London, United Kingdom – Members of Muslim communities in southeast London, where two men convicted of killing a British soldier attended mosques and prayer groups, say they have been unfairly targeted by the media and faced Islamophobic intimidation since the May attack.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, members of a prayer group in Woolwich that became a focus of media attention because of the killers’ alleged attendance spoke with dismay of the way in which their community had been portrayed, in the words of one headline, as a “magnet for extremists”.
The Glyndon Community Centre prayer group is associated with Usman Ali, a preacher who several newspapers alleged had known and radicalised Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the two men found guilty on Thursday of murdering soldier Lee Rigby. Ali denied those claims in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera.
“I’ve been coming here for 10 years and I’ve never seen those people in my life,” said one man who, like all of those present, did not want to give his name. “I think this community centre, this congregation, was a victim. The media frenzy, throwing it all out of proportion. I saw pictures of people who came here giving peaceful sermons and I was quite horrified to see some of these people on TV and the way they were portrayed.”
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About 65 men attended the Jumah prayer on the Friday that Al Jazeera visited the community centre. The congregation reflects the diversity of the surrounding area, and includes traditional British Muslims from a South Asian background, members of local African communities and a few white converts.
The setting is unassuming and informal; worn prayer mats are laid out over the floor and shoes stashed in a storeroom while a loose curtain pulled across back of the hall to create a segregated area is no obstacle for the young girls in hijabs who play as the men pray.
Many said they came for convenience; it is easy to park outside, in contrast to the nearby Greenwich Islamic Centre, the main mosque in the area, which struggles to accommodate crowds of hundreds.
An open space for debate
But others said the prayer group offered an environment in which issues could be debated and views expressed in a way that would not be tolerated at the mosque. One man said the Muslim community had faced increased government interference since the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001, and described the mosque as a “government-supported dictatorship”.
“We have imams at the local masjid who, to be blunt, are there to serve the interests of the British government and the local police and everyone knows it. We can’t speak out about issues that are of concern to us. We can’t have free and open debates. Instead we are dictated to and anyone who disagrees or is too vocal faces being banned.”
That criticism was vehemently rebuffed by Tariq Abassi, the chairman of the Greenwich Islamic Centre, who said that the trustees of the mosque had taken stern action to expel those preaching extremism who had “made the lives of other fellow Muslims difficult”.
“We are running a mosque, a place of worship, free from all politics,” Abassi told Al Jazeera. “However, people are free to express their views. Our imams deliver Friday sermons which are not government-supported views and are no dictators.
“If these people feel we have restrictions in place then they know why that is the case. These few are members of the same extremist group and we shall make sure that there is no platform for them to express and promote their ideology.”
But Abassi also criticised the way which the media had focused on the local Muslim community in its reporting of the Rigby killing.
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“They jump to conclusions and sensationalise even trivial issues to make sure the Muslims get blamed,” he said. “Muslims feel it is part of the agenda of the BBC to demonise Muslims, continuously keeping them under pressure, continuously making them feel guilty. I urge our media to refrain from using Muslims and Islam as their breakfast talk.”
At the Glyndon prayer group, some said they accepted Adebolajo’s explanation that the attack was an act of retaliation in response to British foreign policy and UK military involvement in Afghanistan in particular.
“The world turns a blind eye to the most horrific crimes committed in Muslim lands. The West refuses to understand and accept that the Muslims are one family. When the Muslim speaks up he is a terrorist or an extremist,” one person complained.
Another man added: “Many people are discussing why it happened. But the brother in the video told the whole world why he did it. He said because Muslims are dying by British soldiers.”
But others unconditionally condemned the attack, calling it an “atrocity”.
“What I can say of the incident is that I think that nobody as a Muslim is going to agree with that, irrespective of if we have differences,” one person argued. “We can’t condone something like that. Islam does not allow violence in this way. This is a crime against humanity and whoever did it must be punished for that.”
Many expressed concern that the Muslim community had become a target as a consequence of Rigby’s killing, which triggered a spate of attacks on mosques across the UK. Police figures showed a 475 percent increase in reported Islamophobic hate crimes in Greenwich borough in the months after the attack, as well as sharp rises all over London.
Fear of reprisals
Some families kept their children home from school for fear of reprisals as supporters of the far-right English Defence League, some wearing paramilitary-style balaclavas, gathered outside local pubs and vandalised Muslim-owned businesses in the days after the killing.
“A lot of people were not sending out their children or their families in the local community because of that,” one man recalled. “They were threatening people. The police literally watched while the EDL came through and smashed all the shops and didn’t lift a finger.”
Those who take part in running Islamic organisations definitely feel a sense of hostility.
The Glyndon prayer group is not the only Islamic meeting place in southeast London to have found itself in the media spotlight since May. Several newspapers reported that Adebolajo had also attended Lewisham Islamic Centre and alleged that Shakeel Begg, the mosque’s imam, had once urged students to engage in jihad in Palestine.
In a statement on Thursday, Lewisham Islamic Centre said that reports about Adebolajo’s links to the mosque were “unfounded, baseless and full of conjecture”.
In a public lecture attended by Al Jazeera last month, Begg said that Muslims felt increasingly scrutinised. “As an imam I definitely feel it. Those who take part in running Islamic organisations definitely feel a sense of hostility. Not even from the wider non-Muslim community, but especially from the media and the authorities,” Begg said.
Seeming to address the issue of his alleged connection to Adebolajo, Begg continued: “Sometimes you find a person who commits some sort of crime. He attends a church, he attends a synagogue, he attends a temple. Will they ever target the faith community? Will they ever come to meet the priest or the rabbi and say, ‘Look, this person used to attend your community. What do you have to say about this?’ For us, that happens.
“It feels sometimes as if the whole community and the imam is to be questioned. ‘Were you involved? Did you do something?’ This is the hostility we get. And of course, the media makes it even more sensational. I feel, as an imam, uncomfortable. You know what, I am being targeted.”
At the Glyndon prayer group there are complaints that Muslims are being used as scapegoats, with the government and media stirring up arguments over issues such as the niqab and gender segregation in universities to distract from more pressing social problems.
“You’ve got rising unemployment, benefits cuts, exploding national debt, so what are you going to do? Prime-time news about a piece of fabric and how this threatens our whole way of life. It’s a great way to distract attention,” said one man.
“The Muslim community obviously has its combative aspects, but in generally we are a pretty peaceful community. We don’t want to cause problems without a reason, which means we are an excellent target to distract from what the government is doing that’s causing far more harm to the people than we’ve ever done. Blame it on the outsiders. The government, in my opinion, is the most harmful thing in British society.”
Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper