The Sunday Times (London) has an article today with an update on plans by Tablighi Jamaat to build a gigantic mosque complex, called the London Markaz, on a 10-acre site in Newham, a mere 500 yards from the site of the 2012 Olympic games. The Markaz' size and ambition are as noteworthy as Tablighi Jamaat's agenda is dubious.
The project's backers hope the mosque and its surrounding buildings would hold a total of 70,000 people, only 10,000 fewer than the Olympic stadium. Its futuristic design features wind turbines instead of the traditional minarets, while a translucent latticed roof would replace the domes seen on most mosques. The complex is designed to become the "Muslim quarter" for the Games, acting as a hub for Islamic competitors and spectators.
With a built area of 180,000m2, the site is 1km in length and sits on the banks of the Channelsea River in proximity to the London 2012 Olympic sites.
The east London complex would have by far the largest capacity of any religious building in Britain. The biggest at present is the Baitul Futuh in Morden, Surrey, which holds about 10,000 worshippers. Liverpool's Anglican cathedral, the largest Christian place of worship, has a capacity of 3,000. The three-storey mosque will be designed to accommodate more than 40,000 worshippers. Its sweeping roof is intended to evoke tented cities. The complex would include a garden, school, library and accommodation for visiting worshippers. Islamic calligraphy would cover the walls and ceilings, the washing areas would have cascading water to mimic a stream, and the complex's buildings would be adapted to allow extra worshippers during festivals such as Eid, accommodating a further 30,000 visitors.
The Times says that the project is expected to cost over £100 million, with donations now being solicited in Britain and elsewhere. But British Muslim sources estimate the cost at £300 million, and note that this is not much less than the £420 million King Hassan of Morocco spent on his sea-side mosque, which is the most expensive modern mosque in the world. (The Saudis have spent considerably more renovating the mosques in Mecca and Medina.)
Comments: (1) Should this project come to fruition, it will surely be the outstanding symbol of Islam in Europe, at least until an even larger and more expensive complex outdoes it.
(2) Currently the London Muslim Centre in Whitechapel, opened in June 2004, holds the title for the UK's grandest mosque compound. As I earlier described it, "the six-storey building can hold 10,000 worshippers and includes a gym, a library, crèche and classrooms." But what is of greater interest is that "center members raised about £4 million (of the total £10 million), with the bulk of funding coming from taxpayers via such public agencies as the European Development Fund, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and the London Development Agency." One can only wonder how much the European, British, and London taxpayer will put out for the Markaz.
(3) That the largest Islamic house of worship in Great Britain is already over three times larger than the largest Christian counterpart speaks volumes about the spirit and ambition of British Muslims; that they are planning one almost 25 times bigger reinforces the point many times over. (November 27, 2005)
July 17, 2006 update: TheLondon Development Agency and the local town are said to be "very much in favour" of the Markaz plan, moving it closer to reality. But not everyone is pleased. "It will rival, if not exceed St Paul's, and perhaps be the most dominant [religious] site for the whole of London," notes Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund. "The local people have not been consulted. They are going to have their community handed over."
Aug. 20, 2006 update: In the course of a major article on the Tablighi Jamaat (titled "Army of darkness"), the Sunday Telegraph provides an update on the Markaz:
The Tablighi is in advanced discussions with the London Development Agency (LDA) for the construction of a giant, 70,000-capacity mosque complex - Europe's biggest and the centrepiece of an "Islamic Village" - in the east London borough of West Ham. If it goes ahead - at an estimated cost of £100 million-£200 million - it will become London's biggest religious site. Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, is a supporter, as, it appears, is the LDA and, once again, much of the money is likely to come from the Saudis.
Comment: How can one resist noting that this "Islamic Village" will come into existence in a borough called West Ham?
Sep. 24, 2006 update: A battle royal is developing over the Markaz, reports the Observer.
Sep. 25, 2006 update: In a skeptical piece on the London Markaz, "The shadow cast by a mega-mosque," a town councillor representing the Christian People's Alliance who lives about a mile from the 16-acre site on which the Markaz is to be built, Alan Craig, notes two developments: Even though formal permission for the Markaz has not yet been given, "Muslims are moving into the area in preparation. The Savile Town area of Dewsbury where Tablighi Jamaat is currently based is now more than 90 per cent Muslim." Second, close to where the mosque location, the Kingsway International Christian Centre, Europe's biggest evangelical church, accommodating 12,000 worshippers, is being torn down to make way for the Olympic stadium.
Whether or not Tablighi Jamaat will get permission to build the Markaz, because it is so large, will be decided not by the local Newham town councilors but by the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, a public body funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government, whose board is appointed by the secretary for communities and local government, currently Ruth Kelly. Should the board corporation approve the Markaz proposal, that is that, with no right of appeal. Should it reject the plan, however, Tablighi Jamaat can appeal to the Government. Patrick Sookhdeo of the institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity notes that the outcome is a foregone conclusion: "The corporation has already said that the new mosque will make West Ham a 'cultural and religious destination'." The Conservative spokesman on planning for the London Assembly, Tony Arbour, complained: "For this major decision to be taken by a quango is undemocratic. Local residents have been shut out of the process."
Nov. 5, 2006 update: Asif Shakoor, chairman of Sunni Friends of Newham, says that 2,500 Muslims living near in the area where the mosque is slated to be build have signed a petition against it. The petition text states: "We propose that when and if planning permission is granted . . . that all Muslim groups be equally represented at the proposed place of worship that is to celebrate the 2012 Olympic Games in London." Shakoor adds that Tablighi Jamaat, the group behind the mosque, "is radicalising the younger generation. We have to make a stand." Tablighi Jamaat also faces a technical problem: the permission for its temporary mosque on the site expired on Nov. 2. A spokeswoman for the Newham council confirms that the organization is now in breach of the planning laws.
Nov. 27, 2006 update: As moderate Muslim opposition to the Markaz builds, the Times (London) quotes Irfan al-Alawi, Europe director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, at a recent seminar hosted by the Policy Exchange think-tank saying he is "extremely concerned" about the spread of Tablighi Jamaat. "Tablighi are not moderate Muslims, they are a separatist movement. If this mosque were to go ahead it will be strictly run by the Tablighis; there will be no room for moderates."
Also today, the Conservative politician Michael Gove raised his "profound concern" in parliament about the funding of the Markaz, estimated to cost between £100 million and £300 million:
The mosque, which is being built by an organisation called Tablighi Jamaat, raises profound concerns, not least because that organisation has been described by French intelligence as an "antechamber of fundamentalism." Two of the 7/7 bombers had direct links with the Tablighi Jamaat mosque in Dewsbury. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, had links with the organisation, as did John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban. How can an organisation that, according to the Charity Commission, records an income of just £500,000 a year, afford to build a mosque that will cost anything between £100 million and £300 million?
Dec. 6, 2006 update: The London Dockland News quotes Irfan al-Alawi making an even stronger statement against the Markaz: "A mosque for the Tablighi Jamaat could incite a separate movement against other cultures and religions," he observes.
Jan. 5, 2007 update: Irfan al-Alawi is yet more explicit: "This mosque would lead to more violence in the U.K. I think, yes. Once the youth have been brainwashed, and been captured by the satanic ideology of the Tablighis, yes, it will come as a very hard-hitting movement."
Feb. 18, 2007 update: "Communities and Local Government," a new agency of the British government headed by Ruth Kelly, is likely to block the Markaz, report Ben Leapman and Jonathan Wynne-Jones in London's Sunday Telegraph.
A senior security source said that he was concerned about the proposed mosque, and expected ministers to use their powers to call in, and turn down, the planning application. The move was confirmed by a senior Government source, who said there were fears that the giant mosque could damage community relations in the area, and added: "We are going to stop it." There are clear planning grounds on which the development could be turned down. It is so close to the main Olympic venues that it may interfere with preparations for the Games. The Government source said that the planning application needed to be rejected "to give the Olympics a clear run."
Ironically (and symbolically?), Europe's largest evangelical church, the Kingsway International Christian Centre, headed by Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo and boasting a capacity for 12,000 congregants, will be torn down and relocated to make way for the Olympic games.
Feb. 26, 2007 update: The Greater London Authority website contains this announcement:
The GLA (London Mayor's Office) is currently in the process of deciding the fate of the proposed £100m Olympic Masjid in London. The Evening Standard is running a poll of those in support and those not in support of building the Masjid.
As of today, the vote is reply to "Are you in favour of the £100m mosque?" is running 58 percent yes, and 38 percent no, with some 28,000 votes counted.
Apr. 30, 2007 update: Trustees of the Abbey Mills mosque which is planning to build the Markaz, have fired their architects, Ali Mangera and Ada Yvars Bravo, and issued this back-tracking statement:
Sadly, following unauthorised publication of design concepts and press statements having been made in the name of trustees, it was felt that the relationship with both parties could no longer continue. We have never intended to build a mosque the size suggested in the media. Our vision is for a development that enhances the area and provides a mosque and complex that will support our work in the Muslim faith. We regret we have inadvertently allowed our opponents the opportunity to use our own naivety against us but we will now address their false and disappointing accusations directly and demonstrate to the community they have nothing to fear or oppose.
In response, architects Mangera threatened to sue for breach of contract and defamation. "We were given a brief about the size of the mosque. This was discussed with Newham council and the London Development Agency and accepted by everyone. Perhaps the trustees have been frightened off by the opposition. They should have responded to the criticism by speaking to the press and public instead of remaining silent for the last three years."
May 30, 2007 update: After the Blair government warned going ahead with the Markaz could "raise tensions," Tablighi Jamaat agreed indefinitely to delay plans to build the building. Quoting the London Times:
More than 48,000 people have petitioned the Government to "abolish plans for the £100m mega-mosque" with a capacity for 12,000 worshippers beside the London 2012 Olympic park in Newham, East London. ... A statement in response to the petition, published on the Downing Street website, said: "We understand from Newham Council that there is no current planning permission or application for a mosque and Newham Council do not expect a planning application in the near future." A spokesperson for Tablighi Jamaat said that plans for the 18-acre site in Newham were being drawn up, but he added: "There's no expectation of any planning application before the end of the year, because of the size of the application."
July 15, 2007 update: Two pieces of news reported by James Murray and Jason Groves in the Sunday Express. First, more than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to stop the mosque from being built. Second, Kafeel Ahmed, who drove an explosive-laden Jeep into Glasgow Airport two weeks ago, belongs to the Tablighi Jamaat sect behind the Markaz. This comes on top of the two 7/7 suicide bombers. Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, who had strong connections to Tablighi Jamaat.
Nov. 4, 2007 update: Jane Perlez offers a roundup of recent developments in the New York Times:
This summer on the Web site of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, more than 250,000 critics of the proposed mosque supported a petition initiated by a backer of the conservative British National Party. Some of them said a large mosque had no right to exist in such a prominent place in a Christian country. When, around the same time, Karen Armstrong, a historian of religion, wrote an article in the liberal Guardian newspaper commenting favorably about the mosque, the paper's Web site was deluged with complaints.
In Newham, the borough where the mosque would stand, Alan Craig, the leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance Party in the East End, started a one-man campaign against the mosque a year ago that has grown and gained national prominence. He began by emphasizing the size of the mosque. But now he focuses on its sponsor, Tablighi Jamaat.
Markaz oppoinent Alan Craig and his wife Sally.
This video implicitly threatens the life of the member of the local Newham council who has led the campaign against the mosque. Councillor Alan Craig, head of the Christian Peoples' Alliance, has sought for the past year to bring these concerns about the mosque proposal to public attention. Alan Craig is an eminently decent, civilised man who counts many Muslims among his friends and is a courageous voice against Islamist extremism and hatred. He has been unflinching in his reasoned determination to publicise the dangers inherent in this mosque. Now this video, which appears to have been put up by a man aged 23 from Stevenage called Muhammed, has appeared with the rubric "In memory of Councillor Alan Craig" on every frame, implying that he will be murdered. Even more appallingly, the video features images not just of Craig but of his wife and small children. And at least until this morning, a link to this video has actually been displayed on the Olympic mosque project's own website; under the rubric "subscribe to favourites" this website invites viewers to subscribe to "abdullah 1425," and with a couple of clicks up comes the video threatening Alan Craig and his family.
The Evening Standard reports that "Mr Craig has now contacted police in fear of his family's safety and demanded that the video be taken down."
In addition, the video flatly asserts that "The mosque will be built in time for the 2012 Olympic Games."
Comment: The video suggests a raising of the stakes.
Mar. 4, 2008 update: Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the Indian-born co-founder of the "Muslim Parliament of Great Britain," has surprisingly come out against the Markaz. "We have too many mosques. I think it should not be built. What we need first is more integration between the existing mosques and the wider community." To which, a Tablighi Jamaat spokesman replied: "These are the view of just one man and there are other voices to be heard. We must also point out we are at a very early point in the consultation."
Oct. 19, 2008 update: No less surprising is for the Church of England, in no less a person of Philip Lewis, a well-known scholar of Islam in Great Britain, to condemn the Markaz. In the first intervention by the Church in the debate, Lewis expressed a worry that Tablighi Jamaat is "isolationist," "patriarchal," and beholden to a narrow reading of Islam. He fears that the mosque would segregate Muslims:
Tablighi Jamaat does not try to engage with wider society so there must be clear worries that such a mosque would lead to a ghetto. The danger is that this becomes a self-contained world, which would be vulnerable to extremists. ... If you're drawn into a minimalist reading of Islam it can turn very easily into isolationism. There's a religious supremacy in their teaching which doesn't accept other religions. It can create an us and them mentality. ... Do you want an iconic building that unwittingly privileges this reading of Islam? If one is serious about cohesion and encouraging people to live well together then Tablighi Jamaat have serious questions to answer.
Nonetheless, a Tablighi Jamaat spokesman said that it is proceeding with the planning application, probably in mid-2009.
Jan. 18, 2010 update: A famous victory for those opposed to the Markaz: the The Times (London) reports that plans to build it "have been halted."
And not just that: "Tablighi Jamaat, the Islamic sect behind the proposal, is to be evicted this week from the East London site, where it has been operating illegally a temporary mosque."
Comment: This outcome shows what determined, sustained, and intelligent opposition to an Islamist project can achieve.
Nov. 14, 2012 update: The Markaz has revived from the dead, though this time with the forgettable name of Abbey Mills Riverine Center. Soeren Kern traces its new history at "London's Mega-Mosque: 'Recruiting Ground for Al Qaeda'." The 16-acre site near the Olympic Village would cost an estimated £100 million, hold 10,000 worshippers (making it the largest religious building in Britain), include two 40-foot minarets, a library, a dining hall, sports facilities, apartments, and parking. Once again, Tablighi Jamaat is behind the project and Alan Craig is again leading the opposition with a campaign called "Mega Mosque No Thanks."
Dec. 11, 2012 update: No sooner is the Markaz revived then it is shot down again, reports Soeren Kern in "London Rejects Plan for Mega-Mosque," this time by a 8-0 vote of the Strategic Development Committee of the Labour-led Newham Council, on the grounds that the building was "too big" for the local community.
An estimated 3,000 of the mega-mosque's supporters, some of whom travelled to London from as far away as Bradford and Birmingham, gathered outside Newham Council's town hall ahead of the decision on December 5. Some of them held signs reading: "15 years of waiting. Not a day more. Vote yes to the Riverine Center." ... After the meeting, Councillor Conor McAuley, Newham Council's Executive Member for Regeneration and Strategic Planning, issued a formal statement: "Councillors have considered this application at length and with great care before deciding to reject it. The council undertook a rigorous and extensive consultation about the proposals in the run-up to this decision."
Once again, former Newham town councillor Alan Craig was key to the decision.
Oct. 25, 2015 update: After the Markaz was turned down by the Newham local council in December 2012 (see above), Tablighi Jamaat appealed to the national government to overturn that decision. According to Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph (London), that decision has, at last, been made: "sources close to the process say that the Communities Secretary, Greg Clark, has now made the final decision to block the scheme. A public announcement is expected shortly."
(1) Given the 16-year history of the Markaz (currently called the Abbey Mills Markaz or the Riverine Centre) and HT's determination, one should be cautious about declaring victory.
(2) The Middle East Forum Education Fund has helped fund Alan Craig's efforts.