How a mosque gained a foothold in a resistant British town
In a country where immigrant newcomers often complain they do not feel welcome, and where many indigenous Britons say they no longer feel at home, the town of Lincoln’s example suggests that home-making does not have to be a zero-sum game. Part of an occasional series on Finding 'Home.'
Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
The first time that Tanweer Ahmed, a soft-spoken hospital research director, met Ian Durrant, a bluff ex-British Army sergeant, they were on opposite sides of a fight that was going to get increasingly ugly: Professor Ahmed wanted to build a mosque in this provincial cathedral city; Mr. Durrant was trying to stop him.
That was twelve years ago; earlier this month Ahmed welcomed Durrant to the mosque’s opening as an honored guest. “I think now we are friends,” he says.
That reconciliation signals a new mood in the neighborhood. In a country where immigrant newcomers often complain they do not feel welcome, and where many indigenous Britons say they no longer feel at home, Lincoln’s example suggests that home-making does not have to be a zero-sum game.
Local people who had feared the Islamic place of worship as “a foreign object in a Christian area,” as Durrant puts it, have been reassured. They still feel at home. And so do members of the city’s Muslim community in their brand new mosque.
Their story began in December 2006, when the Islamic Association that Ahmed heads bought a disused church and applied for planning permission to convert it into the city’s first purpose-built mosque for the 1,500 Muslims who live in Lincoln, a prosperous town 150 miles north of London.
St. Matthew’s Church, a wooden-framed, corrugated iron building known to locals as “the tin tabernacle,” sat on a plot of land on Boultham Park Road, a quiet residential street of red brick bungalows, net curtains in the windows, and wooden fences around neat front gardens. The residents, like Durrant, were mostly retired.
After 18 months, the local council granted planning permission. But the day that Ahmed went to collect the permit, he recalls, “I got a call from the police. St. Matthew’s had been burned down. I was in tears. It was shocking.”
There had been anonymous letters and social media posts, he says, “threatening that we would not be able to use that place.” But nobody was ever charged in connection with the fire.
More than the church went up in flames; now that there was no building on the plot a different kind of construction permit was needed and a new planning process started. Ian Durrant had become a planning enforcement officer when he left the army; he knew the ropes. He set up a Residents Association and challenged the mosque proposal on the grounds that there was not room for sufficient parking spaces.
“They would have been parking everywhere up and down our street on Fridays,” the day of weekly Muslim prayers, says Don Addlesee, a retired mechanic living opposite the proposed mosque site. “It would have been a mess.”
There was more to local opposition than that, perhaps. “But nothing was said” that suggested anti-Muslim feeling, Durrant recalls. “People have been living here a long, long time and they don’t like change,” he explains. Residents lodged more than 200 objections to the new planning permission request and they won their case. No mosque would be built on Boultham Park Road.
Durrant was delighted. But he was decidedly less happy about the way that extreme right-wing, anti-Muslim groups tried to hijack the Residents Association campaign. He had served in the army in the Middle East and Asia, and says he has only pleasant memories of the Muslims among whom he lived.
The Residents Association Facebook page was “drowned” in comments by members of the neo-fascist British National Party, Durrant recalled. He was also alarmed when a young man from another far right group assumed that the Union Jack he flies in his garden as a patriotic gesture was a sign that he didn’t like immigrants.
As the Islamic Association negotiated the purchase of a larger piece of land about 300 yards away from St. Matthews, located on a commercial main road out of sight of local homes, Durrant began to change his mind. He invited Ahmed to the Naval Club – the main social center in the neighborhood – to explain his plans, and he accepted Ahmed’s invitation to visit the building that served as a small Islamic prayer hall and to eat together. It was a good thing that Durrant is fond of curry.
Ahmed, meanwhile, shocked by the scale of the hostility that his failed planning permission bid had revealed, decided that a public relations campaign was in order. So he and a colleague went door to door on Coultham Park Road and nearby streets trying to calm local fears.
“We listened to them,” he says. “We knew that without understanding their concerns it would be difficult for us.”
There had been much talk of loudspeakers blaring the call to prayer five times a day: Pakistan-born Ahmed reassured residents that Lincoln’s Muslims had watches. Many people had worried that the mosque might breed extremists: Ahmed’s own placid demeanor helped dispel such fears, and he said everybody would be welcome to attend the mosque and listen to the imam’s sermons.
Remembrance Day 'turning point'
As part of this outreach effort, Ahmed decided on Nov. 11, 2012, to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies at the war memorial just across the street from the new planned site for the mosque. Wearing a poppy in his buttonhole, he laid a wreath at the foot of the obelisk, bowed his head, and pushed a small wooden crescent moon into the earth among the crosses that Durrant and his comrades had planted.
“This is my country,” is how he explains a ritual that he now performs each year. “Thousands of Muslims gave their lives in the world wars and I have the same respect as anyone.”
His gesture marked “a turning point” in his relationship with the local community, Ahmed believes. Certainly it impressed a friend of Durrant’s he calls “Big John.” “He used to have a go at me about being friendly with ‘terrorists,’ ” Durrant remembers. “But he changed his mind when they showed up at the memorial wearing poppies, same as he was wearing.”
On three occasions the British National Party and another extreme right wing group calling themselves the East Anglian Patriots staged protests in Lincoln against the mosque. Each time the Residents Association went out of its way to disassociate itself from their antics, writing letters to the local paper urging Lincolnites to turn their backs on the demonstrators.
“They were morons,” Durrant says bluntly. “The best thing was just to ignore them.”
The protests fizzled. “The good thing is that the locals spoke out more loudly and clearly than I could have done,” says Ahmed. “They made it clear that [the demonstrators] were not welcome in Lincoln.”
Eventually the mosque – and a 68 car parking lot – won planning approval, although it was not until 2015 that work got under way on the $2.6 million building. Ahmed invited Durrant, his old nemesis, to say a few words at the groundbreaking ceremony. “I told them that I’ve lived here for a number of years and that this is my community,” Durrant recalls. “But I hoped that once the mosque was built we’d call it our community.”
As far as Tanweer Ahmed is concerned, that goal has been met. Seven hundred non-Muslims showed up at the mosque’s opening day, some of them bearing gifts, others just curious to see for the first time what the inside of a mosque looks like.
As they explored the light and airy building, admiring its jade-green dome from the parking lot, or sitting in the prayer room with its cool beige ceramic tiles decorated with verses from the Koran in Arabic and English, Ahmed could not hide his delight.
“The level of support we’ve got from the white community is unbelievable,” he says, grinning. “When we were working on the St. Matthew’s site there were lots of reservations. But now local people seem much more comfortable; there has been a significant change in attitudes.”
And Muslims in Lincoln are much more comfortable too, now that they have their own purpose-built mosque. “It’s changed the way they feel,” says Ahmed. “It’s their place, they’ve made it home. Some people even said that sitting here was like sitting in Mecca!”
More work is needed to keep indigenous white Britons and Muslims from around the world feeling comfortably at home in Lincoln, both Ahmed and Durrant agree. Ahmed is planning to open the mosque to non-Muslim preschool playgroups and gatherings for the elderly, and he is keen that as many local people as possible should visit the mosque to demystify it. Durrant would like to see an active Residents Association that could “kill off any silly rumors” that might spread.
“We must reassure [local people] that we are part of this city and this community and this country,” insists Ahmed. “And we must educate our own people about cultural differences.”
But 12 years of patient bridge-building has worked, he thinks. “We defeated those people who were trying to divide us. We are all British; we may have different faiths or no faith, but we worked together to build a common home.”