Mixing mosques with danger
European governments and intellectuals are driving the view that mosques play a role in terrorism. But this, critics say, is putting Muslims as well as mosques in danger.
Mosques are often the focus of attention whenever the place of Muslims or Islam in Europe is debated. Three recent events highlight how important the question of what mosques are or what they represent is.
In January 2021, Austria called for the European Union to adopt the registration of imams. In May 2021, Austria’s government launched its online ‘Islam Map’ which shows the locations of more than 620 mosques and Muslim associations across the country. In June 2021, Ed Hussain – the British author of The Islamist (2007) and co-founder of the now-dissolved counter-extremism think tank Quilliam – released his new book ‘Among the Mosques: A Journey Across Muslim Britain’.
Mixing Muslims with danger
The key view driving this fight is that mosques ultimately play a role in terrorism. The Austrian government clearly justified both its European registry of imams and its Islam Map as part of its “fight against political Islam” but “not religion.” Two of the first three mosques Ed Hussain visited while writing his book are popularly associated with the British suicide bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Salman Abedi. Hussain went on to describe Muslims in these mosques congregating “militantly” in prayer.
Experts and activists alike have criticised this view of mosques. Some fear it generalises Muslims as terrorists. Stephen Jones, a sociologist of religion at the University of Birmingham, for example, criticises Ed Hussain’s characterisation of mosques as follows: “Let me be clear on this: it is unforgivable to single out a mosque and imply it is a comfortable environment for wannabe terrorists without authoritative and detailed evidence proving this is the case. … This book presents no such evidence.”
Similarly, the University of Vienna, which helped develop Austria’s Islam Map, distanced itself from the project and publicly demanded that its logo be removed. Austria’s Green Party also distanced itself, saying that the “project mixes Muslims with Islamists.” Meanwhile, the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGO) warned that by saying that “all Muslims are dangerous,” the map will lead to hate crimes and stigmatisation of Muslims. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the head of the Austrian Catholic Church, made similar remarks, writing that it is “dangerous to give the impression that one religious community [Muslims] is under general suspicion.”
Putting Muslims in danger
After the Islam Map went online, signs labelling mosques as a threat started to appear in various cities, especially in the capital of Vienna. These warned of ‘Angry Muslim’ and ‘Political Islam Nearby.’ Unsurprisingly, IGGO reported a rise in attacks against Muslims during this time too.
John Esposito, Professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University, argues the Austrian government’s actions are part of a larger “anti-Muslim drive” led by the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The government’s publication of all the names, functions, and addresses of Muslim institutions has been called “state-sponsored Islamophobia”by some Muslim commentators. Such ‘state-sponsored Islamophobia’ could have dire effects. To be sure, the Austrian human rights group SOS Mitmensch reported that anti-Muslim sentiments in Austria doubled in 2020 compared to 2019, and are significantly determined by political parties and prominent politicians.
It can be cautioned, therefore, that misrepresenting mosques not only misrepresents Muslims but also endangers them. In the UK, mosque vandalism, hate mail, and attacks on Muslims increasingly occur together. But this link between Muslims and mosques is not easily accepted by many. As Stephen Jones notes, Ed Hussain, despite making mosques the focal point of his book, never considers “the depressing steps mosques have to take in order to thwart far-right attacks and hate mail.”
In recent years, a series of mosque shootings and stabbings that transpired in France, Norway, and Britain have forced mosques to rethink their security measures. While mosque security previously consisted of only a few community volunteers, it is now increasingly moving to paid personnel and CCTV camera surveillance. Governments are also stepping up security at mosques after attacks, such as at a mosque in the French city of Rennes during this year’s Ramadan, when the interior ministry asked the local French police and the gendarmerie to offer security.
Ed Hussain chastises mosques for not being open, once more ignoring the fact that mosques are introducing restrictions because Muslims are in danger.
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