Elders at a Bolton mosque allowed a non-Muslim to address believers from the prayer platform for the first time on Friday. The aim, in the words of the speaker David Crausby, the local MP was to build relations while the atmosphere was still "relatively normal''.
Bolton is a former mill town with a social profile similar to neighbouring towns, such as Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, where race riots erupted this summer. A mosque was firebombed there in the days after the New York atrocity, which explained why a police van stood prominently in the car park of the green-domed Noor-ul-Islam mosque as prayers began on Friday.
It was also why the mosque eldersallowed Mr Crausby to address the 600 believers. He is MP for Bolton North East, and a member of the Commons Defence select committee briefed by the Prime Minister a few days beforehand on the forthcoming military action.
"This is not to be a war on Islam,'' he said. Indeed terms such as "Islamic terrorist" made no sense since such terrorism contradicted everything that true Islam held dear. "All the citizens of Britain must work together to defend our families against harm."
They were big themes. The MP chose his words with a nervous care, aware that if there is to be opposition in Britain to military strikes it could come most forcefully from the Muslim community. And the present phoney war atmosphere feels so unreal that many of the constituents who approached him afterwards had different concerns.
It was the very stuff of local politics. How, asked one man, could the town council be persuaded to change its mind after turning down a planning application for an extension to his house? Others expressed concerns over the merger of two neighbourhood schools. And what could be done about the son of an imam who hadbeen refused re-entry to the UK?
But the MP was also told about an attack by white yobs the day before on two women wearing headscarves. Another Muslim asked the MP to tell Tony Blair to tell President Bush to moderate his "Wild West" vocabulary.
Suddenly, however, the atmosphere changed. Israel was the world's biggest terrorist, said one man in full-bearded, traditional Pakistani dress. "Until the problems of Palestine are sorted,'' he shouted, warming to his subject, "then tell Mr Blair that all Muslims will be terrorists.'' "No, no,'' said his fellow Muslims. "That is not true. That is not what the rest of us think." The man was eventually calmed.
There are those not much interested in peace-making on the other side too. The assault on the women was just one of several hundred attacks on British Muslims in recent days. There have been assaults, graffiti and e-mails sent to individuals with messages such as: "You don't belong here."
The mosque's vice-president, Hanif Alli, told Mr Crausby: "We have told our people not to retaliate to either physical or verbal attack." Community leaders had recently told Muslim youths aged 14 and over not to discuss the crisis and not to hit back if insulted or abused. It was a strategy that Bolton Asians adopted when other northern towns were hit by the recent race riots. "We told the police that we would stop people from retaliating so long as they did their job and protected us,'' Mr Alli said.
"Good," said the MP, saying that he would return this week to visit the neighbouring Deobandi mosque. "We have to try to build relations while the atmosphere is still relatively normal,'' he said as he left.
"This is just the calm before the storm. When the shooting war starts, it's places like this that, in Britain, could become real flashpoints."Reuse content