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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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