Last Sunday, I had reason to be grateful that places of worship are under the law of the land. At my local Catholic church in Kensington, I found myself helping to restrain a menacing and evidently inebriated young man who had ventured inside, accompanied by his German Shepherd dog.
Swaying slightly, the intruder advanced up the steps towards the altar during the most solemn part of the Mass, the prayers of consecration, and began to wave his arms about, mocking the priest—a newly ordained and rather nervous young Cuban—as he did so. On their knees, the congregation looked on aghast, wondering what the man would do next.
At this point I, together with another layman of military bearing and one of the older altar servers, took it upon ourselves to intervene. The parish priest (not the one celebrating Mass) quickly appeared and together we coaxed the man, uttering threats and racist abuse, out of the building. The police arrived and quietly took him away.
Such an incident can and does take place regularly at churches and temples in this or any other capital. In the case of a London synagogue, the drunk would not have been able to get past the door: synagogue security is tight, due to the threat of Islamist terrorists and anti-Semitic vandals of various stripes. But if the police had requested access from a rabbi, it would have been granted without question. The same would have applied at most other places of worship.
Not necessarily, however, at a mosque. The British police practically never set foot inside a mosque, for fear of giving offense to the Muslim community.
The exception that proves this rule was the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park. Within a few years of its erection in 1990, this mosque had become associated with radical Islam and became notorious for its one-eyed, hook-handed preacher Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is now in prison for terrorist crimes. In 2003, the Finsbury Park mosque was raided by hundreds of armed police, who arrested several men and found a terrorist arsenal. Those indoctrinated there by Abu Hamza have since been linked to many terrorist conspiracies around the world.
But the raid on Finsbury Park has never been repeated, despite plenty of evidence of illegal activities, such as the glorification of terrorism or incitement to hatred of Jews and “Crusaders,” in a number of other British mosques. Even when a fugitive from justice is believed to be hiding in a mosque or its outbuildings, the police decline to enter.
This wariness about mosques on the part of the British authorities is not only inimical to the rule of law, but also damaging to Muslim interests. Turning mosques into no-go areas fuels suspicions about what goes on inside. Mosques must indeed be treated with the same respect other places of worship are, but they are certainly not outside the jurisdiction of the secular law.
The reluctance of police to enter a mosque actually betrays a dangerous ignorance about Islam. Mosques are modeled not on the Temple in Jerusalem (as both synagogues and churches are), but on the courtyard in Medina where Mohammed preached. They are places not of ceremony or sacrifice. Unlike synagogues or churches, mosques do not have an ark or sanctuary containing sacred objects, such as the Torah scroll for Jews or the consecrated host for Catholics. Islam does not teach that the mosque is a forbidden place to non-Muslims, nor is there a Muslim tradition of giving sanctuary to fugitives in mosques. It is precisely the simplicity and informality of the mosque that has always appealed, to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The novelist E.M. Forster wrote a paean of praise to the mosque in his 1936 collection Abinger Harvest, and in his greatest novel, A Passage to India (1924), he sets the crucial opening scene in a mosque. The Muslim Dr. Aziz is sitting alone in the evening in his favorite mosque, when he notices the arrival of an elderly Englishwoman. Aziz is angry and shouts at her: “Madam, this is a mosque, you have no right here at all; you should have taken off your shoes; this is a holy place for Muslims.” The woman, Mrs. Moore, replies: “I have taken them off.” Aziz begs her pardon and apologizes. She asks whether, unshod, she is allowed to enter, and he says: “Of course, but so few ladies take the trouble, especially if thinking no one is there to see.” She replies: “That makes no difference. God is here.”
This is fiction, of course, and an Islamophile Englishman’s fiction, to boot. In most of the mosques in Britain today (let alone in the Middle East) even a Muslim woman would not gain entrance, let alone a Christian one. As I understand it, however, Forster is correct in his interpretation of Islamic doctrine, at least as Muhammad himself taught it. The mosque is in principle accessible to all, men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, who treat it with due respect.
That ought to include the police, too.