What I discovered inside Finsbury Park mosque

Abu Hamza offers angst-crippled teenagers what they all crave: certainty and a clear path
Independent (England), Jan. 22, 2003 (Column)
Johann Hari

[Note: Contains some offensive language – RNB]

As the Finsbury Park mosque was raided on Monday, I must confess I felt a weird mix of emotions – pleased, certainly, relieved, but also a little bit sad. I know the mosque and its strange, intoxicating atmosphere a little – and I know that, their lunatic leader Islamic philosophy at university, so I knew more about Muslim politics than most of the people there; and, because I look about 12 years old, it takes a bit more time for people to become suspicious of me.

There are always a few tough-looking lads on the door of the mosque who act as unofficial bouncers, and anybody new who approaches immediately receives very aggressive questioning. They see the mosque as a safe haven from a hostile society – and although undoubtedly some of these lads are confronting real problems with racism, their paranoia is extreme and vicious. “Everybody in this fucking country is a racist and hates Islam,” Amir, who worked for the local halal butcher, explained to me outside the main prayer hall.

Although there are a fair few non-Arab Muslims who hang around, it took a while to convince the regulars that I was One of Them. One thing I hadn’t quite expected was the extent to which the lads who follow this extreme strain of Islam are obsessed with gender politics. Their main problem with British society is the “sluttish” way women dress, the fact that “we allow our women – all our women – to be whores, dirty fucking whores”. No conversation would go for five minutes without returning to this topic. These are, after all, sexually frustrated young men who are convinced that even masturbation is immoral – so, like all people who fanatically suppress their sexuality, they have begun to hate the thing they desire.

Amir, an unemployed but articulate 19-year-old, claimed obsessively that far from hating women, he sees them as “a precious jewel”, and “if you have a diamond, you wrap it up and keep it somewhere safe. You don’t just let it roll around in the gutter.” So women, he and his friends believe, should be shut away, sealed off in repressive homes and burquas, lest they succumb to Western “filth”.

In those days when Ground Zero was still burning and we thought that the death toll would top 30,000, these men celebrated. I wish it were not so; but they rejoiced. There was an obvious contradiction in their stance, though. They saw the “humbling” of America – a term which, shamefully, even some on the British and American left used – as “glorious”; yet they also insisted that no Muslims had been involved in the attack. As Abu Hamza – who proved to be surprisingly ready to talk to me – claimed, “I am not saying every American government figure knew about this. But there are a few people [in the US government] who want to trigger a third world war. They are sponsored by the business lobby. Most of them are Freemasons, and they have loyalty to the Zionists.”

Abu Hamza is, in the flesh, quite different from his TV persona, and especially compared to the impression given by those horrific photographs. He rarely raises his voice: instead he speaks in a chat-in-the-pub, good-blokeish style which implies that everything he says is perfectly reasonable. You can have a perfectly amiable chat – he spent 10 minutes telling me why British people are overtaxed, and it was like sitting with a behooked Simon Heffer – and then, without any perceptible change of tone, he would say, “You [in the West] are asking for somebody to fly a plane at a nuclear power station. Suicide bombers who just want to kill – you are provoking them. If you kill people, and they look around and their loved ones are dead, what do you expect? They have no taste for life any more. And when this war [on terrorism] starts, even the winner would not have much to celebrate. It’s horrible. There are a lot of nuclear bombs everywhere.”

Despite the fact that I find this terrifying beyond measure, I have to say it isn’t hard to see the appeal of Finsbury Park mosque to young Muslims. Abu Hamza is charismatic and particularly good at listening to young men who everywhere else are shunned. He offers the one thing that all angst-crippled teenagers crave: certainty, and a clear path through life.

Most of the blokes hanging around him strongly suspect that their chances of advancing and earning status in British society are limited, and so prefer the excitement of international jihad to the grinding boredom of endlessly toiling for our paltry minimum wage. Abu offers an alternative to the consumerism they know they will never be able to revel in; he offers a driving, inspirational way of life to young men who have very little.

This must not be construed as support for their cause, which I loathe. The “Supporters of Sharia”, Hamza’s little group, are, without question, theocratic fascists. It is no surprise that Hamza has taken to sharing platforms at public debates with the BNP leader, Nick Griffin. The two groups have great chunks of philosophy in common. Both believe in achieving “purity” – the BNP, a mythical community of Christian whites; Hamza, the utopian umma of Wahhabist Islam – and they are prepared to use violence to achieve it. Neither believe in dialogue or debate; neither acknowledge that any differing viewpoint might be less than evil. Hamza and his clique of fans are politically repellent, and the police were absolutely right to raid the mosque.

So why, then, did I also feel a slight tinge of sadness when the mosque was busted? Partly because I knew that some people would see this as yet another excuse to bash British Muslims en masse, the vast majority of whom are decent and moderate and not, as a Daily Mail journalist has claimed, a “fifth column” in our midst. But mostly because Finsbury Park mosque provided one of the few non-commercial spaces in that patch of North London (where I used to live) in which the most dispossessed lads could hang out.

Shorn of Hamza, shorn of the handful of other lunatic preachers who gravitate towards it, the mosque has the potential to be a terrific community centre for local Muslims, as mosques across the Arab world are. Hamza offers a siren call for confused boys; they would respond equally well to sane voices who actually bothered to show an interest in them.

Very few of the men I met went to the mosque as already-formed extremists – they got converted to it there by Hamza. If figures as charismatic and intelligent (but without the crazed fascism) could be brought in, it could become an inspirational place, turning around young lives to lead them not to the battlefields of Chechnya but to economic and personal success here in Britain.

It is sad to see a building that has such potential – which was built in 1990 with precisely these hopes – confirmed as a nest of crime and terrorism. I hope that we rebuild it and its early-1990s reputation for decent Islam as readily as we gutted it yesterday.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday January 22, 2003.
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