A new Islamic centre in the heart of Golders Green in north-west London has been met with a wave of opposition — some of it based on anti-Muslim bigotry, critics say.
The Grade ll-listed Hippodrome building was bought earlier this year for £5.25 million by the Centre for Islamic Enlightening. It was previously used as the El-Shaddai International Christian Centre.
It will now house the Hussainiyat Al-Rasool Al-Adham Islamic centre serving the Shia community, mostly of Iraqi heritage.
An e-petition on Barnet Council’s website demanding an investigation into whether the centre complies with planning regulations has attracted more than 5,600 signatures, although concerns have been expressed about the authenticity of some of the names.
A number of supposed signatories contacted the JC to say they had not signed the petition. Barnet Council has now removed their names.
A further 215 public objections were lodged against an application to amend the terms of the centre’s planning agreement.
While many of the objectors say they are concerned about increased congestion, parking difficulties and air and noise pollution, some have focused on the presence of a large number of Muslims in an area with a substantial Jewish community.
The Golders Green population is approximately 37 per cent Jewish and 12 per cent Muslim, while the borough of Barnet is about 15 per cent Jewish and 10 per cent Muslim, according to the 2011 census.
In response to the application on the council’s website, one opponent, Ayelet Avroya, wrote: “This neighbourhood is affiliated with the Jewish population that has been living here for years, side by side with the English Christians and others.
“This is going to force the Jewish population to run away and make this beautiful neighbourhood too crowded, with loads of burkas and veils over the weekend which I find scary and changes the fine balance between the residents of this area?”
Josephine Bacon, another critic, added: “To place a large Muslim institution in the heart of one of London’s only two Jewish communities is a highly dangerous undertaking and one that can only result in violence and terrorism.
“The Hippodrome, which I have known since childhood, is in a very prominent position and will attract large numbers of worshippers, including many undesirables, to the neighbourhood.”
In response, Marie van der Zyl, Board of Deputies vice-president, said she deplored “the uninformed and prejudiced comments about this application, including from a small number of members of our own community.
“We would encourage all to foster good relations and to be good neighbours.”
Rabbis also condemned the arguments used by some opponents of the centre. Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, minister of Golders Green’s Alyth Reform congregation, said the views expressed were “threatening and misleading”.
He argued: “I suspect it’s the same sort of thing said about Jews moving to Golders Green in the 1920s. Golders Green is not entirely Jewish. It’s a special place to live in and we all get along together. That’s what London is about.”
One residents’ group, which has adopted the same Golders Green Together name used by a cross-communal initiative in 2015 to oppose a far-right rally, approached Gavin Boby, a planning lawyer dubbed the “mosque-buster”, to act as an adviser and spokesman.
Mr Boby cited global terrorism and antisemitic attacks as reasons why Jewish people are “entitled” to oppose the presence of the Islamic centre.
One comment on the group’s Facebook page read: “Why not just be honest and tell them the real reason why we don’t want a mosque there. Because it’s one of the only Jewish areas left in London and we don’t want it polluted and destroyed by a bunch of Jew-hating Muslim terrorists.”
Ahmad Alkazemi, public relations manager for the Islamic centre, said he was “disappointed and surprised” by some of the language used in opposition to the centre.
“A lot of negative things were written online. I’m disappointed. If you don’t know me, please don’t say nasty things. Please come and talk to us. We’re surprised that people who don’t know us talk in this way.”
He added that the building is not a mosque but an Islamic centre, as the term “mosque” confers restrictions on who may enter the building and the type of events which can be held.
But Mr Alkazemi said the centre was working to minimise traffic congestion by offering discounted Oyster cards and having a shuttle bus service from a nearby shopping centre.