Holy War in north London
A Finsbury Park resident on her extreme neighbours.
People talk about life imitating art.
In Pixar’s animated film Monsters Inc, the monsters of the title live in a world where children and their toys, clothes and other kiddie objects are toxic. One of my favourite scenes occurs when a big, hairy, gormless monster emerges from a bedroom where he has been scaring a child.
Unfortunately, one of the child’s socks has stuck to his fur. Alarms sound, and the troops descend in rubber suits and gas masks. They shave and disinfect the poor monster and, with an anti-climactic ‘pop’, explode the sock under a plastic dome.
I like this scene because it reminds me of living in Finsbury Park, only with better animation.
At 2am on Monday 20 January, Finsbury Park’s mosque was raided by 150 police officers (some dressed in chemical protection suits, some armed), two helicopters, and dog teams. As the UK Guardian reported, ‘police in body armour cracked their way in with a battering ram as a helicopter searchlight raked the dome and minaret with a dazzling beam’ (1).
My boyfriend’s parents telephoned anxiously from abroad on Monday afternoon, to see whether we were alright. ‘Yes Dad’, he explained. ‘They discovered the sum total of one stun gun, one imitation gun, and a can of CS gas. But Ray’s mum did hear the helicopter.’ Pop.
Seven arrests were made during the raid. According to the police, all men surrendered without a struggle. Apparently, the excessive police presence during the mosque raid was down to suspicion that the building was being used to recruit young Muslims to take up arms in a holy war.
The leaflets put out by groups that attend the mosque indeed raise some suspicion. And this mosque housed an event to mark the anniversary of the 11 September attacks called ‘A Towering Day in History’. Even so, it was only this week that the police decided to raid the place.
There has already been much debate about whether the police should or should not have raided the mosque. But what interests me is the way that they did it. On the one hand, they executed a heavy duty raid with lots of men, special suits, and serious equipment. On the other hand, they consulted Muslim colleagues and leaders of the Muslim community to ‘assure them the holiness of the building would be respected’ (2).
After they battered the door down, they slipped on special booties, so as not to offend anyone as they were entering a religious area. And they searched only office space, not areas used for prayer. The hardcore crackdown and the tiptoeing around don’t even sound like the same event.
Those who condemned the raid, including outspoken cleric Abu Hamza, did so on the grounds that the mosque is a religious area. It seems as though both the Islamic fundamentalists and the police are singing from the same hymn-sheet – the one that reads ‘if you want to protect yourself, cite respect for religion’.
I wonder how great the threat from the mosque’s regulars really is. If you read Jon Ronson’s excellent book Them: Adventures with Extremists, you will find stories of the time he spent with Finsbury Park mosque regular Omar Bakri Mohammed. This man, supposedly one of the ones we should be terrified of, was once having trouble getting anyone to take his anti-homosexuality leaflets in a shopping precinct. So, as Ronson explains, he turned them upside down and started yelling ‘Help the orphans!’ to make people take notice.
He also tried to organise a demonstration outside the Israeli embassy, but got the address wrong, so his followers wandered around lost for an afternoon. Following this week’s raid, the Independent reported that Omar had used the Finsbury Park mosque to plan a ‘jihad’ rally at the London Arena, where he broadcast a message from Osama bin Laden. What actually happened, says Ronson, was that the ‘jihad’ was cancelled because Omar couldn’t sell enough tickets, and the much-hyped message from bin Laden never appeared.
Now which is more terrifying – that, or 150 policemen storming a mosque with a battering ram nicknamed ‘The Enforcer’ (not to be mistaken with ‘The Bone’, the latest designer vibrator to go on sale at Selfridges), wearing special shoe covers, and not even bothering to search the whole place, to boast a find of three only vaguely scary items, just to strengthen our faith in the legitimacy and capability of the UK’s fight against terrorism?
(1) The violation of a place of worship or a vital blow in the war against terrorism?, Jeevan Vasagar, Vikram Dodd and Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 21 January 2003
(2) The Enforcer, a 2am raid and an angry community, Terry Kirby, Independent, 21 January 2003
(3) Them: Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson, Picador, 2001
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