A recent endeavour by Turkish campaigner Seyran Ates has garnered a wave of attention. Ates plans to open a “liberal” mosque in Britain, having done the same in the city of Berlin. There are articles from The Independent, The Evening Standard, The Times, and The Telegraph. It also featured on LBC’s daytime talk show with Nick Ferrari, and indeed the coverage continues.
The story should be a positive one. A relentless and dedicated campaigner is opening an inclusive and open place of worship. However, I wasn’t the only one who was rubbed up the wrong way by the headlines. Whether intentionally or not, it appears that Ates has been co-opted into a wider narrative about British Muslims. The coverage of Ates and the “liberal mosque” was really not about her at all, but about all the other mosques in the country, and by extension, British Muslims.
Firstly, almost all the articles in the press failed to mention the many open mosque initiatives already running in Britain. There is the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, the campaign for a women run mosque in Bradford, the Visit My Mosque open days, facilitated by the Muslim Council of Britain. There are countless concerted efforts by many to remove the barriers some face in accessing the most sacred spaces of Islam. A generation of British born and British trained scholars, emerging from the United Kingdom’s 22 full-time Muslim seminaries, are transforming the way mosques are being run, opening them up in new ways, and finding new expressions (Lewis 2006) . Other’s yet are branching out in entirely new ways, recognising that sometimes even the term mosque can be a barrier, and so Rumi’s Cave in London or the Crescent Centre in Cardiff are all exploring innovative types of Muslim space. The erasure of these notable and commendable activities from coverage of the “liberal” mosque are frustrating, especially for the activists and campaigners involved. As Ash Sarkar tweeted of this frustration after appearing on LBC radio:
And then there is the term “liberal”. Is “liberal” and “conservative” really the best way to describe mosques? A significant challenge in communicating the reality of British mosques to the wider public is that mosques are not run top-down, hierarchically, as an Anglican or Catholic church might be. All British mosques are run by their congregation. A mosque relies on its worshippers for the financial capital to buy and maintain the building, and the religious authority of imams is an authority by consent of the congregation. Most mosques have a diverse congregation, both “liberals” and “conservatives”. And while certainly some mosques are more “conservative” than others, this conservatism can be inclusive (and as Ates’ mosque in Berlin which initially banned the niqab shows, “liberal” mosques can also exclude others).
My advice to Seyran Ates, if she is open to it, is to explore what is already happening in the United Kingdom, to explore the different ways in which both “liberal” and “conservative” Muslims are opening up to others (and indeed the helpfulness of those terms in the first place), and consider whether her admirable aims are undermined by her work being co-opted by less-than-helpful media narratives of the good Muslim and the bad Muslim.
My advice to the media in the UK is to become more familiar with Britain’s 1700 mosques. They are incredibly important spaces, undergoing a period of phenomenal change as leadership passes from the first-generation migrants who built them to second and third generation British-born Muslims who will continue their legacy. My own doctoral thesis focused on mosques. In particular, I explored the everyday life of mosques, away from headlines about terrorism or religious reform. I documented the incredibly rich and significant struggles of congregants, their charitable works, the role of mosques in births, marriages, and death, and the sacred rhythm of prayer which pervaded it all. For those journalists interested in human stories, British mosques are full of them.
Abdul-Azim Ahmed, editor of OnReligionMag
 Lewis, Philip. “Only Connect: Can the Ulema Address the Crisis in the Transmission of Islam to a New Generation of South Asians in Britain?” Contemporary South Asia 15, no. 2 (June 1, 2006): 165–80. doi:10.1080/09584930600955275.
With thanks to the Inclusive Mosque Initiative & the Muslim Council of Britain for the photos.