The official response from the East London Mosque Trust, to an article published in the Spectator by Nick Cohen. We did not receive a response from The Spectator to our letter dated 9th December 2010, which you can read or download below.

I find it exceptionally hard to recognise Nick Cohen’s distorted view of reality in his recent article about the East London Mosque (The official indulgence of Islamism in East London – 5 December 2010, The Spectator).

Mr Cohen and his fellow neo-conservative travellers – a collection of right-wing newspaper columnists, self-confessed former Islamic extremists and coterie of hard-right think tanks – seem desperate to paint the East London Mosque in the harshest possible light. Common to many of these accounts is selective referencing, retro-engineering of history, constant guilt-by-association and ignorance (or deliberate ignoring) of significant political and factional battles within both Tower Hamlets and British Muslim circles, all of which are twisted to paint some grand ‘Islamist’ conspiracy. Such conspiracy theories seem more fitting to the extremes of the internet than the serious periodicals which such figures now grace.

When the East London Mosque celebrated its centenary last month (it is the oldest mosque in London), and hosted a visit from the US ambassador, Louis Susman, this neo-con movement launched its latest diatribe, led by Mr Cohen’s associate Shiraz Maher, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir extremist writing in the Wall Street Journal Europe. Nick Cohen swiftly followed, with a most bizarre and insulting assertion that we were somehow equivalent to the British National Party running a church. Not only is this highly-offensive, it is so far removed from reality (if Mr Cohen would ever visit our premises, he would see for himself) as to be ludicrous. Then followed a by-now-familiar attack on the BBC – the most serious and well-respected broadcaster in the world.

Among the many charges laid against us, Mr Cohen states an oft-repeated assertion that the mosque is controlled by the Bangladeshi Islamic party, Jammat-i-Islami. He, and those like Andrew Gilligan in The Telegraph and Shiraz Maher, may not have acknowledged that in the relevant report hosted by the Department for Communities and Local Government (containing these allegations) it states: ‘The findings and recommendations in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department for Communities and Local Government.’

We are not run by Jammat. I expressed my views on this matter to Mr Cohen as recently as two months ago, when he tried hard to smear me with his tainted views. The reality of power-play in Tower Hamlets is far more complex and easily-taken-out-of-context if the historical and political divides are not researched thoroughly. Our worshippers represent a highly-diverse collection of individuals and backgrounds and they hold various political ideologies. Contrary to the opinion of Mr Cohen and his friends, the mosque does not support individual political candidates nor does it 'run' Tower Hamlets. Politics may be a dirty business, but we encourage non-partisan participation in our (secular) democracy: often in the face of condemnation from the very extremists Mr Cohen and others accuse us of being!

This very notion of a healthy mix of Muslims makes the East London Mosque unique and, yes, progressive. On an average week 20,000 people from diverse ethnic, faith and non-faith backgrounds visit on religious, spiritual, social and economic grounds – something of which I am very proud. Not only that, it works with police, social services, local authorities, education bodies and, most importantly, many other faith (Muslim and non-Muslim) institutions – including the synagogue next door – hardly the stuff of 'socially-conservative Islamism'.

We have suffered from reprisals for going on the record to deplore extremism openly in the past. Yet for some this is not enough. We have been criticised for being too liberal by extremists, who have attacked me personally, too. When these former extremists 'reform', we (and I) are then attacked ourselves as fundamentalists! It is ironic in the extreme.

With specific reference to Anwar Al-Awlaki, our position is again made very clear via the statement released on our website last month. The controversial speakers who were able, in the past, to speak via third-party bookings of our facilities (circumventing our procedures) have now all been banned. All accusations of 'extremism' links are also historical: it is two years since the Awlaki issue arose, for example, and since then we have tightened our procedures and policies accordingly, to ensure no such issues arise again. Let me state once more: we deplore extremism of all kinds and fully support democracy.

In this context, the visit by the US ambassador echoes the attempt by President Obama to build upon the speech he delivered in Cairo last year. We are fortunate to be in the forefront of building bridges between the Muslim communities in the West and America. I hope to encourage an alternative narrative for future generations – far from the misconceptions held by many contemporary Muslims, not to mention the numerous extremist clusters in our society – to ensure that we all live peaceably together, under the laws of this land.

I hope that Cohen et al will see the mosque for what it is – a growing institution, keen to learn from mistakes and open and welcoming to all peoples and faiths. And they would do well to heed their own warnings: just read the comment sections of their articles – you will see the ugly face of the Far Right crowing at their every word. Perhaps it is they who should be answering charges of whipping up extremist behaviour, not us.

Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari
East London Mosque Trust

> Download letter to the Spectator