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.


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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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.