The local authorities do tend to highlight Medina Mosque, and dedicate more importance to it, mainly because it is a large purpose-built mosque, it is the mosque that is most visited by members of the public, and it is quite vulnerable because it links onto a main road.
How does it make you feel, having to put these measures in place because of acts of terrorism?
As a community, it makes us incredibly sad – we should always feel safe, especially in a place of worship. There have been cases when I have been at the front, leading the prayers, and had a large congregation behind me, and sometimes the thought crosses my mind, whilst I am praying, what if someone just comes in now and does something – even at those times of prayer, I personally feel afraid, and if I, as the Imam feel afraid, then I am sure the people in the congregation also feel afraid and unsafe.
It is not a good feeling to have, knowing that your mosque has to have safety measures put in place. We have volunteers sacrificing their time, in which they could have been praying. However, if we look at it from another perspective, it does give us comfort knowing that there is help, that there are people out there willing to help, and willing to keep us safe.
There has been a considerable rise in right-wing populism in recent years – have you seen a rise in hate crime in the local community?
I usually spend most of my time in and around the mosque, and have occasionally come across individuals driving by who will wind their windows down and shout offensive remarks, either referring to me as a ‘terrorist’, or making derogatory remarks about Islam. Occasionally, when terrorist attacks take place, the general public will bring up the conversation about our wellbeing as Muslims, and their anxieties about the potential increase in hate crimes and Islamophobia.
The main people that come to me are women, who are concerned about their wellbeing as practicing Muslims, meaning women who cover themselves in traditional Islamic dress. Women often feel more vulnerable because it is visually apparent that they are Muslim, whereas often with men this is not apparent.
Most extremists do not tend to look at religion, rather, they look at colour and then make a judgement, ‘oh this person is brown, he is definitely going to be a Muslim’. I have had cases where Hindus have come to us, and said we were walking and people mistook us to be Muslim and started shouting racist remarks. So if they see someone who is brown, they automatically link that colour to Islam.
The people who come directly to the Imam to report hate crimes are mainly people not from Southampton, but university students who have come from abroad, and, because they are not familiar with the area, they feel the best place to go for help would be the mosque.
Do you think media coverage of the controversy surrounding Islamic dress, has had an impact on the levels of anxiety felt by the women you mention?
The media have led to an increased anxiety among women – if the media and news reporters are mocking their attire, then women become fearful about wearing it. So psychologically, it has an impact – if women are going somewhere with littlediversity, they often question whether or not they should go, as they are fearful someone may shout abuse.
There was a case in Southampton, in which an English woman grabbed the headscarf of a Muslim woman, pulling it off whilst shouting abuse. This case is quite unusual because it is uncommon to have a lone woman show her extremist views towards another woman. Usually, if a woman does show her extremist views, it would be in a group, or during a protest.