by Adam Edwards
On February 10th the lead-panelled windows of Norwich’s Ihsan Mosque were smashed by vandals unknown. The mosque on Chapelfield East was founded in the 1970s, and was the first in the UK to be established by British converts to Islam, rather than by a nascent immigrant community. Nobody, except perhaps the proverbial rock-lobber yet knows why the windows of this former 19th century schoolhouse were smashed last Saturday morning, but beneath the pall of islamophobia that grows heavy in the wake of an atrocity like the one that rocked Paris in January and ensuing media frenzy, we seem keen to race to conclusions.
Following the vandalism, the non-Muslim community has rallied around the mosque, inundating it with messages support. Its doors have been covered now with colourful paper hearts bearing words of solidarity and friendship, from simple exclamations of “Peace”, the uncomfortable and memetic rendering “Je suis Ihsan.”
When common acts of vandalism take place, as they do, neither I, nor I suspect any of the well-wishing members of the community whose paper hearts now adorn the mosque’s doors, feel any need to express solidarity with the victims’ integrity as property owners, nor indeed with the damaged property itself. Imagining an unproven motive into this act of vandalism betrays the assumptions of the well-meaning: that Norwich’s Islamic community is vulnerable to attack. Inherent in this assumption is the idea that the greater community is separate from the Muslim community — a difference is inferred that acknowledges the failure of both communities to sufficiently integrate, or at least achieve a relationship that is fully trusting.
We imagine an enemy in our midst and risk engaging in petty tribalism that damages our community.
More worrying for me than this concealed prejudice is the creation of a false dichotomy between those who express public support for the victims of a petty crime, and everyone else who does not. I either support the Ihsan Mosque or I wish it harm. I certainly wish neither it nor anybody any harm whatsoever, but I’m confronted by the fact that religious organisations, including the Ihsan Mosque, act to stratify society, othering non-believers, claiming monopolies on truth and concentrating power in their own hands.
A further difficulty arising from the polarisation caused by such a simple declaration as “I am Ihsan” is the marrying of a well-meaning community to ideas that they most likely do not hold. It’s an uncomfortable necessity to draw attention to the “Stand up for the prophet!” rally held in London on February 8th, to which the Ihsan Mosque sent a delegation. The rally delivered a 100,000 signature strong petition to Downing Street, demanding legal privileges to protect Islam from criticism, and the prophet from ridicule. Their placards bore messages that I’m certain would be found unwelcome by the people who left paper hearts on the doors of the mosque in Norwich: “Freedom of speech = hatred to Muslims”, for example.
It is those who wield power who most deserve to be subjected to criticism and ridicule, and ideas are not the same as those who hold them.
An attack on the bad ideas expressed in a religion, or by a would-be radical writer, is not the same as an attack on the people who hold those ideas. Freedom of speech was not attacked in Paris last month, and Islam was not attacked in Norwich last week. Ideas must be criticised, especially when those ideas are used to propagate a political agenda.
We can’t allow ourselves as a community to be polarised in the way I’ve tried to describe, but rather need to work collaboratively to break down the power structures and quiet prejudices that divide us. If the unified response by non-Muslims to the vandalism of the mosque shows anything, it’s not that there’s no willing to do so, but it does demonstrate a deep divide that has been thrown between our communities. We must resist polarisation as we must resist the temptation to over simplify a political state of affairs in a three word hashtag.
Events like Islam Awareness Week, which commences on 16th March, are precisely the types of event that allow us to draw closer together as a community, liberalising and normalising our differences while working to break apart those existing structures that allow islamophobia and other bigotries to survive. As a community we must work to support one other at all times, not merely when it is fashionable to do so.