which records anti-Muslim attacks.

In this climate however, it is no surprise that mosques have come under attack. According to Tell MAMA, around 12 have been targeted of late, the most worrying incident being in Grimsby where three petrol bombs were thrown. This is no surprise to me though because as my research over the past decade has shown, mosques have become convenient targets onto which the fears and anxieties about Muslims and Islam that ordinary people have are projected.

From research undertaken in the Midlands, mosques are rarely seen by ordinary people as mere places of worship. Instead, they are seen as places of "difference", physically embodying all that is perceived to be wrong or problematic about Muslims and Islam. Because of this, opposition to mosques is regularly voiced on the basis of them being seen to go against "our" culture and "our" way of life, against who "we" think "we" are and what "we" stand for. This is something which resonates loudly with the rhetoric of some far-right groups including the English Defence League (EDL) which claims to “not let our culture and traditions be eroded...[to]preserve English values”.

Focusing on Islamophobic incidents the Midlands, my research highlighted how opposition towards mosques was growing. With Birmingham being a notable exception most likely because of its significant and well established Muslim population, this was most evident in a variety of locations on the periphery of cities: in Hanley, Nuneaton, Solihull and others, and particularly in the "Black Country", the former industrialised area to the north west of Birmingham, where negotiations to build a new mosque in Dudley had been ongoing for a decade. Having highlighted the failings of many stakeholders – the public spats between the local authority and some Muslim organisations especially – there a vacuum was created which gave space to the far right. As one community leader I interviewed put it, this vacuum afforded the EDL an opportunity to use “Dudley as its flagship… coming here to use the mosque as an excuse”.

In the two year period I focused on Dudley, the EDL organised two significant protests in the town. On another occasion, EDL supporters barricaded themselves into the building currently on the site of the proposed mosque with the intention of broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer five times a day. Alongside this, the British National Party had won seats on the local council alongside UKIP, both parties succeeding on the back of explicit anti-mosque campaigns.

Of the community leaders in the area – both Muslim and non – I spoke to, there was a direct link: the more active the far right, the more tensions there were amongst local residents about Muslims and Islam. For them, the mosque offered the far right a convenient opportunity to exploit those fears and anxieties by exaggerating the perceived threat the mosque – all mosques in fact – present.

And this maybe manifested itself in the fact that while the far right was at its most active in the town, there were a number of attacks on nearby mosques. So in nearby Cradley Heath, the mosque was subjected to two separate arson attacks, the second burning the mosque to the ground on Boxing Day 2009. A further stone’s throw away in Langley, a building set to be taken over by the local Muslim organisation was similarly destroyed by an arson attack1.

From those ordinary people I engaged with, it became clear that they could only speculate about what went on behind the closed doors of a mosque. This was clear in Dudley where one local resident opposing the proposed mosque told me how mosques are “hotbeds of extremism”. Another, more worryingly spoke about how “the minarets resemble look out posts...” before adding, “I know what they say they are but the design of the buildings seem more fortified castles than spiritual houses to me”.

In the aftermath of the bloody and barbaric incident in Woolwich, it will be very easy to exploit the pre-existent fears and anxieties that ordinary people have about mosques as also being about Muslims and Islam. Given the increased activity of those such as the EDL and BNP in recent weeks, it is likely that these fears and anxieties will be heightened and in some instances exploited. While mosques may be mere places of worship for Muslims as indeed others, it is worth remembering that for many, they represent something much more threatening and fearful.

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1Express & Star, Oldbury community centre gutted in arson attack, 15 June 2010.

Fire officers survey the fire damaged Bravanese Centre in Muswell Hill. Photograph: Getty Images

Chris Allen is a Lecturer in the Institute of Applied Social Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is on Twitter as @DrChrisAllen.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.