Sunni vs Shia... in Gerrard's Cross: New mosque highlights growing tensions among British Muslims

It might seem a world away from the fighting in Syria, but a new mosque near the Buckinghamshire town reflects the rise in Britain of tensions between the two factions of Islam

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The Independent Online

With its busy pub, carefully tended floral borders and farm shop selling eggs and hay, Fulmer is an unlikely epicentre for concerns that Britain’s Shia and Sunni Muslim populations are increasingly plagued by sectarian strife.

The pristine Buckinghamshire village close to Gerrards Cross, home to Britain’s most expensive property market, prides itself as a haven from the bustle of the wider world, with its film festival and parish council meetings where attendees are invited to “partake of a glass of wine and nibbles”.

When it was announced that a former church in the village had been bought for £2m, with a plan to turn it into one of Britain’s leading Shia mosques, assurances were sought about traffic and increased noise. But otherwise the new arrivals have been made welcome. As one tweed-clad resident put it: “As long as there isn’t a call to prayer at 5am, we’re very happy to have them.”

Further afield, however, the opening of the Al Muhassin Mosque, housed in a barn-like structure previously owned by an offshoot of the Plymouth Brethren, has raised eyebrows and concerns that its Shia imam, Sheikh Yasser Al Habib, represents one pole in an increasingly voluble stand-off between inflammatory elements of Britain’s Sunni and Shiite populations.

Britain’s Muslims are still dealing with the ramifications and the wave of reprisals arising from the horrific murder of Drummer Lee Rigby near the Woolwich barracks last month, for which two alleged Islamic extremists have been charged. But the community is also facing an increasing threat from polarising clerics on both sides of Islam’s principal rival sects.

A leading mainstream Muslim group told The Independent yesterday it was concerned at the presence of “divisive and sectarian personalities” in Britain after it emerged that a controversial Saudi Sunni cleric, who was banned from entering Switzerland because of his extremist views and has frequently preached against “evil Shiites”, has been in London for the past week.

Sheikh Muhammed Al Arifi, a professor at King Saud University in Riyadh who has recently called for a “jihad” in Syria “in every possible way”, was billed as a star speaker at a two-day conference at the Al Muntada mosque in Fulham, west London, and at a fundraising dinner for victims of the war in Syria due to take place this weekend. 

He has in the past accused Shias of being responsible for kidnapping, cooking and skinning children before placing their remains outside the family home for their parents to find, and recently called for Muslim women to travel to Syria to offer their bodies to fighters seeking to overthrow Bashar al Assad’s regime.

Sheikh Al Arifi and the Al Muntada mosque did not respond to repeated requests from The Independent seeking comment on his views.

Yousif Al Khoei, the director of the respected Al Khoei Foundation, a mainstream Shia organisation which has drawn up a code of conduct to fight against Muslim sectarianism in Britain, said: “The Muslim communities remain concerned but vigilant about the possibilities of divisive and sectarian personalities being given the air of publicity in the UK. But we remain equally confident of our commitment to unity in the face of any hate speeches or crimes against us or against any community.”

The concern is rooted in increasingly vociferous opinions being expressed on both sides of Britain’s three million-strong Muslim community. The schism between the Shia, who form the majority in Iran and Iraq but are vastly outnumbered by Sunnis across the rest of the world, has its roots in a dispute over who represents the true successor to Muhammad following his death in 632.

The Fulmer mosque’s Sheikh Habib, 34, was imprisoned in his native Kuwait in 2003 for espousing views which attacked in lewd terms some of the most revered figures of Sunni Islam. He came to Britain in 2004 after having his Kuwati citizenship revoked, and has built a sizable following across the Middle East through his television station Fadak TV.

The Independent has learned that Sheikh Habib and Fadak TV, which is broadcast from a new base at the Fulmer mosque, were investigated last year by the communications regulator Ofcom for a televised sermon in which he questioned the sexuality of a Sunni successor to the Prophet Muhammad, Umar Ibn Al Khattab.

The station was found not to have breached the broadcasting code but was issued with “strong guidance that they should take great care when dealing with such matters”. Ofcom said it was continuing to monitor the satellite station to ensure its compliance.

Sheikh Habib, who insists that musical instruments are un-Islamic, has also preached that infants are sorted at birth by a “devil” who indecently assaults “Nawasib” or heretic children. He has taken a strong stance against the Shia militant group Hezbollah and says he condemns extremism on both sides of Islam’s sectarian divide. He told The Independent he was seeking to “establish the truth” and did not preach hatred towards any other faith or sect.

Dr Majid Lafta, his spokesman, said: “The sheikh will not ever want to be part of this tension [between Shia and Sunni]. He believes we must respect the other side and we must not raise our fists but shake hands.”

He also condemned the Woolwich attack, describing it as “brutal, horrible and inhumane”.

But the forthright views of the cleric, who claims to have an audience for his sermons of “tens of thousands” across the Middle East and North Africa, are part of a sequence of events which has raised concern that the sectarianism seen elsewhere in the Muslim world, from Pakistan to Iraq, is beginning to reach these shores.

Sheikh Al Habib and his followers were due to hold a demonstration outside the Kuwaiti embassy in central London this weekend calling on the Gulf state to take action against a cleric they accuse of calling for the slaughter of shias.

Police were called to a demonstration in London’s Edgware Road last month led by Anjem Choudary, the former leader of the banned Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun.

Participants in the protest held placards condemning the continued bloodshed in Syria and “the Shia enemies of Allah”. During scuffles, a man suffered serious cuts to his face and required hospital treatment after he was surrounded by some protesters. He later made a formal complaint to Scotland Yard saying his attackers had called him “Shia”.

The violence at the heart of one of London’s most diverse Arab and Muslim areas has caused alarm in the wider community and was swiftly condemned by a coalition of Muslim groups, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), amid growing concern that extremist preachers are finding fertile ground in sectarian tensions generated by the conflict in Syria.

In a joint statement, which singled out the “antics” of Mr Choudary, the MCB said: “Sunnis and Shias remain united in the UK and have a long-established history of intra-faith co-operation. We are acutely aware that the complex situation in the Middle East and Muslim world has the possibility of threatening that tradition… We should avoid hate and condescending speech and literature in our midst.”

The Buckinghamshire mosque, which can accommodate several hundred worshippers and held its first prayer meetings last month, was funded by donations from Fadak TV viewers, including £1.2m raised in a single week, and there are ambitions to eventually add a religious school to the 10,000 square metre site.

Dr Lafta said: “The main issue for the sheikh is to eradicate all types of violence. Right now, Islam has a very negative image or impression in the outside world. We want to remove this and show the right face of Islam.”

Moderate Shia groups disagree, warning that fringe elements on both Shia and Sunni sides must not be allowed to exercise disproportionate influence and calling on the Government to bolster the efforts of community leaders to freeze out extremists.

David Cameron hinted last week that mosques seeking to ban extremist preachers could have their legal fees paid from public funds as part of a raft of measures being drawn up by a ministerial task force, which is also considering direct bans on so-called “preachers of hate” being given public platforms.

Mr Al Khoei, who said Sheikh Habib’s views were “not within the mainstream of Shia Islam in the UK”, said: “We expect the Government to take a proactive role in ensuring that interfaith work is encouraged, promoted and protected.”

In Fulmer, residents seem happy to refrain from judging the latest additions to their community.

Pauline Vahey, the chairwoman of the parish council, said: “We are a small but diverse community. We are optimistic about the new mosque. Their faith is not our concern. It is all about how they conduct themselves and integrate with the community.”