By Sean Meleady

Mosques across Norwich have been working hard in recent years to develop understanding of the Islamic faith and culture, and to improve community relations. Starting with the establishment of the Ihsan Mosque near Chapelfield Gardens in 1977, there are also mosques in Dereham Road, Rose Lane and Aylsham Road, and a community centre in Sandy Lane. Not only is the local Muslim community small but it is geographically isolated from larger communities in Birmingham, London and Yorkshire. 

As part of its community outreach efforts, the East Anglian Mosque and Community Centre in Rose Lane hosted an open day in 2018 for members of the local community to find out more about Islam. In recent months they have also teamed up with St Martins Housing Trust to cook over 100 meals a week for homeless people in the city. 

In July 2020, Norwich Central Mosque and Islamic Community Centre in Aylsham Road opened its doors to worshippers. As soon as November, members of the community began a new foodbank based at the mosque every Sunday, in response to the economic challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, which catered for people in Mile Cross – one of the most deprived wards in the city.

“As a faith, one of the things we do is charity.”

Sirajul Islam, a member of Norwich Muslim Community Association and a Trustee of Norwich Central Mosque and Islamic Community Centre, pointed out that charity is an integral part of his faith: 

“As a faith, one of the things we do is charity. Our neighbourhood is densely populated with people on low incomes and as soon as we started people started coming. Last week we did for about 70 families, involving about 400 kilos of food every week.”

Norwich Central Mosque. Credit: Norwich Muslim Community Association

However, Islam also highlights the many challenges posed by running a foodbank, including the issues of supply and funding:

“When we started we collected donations from our members and promoted that on social media, which encouraged donations from local people. We got in touch with Norwich City Council and received funding from Norfolk Community Foundation and some support from the Soul Foundation, a church in Mile Cross. They’ve been supplying us for the last two or three months. If we don’t get support from other people we won’t be able to carry on, because of the high demand. I’m hoping we will get some other funding but we don’t have any regular income.”

Although Islam is adamant that the pandemic hasn’t damaged the community in a spiritual sense, it has made worshipping at the Mosque more challenging. He also emphasises that the post-pandemic future of the wider Mile Cross community is uncertain:

“Belief-wise we don’t have any worry about losing that atmosphere; we all believe in what Allah decides. If we can’t go [to Mosque] we can’t go. At Ramadan we usually spend most of the time at the Mosque; last year we couldn’t do that, but that’s life. 

‘I don’t know what will happen after the pandemic because we don’t really know much about people’s financial situation. When people come, we give them some information about other support they can get from the council. We don’t know what the job situation will be like after the pandemic but there will be a long-term effect.” 

Norwich Central Mosque and Soul Foundation volunteers. Credit: Norwich Muslim Community Association

The local Muslim community has faced numerous challenges in recent years, with the Norwich Central Mosque on Dereham Road facing a long battle to be granted permission for 24-hour worship. Worse occurred last July at the new Central Mosque in Aylsham Road, which was firebombed shortly after opening.

“The support we had from the community was amazing.”

Although the Fire Brigade were able to save the building, it suffered damage and the community was left traumatised. A man was arrested and later released on police bail, but Islam was delighted by the sympathetic response of the Norwich community, which included a fundraising campaign:

“The support we had from the community was amazing. As soon as it happened so many people came to offer their sympathies and apologies, flowers, and then people started fundraising for us. We raised around £6,500 from the local people.”

Despite the attack, Islam doesn’t believe that Islamophobia is a major issue in Norwich, although he acknowledges that emotive responses to terrorist attacks do shape attitudes: 

“Generally people are nice, but the thing is when any foreign issue like an attack happens we do see some changes in people’s attitudes. As Norwich is a suburban town away from the big cities, people don’t know much about new faiths.”

“We accommodate everyone.”

In the aftermath of the attack on the Aylsham Road Mosque, Conservative Norwich North MP Chloe Smith visited to inspect the damage. Despite widespread evidence of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, including in relation to current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Islam stressed that the community is willing to work with anyone, regardless of political persuasion:

“There are always arguments on both sides. We as a community try to work with every party and some of our members vote Tory as well. We accommodate everyone; this is a community centre so we don’t take any hard line. Especially in Norwich we are working fairly well and focusing on local issues rather than national politics. This Islamophobic thing is there but we need to work together to overcome that.” 

Image Credit: Norwich Muslim Community Association

Although the Muslim community in Norwich is sometimes perceived as small and new, it has a fascinating history dating back to the 1970s, if not before. This involves an attempt by British Muslim converts from London to establish a self-sustaining ‘Muslim village’ in the Norfolk countryside, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the Ihsan Mosque – the first founded by converts anywhere in the country. The story of the founding of this mosque is told in the documentary ‘Blessed Are the Strangers’.

In spite of Islamophobia, the local Muslim community has reached out to help those suffering from food poverty, homelessness and the devastating economic impact of the pandemic. We should all hope that in a city named the most ‘caring’ in England last month, these projects, so long as they unfortunately remain needed, can continue to thrive.

Featured image courtesy of Norwich Muslim Community Association

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