Page last updated at 17:56 GMT, Friday, 3 February 2006

Restrained anger at the mosque

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News, East London Mosque

East London Mosque
Anger was clear among worshippers
Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad have sparked protests from Muslims in the UK and abroad. What's the feeling at one of the country's leading mosques?

It's been a tough morning for the director of the East London Mosque, Dilowar Hussain Khan.

The newspapers on his desk make depressing reading, reflecting the growing row over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, including one with a bomb on his head.

It's a story that began five months ago in Denmark, but its impact is now being sharply felt in this community in Whitechapel.

First there's the hate-filled letter which the police have just taken away to examine. Then there's the anonymous email sent to the mosque, depicting Muhammad having gay sex.

Plus there are the press enquiries and the calls from perplexed Muslims asking Mr Khan how they should react.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari and Dilowar Hussain Khan
Response must be mature, say leaders
"People are very angry and very offended and they don't know how to express that anger, so the Imam is going to talk about this in his sermon at Friday prayers," he says.

"I tell them to talk to the media and say what we are really like. It's a chance for Muslims to portray Muhammad as he really is, not as his enemies depict him."

Praise for the British press comes from the mosque chairman, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, who says their restraint reflects the greater cultural understanding in the UK, compared to its European neighbours.

But he's worried, because the "tension and commotion" has echoes of 1989 and Salman Rushdie.

"I don't think anyone would say anything against freedom of speech but it's not absolute.

When it comes to Muhammad, it's a line you don't want anyone to cross
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari

"If it creates division within communities, if it incites hatred against certain communities, then which should be preferred?

"A significant number of people do not understand why Muslims feel concerned about this. But it's not a political issue, it's a theological and religious issue.

"Criticism has been there for centuries. There's no problem ridiculing views of people but when it comes to Muhammad, it's a line you don't want anyone to cross."

Outside the mosque, with Friday prayers approaching, posters are going up, but they're not to mobilise a protest, they're to advertise the new Muslim directory for 2006. And leaflets warn of a demonstration - against Crossrail.


Although the anger is not visible it is evident when people arriving for worship stop to speak. Some hope they will leave with their questions answered.

"I feel sad because the Prophet Muhammad is like your father and it's like insulting your father, so I'm going to hear what the Imam says today about it," says Shomam Mohammed, 55.

Others have already decided on a plan of action. One 25-year-old, who did not want to be named, says he will boycott Danish and French goods.

Insulting Muhammad is like insulting family, say some Muslims
"There are good Christians and bad Christians, good Muslims and bad Muslims. But I haven't seen any protests in Denmark or France so they must all feel the same way as the newspapers."

One positive consequence is that this has united Muslims, says Malika Sitayeb, 47.

"Although it's not good what's been done to the Prophet, for the Muslim people to unite and have one voice about what's happened is good," she says. "I've not seen the cartoon but I was upset to hear about it."

His voice competing with the call to prayer, Abdul Aleem, 20, explains why he thinks the cartoon to be so dangerous.

"People who are not Muslim would think it's not a peaceful religion, seeing the Prophet as a terrorist.

"It's a misrepresentation and gives a negative view to the world, after we tried so hard after 9/11 to get across to the world we are not all like that. This sets us back."

Man leaves mosque
No protests, but dignified rage
After a last-minute rush of worshippers, Chief Imam Shaykh Abdul Qayyum takes his place, addressing 5,000 people in Arabic, Urdu and English. There's only one topic in this week's sermon.

This kind of caricature of Islam is "the root of terrorism" because it is exploited by extremists, he says, but the response has to be appropriate, according to the law and in respect of other people's rights.

"Write, protest, but also control, if young people are acting beyond our control," he says. "It's our responsibility to be very firm and understanding, controlling the situation and not increasing it."

This notion of restraint is echoed by people leaving the mosque.

"People come here to learn," says Mr Echcharqaouy, 40. "The imam knows what he's talking about so he's a big influence on how people behave. Hopefully that's a reasonable way to go forward."

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