Sun, Nov 18, 2007 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Plan for Europe's largest mosque in London encounters sharp criticism

AFP , LONDON

A bitter row has blown up in east London over a secretive Muslim organization's plan to build Europe's largest mosque a stone's throw from the city's 2012 Olympic zone.

If officials grant planning permission, the mosque -- in the deprived but diverse district of West Ham in east London -- will hold up to 12,000 worshippers and feature facilities including a school and conference center.

But the plan has drawn furious opposition from some politicians and locals, with 280,000 people signing a petition against it on British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Downing Street Web site earlier this year.

Many complaints focus on Tablighi Jamaat, the media-shy Muslim group behind the proposed development of the 7.3-hectare Abbeymills site, and which mosque opponents and some British press reports claim has links to Islamic extremism.

The movement strongly denies the allegations, but a fog of mutual hostility whipped up by the row has increased both the alienation of Muslims who feel their religious needs are not being met and the anger of opponents who accuse them of insularity.

It also taps into the nation's agonized debate over the position of Islam in a Christian, though increasingly secular, society which began in earnest after the 2005 London bombings.

"I'm not anti-Muslim -- I want to engage with Muslims rather than just shouting at each other through megaphones on the issue," said local councilor Alan Craig, who is leading opposition to the plans.

While its opponents are eager to discuss why the "mega-mosque" should not be built, arguments in favor are less easy to uncover.

Reporters and photographers are barred from the proposed site, currently home to a temporary mosque in a shabby building with a plastic roof. It is located near the main park for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The gatekeeper referred press queries to mosque elder Saulat Sikander, who failed to respond to an interview request. Nick Kilby of Indigo Public Affairs, which is handling media calls on the mosque, also declined to talk, referring queries to its Web site.

Some answers were available a few minutes away on Green Street, a busy shopping area with halal butchers and fabric shops and in the shadow of football club West Ham United's ground.

The area is heavily Muslim -- accounting for roughly a quarter of the local borough's population, according to the most recent census in 2001.

Many Muslims in the street declined to comment on the plans. But a local Islamic bookshop worker who declined to be named said the new mosque was needed because of chronic overcrowding.

"There are thousands of people in this area -- they're praying in houses, in sheds, in portakabins," he said.

Two other large mosques built in the area in recent years had rapidly become overcrowded, he said, predicting that a new one would draw worshippers from across the capital.

Councillor Craig -- a committed Christian who is a member of the Christian People's Alliance Party -- stressed that his objection was not to Islam, but specifically to Tablighi Jamaat, which he described as "backward" and "fundamentalist."

Despite the storm over the plans, the proposed mosque does have some powerful supporters -- a spokesman for the Greater London Authority, headed by Mayor Ken Livingstone, hit out angrily at the Downing Street petition.

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