London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A huge crashing sound rings out across the cold North London night as a 50-pound battering ram smashes open the sturdy mosque doors. Armed police, wearing special slip-on covers over their boots, silently enter the notorious Finsbury Park Mosque. One group heads right towards the ablution area, another up the stairs towards the offices and prayer area. The year is 2003, and the mosque is led by the hook-handed hatemonger Abu Hamza Al-Masri. It is infamous for being a “suicide factory”—a term coined by two Times journalists in a well-known book—churning out a veritable all-star list of dangerous extremists and terrorists.
Ten years later and the police are back, but this time as part of a community outreach program to tackle hate crimes and anti-social behavior in the local area. In fact, not only are senior members of the local police force attending this open conference at the mosque, but local MP Jeremy Corbyn is delivering the opening speech.
The current trustees work under the umbrella of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) and took control of Finsbury Park Mosque in 2005, two years after the police raid and one year after former Imam Abu Hamza was arrested on terrorism charges. MAB was founded in 1997 by a number of prominent Britain-based Muslims, including well-known Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated figures like Kamal El-Helbawy and Walid Saffour. The organization was initially heavily involved in the British protest movement, including the Stop the War Coalition and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The group is currently led by Omer El-Hamdoon.
Since the MAB takeover, Finsbury Park Mosque has experienced an unexpected turnaround.
Speaking from his sparse office, the mosque’s chairman, Mohamed Kozbar, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “In 2005, we [the MAB] were approached by the council, the police, the MPs and the charity commission to try to help sort out the problems at the mosque. After intensive discussions, we decided to go ahead [with the takeover] because we thought that it would be beneficial for both the Muslim community and the wider community. We were aware that a lot of problems were happening here, and we thought that it was our duty to help sort this out.
“We did it for the sake of the community. The community has suffered a lot here—both the Muslim community and the rest of the communities—because of the problems at the mosque. We thought that this might be an opportunity to change people’s view about this mosque in particular and Muslims in general.”
Under the control of the hate preacher Abu Hamza, the north London mosque had become a haven for extremist Muslims by the late 1990s. The list of radical Muslims who passed through the mosque during this period makes for grim reading and comprises a number of notorious figures. It includes figures linked to Al-Qaeda, such as British-born shoe bomber Richard Reid, who tried to detonate an explosive on a transatlantic flight from Paris to Miami in late 2001, and the so-called 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, the first person to have been charged in the US over the 9/11 attacks. In addition to this, Algerian national Kamel Bourgass—detained as part of the alleged London ricin plot during which he stabbed a police officer to death while resisting arrest—is reported to have bedded down in the mosque on a number of occasions.
Estimates indicate that at least 35 Guantanamo detainees passed through Finsbury Park Mosque while it was under the stewardship of Abu Hamza. During his Old Bailey trial, it was alleged that the Egyptian-born preacher had become a “recruiting sergeant for terrorism and murder,” preaching hate and intolerance to a “tinderbox” congregation.
Although Abu Hamza was barred from the mosque following the police raid, he continued to preach to his radical followers in front of the mosque every Friday, holding prayers in the open air—and often under the glare of the media spotlight.
His reign of terror ultimately ended in 2004, after the United States began to seek his extradition for his alleged role in trying to establish a “terrorist training camp” in Oregon. British authorities arrested him without a warrant on August 26, 2004. He was convicted on eleven out of fifteen separate charges, including six charges of incitement to murder, three charges related to stirring up racial hatred, and one charge of possessing a “terrorist encyclopedia.”
The MAB officially took over the running of the mosque in February 2005, with a mandate to expel the radical elements and reintegrate the mosque with the local community.
Leaning forward earnestly in his chair, Kozbar tells Asharq Al-Awsat: “In February 2005, we officially became trustees of the mosque, and since that time the mosque is stable and problems disappeared and the people who used to control it left and they never came back.”
Asked if the mosque in its current incarnation has ever had trouble from Abu Hamza-era congregation members, Kozbar reiterates: “They left and they never came back.”
However, he does acknowledge that the new trustees had some difficulties, saying: “We faced a lot of challenges and obstacles. The situation was terrible. Not many people were coming here. They were scared to come; they didn’t trust what was happening in the mosque, and we had to try to regain this trust and bring the community back to the mosque.”
Its newly appointed imam, Sheikh Chokri Majouli, concurs, saying: “This mosque passed through a difficult stage. Everybody knows how it was. There were many problems, but thank God since the MAB and the trustees took over, everything has changed. The mosque has become stable and has begun to play its role in educating people about Islam and communicating with the local community—not just the Muslims, but the non-Muslims as well.”
Kozbar, who in addition to being the mosque’s chairman also heads up the North London branch of MAB, has been here since the new management took over in 2005. Looking back over the past eight years, he says: “We worked very hard, and I can’t say it’s been easy, but thanks to God the community here was desperate for a change, and they helped us a lot. We also have other partners, like the police, the council, and our local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, who have been very helpful. We have worked with them in partnership and are still working with them in partnership.”
However, not everything has been smooth sailing, and Kozbar concedes that the Muslim community in Finsbury Park has faced a number of difficult crises since the MAB takeover, including attacks on the mosque.
It was subject to a suspected anthrax attack in June 2011, which caused panic among worshippers after police sealed the area. The mosque received a package addressed to former Imam Ahmad Saad containing a suspicious white power, along with an anti-Islamic message and offensive pictures of Muslim women. Mosque staff immediately called the police, who shut down the area and sealed off the building. Staff who had been exposed to the suspicious powder were quarantined inside the mosque until they could be cleared.
Speaking at the time, Kozbar stressed that “whoever sent the package is trying to isolate the community and undo all our hard work. I would like to show them around the mosques and show them the good work we do.”
In the aftermath of the attack, the mosque received support from local politicians, including Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, who held a surgery at the mosque. He said: “I’m a great admirer of the work of the mosque. They are part of the community and do not deserve to be treated in this disgusting way by people who seek to threaten them.”
This was not the only time that this mosque, with its notorious reputation, has been subject to attack since the MAB takeover. In July 2010, vandals stuck a pig’s head on the gate outside.
The mock anthrax attack coincided with the mosque’s fourth Neighborhood Open Day. This is just one of a string of new initiatives established by the MAB trustees to integrate the mosque with the wider community.
Indeed, the changes are evident immediately on entering the mosque, where one is greeted by a large flat-screen television listing the mosque’s activities. It shows the diverse range of activities taking place at the mosque, from Arabic and English language lessons to Islamic classes for both girls and boys to a youth club and exercise sessions.
Kozbar revealed that the Neighborhood Open Day includes exhibitions, films and a tour of the mosque. He added that students from local schools and universities also visit the mosque every month for tours and to learn more about Islam.
Imam Majouli echoes this sentiment, emphasizing, “We are open for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We hope to develop even more in the future and to benefit both the Muslim and non-Muslim community and put forward our legitimate message and play our legitimate role. The mosque is not just a place for worship, but a place for reaching out [to the local community], for Islamic da’wa [missionary work], [and] for teaching people about Islam.”
Speaking in pristine Arabic and gesturing at the mosque around him, Majouli—who has previously served as imam at Regent’s Park Mosque and Mayfair Mosque— emphasizes: “We hope that this mosque develops even further and serves the Muslims and non-Muslims in the local community and London as a whole.”
Finsbury Park Mosque is also part of the Islington Faith Forum, a community partnership of faith-based organizations working together to assist local community development.
Kozbar says: “A lot of things that we never thought would happen are happening, and the interfaith mission has become a main element of the mosque. The youth have also returned to the mosque, and we have a women’s section, which is the most active section in the mosque.”
As for the mosque’s current congregation, Kozbar could not be happier: “Our worshippers come from all different communities and backgrounds. We have a large Somali community at the mosque; there are Albanians, Kurds, Arabs—particularly Algerians—as well as a large Bengali community. They are all coming together at Finsbury Park Mosque today.”
In addition to this, Kozbar is also particularly proud of the mosque’s women’s section, telling Asharq Al-Awsat: “The sister’s section is one of the most active sections at the mosque; they have daily activities such as study circles and different educational and religious courses. They also represent the mosque in different meetings with the [Islington] council.”
Most recently, the Finsbury Park Mosque Sister’s Committee met with the women’s committee of a local church.
Imam Majouli also plays up the importance of the mosque’s interfaith mission, telling Asharq Al-Awsat: “Interfaith dialogue is a necessity. Some media is seeking to promote fears about Islam and Muslims in a non-objective manner, and we are trying to counteract this. We must seek to overcome this clash of civilization, or clash of religions, and demonstrate the falsehood of such views.”
Earlier this year, Finsbury Park Mosque also played host to the public launch meeting of Islington’s Unite Against Fascism movement. The event was held with the slogan, “Celebrate diversity; Defend multiculturalism; Oppose Islamophobia and racism.” It saw local political, trade union and religious figures coming together at the mosque.
However, when talk turns to the media, Kozbar’s expression becomes guarded. “Despite the positive changes that happened here, many people have refused to see this and unfortunately much of the media continues to talk about the mosque as it was before.”
“The issue surrounding the image of the mosque is a challenge for us. We want to open the mosque to the media, to say, ‘Look, there is nothing to be afraid of.’ The mosque is open to everybody and they are welcome to come and see the positive changes that are happening here.”
Finsbury Park Mosque also played an important role in the run-up to the London Olympics, taking part in a number of community programs. In fact, mosque chairman Mohamed Kozbar was chosen as an Olympic “hero of the community” by the local council for his work bringing communities together.
Speaking on the occasion, he said: “I am very proud to be nominated, and I am happy that our work [at the mosque] has been recognized. There is still a lot to do, but looking back over the years there has been a big process of building bridges.”
He told Asharq Al-Awsat, “It was great for the council to realize and appreciate the great efforts put forward by the mosque. We are proud to have changed the mosque from a suspicious place to a safe one, and this [award] motivates us to keep up the good work.”
Asked if he has achieved everything that he set out to achieve when first taking over the mosque, Mohamed Kozbar smiles tiredly and concludes the interview by saying: “We succeeded in many ways. We succeeded in changing the situation at the mosque. We succeeded in opening the mosque to the local and wider community, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”