Tonight in the surprising setting of Surrey’s stockbroker belt, Christian and Muslim groups will clash. The cause of the ill-will is whether Surrey Heath Council should grant planning permission for a new mosque.
This mosque will have five domes and two 100ft minarets that will loom over the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Little wonder many people regard it as a provocation — and that’s why I will be at the council meeting opposing its construction.
The religious needs of Camberley’s burgeoning Muslim community has been served since 1996 by an old Victorian school converted into a mosque. While not perfect, the present premises, with a little modification, could cater for future expansion.
However, elements within the Bengali Welfare Association, which runs the mosque, have aligned themselves to Tablighi Jamaat — a dogmatic, ultra-conservative group whose controversial mega-mosque project close to the 2012 Olympics site in London was recently rebuffed. This new mosque will not be in the interests of all British Muslims as it will allocate less than a fifth of the space to female worshippers. But there is nothing in Islamic theology that legitimises a misogynistic apartheid in the house of God. Nor does the history of Islamic architecture show that mosques must have towering minarets.
Places of worship vary greatly throughout the world of Islam, reflecting local building traditions. From Timbuktu to East Timor, mosque buildings blend into their particular surroundings. There is no Islamic injunction that minarets are intrinsic to mosques. In fact, the first minarets were only constructed decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Their main purpose then was to make possible the broadcast of the prayer call from an elevated spire. Today, modern sound technology has rendered this function superfluous. That’s why building two twin minaret towers, so close to a renowned military college, is a provocation.
We British Muslims, who enjoy full freedom of faith, should remember that Islam obliges us to be good neighbours and respect others. Rather than dismissing objections as either racist or intolerant, we should listen to local opinion. And if the Muslims of Camberley are still determined to build their “traditional” mosque, they should seek an alternative site. More importantly, they should jettison reactionary ideology and adopt a progressive Islam that is part of the British mainstream.
Taj Hargey, the chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford and the imam of the Summertown Islamic Congregation in Oxford.