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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 February 2006, 13:32 GMT
The battle for the mosque
By Dominic Casciani and Sharif Sakr
BBC News

Finsbury Park Mosque has long been synonymous with the worst fears about Islamist extremism in Britain. The mosque's new leadership have been struggling to reclaim it for the local community - but that struggle raises questions about who runs mosques in Britain.

Finsbury Park Mosque

On a winter's day in early 2005, a group of suited men walked into Finsbury Park Mosque. Their aim was to take control of the building.

In the scenes that followed, supporters of radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri were barred from the north London building after years of struggle.

But who controlled Finsbury Park Mosque was about more than who runs a prayer space.

It was about whether those who believed in an extreme interpretation of Islam could have a public base - or whether the community would act to marginalise them.

But the way the mosque has changed has also become a talking point among British Muslims over who exactly should run their own institutions.

Abu Hamza barred

The 8m Finsbury Park Mosque opened in 1988. And with one of the then biggest prayer halls in Britain, many Muslims regarded it as a major milestone.

But by the late 1990s, amid the growth of radical Islamism, it had become a meeting place for extreme voices, including that of Abu Hamza.

Guilty of 6 charges of soliciting to murder
Guilty of 3 charges related to "stirring up racial hatred"
Guilty of 1 charge of owning recordings related to "stirring up racial hatred"
Guilty of 1 charge of possessing "terrorist encyclopaedia"
Not guilty of 3 charges of soliciting to murder
Not guilty of 1 charge related to "stirring up racial hatred"
According to the cleric's version of the story, he was asked by some members of the local community to help resolve community tensions at the mosque between North African and South Asian prayer-goers.

But by the time the Charity Commission stepped in, the watchdog found Abu Hamza had effectively intimidated the trustees into giving him control, allowing him to churn out sermons and material pushing his radical line, while many of his supporters lived on the premises.

One of the men who used to spend time at the mosque was Kamel Bourgass, an Algerian man jailed for the murder of a policeman and an alleged ricin poison plot.

The commission eventually barred Abu Hamza from the premises - but he continued to use the building right up until police closed it down in January 2003 amid a major al-Qaeda associated investigation.

The Metropolitan Police, aided by the Charity Commission, local council and others, sat down to work out how to re-open the premises.

Abu Hamza supporters
Supporters: Some lived in mosque

Outside, however, Abu Hamza continued to lead his supporters in prayer on the streets - right up until his arrest in May 2004.

The eventual victors in this struggle were the Muslim Association of Britain, a campaign group best known for its anti-war stance.

Dr Azzam Tamimi, one of MAB's leading figures, says the Metropolitan Police asked his organisation to try to turn around Finsbury Park.

Critical issues

"Finsbury Park Mosque should be considered one of the very rare success stories where the Muslim community and others came together and decided to rescue the mosque," says Dr Tamimi.

"MAB was approached by a combination of people - the old trustees, the police, the Home Office, MPs, and we were asked could we, if we had the opportunity, run this mosque."

Finsbury Park Mosque
1988: Mosque opens
1997: Abu Hamza arrives
1999: First anti-terrorism probe
2003: Raided by police, closed down
2003: Abu Hamza removed
2004: Abu Hamza charged
2005: Mosque reopens
The re-opening of the building relied on two critical issues: Could MAB's new management team take control, and would the community support them?

"We came along when the mosque and we told the people [Abu Hamza's supporters] that this was the new legal status of the mosque," says Dr Tamimi.

"Their members came rushing and tried to use violence against us. Our instructions to our members were to observe self-restraint. Eventually, they left peacefully.

"It's a takeover, but a legal takeover. This mosque was a headache for the community, for the government and for anybody who cared about Islam. The mob who took over previously was not interested in teaching Islam or offering services to the community - they were simply interested in promoting hatred."

Rejuvenating the mosque is an ongoing project and, says Dr Tamimi, a wide programme of social and community events is being developed.

Abu Hamza and supporter outside Finsbury Park in May
Preaching: Sermons on the pavement after mosque closure
But while Finsbury Park is now viewed largely as a success story, a small but increasingly outspoken group of British Muslims are calling for a rethink in the running of mosques.

Community sources in Finsbury Park have complained to the BBC about the takeover, saying they feel they were not given a say.

Dr Tamimi says he recognises these voices exist.

"I am aware of these concerns. When the takeover was being negotiated, there were people [locally] who felt they should have been given the opportunity.

"There will always be people in every community who will feel they were in a better position, that's the nature of things."

This may sound like local politicking - but the debate has reached the heart of government.

Standards body mooted

In the wake of the London bombings, Prime Minister Tony Blair and many Muslim leaders spoke of an urgent need to improve leadership for Muslim youth and ensure that extremists do not get a chance to recruit in communities.

There are in every community individuals who don't like the mosque or who don't like the individuals - hard luck, what can we do? What really matters is that we abide by the rules
Dr Azzam Tamimi,
Muslim Association of Britain
One key idea that emerged from the Home Office-backed Muslim task force was to establish a national standards body for mosques and imams.

Dr Zaki Badawi, the former head of London's Muslim College and one of the most respected clerics in Europe, first proposed elections for mosques 20 years ago.

Dr Badawi, who died last month aged 83, argued democracy would create stronger communities and leadership for the young.

He complained that many mosque leaders in the UK had no mandate from their wider community, in particular women and young British-born Muslims.

"It's proved to be very difficult [to reform mosques]," he said before his death. "Most of our people come from countries where elections are not regarded as one of the ways of conducting business.

"But if we train the community to run their mosques through elections, then we will be able to get through to the community.

"These people would be true representatives and would hopefully have more young people [on board] and these young people would be able to communicate with the new generation. It's no good at all talking to the older generation - nobody expects the young to listen.

"The communities are conscious of the need for change. They cannot live in isolation, they cannot live in a ghetto, mental or physical, they feel that they must move with the times and I'm sure they are ready."

'Clique' accusation

Ashgar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a small but vocal campaign group, has been attacking the leadership of mosques in Britain for more than three years, arguing that they have collectively failed the youth.

His organisation says many mosque leaders rely on clan-like politics from south Asia and have ignored calls from British-born Muslims for democratic standards.

"Mosque leaders are expert in only two things - covering themselves and hanging on to power," he says.

"The only people who can combat terrorism are those guys in the mosques and they are not doing anything about it. They're not engaging with the youth, they're not engaging with our women. They're in a clique, which takes control and holds onto power.

"If a mosque committee is not elected, it shouldn't be there. It's as simple as that. They're not God's chosen people and they don't rule over some slaves."

That's an argument that Dr Tamimi dismisses. He says those who build mosques should run them.

"There are in every community individuals who don't like the mosque or who don't like the individuals. Hard luck. What can we do?

"What really matters [here at Finsbury Park] is that we abide by the rules and endeavour to provide the community with services. We are in charge of this mosque, and we are going to ensure that it remains open to every member of this community."

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