How one mosque is fighting IS

Written By komlim puldel on Sabtu, 27 September 2014 | 20.01

In documents distributed around areas it controls in Syria, Islamic State also known as ISIS is promoting a harsh set of rules for schools and educators to follow. WSJ's Reem Makhoul reports.

WHEN Islamic State began its bloody rein of terror in Iraq including the beheading of Westerners all in the name of Allah, in London's east Chief Imam Abdul Qayum was in no doubt about his duty.

His mosque in London's east is the biggest in Europe that at any normal Jumuah Friday midday prayers attracts 7000 worshippers.

While most worshippers are moderate, the Whitechapel Road centre attracts Britons from far and wide and he knew a firm statement was required.

"All this bloodshed does not make any sense, it makes human life look cheap as if there is no value to human beings," he began.

"But in Islam we are taught the contrary which is life is valuable, it is precious and we have to do all that we can to safe guard it."

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Worshippers unite ... the East London Mosque in Whitechapel is the largest mosque in West Europe. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

He then went on to highlight other unimaginable contemporary wanton acts of mass violence including the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and the bombardment of Palestinian civilians in UN schools in Gaza and how these were against the very clear principle of Islam.

He concluded that those who created "anarchy on Earth" would be taken to task by Allah and their day of judgment would come.

It was a groundbreaking sermon from the 54-year-old, the sentiment of which was not popular with all.

"It shouldn't fall upon an institution like us because we have been fighting a lot of extremist ideologies since the 1990s," East London Mosque spokesman Salman Farsi said yesterday.

Fighting back against ISIS ... prayers taking place at the East London Mosque. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

"And when other imams say something the backlash is on us but we had to say something."

In many respects, the East London Mosque is fighting its own battle.

For groups like Islamic State (or ISIS/ISIL), the mosque is fertile ground for recruits to send to Syria and Iraq to murder.

Mr Farsi said some young members particularly were already "poisoned" by hate preachers before they can get to them but the East London Muslim centre has launched its own offensive and uses the same tool ISIS has done to great effect.

The imam's address, said three times in Arabic, Bengali and English, about bloodshed was recorded on several cameras and broadcast through social media including YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp as well as radio and TV.

Prayer in progress ... the Friday Jumuah midday sermon. The control room for broadcasting. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

The message was also sent out to Muslim schools and youth groups and messages to parents.

While its daily congregation is already among the biggest in Europe its followers though social media are even more extensive; in Ramadan alone the mosque attracts more than 250,000 people in person and more than that on social media to follow events.

It wasn't the first time the imam has felt strongly to step in and during the 2011 London riots he put out a message to parents to know where their children were and the young people to avoid the mayhem.

Praying for peace ... worshippers at the East London Mosque. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

While burroughs about the mosque burnt, Whitechapel was not touched.

The mosque believes many of the disaffected youth who take extremist view points was more than zeal of converts but were youths mixing religion with gang culture. In short they are looking for an excuse for trouble.

Social media is just one tool the mosque uses to counter some of the teachings of those with more extremist views such as controversial British imam Anjem Choudary in East London who was arrested by counter terrorism police this week for preaching hate messages.

"What we try and do is reach out and we have various means and platforms such as social media," Mr Farsi said.

Extreme views ... social and political activist Anjem Choudary in a cafe in East London. He and eight other men were arrested in September 2014 on terrorism-related offences. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

"We try and hold events here with scholars who we think are balanced in their understanding of religion and toe the middle path. We can't be too conservative or too liberal, we have to be in the middle somewhere.

"We try and reach out to youth. On an average Friday (prayers) like today over maybe 40 per cent are young people, early 20s and under.

Ready to listen ... muslims at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

This is the best opportunity to reach out to them and if not we can engage them through youth groups … we try and do our bit and even though we are the largest mosque in the country we can't cater for everybody."

The mosque also takes a leading role for the other mosque in the UK including the 42 mosques alone in their burrough of Tower Halmets.

After the sermon they headed a formal public statement from 12 leading mosques in the UK condemning Islamic State and urging youth not to support them in any form.

"Once other mosques see that come from a larger institutions then they feel a little more confident 'okay well we can tackle this issue'," Mr Farsi said.

Bird's eye view ... of the Friday Jumuah midday sermon and prayer at the East London Mosque. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

"What they (ISIS) are trying to do is recruit people from here to fight over there. The way I see it is they want pawns, foreign fighters to go on the frontline and do the suicide missions. They use foreign fighters and because they are so useless commanders send them off as suicide bombers and on the frontline.

"The community here is very vigilant and groups like Anjem Choudary's group would never get a foothold here or in our community because we know this group is toxic and their understanding of Islam is too literal and taken out of context and selective to suit their own means, they pick and choose."

Released from custody ... social and political activist Anjem Choudary in East London. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

He said ISIS popularity in the West though stemmed from prophecies on groups liberating the Middle East and Muslim lands even though there are other scholar narrations talking about how an initial group causing recklessness and murders was not the one to join. He also said the post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan helped breed the contempt that created ISIS.

"Young people are naive though and they think 'this is it, end of times' this is the prophesised war and we must go to it and some might later realise 'okay this is not right'," he said.

And the mosque had advice for Australia.

Spreading the message ... prayers taking place at East London Mosque in Whitechapel. Picture: Ella Pellegrini Source: News Corp Australia

"My advice to Muslim communities in Australia is they need to get together if they are not already, work together and figure out the appropriate lines of messaging they are going to take, how they are going to reach out to young people and they need to do it quickly," he said.

"If they don't tackle it now then later on it is going to be a problem for them and the wider society of Australia."

Mr Farsi has CCTV footage to show how they respond to extremists.

After last year's beheading of soldier Lee Rigby on a public street in southeast London, Chaundry supporters of the killers went to the mosque to challenge Imam Qayum for condemning the killing and were physically ejected by the congregation.

"It's a challenge but you need to deal with these things because it affects us all," he said.

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