By Majed Iqbal- A visit by the British Army to a Mosque in Bolton for an “Islamic Awareness” day has caused local outrage and has become the subject of heated discussion after it was revealed that the Army personnel visiting the mosque would be serving in Afghanistan in April this year.
Organised by the Bolton Council of Mosques (BCOM) at Zakariyya Mosque, 50 soldiers form the First Battalion- The Royal Welsh were led by the Mosques Imam, Maulana Rashid who offered prayers for soldiers to observe and entertained questions on Islamic laws, customs, practices and symbols from the soldiers.
The ‘secret’ visit was only revealed once it featured on a regional website and was given featured status on the Ministry of Defense Website as a PR exercise with the British Muslim Community under the title “Royal Welsh soldiers visit mosque ahead of Helmand deployment”
The Mosque visit comes in the backdrop of spiraling problems in Afghanistan. The last weeks have witnessed reports on Quran Burning, US Soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters, A US soldier murdering civilian on a killing spree and growing resentment against the occupation by foreign forces.
Speaking on the Ministry of Defense Website, Major Owain Luke, Officer Commanding B Company, 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, said,
“We are going to an Islamic country and so it is critical that our soldiers understand the faith. The more we do so, through activities like this, the more likely we are to avoid making cultural blunders.”
“Today has been very useful and we will be able to apply a lot of what we have learned on the ground in Afghanistan. For example, learning how to recognise a smaller mosque, knowing what a prayer mat or the Koran looks like – these are useful things to know when you are on patrol in a Muslim country.”
Zakariyya Mosque, one of the largest Mosques in the North West, is well known in Bolton for taking a lead on Cultural Awareness courses and exhibitions for people from professional, council and school backgrounds to foster a better understanding of Islam and Muslims. Throughout the years it has gained a fantastic reputation through its ‘open doors’ policy, allowing people to come in and explore about the Islamic faith.
Asian Express contacted representatives of Bolton Council of Mosques and the Imam of Zakariyya Mosque- both were unavailable for comment on the issue.
The incident has been widely questioned in Bolton. Dr Ghulam Ashraf from the Thinkers forum International, a group that has been active for over twenty years in Bolton, spoke to Asian Express.
“I only found out about the issue when a local community activist informed me and another person then emailed me a link to story online. Many local community members who are politically informed and are aware about the global situation have been very unhappy with the event. However, Most ordinary community members are either totally unaware or reluctant to discuss their feelings because of the dilemma it raises”
With repeated questions being posed to the Muslim Community on a range of issues by Government ministers, Politicians, thinkers and popular press and media, the Muslim community finds itself torn between identifying themselves as British Citizens whilst taking a stance of disagreement on the war in Afghanistan.
Blackburn Based Bayyinah Foundation, an active Islamic Organisation addressing the issue commented, “We fail to understand the political ramifications of our actions. How can we fail to recognise the atrocities these soldiers are committing and ‘support’ them in this? Surely our imams should be at the forefront of exposing the injustices of the illegal wars that British soldiers are compelled to fight in. Such articulate arguments are left to Muslims outside of the established Islamic institutions…and often derided as ‘extremist’ opinions”.
Majed Hussain, a local community Youth activist also showed disappointment.
“Islamic awareness is a great way to open our Mosques to people at large. But surely the organisers should have understood the context of such a visit by soldiers! My Afghani neighbor put it nicely when he said “I’ll be going to Kabul next year and I would hate to mention this incident to the locals there.””
Majed was also critical of the organisers of the event. “The much maligned Bolton Council of Mosques (BCOM) were behind this initiative, who are well know for rolling out Government sponsored Programs in Bolton including the “Prevention of violent Extremism” (PVE) initiative where they received thousands of pounds in Funding”
However, MP for Bolton-South, Yasmin Qureshi was more welcoming of the event. Speaking to Asian Express she said
“I think the recent visit to Zakariyya Mosque in Bolton by soldiers from the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh regiment was a very good idea. It was a great opportunity to promote a wider understanding of Islam and I’m pleased that it was a success. Bolton has a proud record of community cohesion and inter-faith working. I’m grateful to Zakariyya Mosque and Bolton Council of Mosques for hosting the visit.”
Dr Ghulam Ashraf from the Thinkers Forum International further added to this debate “As Muslims it is our duty to convey the message of Islam to other members of society which includes politicians, non-politicians, military and non-military. However, the dilemma arises when some of these members are involved directly/indirectly in incidents which have involved the death of civilians, children or desecration of the deceased – what do we do in these situations? Do we maintain ordinary relationships and pretend nothing has happened? Or do we educate the appropriate people to ensure these incidents do not repeat themselves or do we temporarily disengage, boycott or account those involved to show our displeasure?”
Muslims were active in vocalizing their opinion on social networking sites, an avenue that may have not been available by directly discussing the issue with BCOM and the Mosque representatives.
Commenting on Facebook Mazhar Khan Said
“We should welcome people to learn about Islam. We should tell them killing is a big sin. Killing for corporate interests is haram (forbidden). People should sacrifice their lives for good and not for multi nationals”.
Saaqib Ali Said “If Muslims were brought into a mosque to be ‘educated’ and then sent to Afghanistan, then this would be treated differently to the British Army being ‘educated’ to fight in a land which is being forcefully occupied”.
Rozob Ali Said “Visitors to mosques should be welcomed and encouraged. But when you consider the fact that these were soldiers being sent out on military duty, their visit should have been declined as a show of protest for the loss of innocent life in the conflicts involving the British Army across the globe.”
Despite the controversy, Bolton Council of Mosques were confident about their decision to allow British troops to visit their Mosque as part of their Awareness program. The Ministry of Defense Website quoted Inayat Omarji, Chief Officer at the Bolton Council of Mosques:
“The Bolton Council of Mosques is all about inter-faith engagement with all organisations, and so a visit like this is part of our day-to-day work. It was good to have the soldiers here and we would like to invite them back on their return to hear their stories.”