4,000 Against 1: Local Mosque Faces Strong Opposition In South West London

In the Middle East and around the Arabic world, the glorification of Islam can be seen through the breathtakingly beautiful structures erected in the name of Allah.

As afternoon prayers break into song and the sun fades on the horizon, you can hear the holy call shake across cities from Granada to Mecca.

In Kingston, South-West London, the procedure is a far quieter affair as men prepare for prayer at their local Mosque. Sitting on stools in a small side room, with calm care they wash their hands, feet and faces from taps that gush water from the walls.

As the prayer begins, scores of men unite in rows on a soft crimson carpet. Facing east, they kneel and lay their heads to the ground in unison. Rising and falling the men repeat this procedure of prayer with a tidal rhythm as the speaker calls out in Arabic. At points during the prayer the men turn their heads towards each other: “As-salam alaykum” (peace be upon you) they say, before returning to kneel before Allah.

Unlike the Arab world, where most Muslims have a Mosque at the end of their road, in this corner of South-West London, an Islamic place of worship is not so easy to find.

In the neighbouring town of Worcester Park Muslims have to travel to Kingston for Friday prayer.

Over the past year, a Muslim applicant, Mr H Aziz, has wrestled with the local council to convert a dilapidated unused building in the area into a Mosque. However the council has unanimously refused planning to the applicant twice, most recently in September, claiming that the Mosque would increase traffic on an already congested street.

Residents in the area whole-heartedly support the refusal. Nearly 4,000 people have signed a petition against the proposed Mosque on Green Lane and 660 letters have been sent to the council imploring them to refuse the application.

It is not easy to trace another planning application that has caused such public outcry within the Worcester Park community.  In 2009, St James Homes, a housing development company, faced considerable opposition from the Worcester Park Residents Association when they proposed to expand their development programme on Green Lane. The proposal was at first refused but after an appeal the company was finally granted permission by the council to build 184 new dwellings in the area.

Interestingly, just four years later, Mr Aziz’s much smaller development application has generated an undivided opposition from the council and the local community.

At a recent Development Control Committee meeting the applicant suggested that the Mosque would only attract around 15-20 local worshippers who would walk to and from the Mosque. Compare this to the 184 residencies built on the same road and the traffic implications seem minor.

However the councillors rejected this predicted figure of visitors. In response to the applicants’ projection, the Conservative Councillor Tony Shields said: “I’ve been a councillor for quite a while and I’ve heard a lot of tosh in these meetings but you are way out in front!”

The meeting ended with councillors unanimously refusing the application for a Mosque. As a result, Mr Aziz has once again appealed the decision.

Local Worcester Park blogger, Simon Densley, is firmly in the no camp. “If they keep on appealing people are going to be really hacked off,” he said, “I think this is starting to rub people up the wrong way. A lot of people are saying ‘when are they going to understand that no means no?’”

The council insists that congestion is the reason for rejecting the proposal but it is interesting to read the online comments from Worcester Park residents on the issue.

Local resident, Phil Hewett, wrote on the Worcester Park facebook page, “Maybe ‘no’ means ‘yes’ in their jabberwocky lingo. Excusing them from all the rapes they perpetrate.”

It seems like a bit of a stretch to relate an appeal for a planning application to rape, however there does appear to be a stigma surrounding the Islamic community in the local area.

Simon Densley, who helped with the petition to stop the Mosque said: “Of course I came across quite a few people who in the confines of their own doorstep said ‘oh no, no we don’t want these people around here!’ But they were not the majority,” he assured me.

The ex-BNP member, Richard Edmonds, fully understands this reaction and supports the Worcester Park residents’ right to protect their British culture. 

The National Front member, who recently announced his intention to run for Sutton Council in the ward of Worcester Park, said: “The people of Worcester Park fear that the British character of the town will be radically changed.

“The British people don’t want this country to start resembling Saudi Arabia. To use Margaret Thatcher’s phrase ‘people don’t want to be swamped by alien cultures.’ They want Worcester Park to remain a British suburb.”

Last summer, racist graffiti was sprayed on the door of the potential Mosque in Worcester Park. Simon Densley, who took pictures of the graffiti to post on the Worcester Park Blog, said: “On the side of the door was written the four words ‘Fuck off Muslim c****’.”

This kind of behaviour is not completely unique, just a few weeks ago similar offensive words were sprayed upon the building and anti-Mosque stickers have been seen around the area.

In neighbouring Kingston, the local Mosque suffered a racial attack from a hostile group of anti-Islamic protestors in 2010. According to the Kingston Guardian, a group of 20-30 masked men attacked the Mosque with sticks, urinating in the foyer and throwing bacon at the building. The attack came just hours after an English Defence League rally took place through the town centre.

Javed Rafiq, the chairman of Kingston Mosque, told me that racial abuse is something that many Muslims in the area have experienced.

“In the summer I was in my garden and a car passed by,” he said, “the men wound down the windows and shouted out ‘Osama!’

“If you ask most Muslims, most of them will have suffered this kind of thing at least once.”

Javed assures me that the general public are “pretty welcoming” towards Muslims and that these kinds of incidents are infrequent. He doesn’t deny however that there is a stigma surrounding the Islamic community in Britain.

“There is a climate of Islamophobia in the UK. We are stereotyped as terrorists. Whenever you read the news it feels like ‘here we go again.’ Every-time there is terrorism, it is related to the Islamic community.”

Javed was reluctant however to comment on whether this underlying fear of terrorism could be a factor in the reluctance to give Mr Aziz his Mosque in Worcester Park.

But how significant is the media’s influence on people’s views? In a survey conducted in the Kingston area, 80% of people stated that they believe the media to be very influential on society’s perception of the Islamic community.

And what about the positive actions of the Islamic community? Why don’t we see this side of the coin? The Kingston Mosque alone donates money to the local hospital and gives food to the Kingston Food Bank regularly.

In August of this year, The Kingston Mosque worked in coordination with the Christian Community for “Help the Homeless,” donating money and food for homeless people in Kingston.

In June 2013, on World Blood Donor Day, the Kingston Muslim Association was one of seven Mosques in London to host a new campaign with the slogan “I am a Muslim and I give blood.”

Speaking at the event, Javed said: “This encourages positive integration and contribution of Muslims within the community. Muslims in Britain, in particular across London, continue to contribute positively to the health and welfare of society, regardless of colour, creed or religion.”

Back in Worcester Park, Mr Aziz has until spring 2014 to prove that Muslims coming to the area would “contribute positively to the health and welfare” of the community. But it seems he has his work cut out, for he needs to change the minds of a council and 4,000 residents who are unanimously against him.

Photo courtesy of REX/Bill Cross/Associated Papers

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