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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 November 2007, 11:28 GMT
The battle over mosque reform
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

A mosque dome
There are more than 1,500 mosques in the UK

British Muslim leaders are to tell mosques to reform - but do young Muslims even care?

This week began as just another for Britain's mosques. But by the end of it, things could be very different.

The four largest Islamic organisations in the UK have, against expectations, agreed professional standards for mosques. It may sound like management speak - but these standards on a mosque's obligations to society are part of a battle for hearts and minds in the face of violent extremism.

The unwieldily-named Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (Minab) is seeking signatures on the dotted line. The question is whether any of it will make a difference.

The great era of mosque building was in the 1970s and 1980s, led by the first generation immigrants. They copied what they knew and mosques were built as prayer halls largely run on ethnic, cultural or tribal lines.

Democratic and accountable
Transparent finances
Open to women and youth
Counter-extremism programmes
Inter-faith schemes
Work against forced marriage

Today there are at least 1,500 institutions which are broadly independent of one and other. But while they may be about to get a dose of 21st Century management consultancy, tens of thousands of young British Muslims have already drifted away.

Many British-born Muslims believe mosques offer them nothing - and so they are looking elsewhere for answers. Navid Akhtar is a commentator and a producer of It's a polished internet broadcast with guests debating big issues of the day in a media-savvy way.

When some Muslim leaders condemned a recent groundbreaking Channel 4 drama about a British Muslim joining MI5 while his sister became a terrorist, was one of the places where British Muslims debated the issues.

Complex identities

"The communities have changed and the mosques have not kept in touch because they are still run by the first generation," says Akhtar.

"Today we have got very complex identities as Muslims living in the West - but the mosque as an institution has not tuned in to that."

"People go, they learn the Koran, they do their communal prayers and that's about it. It's the bits that are missing that concern us - people going through divorce, social problems, alienation - people born here but feeling marginalised or betrayed as Muslims.

Men at prayer
Prayers: But many mosques have little space for women

"They look to the mosque for support - but they are desperately inadequate in delivering it."

Akhtar tells a story that can be heard time and again among British Muslims who say Mosques have unwittingly played a part in extremism.

"If I go to my local imam who is Pakistani, whose identity is Pakistani, to talk this stuff, he will just give a flick of my ear - he is not really concerned about me being British or not.

"This is what gave birth to radical organisations - kids came to the mosque and battled with the first generation over cultural issues, like arranged marriages or being forced to learn Urdu. They went elsewhere for answers and found people like the radical preacher Omar Bakri.

"Some of the birth of radical Islam in this country came out of these cultural issues that the first generation didn't want to address."


It's this accusation that has caused the most tension between the generations in Muslim Britain - and what will make the attempts to modernise mosques so they appeal to the young so difficult. Government is pushing hard for the work to be done because it needs results on extremism. But the communities are scared of becoming being political stooges.

Leicester-based imam Ibrahim Mogra is involved in the reform agenda and a leading figure in the Muslim Council of Britain - but he warns against creating a body that does government's bidding.

"This won't be a body with any legislative powers where we can police mosques and tell them what to do or dictate what not to do," says Sheikh Mogra.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
Janmohamed says change must come from within

"We're going to be promoting good practice and highlighting where the formulas are extremely successful and encouraging others to buy into that model. The creation of this body is not in response to our so-called 'war on terror' and is not part of the agenda of preventing extremism. It will be a useful tool - but it's not the primary purpose."

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the voice behind Spirit21, an influential blog with readers across the cultural and religious spectrum. Her commentary on Muslim Britain has a following among key government figures. She is typical of growing numbers of Muslim women debating critical issues because they very often find no welcome at the steps of the mosque.

"You've got to realise that there are some that are small and run by 'uncles' who, to be frank, would not let a woman within three feet of the mosque. There are others which have large spaces for women. Some mosques sometimes seem to be a bit of a working man's club. And the problem is that many young people leave the mosque behind because there is no social element or relevance for them."

Pro-reform Muslims

Janmohamed argues that the new mosques body needs to encourage rather than force change and avoid the taint of government interference. The trick, she say, is to get changes like representations for women to happen from within. Only then will mosques start to look like progressive institutions playing an active role in building community ties.

And it is community that pro-reform Muslims see as essential to success. If Minab is a success, they believe it will bring Muslims closer to the mainstream because it will help build a sense of what it is to both a British citizen and a Muslim.

Hardline islamists see the two as incompatible. In the shadows of the real world and the internet exist extremists ready to identify confused young and women who can be sold a simple story that ends with a bomb being strapped to the body.

The fact is that these recruiters will be there for a long time to come. Janmohamed says government needs to change its language so the debate around mosques and improving the lot of Muslims is not automatically and always linked to terrorism.

"The really serious individuals intent on violence don't go to the mosques - but if mosques step up to the plate then some may not go down that route. But it's only one part of the answer."

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