Home from home: mosque building and urban planning in a global city

In March 2013 a British tabloid newspaper1 published a colour photograph of what the text referred to as a ‘mega-mosque’.2 The image was taken from a perspective designed to emphasize the building’s dominance over the surrounding environment. With its marble-white dome in the centre and minaret to the right, the mosque takes up two thirds of the photograph and dwarfs an iconic red London bus in the foreground. The caption read: ‘New landscape: Merton’s mosque, which dominates the skyline of the south London suburb . . . can accommodate 10,000 people’. The photograph thus juxtaposes stereotypical symbols of Islam, a dome and minaret, with another easily recognizable symbol of the capital city, the red double decker bus, to make visible the message that the former now looms over the latter, calling into question our assumptions of what London is, should be and is becoming, and just who is in a position actively to transform the city’s landscape into something we are told ‘is not English any more’.3 The accompanying article further locates this image as a visual referent for what the author describes as the ‘polite apartheid' threatening social cohesion in the UK as a result of‘overrapid immigration in recent years’.4 This image, then, is not just about Islam and the religious buildings of diasporic faith communities in the capital city, it is about migrants elided swiftly in the article with asylum seekers and a perceived lack of social integration in a Britain that is no longer as white as it once was, even if some of the recent arrivals are, for the record, described as ‘model immigrants’ who work, pay their taxes and are law-abiding. The newspaper article is also about what London, a global city, has become and how those who fashion the city to meet their needs no longer do so solely on the basis of class identities but on ethnic and religious ones which, in some cases, have come to supercede the earlier class-based identities of the industrial city. For, as Cesari (2005:1016) states:

While the industrial city brought an end to ethnic and cultural differentiation and gave rise to more universal categories such as the working class, salaried employees, private employees and civil servants, the global city tends to reinforce and preserve ethnic differences. . . . The development of ethnic business, like all forms of self-employment in the service sector, provides economic opportunities to those who newly enter the great metropolis. Within this new principle of urban organisation, the forms of socioeconomic integration can no longer be understood solely in terms of class. More and more, class tends to be combined with ethnicity.

And key aspects of many ethnic identities include both a religious and a transnational component which further serve to challenge the nostalgic vision of a supposed homogenous Christian and white society, such as the one portrayed in the newspaper article I started the chapter with. These identities, however, ‘are not straightforwardly given, but worked at through language and action, and . . . these identities do not just take place, but also make place’, which means that we ‘need to understand the way in which inter-ethnic relations may be the emerging outcome of “everyday” spatial influences’ and interactions (Clayton 2009:483). Some of these interactions may even take place thousands of miles away yet their effects can be felt locally. Further, urban city spaces can be conceived of as dynamic, in process and as the outcome of competing discourses, practices and power relations between different ethnic and religious communities as well as between these and the official bureaucracies which mediate disputes and adjudicate on the built environment. The account of the living conditions in Rabwah given in the first chapter, in particular the comparison of life in the Ahmadi town with historical descriptions of life in a ghetto, sought to frame and help explain the forces that have shaped the Ahmadi diaspora. In this final chapter I approach the complex process of mosque building in the global city of London as an instance of the making of place, a home from home for the Ahmadi community.

Some of the processes, discourses and interactions involved in the process of mosque building noted earlier were made visible in the planning applications and protests against the building of the mosque in the photograph described above, the AMA’s Baitul Futuh Mosque. This mosque, built on the derelict site of a former industrial Express Dairy bottling plant in Merton, a borough on the outskirts of southwest London, is considered a post-industrial development success by the local council. It is listed on a council website as a local tourist attraction and is located in one of the less affluent parts of a borough which contains some very upmarket locations as well as several considerably more deprived wards.5 The mosque provided Merton Council with a virtually cost-free urban regeneration project as the Ahmadis undertook to raise the funds for the redevelopment of the site themselves; and its location, by a railway track and fronting a large main road, also served to facilitate planning permission as minority religious buildings in the UK are increasingly denied planning permission on amenity grounds if the chosen sites are not already in built up areas (brownfield sites) and also on main thoroughfares, served by public transport or otherwise suitably removed from residential housing.

However, despite the clear regeneration potential at low cost to the Council, the mosque from the very first proposal for its construction was at the centre of many debates, including whether or not it can even be called a mosque. Examining what the building represents for Ahmadiyya Muslims, for other Muslim groups and for non-Muslims, together with the transformation of the local environment that has resulted from it, allows for complex and nuanced understandings of local

Baitul Futuh Mosque

Figure 5.1 Baitul Futuh Mosque

manifestations, and refutations, of Islamophobia in the context of wider concerns over mosque-building in Europe. It also contributes to the understanding of how everyday forms of racism are submerged in the language of ‘amenity’ in town planning regulations. In addition, the mosque and the debates surrounding it make visible how local issues arising from international migration and sectarian interMuslim conflicts between Sunni Muslims and Ahmadiyya Muslims, stemming from a very particular historical political context in Pakistan, are now played out in places of worship in southwest London. More positively, it allows for the study of inter-community engagements, local economic regeneration, and the participation of Ahmadiyya Muslims in local, regional and national community developments and politics. The latter is particularly clear in relation to the professional middle class Ahmadis who are active in local and national politics. However, while some Ahmadis are educated and active in many professions, a large number of Ahmadis, including those more recently arrived from the subcontinent and others who have arrived, in particular from Germany, may well be among the less affluent members of Merton Borough and for these individuals and families, seeking employment, housing and schooling for children may present challenges typical of those faced by new immigrants and members of ethnic and religious minorities across Europe. This group of more recent Ahmadi migrants, attracted by the possibility of living near to their spiritual leader and with access to the flagship Baitul Fumh Mosque, has sought housing in the neighbourhood of the mosque visibly changing the make-up of the local population in some residential wards. As a community, therefore, the Ahmadis are a complex mixture of British-born Muslims and recent migrants some of whom may be seeking refugee status, middle-class professionals and an upwardly aspiring but presently less affluent and less formally well-educated majority. As Muslims in the UK, however, all constitute a minority and many are, in addition, ethnically marked as of South Asian heritage.

The post-industrial urban transformations represented by the Baitul Futuh Mosque can only be fully understood in the context of a longer history of mosque building in London dating back to the late colonial era. This history is briefly set out to contextualize the complex, and not always harmonious, local network of diasporic Muslim faith centres. Previous chapters have already outlined the politico-religious history necessary to locate the sources of today’s conflicts between the Ahmadi Muslims and Sunni Muslims in colonial India and, more particularly, after partition in Pakistan. As part of its account of the building of Ahmadi mosques in London, this chapter examines how the conflicts between local Muslim sects have been co-opted by local non-Muslim residents in their attempts to thwart Ahmadi Muslim mosque extension plans and how the local council has been embroiled in this as the authority empowered to adjudicate on planning applications submitted to it. Needless to say, at least some of the issues that arose during the planning and building of the mosque mirror the experiences of other diaspora faith communities when dealing with the planning system, including the inevitable opposition of local residents as they seek to develop existing, or construct new, religious buildings (Nye 2000; Naylor and Ryan 2002, 2003; Gale 2004,2005; Dunn 2005; McLoughlin 2005; Shah, Dwyer and Gilbert 2012). Throughout the chapter intersections of class, faith and ethnicity are brought to the fore as always relevant though in different ways at different times, to understand the shifting and evolving processes that become significant as individuals and groups seek to find ways to inhabit the post-industrial, suburban residential and urban landscapes in one part of a major global city.

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