In 1994, when Prince Charles attended the opening ceremony of the Finsbury Park Mosque, the idea was to construct a religious space for Muslims that would not just serve the interests of the increasing number of Islamic residents in London, but also function as a means of building positive social relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim members in the surrounding areas. Within a decade, however, the mosque came to symbolise the fear of extremist Islamism in Britain.
On late Sunday night, when a van rammed into worshippers leaving the Finsbury park mosque, the possible ‘terror activity’ came to symbolise the product of the same fear of extremist Islamism. The incident took place on the same month when three other terrorist activities have taken place in the country in Manchester, Westminster and the London Bridge, and the police is currently in the process of investigating the exact nature of hands behind the attack.
While the cause of the attack remains unclear as of now, the symbolism associated with the venue of the attack is quite telling, in the sense that it represents both the rise of Islamic radicalism in the United Kingdom and the growing fear against it.
Finsbury Park Mosque and the growth of Islamic extremism
While the colonial stature of Britain and the close connection it shared with the world at large ensured that the country consistently experienced waves of immigration historically, by the end of the twentieth century, the British had more or less come to terms with its largely multicultural social set up. However, things changed by the late 1990s when immigration began to rise again. The familial movements were further accompanied by a growth in the arrival of asylum seekers and economic immigrants.
As explained by political scientist Roger Eatwell, increased immigration in the Britain of 1990s had strong links with religious extremism in the country. The ensuing poverty conditions, lack of housing space, lack of adequate education and the fear of the outsiders were important factors that went on to create an atmosphere conducive to the rise of extremism among certain communities. In his 2006 work, Eatwell explains that one of the most dramatic change in recent years brought about by immigration-related problems is the identity change of the Muslim young citizenry, particularly those whose parents and grandparents came to Britain in the post-World War II years. There was a sudden rise in the number of young Muslims with a hardened sense of Muslim identity, which was a result of the quest of identity formation, in a world largely perceived as hostile to them. Reports showed that a large number of recruits to Islamic extremist groups, such as the Al-Muhajiroun, came from British universities.
The identity change in Muslim youth was accompanied by an alienation from Western ethos, wherein lay the appeal of a large number of Muslim clerics and philosophers who came from abroad. As of 2005, out of 2000 imams serving 1400 mosques, about 1700 had been trained overseas. Abu Hamza was one among a small number from these imams who were staunchly supportive of Islamic extremism.
The appeal of Abu Hamza’s radical Islamic views
Abu Hamza al-Masri, also known as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa or the Hook Hand, is an Egyptian cleric who came to the United Kingdom as a student and later joined the Finsbury Park Mosque as its imam in 1997. In an article in the Telegraph in 2007, Mahmood Hasan, a long-term trustee of the Finsbury mosque is quoted as describing Abu Hamza as someone who initially appeared to be God-sent. He was fluent in his English and Arabic linguistic skills and had adequate theological training. Further, he was willing to take on the role of the cleric at a meagre salary. However, over time the Egyptian Imam slowly revealed his real beliefs.
Hamza’s radical Islamic views soon made the Finsbury mosque a centre with strong links to extremism. From inside the premises of the mosque, Hamza preached a violent theology and attracted disciples both from within and from outside the UK. He opened up the mosque for other extremists to reside. Allegedly, Hamza did not just propagate extremist and violent messages but also trained his followers in the usage of ammunitions. In 2002, intelligence sources had revealed that weapons training using Kalashnikov AK-47s took place inside the Finsbury mosque.
Hamza’s views were supportive of Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban and the 9/11 attacks in the United States. In January 2002, Hamza was quoted as saying, “I ask God to grant long life to Osama Bin Laden.” The previous month, when he was asked if there was an earthly government he admired, he is believed to have replied the “coming Taliban hopefully.” He is also believed to have had links with the Al-Qaeda. Reportedly, he turned the Finsbury mosque into a recruitment centre for the Al-Qaeda, particularly for economic migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, who later travelled to training camps in Afghanistan.
In his lectures, Hamza criticised Muslim youth for enjoying the comforts of British life, while their brothers around the world suffered. He propagated the need for the establishment of a Khilafah or Islamic state and spoke of the need for training in violence to carry out Jihad. Over time he created some well-known names in the history of Islamic terrorism including the shoe bomb terrorist Richard Reid and the July 7 bomber Germaine Lindsay.
In 2003, the British police did a thorough investigation of the mosque and Abu Hamza was jailed in 2006 and later deported to the United States. Following the raid and the closure, the mosque was reopened in 2005 and ever since the trustees have been involved in brushing away the image of extremism that is still firmly attached to the mosque. Sunday’s attack, however, has once again brought to surface a reminder of the mosque’s links to extremism.