During the lockdown, the US-based news service, Breitbart, ran a story about plans for a new “mega-mosque” in central London. Proposed for the historic Trocadero building near Piccadilly Circus in the heart of London’s entertainment and theater districts, Breitbart claimed that plans had been submitted to Westminster’s local authority to convert parts of the building into a mosque with a capacity to host around 1,000 worshippers.
Having been widely shared on social media, the Breitbart story not only claimed that local residents were shocked by the size of the mega mosque, but so too was it alleged that some had voiced concerns about the increased risk of terrorism, that worshippers would try and enforce an alcohol ban in the surrounding area, and that there would be a conflict with those frequenting Soho, London’s gay quarter.
How the Radical Right Co-Opted Religion
While some of those lodging complaints about the mosque will no doubt have had legitimate claims, the Breitbart article clearly acted as a catalyst for the radical right in Britain to jump on the opposition bandwagon. By using the term “mega-mosque,’ Breitbart reverted a tried and tested trope that has been successfully deployed in other parts of the country by various radical-right groups to derail plans for other new mosques. While this affords an opportunity to consider how the radical right have focused on size when it comes to opposing mosques, so too does it give us a timely insight into how the radical right’s campaigns of Islamophobia might change in the “new normal” of a post-COVID-19 world.
The “Old Normal”
Standing on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus, the Trocadero was built in 1896. Home to a restaurant until 1965, the building remained largely redundant until the early 1980s, when it was renovated and relaunched as an indoor entertainment complex, housing the UK’s first IMAX cinema and various other attractions, including the gaming arcade Segaworld. With every new initiative, however, came failure, and the building eventually became derelict in 2006. A year beforehand, Criterion Capital had purchased it along with another nearby building. Since then, the Trocadero has undergone significant changes: Today, for example, it houses a 740-bedroom hotel with a rooftop bar.
The man behind Criterion Capital is Asif Aziz. He also established the Aziz Foundation, an education charity for British Muslims that has its headquarters near Piccadilly Circus. The foundation was behind the plans submitted to the local authority to request permission to convert the basement and part of the ground floor into a prayer space and community center. With the intention of serving Muslims who live and work in the area, the plans state that it was likely that the prayer space would only attract near-capacity attendance for Friday prayers; on all other days, the plans claimed that no more than 100 worshippers would be in attendance. When the public consultation closed, nearly 9,000 comments had been filed about the plans. While the majority were supportive, a flood of comments opposing the mosque appeared once the mega mosque story was “broken” by Breitbart.
Among these were a number of tropes that the radical right have been deploying about Muslims and the religion of Islam for some time: from changing the “character” of the area to the mosque being a potential “Islamist hotspot,” from Islam not being welcome in a “secular” society to the mosque being evidence of the further “Islamification” of Britain. Of course, the size of the mosque was also routinely cited as a problem.
Under the “old normal,” the radical right have been scaremongering about the size of mosques for almost two decades. As the simple yet effective narrative goes, the bigger the mosque the bigger the threat posed. This was used to good effect in Dudley, a town on the outskirts of Birmingham in the West Midlands. While much was made of the size of the prayer hall, it was the height of the proposed minaret adjoining the “super-mosque” that garnered the most opposition.
Alleged to be taller than the steeple of the town’s oldest church, opponents claimed Muslims were doing so in order to claim the supremacy of Islam over Christianity. Prompting more than a decade of radical-right protests, including some of the largest by the anti-Islam street protest movement, English Defence League, the plans for the mosque were withdrawn in 2018.
Three years prior, a similar outcome met plans to build a 9,000-capacity “mega mosque” in Stratford, East London. There, more than a quarter of a million people signed a petition opposing the mosque following radical-right groups campaigns alleging that those behind the mosque had links with the 7/7 suicide bombers.
The “New Normal”
In the “new normal,” while various radical-right groups have jumped on the anti-mosque bandwagon, it has been by former anti-Islam political party and vigilante group, Britain First, that has led the way, at the time of writing acquiring near 125,002 signatures on its online petition to block the plans. Most interesting, however, are the reasons Britain First cites for opposing the new mosque.
Alongside all of the old-normal reasons for doing so, it is the new attribution to the size of the mosque that is most insightful. As it states: “Local people have strongly objected to the application on the basis that the area was already heavily overcrowded even before the coronavirus pandemic introduced the need for social distancing – and that adding another 1,000 people, congregating in and around the mega mosque during prayer times would cause serious [problems].” As such, the new mosque should be opposed because it will increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 and thereby poses a threat to the health of local residents.
While much has been made about the new normal that will ensue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, what the Trocadero mosque shows is that some elements of the old normal will not only survive but will continue to thrive. As was the case in the old normal, mosques are problematic, the size even more so. Irrespective of any pandemic, little would appear to have changed.
What does seem to have changed in the new normal, however, is how size is problematized. While the simple yet effective narrative technique used to be “the bigger the mosque, the bigger the threat posed” could, in the wake of 9/11, always be understood as being either cultural or violent. As regards the former, this typically focused on the “takeover” of Britain, its values, way of life and so on. For the latter, this typically focused on terrorism and radicalization. Post-COVID-19, if Britain First is anything to go by, a more insidious dimension to that threat might now emerge. As the petition infers, the threat now posed by the mosque is also a biological one.
Irrespective of whether such claims are true, one can see how effective and immediate this kind of claim could be among local people who are already fearful of the effects and impact of an invisible virus. Reshaping the narrative to “the bigger the mosque, the bigger the biological threat posed” may have the potential to be an even more effective means of mobilizing and opposing in the new normal than it was before. If Britain First is successful, expect others within the radical right to rapidly follow this new narrative technique in anti-mosque campaigns and other forms of Islamophobic mobilization throughout the UK.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.