David Cameron today vowed to break up Muslim ghettos in Britain’s cities.
The Tory leader said Islamic schools should in future admit a quarter of their pupils from other faiths. And he said that housing estates should be planned to avoid creating isolated communities.
In the most frank comments on the issue by a major party leader, he used his keynote party conference speech to say Britain had made an error by allowing ghettos to develop.
“It worries me that we have allowed communities to grow up which live ‘parallel lives’,” he said in an extract of today’s speech obtained in advance by the Evening Standard.
“Communities where people from different backgrounds never meet, never talk, never go into each others’ homes,” said the Tory leader.
Mr Cameron’s carefully balanced remarks were chosen to present a striking contrast with previous Tory approaches to immigration and community issues.
As he put social responsibility at the heart of his message to the party in Bournemouth, he was expected to mount a raid into Labour territory by declaring the NHS will be his top priority and will get continually rising spending if the Tories win power. Insiders said he would also declare his support for marriage while also committing himself to better child care for working single mothers.
His package was devoid of expensive policy commitments, but Mr Cameron will attempt to answer critics who accuse him of lacking substance, saying real substance “is not about a 10-point plan—it is about deeper things than this”. On the controversy over schools, Mr Cameron said he backed faith schools and supported Muslim parents who wanted the same for their children as everyone else.
But he went on: “Now, a new generation of Muslim schools is emerging. If these schools are to be British state schools, they must be part of our society, not separate from it.
“So they must do more than provide a good education. They must turn out young men and women who have experience of life beyond their own community.” He praised the Church of England for implementing a recommendation from the Cantle Report into the inner cities that said all faith schools should take some pupils from other backgrounds.
“This is a great example of what I mean by social responsibility,” said Mr Cameron, adding: “I believe the time has come for other faith groups to show similar social responsibility.”
He said migrants should learn English because contact between people would overcome differences and “the most basic contact comes from talking to each other”.
Mr Cameron said that children should be taught “the core components of British identity—our history, our language, our institutions”.
He went on: “We need to have contact. In many of our towns and cities, we have allowed ghettoes to develop.
“Whole neighbourhoods cut off from the rest of society. Immigrant families who only ever meet people with the same country of origin. We need to find ways to avoid this.”
Mr Cameron’s other main aim was to convince voters that the NHS is safe in Tory hands.
In an emotional appeal for trust, he cited his own family’s reliance on the NHS for their son, Ivan, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
“When your family relies on the NHS all the time—day after day, night after night—you know how precious it is,” he said.
Declaring it would be his greatest priority he added: “Tony Blair explained his priorities in three words; education, education, education. I can do it in three letters—NHS.”
When Abu Izzadeen, the firebrand Islamist militant, berated John Reid last week for “daring” to visit a Muslim area, the Home Secretary bridled, as did many others, at his suggestion that part of London was off limits for a British minister of the Crown.
There was nowhere in this country from which anyone should be excluded, Mr Reid said; nowhere that could be called exclusively Muslim. He was speaking just a couple of Tube stops from West Ham, close to the site for the 2012 Olympic stadium, where a huge row is about to erupt over plans to construct a mosque. However, this is not any old mosque built to serve the local community. It will be the largest place of worship in Europe, a gigantic three-storey Islamic centre, with schools and other facilities, able to hold at least 40,000 worshippers and up to 70,000 if necessary.
It will be called the London Markaz and it is intended to be a significant Islamic landmark whose prominence and stature will be enhanced by its proximity to the Olympic site. When television viewers around the world see aerial views of the stadium during the opening ceremony in six years’ time, the most prominent religious building in the camera shot will not be one of the city’s iconic churches that have shaped the nation’s history, such as St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, but the mega-mosque.
Its arrival in London will be a significant coup for Islam and a major event for the country as a whole. It will also make Abu Izzadeen’s depiction of that part of east London as “a Muslim area” seem remarkably prescient.
For those of us who have no objections to people building places of worship in which to practise their faith, this is a difficult subject. Why should there not be, in a multi-faith society, ashrams, temples and synagogues alongside mosques and churches? Indeed, unlike some Muslim countries, we welcome an eclectic mix of religions.
The first mosque was opened in Britain more than 80 years ago and there are now well over 1,000—many converted from Anglican churches. London now has more mosques than any other western city. The biggest in western Europe is just a couple of miles from where I live in south London, on a five-acre site.
It can hold up to 5,000 worshippers and, while hardly a Timurid masterpiece, its dome and minarets do not detract from what is a rather gloomy bit of suburban Surrey. Funded entirely by voluntary donations from its congregation, it was erected by the Ahmadi Muslims, who also contructed the first London mosque in Putney in 1924. The Ahmadis, who have lived harmoniously in this country for many years, condemn any form of extremism. Tellingly, perhaps, the Ahmadis are considered heretics by the rest of the Islamic world.
Now consider the east London mosque. Its backers are the Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary organisation that says it is non-political and peaceful. Yet a senior FBI anti-terrorism official has called it a recruiting ground for al-Qa’eda, and the French secret services described it as “an antechamber for fundamentalism”. Its current European headquarters are in Dewsbury, home town of Mohammed Siddique Khan, leader of the July 7 suicide bombers, who attended the local mosque. Much of the funding for the Markaz, which will cost about £100 million, is expected to come from Saudi Arabia.
Alan Craig, who lives about a mile from the 16-acre site on which it is to be built, is a Newham councillor representing the Christian People’s Alliance. Notwithstanding his own faith, he does not object to mosques or any other place of worship. But he raises some important questions about this particular proposal.
“I am concerned about the community and security impact of the mosque,” he said. “Although permission has not yet been given, Muslims are moving into the area in preparation. The Savile Town area of Dewsbury where Tablighi Jamaat is currently based is now more than 90 per cent Muslim. This part of London has always been a very diverse community and that is how it should be kept. We can’t have one group taking over.”
Mr Craig, who has inevitably been castigated as “anti-Muslim” by those who want to shut down any discussion, said he believed the local community would be denied a say. “They [the council] have not consulted local people at all but when the mosque master-plan is submitted, they intend to give it their formal approval. It is an undemocratic stitch-up.”
It is suggested that the Markaz complex will become the “Muslim quarter” for the Olympics, acting as a hub for Islamic competitors and spectators, something that is surely contrary to the spirit of the Games, which are meant to bring people together, not keep them apart. Futhermore, in an irony not lost on Mr Craig, just a mile or so from where the mosque is due to go up, the Kingsway International Christian Centre, the biggest evangelical church in Europe with 12,000 worshippers on a Sunday, is coming down to make way for the Olympic stadium.
Mr Craig wants an independent inquiry into the mosque, something that Newham council has not exactly fallen over itself to endorse. Somewhere along the way, there will be a role for Ken Livingstone, the mayor, whose London Development Agency has already signalled that he thinks it is a good thing for London to have an Islamic landmark.
Eventually, the plans may end up on the desk of Ruth Kelly at the Department for Communities and Local Government. She recently called for a “new and honest” debate on diversity and announced the formation of a “Commission on Integration and Cohesion” which is to tour the country, before reporting next summer, looking at social or economic divisions between different ethnic groups.
If this really means anything then its first port of call should be Newham, where it can ask some searching questions about the proposed Markaz and its potential impact on the local community there. The sceptical among you might suspect that this commission is just a gimmick. If it fails to take this issue seriously, then you will know it for certain.