Not to fascismIn the latest of a series of ‘mosque’ invasions, members of the far right group Britain First pushed their way into the West Kent Muslim Association last Sunday.

A group of five men and one woman – including BF leader and former BNP councillor Paul Golding – entered the mosque and, following a familiar script, refused to take off their shoes, and began to harangue attendees and confront the imam who was present at the time. The subject? The ‘sexist and offensive signs’ outside the mosque, which read ‘Brothers only’ and ‘Sisters only’, and divide men and women into separate worship in the mosque (as Charlotte Meredith points out in the Huffington Post, most mosques, Orthodox Jewish synagogues, and Sikh Gurdwaras operate on a similar basis). This isn’t a new concern to Golding – who, as part of the England National Resistance, was campaigning on the same issue last year – but this particular protest took on a new dimension.

Surrounding the Imam, and pushing into his personal space, the BF members warned him that ‘you’ve got one week to take those signs down, or we will’. Another BF member warned that ‘when you respect women, we’ll respect your mosque’. Syed Alam, one of the mosque volunteers, talking to News Shopper, said reported the Britain First members stayed for up to ten minutes harassing members in a ‘very aggressive and threatening manner’. Speaking to Tell MAMA, another imam present reported that they were ‘shouting loudly’ and raising their voices, and had confronted the chairman of the mosque without any prior warning. According to Rahat Alam, another volunteer, the mosque chairman was ‘shocked, but fine’, and that while the mosque community had been shaken by the incident, they had gathered together in solidarity against it. Indeed, as so often happens after such incidents, they responded by expressing welcome to visitors who came in on peaceable and amicable terms.

As mentioned above, and elsewhere on this blog, Britain First are increasingly adopting ‘invasion’ as a tactic – previously, mosques in the North-West Bradford, Glasgow, Luton, Kent and East London have also been targeted since the campaign, part of ‘Operation Fightback’, began in May this year. Throughout BF have adopted an overtly militaristic approach, not only describing their intrusions in terms of ‘invasions’, but also engaging in combat training for a ‘defence force/activist academy’, forming quasi-military regional ‘companies’ with designated leaders, and describing themselves as having been ‘blooded’ by their activity in the field. Jim Dowson, one of the organisation’s leaders, has also described the group’s actions as a ‘holy war’ or ‘crusade’, defined explicitly as the same (but opposite) concept to ‘Jihad’. Paul Golding, another leader, declared that ‘It’s as simple as this: take action or we will continue our Christian Crusade.’ Even the music on their video reflects this; much of the video is accompanied by martial, Lord-of-the-Rings-style drums and chanting.

This tone is belied by the actual numbers present at many ‘invasions’. As with similarly to this intrusion, their ‘violent actions’ have typically been limited to entering unlocked mosques in groups of four to ten, refusing to leave or take off shoes, and haranguing worshippers and handing out religious literature, before leaving. Nonetheless, the approaches made by the group have certainly adopted a threatening character, with members wearing uniforms of matching hats and dark green tops (‘activist jackets’), driving former military land rovers, and invading the personal space of (often elderly) mosque staff.

Perhaps the most significant impact of these ‘invasions’, however, seems to be the way they claim space. Religious institutions of any faith are typically places of peace, contemplation, and religious observance – as late as the 17th century in England, churches provided legal sanctuary from persecution. Religious institutions are places of peace and refuge from the world. As such, the symbolic impact of a group of people stomping in in matching ‘activist jackets’, threatening to start remodelling the property unless their demands are met represents a fairly dramatic intrusion on a religious space; a claim to ownership of and domination over it, which, whether intentional or not, is fairly threatening. It’s a sudden, shocking action that suggests ‘we can come in here and do what we want, and you can’t stop us’, and that ‘we don’t respect this institution’. As such, even if the rhetoric of ‘invasion’ massively overestimates the actual threat, it still can have be upsetting, as the statements of Syed and Rahat Alam, and the second imam, suggest.

If we take BF at their word, then their concern is about gender equality, and women’s liberation; indeed, the female BF member argued that ‘we fought long and hard for equality’, and would not let a mosque’s own practice impede that. The idea of women’s liberation from oppressive forces is certainly a valuable one, but it’s not clear that, for all of their concern about Islam and women, Britain First listen particularly much to women’s voices. We’ve read accounts from female members of the mosque community who have senior responsibilities in the running it, and see the separate entrances are part of a religious observance that they choose to partake in. Building on Tell MAMA’s research, academics from Birmingham University have investigated the nature and impact of intersectional hate violence targeting Muslim women, seeing the looking at the mutually reinforcing issues of violence against women and anti-Muslim violence, and looking to explain why attacks on Muslim women are so common compared to other forms of hate violence. Others have remarked on the double-glazed extra-strong glass ceiling that seems to limit Muslim women’s employment achievements. Yes, we should care about misogyny and poor treatment of women, and especially in cases where overlapping forms of discrimination; but feminist movements little need groups of uniformed far-right ‘activists’ storming into mosques and delivering ultimatums over the complaints of Muslim women.