by Alaya Forte
A homogenous Muslim community is a myth, an unreal city shattered daily by the kaleidoscopic reality that is London’s geography and demography.
Our journey into London, the first leg of “Journey into the UK” Project, begins at Finsbury Park Mosque and its neighbouring Community Centre. Here the British and foreign media had a veritable field day in the persona of the hook-handed Muslim cleric Abu Hamza. Had we been journalists searching for the next catchy headline, we would have had to swallow our disappointment as this Barriesque figure never materialized.
This starting point, however, allowed the team to move on from recurrent and, frankly, rather tiresome representations of the Muslims in Britain to venture outside the ‘frame’ and ‘step inside’ the real communities and their lived experiences. The expression ‘stepping inside’ implies a priori free and open access - no entrance ticket, no security checks, no letter of invitation or passport required. And, crucially, it implies an element of mutual trust.
We should remind ourselves at this juncture that notions of trust and faith (coming into being in places of worship), though separated in their modern English forms by their origin - one is from Latin, the other from Old Norse - in fact share their meaning. This is more evident in Latin languages where we find fiducia/fede; confiance/foi; both from fidere meaning to trust or to have faith.
But to move on. As this is not the place to reveal the specifics of all the interviews we conducted, I would like to focus my attention on the discourse of space - buildings, well-trodden streets, community centres and mosques - all contributing to London’s unique skyline and topography. In this non-linear space, as authors from Dickens to Monica Ali have testified, innumerable stories have been and are still being recounted, emerging narratives which are deeply embedded in their particular neighbourhoods.
The East London Mosque is undoubtedly impressive, but a passer-by could be forgiven for dismissing its street-level façade as just another building, albeit with ‘oriental’ features, around which a wide array of shops clusters. It is only when the passer-by turns his eyes upwards and takes in the glittering sepia-coloured minarets that the full impact of the mosque makes itself felt. This is equally true of the main mosque entrance, reserved for men only, which deftly conceals the Maryam Centre - an extensive development at the rear of the main Mosque, where women can participate in all sorts of classes and activities. Facilities include a gym, where zumba classes are held, or where women meet to coordinate the weekly fundraising bazaar in support of Syria and other war-torn countries. Across the street, there is the Whitechapel market, as busy and vibrant as the bees that inhabit the Mosque’s rooftop hives. And for those who know and cherish the East End of London, this living/lived community is in keeping with the inclusive ethos of this part of the city, where numerous immigrant groups have put down roots. City history is always present - the MET office which occupies a building a couple of doors away from the Brixton Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre is a reminder of the area’s problematic past, one which its current gentrification won’t easily erase.
Right across the other side of the city we come across the Islamic Centre of England, the most important Shi’a place of worship in Britain. A single white building among the leafy and residential streets of Maida Vale, opposite The Queen’s Arms pub, an Italian Fratelli Restaurant and the Maida Vale Marriott Hotel. Once a ballroom and then a Mecca Bingo, the Islamic Centre’s hall reserved for women has replaced the sound of a string of potentially lucky numbers being called out with a du’a. “They want to fit in, they just don’t know how” says the Shaykh, still engaging with the community and local schools who regularly come to visit the Mosque and its Centre. A bridge with the non-Muslim community is also sought and encouraged by the Haringey Mosque, which has opened up its newly built extension as a potential conference and events space.
This in/visible dialogue between spaces is constantly transforming and developing as a new generation of young Muslim women and men are reflecting on their identity. With this in mind, we visit Rumi’s Cave, a community space in Kilburn where full-length windows and an open door act as an invitation to anyone walking down the street to drop by, especially when Shaykh Babikir leads the Sufi dhikr. A group of its members takes centre-stage at a Sunday event held at the Universal Peace Federation’s headquarters, exploring questions of identity through music, poetry and painting. The question is - how should we respond?
At the launch of the “Journey into Europe” Project at the House of Lords, kindly hosted by Lord Parekh, the attending guests were seated in a room where the Law Lords once oversaw the House’s judicial business - all that remains of these weighty proceedings is a large oil canvas of the Lords together with the portrait of the 1st Earl of St. Albans, dressed in the full Stuart regalia. All visible references are Christian and monarchic, hardly representing the “multiple identities” of the Island’s contemporary subjects.
While wondering around in the main hall leading to the meeting rooms, I came upon a fresco portraying a scene from one of Shakespeare’s plays - King Lear surrounded by his three daughters. The bitter words exchanged between the King and his youngest daughter, Cordelia, echo in my mind. The King, ready to divide his kingdom, demands of his daughters, “which of you shall we say doth love us most?”. “Nothing” answers Cordelia, adding “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty / According to my bond; nor more nor less.” Sensible Cordelia speaks the truth, but her father, driven by vanity and selfishness, would rather believe the empty profusions of her two elder sisters, leading ultimately to betrayal and tragedy. Lear refuses to accept the reality of love and obedience. So Europe and Britain, in this post EU election week, would do better to trust their immigrant communities more, Muslim and non, and not be blinded by appearance. Were politicians only more attentive to the wisdom that greets them every day in the Houses of Parliament!