As the United Kingdom faces a post-Brexit reality spurred by an unprecedented rise in support for radical right populist parties, I interviewed Imam Saleem Hussain from Medina Mosque in Southampton, to gain an insight into how local Muslim communities view the threat of right-wing extremism, particularly in the run up to the first anniversary of the attack on the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Can you tell us a bit about the Medina Mosque, and your role as an Imam there?
I am one of the Imams at Medina Mosque in Southampton, which is unique because it is the only purpose-built mosque in Southampton, and the first purpose-built mosque in Hampshire. As part of my role, I have the responsibility of leading prayers, educating the Muslim public regarding the Islamic faith, performing marriage and funeral ceremonies, and providing advice to the community.
Medina Mosque is distinctive in that it prides itself on catering for everyone in the community – we do a lot of outreach work, have many schools and scout groups visiting, and we open our doors to everyone, regardless of religion.
Have you felt an increased sense of fear in your community following the attack in Christchurch?
Psychologically, there has been an increase in fear – many mosques and managements have become more aware of the safety of the mosque, and the wellbeing of the members of the public who visit the mosque to pray. So there have been measures put in place to try and prevent any potential terrorist attacks.
We are still in close contact with the local police, and, internally, within ourselves, we have made a lot of improvements to the safety of the building itself. For example, the mosque is now always locked when children come to study from 4.30pm to 6.30pm. There is also a bell system in place, so if anyone wants to enter the mosque, they will alert us to their presence, and, if we recognise that person, they will be allowed to come in and pray.
On Fridays, because there is always a larger congregation, we now have volunteers standing by the entrance of the mosque, keeping a lookout to see if there is anyone suspicious, so we could potentially take action.
Do you find that security increases in the run up to religious festivals, such as Eid?
Certainly, in the past two Eid’s that we celebrated after the month of Ramadan, and also the holy pilgrimage Hadj, during these two festivals, we had a lot of security inside and outside the mosque.
Most of the security was composed of volunteers, people who came to pray at the mosque. We gave them high visibility jackets, they were standing outside, and around the mosque, ensuring everyone was safe and greeting people at the entrance. We also had an increase in police presence, with officers being placed around all the mosques in Southampton.
We should always feel safe, especially in a place of worship
The local authorities do tend to highlight Medina Mosque, and dedicate more importance to it, mainly because it is a large purpose-built mosque, it is the mosque that is most visited by members of the public, and it is quite vulnerable because it links onto a main road.
How does it make you feel, having to put these measures in place because of acts of terrorism?
As a community, it makes us incredibly sad – we should always feel safe, especially in a place of worship. There have been cases when I have been at the front, leading the prayers, and had a large congregation behind me, and sometimes the thought crosses my mind, whilst I am praying, what if someone just comes in now and does something – even at those times of prayer, I personally feel afraid, and if I, as the Imam feel afraid, then I am sure the people in the congregation also feel afraid and unsafe.
It is not a good feeling to have, knowing that your mosque has to have safety measures put in place. We have volunteers sacrificing their time, in which they could have been praying. However, if we look at it from another perspective, it does give us comfort knowing that there is help, that there are people out there willing to help, and willing to keep us safe.
There has been a considerable rise in right-wing populism in recent years – have you seen a rise in hate crime in the local community?
I usually spend most of my time in and around the mosque, and have occasionally come across individuals driving by who will wind their windows down and shout offensive remarks, either referring to me as a ‘terrorist’, or making derogatory remarks about Islam. Occasionally, when terrorist attacks take place, the general public will bring up the conversation about our wellbeing as Muslims, and their anxieties about the potential increase in hate crimes and Islamophobia.
The main people that come to me are women, who are concerned about their wellbeing as practicing Muslims, meaning women who cover themselves in traditional Islamic dress. Women often feel more vulnerable because it is visually apparent that they are Muslim, whereas often with men this is not apparent.
Most extremists do not tend to look at religion, rather, they look at colour and then make a judgement, ‘oh this person is brown, he is definitely going to be a Muslim’. I have had cases where Hindus have come to us, and said we were walking and people mistook us to be Muslim and started shouting racist remarks. So if they see someone who is brown, they automatically link that colour to Islam.
The people who come directly to the Imam to report hate crimes are mainly people not from Southampton, but university students who have come from abroad, and, because they are not familiar with the area, they feel the best place to go for help would be the mosque.
Do you think media coverage of the controversy surrounding Islamic dress, has had an impact on the levels of anxiety felt by the women you mention?
The media have led to an increased anxiety among women – if the media and news reporters are mocking their attire, then women become fearful about wearing it. So psychologically, it has an impact – if women are going somewhere with littlediversity, they often question whether or not they should go, as they are fearful someone may shout abuse.
There was a case in Southampton, in which an English woman grabbed the headscarf of a Muslim woman, pulling it off whilst shouting abuse. This case is quite unusual because it is uncommon to have a lone woman show her extremist views towards another woman. Usually, if a woman does show her extremist views, it would be in a group, or during a protest.
Education is key – we focus more on the media, and what the media says, rather than focusing more on integration
This incident, in itself, put off a lot of Muslim women, for a certain period of time, from going out freely. Even with my wife, she always feels safer walking with me, and will only go out alone if it is absolutely essential, which is incredibly unfortunate.
The UK government has recently carried out an independent review of the Prevent strategy – do you think anything needs to change to help combat the rise in right-wing extremism?
I have had this conversation many different times with many different people. I do not one hundred percent agree with what Prevent does at the moment, because it seems like it is quite one-sided, and that we are just looking for violent extremists within the Islamic faith, which is incorrect.
There is a huge focus on mosques. People always want to come to the mosque and look at how it monitors its congregation and educate the imams into how we should figure out a person’s character. There is nothing wrong with doing that, but Prevent needs to expand, their strategy needs to encompass all types of extremisms, from different cultures, different religions, because there is not just extremism within Islam.”
What would you want the public to know about how local communities in the United Kingdom perceive the threat of right-wing extremism?
It is definitely a serious issue, one that will take a very long time to resolve. Muslim communities need to learn to integrate more with people from other cultures or other communities. I believe this is one of the main reasons people may lack an understanding of Islam.
I think education is key – we focus more on the media, and what the media says, rather than focusing more on integration. Many people currently feel afraid to talk to us, because they think that we are all extremists, so one of the ways we can tackle hate crimes is by changing public perceptions, showing people what a welcoming community we are.
Likewise, the majority of members who claim to be a part of a far-right extremist group are often lacking in education and understanding, and many of them are not willing to listen to the truth. Education and integration is key to preventing hate against Islam.