Warsi’s call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it’s Islam under threat

Peter Allen and Rebecca Wainwright argue that the difficulty of getting 'Islamic' architecture built in Britain shows the flaws in Warsi's claim that militant secularisation is a problem

 

Rebecca Wainwright is an MArch2 postgraduate student at the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff University and Peter Allen is a doctoral researcher and sessional lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.

The recent call by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi for a Europe, and Britain, that is ‘more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity’ is an attempt to rejuvenate a supposedly embattled Christianity in a Britain that is overrun by totalitarian militant secularists.

Not only a reaction against those who dispute the role of faith in public life, her comments can also be located in the wider context of  recent government interventions in this area – that multiculturalism is broadly discredited, no longer worth pursuing, and that assimilationist policies are the way forward.

Looking at the built environment of our capital city, the changing nature of mosque architecture in east London highlights a shift from the previous pursuit of multiculturalist ideals by government, and in this specific case, the physical presence of Islam, to an era of opposition to the development of Islamic buildings, characterised by a desire to preserve the dominance of Christianity in the built environment.

In the 1960s, renowned sociologist Robert Park wrote:

“If the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.”

If the urban environment can act as a mirror to society, then architecture has a role and responsibility in the production of social change.

The role of architecture in the expression of Islamic faith and cultural identity in modern Western cities has provoked prominent and widespread debate, fuelled in recent years by global attention to high-profile projects such as the Park 51 scheme in New York and the Abbey Mills Mosque project in Stratford, East London.

The inclusion of faith buildings within British cities is an important issue to resolve when considered in the context of anti-multiculturalist attitudes.

The mosque provides a particular source of contention, representative of Islam as a cultural ‘other’ in the face of an increasingly secular society, and often sharply contrasting with accepted urban forms, reinforcing an oppositional identity with a foreign architectural discourse of domes, arches and minarets.

Recent global events, particularly the 9/11 and 7/7 Al Qaeda attacks, have given new or revived meaning to this explicitly Islamic architectural language.

Attempts to develop mosques in East London have continually encountered considerable opposition, often preoccupied with the preservation of Britain’s Christian cultural heritage.

Benefitting from the pluralistic model of 1980s multicultural policy, The East London Mosque was a purpose-built mosque designed with the full inventory of Islamic paraphernalia including domes, minarets and arched windows – a symptom of a positive assertiveness in the representation of Islamic identity in cosmopolitan cities.

The building’s visual claim on public space was furthered by its broadcast of the azan (the call to prayer), which inspired protest from local non-Muslim residents claiming the azan constituted noise-pollution. Responding to such protests, the mosque committee likened such ‘pollution’ to that of church bells.

Although this was dismissed by many of the protestors as irrelevant given the rarity and diminishment of such tradition, it raised the question of what is deemed culturally acceptable – how far the expression of a culture considered a ‘minority’ can encroach into the surrounding environment of the dominant, Christian culture.

One local protestor is quoted saying:

“I’m sure I would sooner listen to the tolling of church bells than someone screaming out words I cannot understand and don’t want to.”

The presence of “other people within the space of the nation” can cause a reactionary ‘emotional attachment to national community’ and an obligation to defend what is believed to be a way of life.

This claim is evident in the local residents’ rapid defence of Church bells which despite their apparent irrelevance to the modern community, are considered preferable to the intrusion of the undesirable, ‘alien’ azan.

The Brick Lane Mosque in Aldgate East, also known as Jamme Masjid, has historically been a place of worship for many minority (and often persecuted) religious groups. Throughout its multiple incarnations, the exterior of the building has remained mostly unchanged from its original eighteenth-century chapel design.

The modifications of the existing building to accommodate a Muslim congregation were met with considerable resistance, despite the fact that most of the changes were internal works, affecting little of the exterior aesthetic.

Dr Noha Nasser identifies the opposition to the adaptation of historical buildings as the result of a ‘politicization of heritage’ with the aim of ‘constructing and redefining “Britishness” and national identity’.

This could be defined, perhaps more accurately, as the re-construction of ‘Britishness’, the conversion of the Mosque seen, by some, as the opportunity to restore the chapel to the Christian identity that it has not embodied for centuries. This is evident in the Brick Lane conservationists’ claim that the chapel was “a vital expression of an indigenous urban culture and landscape”.

Though not explicitly suggested, the opposition to the mosque clearly demonstrates the desire to preserve Christianity as the dominant cultural heritage of the area.

Even with no external expression of Islam, the conversion of the building into a mosque, for the non-Muslims that opposed it, challenged local English heritage purely on the basis of its change of function.

In retaliation to such attitudes, the Bangladeshi community ‘defended their intentions’ by pointing out that the adaptation of the building to accommodate more worshippers would remove them from the surrounding streets, ‘reducing the congestion which tended to inflame racist emotions’.

The building, then, with its disarming outward aesthetics, created a veneer of social acceptability, camouflaging the undesirable congregation of Muslims in the streets.

It would appear that the conversion of the chapel was received in a similar manner as the azan of the East London Mosque; as an unwelcome encroachment of the dominant culture and an unprecedented step towards an environment observed as slightly too ‘Islamised’.

The design of the unrealised Abbey Mills Mosque in Newham sought to actively redefine both the function and the architecture of a mosque in modern Britain. It tried to set a new precedent for what a space for Islam in a contemporary Western city could be.

Media attention, however, succeeded in inflaming public hysteria about the scheme by structuring an oppositional argument based on three main points of contestation: the scale, visibility and location of the project.

Specifically, these factors of the Mosque’s presence constituted, for some, a representation of an Islamic control of the land – a highly visible presence of cultural difference that indicated a triumph or expression of power over the dominant ‘British’ culture.

This attitude is further demonstrated by Phillip Johnston in The Daily Telegraph, who writes that viewers watching television coverage of the Olympics will find that:

‘the most prominent religious building in the camera shot will not be one of the city’s iconic churches that have shaped the nation’s history, such as St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, but the mega mosque. Its arrival in London will be a significant coup for Islam and a major event for the country as a whole’.

The comparison of the Mosque’s scale with that of some of the most readily recognisable symbols of both Christianity and of the capital city, demonstrates the attitude that the Mosque was effectively challenging the dominance of Christianity in the public sphere.

The antagonism that the Abbey Mills Mosque inspired actually preceded the release of any accurate information about the scheme, revealing a fundamental hostility towards the project even in its ‘ideas’ stages – the result of a toxic political and social climate where a building cannot even reach the point of construction due to it its association with the Islamic faith.

Baroness Warsi’s intervention highlights just how little is understood of Islam’s struggle to find representation in modern British cities, and the relentless opposition it receives in the name of preserving Britain’s Christian heritage.

Warsi’s call for a renewed dominance of Christian values relies on an assumption that they are under threat. The examples discussed here suggest that perhaps the opposite is more accurate: that Christianity continues to dominate expectations of faith buildings in Britain, something that is unlikely to change if the government continues with its anti-multiculturalist approach.

See also:

We need to defend the hope at the heart of Christianity, not fight militant secularisationEd Jacobs, February 14th 2012

The “New Right”: Gaddafi lovers, Holocaust deniers and ‘up market’ fascistsShamik Das, December 14th 2011

Egypt – a new dawn or a sunset on religious freedom?Ed Jacobs, November 23rd 2011

Anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland on the rise; all religious hate crimes up 10%Kevin Meagher, November 18th 2011

Dawkins’s divine intervention challenges faith in his atheist integrityDan Smith, June 12th 2011

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36 Responses to “Warsi’s call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it’s Islam under threat”

  1. Me

    Is treason still a crime?

  2. Patron Press - #P2

    #UK : Warsi ’s call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it ’s Islam under threat http://t.co/cCuFMOuF

  3. Sean Callaghan

    Multi-culturalism is the ‘acceptable’ version of apartheid.

  4. Musa Furber

    Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat ~ http://t.co/oXMwRAfN #fb

  5. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – Warsi’s call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it’s Islam… http://t.co/K3Vq4v9F

  6. Political Planet

    Warsi’s call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it’s Islam under threat: Peter Allen and Rebecca Wai… http://t.co/qyPLE7WP

  7. Pulp Ark

    Warsi’s call for the dominance of Christianity ignores… http://t.co/ZHpai5ps #A_Britain_We_All_Call_Home #architecture #muslim #tcot #sioa

  8. Rebecca Wainwright

    So…our article's up!@leftfootfwd: Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat http://t.co/frj4jPA3

  9. Rebecca Wainwright

    So..our article's up! @leftfootfwd: Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat http://t.co/frj4jPA3

  10. Laura Wainwright

    My sister, Rebecca, and friend, Pete, on the architectural and cultural expression of Islam in modern Britain: http://t.co/2ieGsed2

  11. Rebecca Wainwright

    My sister, Rebecca, and friend, Pete, on the architectural and cultural expression of Islam in modern Britain: http://t.co/2ieGsed2

  12. Avais Qureshi

    'Warsi’s call for the dominance of #Christianity ignores that it’s #Islam under threat' http://t.co/2eipK7RN via @leftfootfwd

  13. H_e_hulme

    So, where the secularists are going wrong is in not putting up buildings a symptom of a positive assertiveness in the representation of secular identity in cosmopolitan cities.

  14. Christina Fischer

    Christians info Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam … http://t.co/H0hc2FqQ Have Mercy.

  15. Peter Allen

    So..our article's up! @leftfootfwd: Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat http://t.co/frj4jPA3

  16. Richard Pratt

    If the majority of British people want to preserve the dominance of their Christian heritage, why should an alien, and arguably vastly inferior, religion and culture be forced upon them, by immigrants? The whole concept of Islam is degrading to both men and women, and causes ethnic strife and loss of personal liberty, wherever Islam is in control. It seeks dominance, by force if necessary, believing that violence against infidels (non Muslims) is approved by its God.

  17. Lee Hyde

    Warsi’s call for dominant Christianity ignores that Islam’s under threat, write @peteraallen & Rebecca Wainwright: http://t.co/rc7nA6OT

  18. Glyndwr

    I can follow some of the argument here but the Christian values that Barones Warsi is talking about extend into the realms of behaviour, morals and principles, rather than an architectural conflation. I am from a white Christian background, and grew up and lived in Wales for 50 years, and I have converted to Islam. I love Islam in my life. Fire away with the usual hatred if it helps you.

  19. Geraint

    Britain should be a secular nation, and England should follow the path of Wales and Scotland and disestablish the Church of England.

  20. Delroy Booth

    A state free of religion is a core liberal belief, writes @mgonthemike: http://t.co/rc7nA6OT

  21. Anonymous

    and what sort of buildings might these be, I wonder?

  22. selina mehra

    A state free of religion is a core liberal belief, writes @mgonthemike: http://t.co/rc7nA6OT

  23. Anonymous

    …and the same would be true of Christianity and Judaism; almost every major religion is guilty of inhumane actions and intolerance in its history. Given that Islam certainly includes some very unsavoury elements, the problem does not lie with Islam alone. The problem is all religion and its allied superstitions. I don’t believe that the ‘majority’ wish to preserve a dominant christian heritage per se, rather they are afraid of perceived Islamification – another bogeyman.

  24. Peter Henderson

    Interesting article on architecture and multiculturalism from @leftfootfwd. http://t.co/f3vVEdXw

  25. Newsbot9

    Oh right, people living together in tolerance is the same as institutionalised racism.

    Yea, so, tell me, are you familiar by any chance with the ZOG?

  26. Newsbot9

    What precisely are you accusing Judaism of?

  27. Martin Steel

    A state free of religion is a core liberal belief, writes @mgonthemike: http://t.co/rc7nA6OT

  28. Lee Hyde

    #Warsi’s call for the dominance of #Christianity ignores that it’s #Islam under threat (http://t.co/2x73gdZx) /via @leftfootforward

  29. Urban

    ‘politicization of heritage’
    It is fortunate that the British politics includes democracy and enables freedom of speech, not freely given in Islamic countries, let alone to theorise with regard to the pseudo intellectual rhetoric that Dr Nasser seems to want to over complicate with “academic” language to confuse and complicate the subject.
    Immigrants, ghettoise for financial and social reasons and taking over areas and changing usage is just part of that process. Perhaps the bigger picture should why these Ghettos are allowed to flaunt planning laws and why a positive “integration” policy for both planning and urban planning to bring communities together, rather than encouraging divisions can not be perused as both a practical and political solution.
    New Mosques and any new religious building, should, together with planners and architect be forced to address issues of shared space, integrating communities, tackling poverty, homelessness, caring for the elderly and empowering our youth for positivity.
    This takes courage, both politically and from “Academics” who fail to appreciate that these dialogues do and can not take place in “Islamic” countries who persecute and suppress open dialogue. We should take brave steps and show the world and fundamentalists from all religions that a multi-cultural Britain works and is a tolerant, liberal society that helps and supports all sectors of society together – this is our true strength.

  30. Patrick

    Yes, but people are not ‘living together in tolerance’, are they?

    In East London, Muslims are putting up ‘gay free zone’ stickers in the high street. They are blacking out advertising hoardings that show women in bikinis.

    In Derby, Muslims were convicted of putting gay hate leaflets through people’s doors, calling for homosexuals to be killed.

    In the North, there is an enormous level of antipathy from the white working class to immigrants. Remember the race riots a few years ago? In the building industry, Polish workers are largely seen as driving down wages for contractors. I could go on.

    This isn’t just my opinion -these are matters of fact. If you don’t believe me, google it.

    The problem with the Left is its misguided Student Union idealism. Yes, different cultures all living together in harmony is a great idea. How wonderful. But does it work in practice? No. Has it failed? Yes.

  31. MCB

    "Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat" http://t.co/cuCQBNkj by @peteraallen

  32. Deacon Nick Donnelly

    "Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat" http://t.co/cuCQBNkj by @peteraallen

  33. Mohammed Ansar

    "Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat" http://t.co/cuCQBNkj by @peteraallen

  34. Shawez Khwaja

    "Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat" http://t.co/cuCQBNkj by @peteraallen

  35. Ammar

    RT @musafurber: Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat http://t.co/o6vKm4es

  36. Kilsally

    "Warsi's call for the dominance of Christianity ignores that it's Islam under threat" http://t.co/cuCQBNkj by @peteraallen

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