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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.

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

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.