August 31, 2008
Preachers of separatism at
work inside Britain's mosques
Britain's leading Muslim bodies say they are fighting extremism. In one of our most respected mosques, Sara Hassan came face to face with hardline female preachers of separatism. Here, she reports on the shocking results of her investigation
In a large balcony above the beautiful main hall at Regent's Park Mosque in London - widely considered the most important mosque in Britain - I am filming undercover as the woman preacher gives her talk.
What should be done to a Muslim who converts to another faith? "We kill him," she says, "kill him, kill, kill…You have to kill him, you understand?" Adulterers, she says, are to be stoned to death - and as for homosexuals, and women who "make themselves like a man, a woman like a man ... the punishment is kill, kill them, throw them from the highest place". These punishments, the preacher says, are to be implemented in a future Islamic state. "This is not to tell you to start killing people," she continues. "There must be a Muslim leader, when the Muslim army becomes stronger, when Islam has grown enough."
A young female student from the group interrupts her: the punishment should also be to stone the homosexuals to death, once they have been thrown from a high place.
These are teachings I never expected to hear inside Regent's Park Mosque, which is supposedly committed to interfaith dialogue and moderation, and was set up more than 60 years ago, to represent British Muslims to the Government. And many of those listening were teenage British girls or, even more disturbingly, young children.
My investigation for Channel 4's Dispatches came after last year's Undercover Mosque, which investigated claims that teachings of intolerance and fundamentalism were spreading through Britain's mosques from the Saudi Arabian religious establishment - which is closely linked to the Saudi Arabian government.
In response, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia denied it was spreading intolerance, while Regent's Park Mosque, which featured in the film, urged all mosques to be "vigilant" and monitor what was taught on their premises.
So earlier this year, dressed in a full Islamic jilbaab, I went back to Regent's Park Mosque to see what was being taught there. As a woman, I had to go to the main female section, where I found this circle preaching every Saturday and Sunday, eight hours at a time, to any woman who has come to pray.
The mosque is meant to promote moderation and integration. But although the circle does preach against terrorism and does not incite Muslims to break British laws, it teaches Muslims to "keep away" and segregate themselves from disbelievers: "Islam is keeping away from disbelief and from the disbelievers, the people who disbelieve."
Friendship with non-Muslims is discouraged because "loyalty is only to the Muslim, not to the kaffir [disbeliever]".
A woman who was friendly with a non-Muslim woman was heavily criticised: "It's part of Islam, of the correct belief, that you love those who love Allah and that you hate those who hate Allah."
One preacher even says Muslims shouldn't live in Britain at all: "It is not befitting for Muslims that he should reside in the land of evil, the land of thekuffaar, the land of the disbelievers."
Another, Um Saleem, says Muslims should not take British citizenship as their loyalty is to Allah.
"Some conditions can take you into disbelief, to take the British citizenship, whether you like it or not, for these people, you are selling your religion, it's a very serious thing, it is not allowed to give allegiance to other than Allah."
Their teachings shocked me. This was not the Islam that I and many other Muslims in the UK were taught as youngsters, nor is it a version that most Muslims follow.
I was amazed at how many young British women seemed to find this version of the faith attractive. One young girl told me that when she first attended the circle, she was dressed in jeans and that she had many non-Muslim friends. She now loves only those that are around her - "other sisters in the circle" - and only engages with non-Muslims to try to convert them. Many of the sisters had the idea of living as a separate community - a concept alien to me and many other Muslims I know.
Regent's Park Mosque has a major interfaith department, which arranges visits from the Government, the civil service, representatives of other religions and thousands of British school children a year.
I watched as an interfaith group was brought in to meet the mosque's women's circle for a civilised exchange. But when the interfaith group wasn't there, the preacher attacked other faiths, and the very concept of interfaith dialogue.
One preacher said of Christians praying in a church: "What are these people doing in there, these things are so vile, what they say with their tongues is so vile and disgusting, it's an abomination." As for the concept of interfaith live-and-let-live: "This is false. It does not work. This concept is a lie, it is fake, and it is a farce."
Like many of the other women at the circle, I was soon invited to private sessions in houses around London, to "learn more" about Islam - or their version of Islam. Um Saleem was also at some of these sessions. Here, the women were given strict restrictions on their lives: it is reiterated that British Muslim women cannot travel far without a male guardian, cannot mix with men, and have to remain fully covered up at all times.
One woman in the audience queried the strict rulings that she cannot travel without a mahram - a male member of the family - escorting her. She asked: "Sister, if me and my husband, we can't go together, what do I do if I want to go?"
She was told she cannot travel by herself.
She asked again: "So what do I do?"
"You go with your husband," Um Saleem replied.
There were also restrictions on education or work opportunities. One woman, who works for the NHS, was told she should leave her job as it meant mixing with men and not wearing a full Islamic garment.
"You know that working in an environment that is not Islamic, working with thekuffaar, all this takes you away from the religion and hardens your heart and it would be lying to you if I say it's OK," Um Saleem explained.
Um Saleem also criticised Muslim women who integrate into society - a view that is counter to the aims of the Regent's Park Mosque.
"You see Muslims in every sphere of everyday life in this country, I see Muslims, it breaks my heart when I see them working in banks, short sleeves, tight scarf like this, make-up, being with the kuffaar all the time, even speaking their language," she said.
The director general of Regent's Park Mosque is Dr Ahmed Al Dubayan, a Saudi diplomat. He has denied to Dispatches that his mosque promotes the Saudi version of the faith, often called Wahhabism. And indeed, the imams in the main hall are Egyptian, and the sermons I heard from them were tolerant and moderate when you listen to them on Fridays.
But the preachers I heard in the women's section took their theology directly from Saudi Arabia. One of them had recently returned from three years of study in Saudi Arabia, and the other preachers almost exclusively directed me to the works, sermons, fatwas and online sites of the scholars of the Saudi Arabian religious establishment and their adherents.
Confronted with these female preachers' comments, Dr Al Dubayan insisted that the views did not reflect those of the Regent's Park Mosque, and that Um Saleem was not an authorised teacher. "The ICC [the London Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre, most commonly referred to as the Regent's Park Mosque] is committed to interfaith and cross-cultural understanding," he said. "It does not support or condone extreme views, racial hatred, violence or intolerance."
He said one of the preachers we filmed was unknown to him. Another, Um Saleem, had requested permission to be an authorised teacher at the mosque, but had been refused, as she did not supply references and written information about her teachings and views. Until I contacted him, both he and the mosque had not known of her teachings and views.
Um Saleem later told me that her comments that Muslims could not take British citizenship were "erroneous" and indeed apologised for them. As for comments that Muslims cannot live in a non-Muslim country, she agreed that the language used was "inappropriate". She continued: "Whilst it is recommended for a Muslim to migrate to a Muslim country, it is not obligatory."
She added: "We are not blind followers of any government or any 'clerics'. We do criticise other religions, just as other religions criticise Islam…we encourage integration into society."
However, she stood by some of her other claims, stating that the rulings that women could not travel alone, and could not work if it conflicted with religious requirements, were "totally justified by Islamic texts".
"You may regard these juristic and textual rulings as 'extreme restrictions'," she said. "But we see them as our way of life and a liberation of the soul."
The Mosque's official bookshop was another focus for the Dispatches film last year when our reporters discovered intolerant and fundamentalist DVDs.
Dr Al Dubayan said they would be removed pending an investigation, but I found the same fundamentalist preachers' works still openly displayed and sold there. DVDs preaching that disbelievers are "evil, wicked, mischievous people ... they do the most evil, filthy things"; that men are in charge of women and should control them.
One speaker says of the Jews: "Their time will come, like every other evil person's time will come." Another speech, this time by Sheikh Khalid Yasin, who learned Arabic in Saudi Arabia, praised the deterrent effect of sharia law: "Then people can see, people without hands, people can see in public heads rolling down the street, people got [sic] their hands and feet from opposite sides chopped off and they see them crucified…they see people put up against the pole and see them get lashed in public they see it, and because they see it, it acts as a deterrent for them because they say I don't want that to happen to me."
Sheikh Yasin responded to me that his comments should be considered in context. He said he did not support or promote Saudi Arabian government policy or religious rhetoric, and said capital punishments were carried out by many states and governments. "The lecture was aimed at reforming the Muslim people, the Muslim society and the Muslim world … to be adjudicated by the Sovereign Islamic State" when one exists.
The company that runs the bookshop, Darussalam International Publications, is a British company with links to Saudi Arabia.
Darussalam International Publications told me that the bookshop sells a wide range of material which they "do not necessarily agree with".
It said: "We try to represent a variety of... opinions through the products we sell…in order to spread peace, respect, tolerance and understanding."
Dr Al Dubayan reiterated that the bookshop was run by an independent company. "Despite having no control over the bookshop, we met with those running the bookshop after your programme was broadcast. We made it clear that it was not acceptable for the bookshop to stock materials containing extremist views. We were assured … all offending material had been removed."
Interviewees for the film explained that an ideology like this has spread throughout Britain's mosques from the Saudi Arabian religious establishment. One leading Muslim figure told me: "Petrodollar money coming from Saudi Arabia has basically distorted the growth and development of the Muslim community in Britain"; while a British imam accuses them of distorting Islam - "the abuse and misuse of this great faith of mine".
I share the imam's outrage at the way a peaceful monotheistic religion - so close to Christianity and Judaism in its essential beliefs - has been hijacked. To hear a call for the killing of someone because of his or her sexuality or for changing their faith in what is meant to be a place of contemplation is truly shocking.
The imam went on to say: "The underlying motive here is to find a way of continuously implanting this permanent wedge between the wider British society and the younger Muslims living in Britain."
As Professor Anthony Glees, who runs the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University, explains: "To think, as I believe our government thinks, that it makes ideological sense to play patsy with the Saudi government is folly of the first order of magnitude. We will be paying for it for years to come."
The reporter's name has been changed. 'Dispatches: Undercover Mosque - The Return' will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 8pm on Monday