The government has blocked an Islamic group with alleged links to fundamentalism from building Britain’s biggest mosque, putting a final end to a 16-year battle.
The highly controversial plans by the Tablighi Jamaat sect – accused by some of being a gateway to terror - would have created a so-called “megamosque” with 190-foot minarets and three times the floorspace of St Paul’s Cathedral. The 290,000 square foot mosque, near the Olympic Park in east London, would have accommodated up to 9,300 worshippers in two main gender-segregated prayer halls and a further 2,000 in a separate hall.
The bitterly-fought struggle has seen street blockades, accusations of racism, High Court action and even a video “obituary,” linked to from the mosque website, making implicit death threats to the main protestor against the plans and his family.
The scheme, officially known as the Abbey Mills Markaz or the Riverine Centre, was rejected by the local council, Newham, as long ago as December 2012, with councillors saying the building was too large and would harm their plans for a mixed-use neighbourhood.
But Tablighi Jamaat appealed, taking the application to a three-week public inquiry in summer last year. The inquiry inspector's report was submitted to the Government in January, but ministers have been sitting on it since then because of its political sensitivity.
Alan Craig, a former Newham councillor who led the campaign against the mosque, said: “This is fantastic news. For a decade and a half, Tablighi Jamaat has pulled out every stop to get its way, but at last the spectre is over.”
In 2007 Mr Craig was the subject of a video “obituary” entitled “In memory of Councillor Alan Craig” and featuring him, his wife and two daughters. The mosque website carried a link to the YouTube page where the video appeared.
During the Newham planning process, protestors from a body called the Newham People’s Alliance, set up to express “community support” for the mosque, blockaded the council offices where the planning committee was meeting.
The NPA included a number of extremists connected to Lutfur Rahman, the former mayor of neighbouring Tower Hamlets disqualified for corruption and vote-rigging. It ran a virulent campaign against Sir Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham, calling him “Dirty Robin,” a “Zionist” and a racist.
White extremist groups, including the BNP and EDL, campaigned online against the plans.
Tablighi Jamaat already has a temporary mosque for 2,500 worshippers on the site, a former chemical works, which it has owned since 1996. It originally produced plans for a new mosque with a capacity of 40,000, but scaled them back under a wave of protest. In 2013 the High Court ordered the sect to close the temporary mosque because it did not have planning permission. It has so far refused to do so.
Tablighi Jamaat is an ultra-conservative and separatist group which believes that Muslims should not integrate into non-Muslim society. Its current UK headquarters, in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, includes a school whose pupils are banned from watching televison, playing music or speaking to outsiders. The Newham mosque was to have been its new headquarters, with residential facilities, a library, visitor centre and sports centre as well as the mosque.
Tablighi Jamaat’s links with radicalism and terrorism are hotly disputed, with many experts saying it is peaceful and non-political. However, the French intelligence agency has described TJ as the “antechamber of fundamentalism,” claiming it acts as a stepping-stone to radicalisation. In 2003 Michael Heimbach, the then deputy chief of the FBI's international terrorism section, said: “We found that al-Qa'eda used them for recruiting, now and in the past.''
A number of terrorists have TJ connections. Abid Naseer, convicted this spring of plotting to attack the Arndale Centre in Manchester, was a member of the sect. Two of the 7/7 bombers, including their leader, Mohammed Siddique Khan, attended a TJmosque. John Walker Lindh — an American who is serving a prison sentence for aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan — traveled with Tablighi preachers to Pakistan in 1998 to further his Islamic studies before joining the Taliban.