WORSHIPPERS spill onto the street along London’s Whitechapel Road during Friday prayers. Market stalls selling hijabs, Asian jewellery and make-up, are temporarily closed as traders heed the call to prayer. The East London mosque, which has stood in Whitechapel for over a century, swells with devotees days after terrorists murdered 17 people over two days last week in the name of Islam in Paris, prompting worldwide protests and debates on the future of free speech. Some locals, weary of reporters asking questions about terrorism, jihadis and radicalisation, claim they have no knowledge of the massacre. Others are only too keen to share their thoughts. The Friday sermon was about the prophet Muhammed, they tell me – how he was ridiculed, stoned and poisoned by non-believers, but he forgave them.
“Islam is about forgiveness,” Khadeeja Ali, an English and applied sciences teacher, insists.
What happened in Paris was a “gross over-reaction” to the controversial images of the prophet published in Charlie Hebdo, she explains. The sermon called on Muslims to have patience and help calm the situation, without explicitly referring to the attack in the French capital.
In the heart of Tower Hamlets,which has a large Bangladeshi community, the mosque attracts Muslims young and old from across the world. There have been claims that it has hosted “extremist” preachers in the past. An elderly man is helped out of the prayer hall by a young person, and groups of men gather outside the building after prayers, catching up on each others’ news. The Maryam Centre at the back of the building provides a space for women to pray and study in and a female-only gym.
Ali, a 37-year-old mother of three dressed in a hijab, speaks at length about the repercussion of the French killings. “Something happens and immediately an anti-terror law is passed, taking away people’s freedom but they protect freedom of speech. It sounds very contradictory,” she says. “Terrorism does not have a religion.” Perpetual headlines about “Islamist terrorists” get on her nerves, she explains. “As Muslims, we do need to do a lot more. We are a quiet community. It takes a lot of courage to speak out in the face of negativity. There needs to be more knowledge of what Islam actually teaches as opposed to what some misguided person is going to tell you about Islam.
“Young people can be misled, they are easily swayed but it’s not as worrying as the media would like everybody to believe – that there’s a terrorist next door. To judge an entire community on what some people do is very unjust.
“The majority of us want what everybody else wants, family, security, a good job.” The sense of condemnation against the publishing of satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammed in Charlie Hebdo is unanimous in the east London community.
Waqas Shafique, a 28-year-old British Pakistani man from Lancashire who attended Friday prayers, says making a mockery of religion is not acceptable. “You will cause trouble if you do this, but they [cartoonists] don’t deserve to die. In no way does Islam condone killing someone. “A minute minority of people who go out and carry out these [killings] is going to affect the whole
population. It makes us look bad. We are here to spread peace, not violence.” Reprisal attacks targeting mosques and Islamic sites took place in France in the wake of the attacks, and there is a fear among worshippers that this could extend to the UK. However, Ali and another young woman dressed in a hijab, say they are relieved they don’t live in France which has banned the headscarf. They believe the country appears to be less tolerant towards Muslims than Britain.
A young mother in her 20s, standing outside the Maryam Centre with her child in a buggy, believes incidents like this one can help to bolster piousness among Muslims across the world. “It’s not always a negative thing. It sometimes makes Muslims stronger in their beliefs if they are questioned by their non-Muslim counterparts on their faith,” she says. No Muslim could justify the attack, she asserts.
“If French people want peace and harmony, then the government should step in and not allow these things to happen in any race or religion.”