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Changing Communities

Religious diversity is changing old assumptions about the proper relationship between church and state. In Great Britain, these questions are particularly complicated because the nation has an officially established Church: The Church of England.

An editorial from The Economist explains:

England has an established church whose authority has been intertwined with the state’s for five centuries. The powers of the Church of England have been trimmed and privileges have been granted to other religions. Yet although a mere 1.7 [million] people attend its services regularly, its special status endures. The queen is its head; Parliament approves its prayer book; and only last year [2007] did the prime minister relinquish the right to select its bishops, 25 of whom sit in the House of Lords.1

 

Sheraz Arshad stands at the former Mount Zion Methodist Church, which will become a mosque. Mr. Arshad fought for years to get Clitheroe to allow a place for Muslims to worship.

In a particularly visible sign of Great Britain’s new diversity, the former Mount Zion Methodist Church in Clitheroe has recently become a Mosque. New York Times writer Hazel Thompson tells the story:

On a chilly night this winter, this pristine town in some of Britain’s most untouched countryside voted to allow a former Christian church to become a mosque.

The narrow vote by the municipal authorities marked the end of a bitter struggle by the tiny Muslim population to establish a place of worship, one that will put a mosque in an imposing stone Methodist church that had been used as a factory since its congregation dwindled away 40 years ago.

The battle underscored Britain’s unease with its Muslim minority…whose devotion has challenged an increasingly secular Britain’s sense of itself.

Britain may continue to regard itself as a Christian nation. But practicing Muslims are likely to outnumber church-attending Christians in several decades, according to a recent survey by Christian Research, a group that specializes in documenting the status of Christianity in Britain.

 …In Clitheroe, the tussle involved a passionate young professional of Pakistani descent coming up against the raw nerves of tradition-bound local residents.

‘We’ve been trying to get a place of worship for 30 years,’ said Sheraz Arshad, 31, the Muslim leader here, his voice rattling around the empty old Mount Zion Methodist Church that will house his mosque. ‘It’s fitting it is a church: it is visually symbolic, the coming together of religions.’

With a population of 14,500, a Norman castle and an Anglican church established in 1122, Clitheroe is tucked away in Lancashire County in the north. People here liked to think they represented a last barrier to the mosques that had become features in surrounding industrial towns. But Clitheroe had not bargained on the determination of Mr Arshad, a project manager at British Aerospace. He is the British-born son of Mohamed Arshad, who came to Clitheroe from Rawalpindi [in Pakistan] in 1965 to work at the cement works on the town’s outskirts.

When his father died in 2000, leaving his efforts to establish a mosque for the approximately 300 Muslims unfulfilled, Mr Arshad took up the challenge.

‘I thought, why should I be treated any less well?’ Mr Arshad said. ‘One quarter of my salary goes in tax, too. I was driven to do the mosque.’ In all, Mr Arshad and his father made eight applications for a mosque.…

Often there was booing at council meetings, and, he said, cries of ‘Go home, Paki!’

The authorities’ official reasoning for the rejections was generally that a mosque would attract outsiders—a veiled reference to Muslims—to Clitheroe.

…Mr Arshad decided to get organized and demonstrate that he was a moderate Muslim who could take part in all the town’s affairs.

He formed an interfaith scout group—Beaver Scouts—that honoured many religious occasions, including the Taoist and Jewish New Years. He established the Medina Islamic Education Centre as an interfaith group for adults, and persuaded the local council to allow the group to lead a key committee. He organized a series of lectures on global conflict that attracted important academics.

On Dec. 21, the night of the vote on the mosque, the council chambers overflowed with 150 people. The police were poised outside. The vote was 7 to 5 for the mosque; there was no violence.

‘I went in resigned to the fact we would lose,’ Mr Arshad said. ‘In the end, it was very humbling.’

‘The church’s [listing] as a place of worship in the town’s planning records helped carry the day,’ said Geoffrey Jackson, chief executive of Trinity Partnership, a social welfare agency, and a Methodist who backed Mr Arshad.

So did Mr Arshad’s demeanour. ‘He’s a top lad, with a Lancashire accent, born and bred here, and educated at Clitheroe Grammar,’ Mr Jackson said.2

Citations

  • 1 : Sever them", The Economist, 14 February 2008 (accessed 17 March 2008).
  • interfaith : A term that describes actions, events, or organizations that bring together persons of different religious faiths and affiliations.
  • 2 : Jane Perlez, "Old Church Becomes Mosque in Uneasy Britain", The New York Times, 2 April 2007 (accessed 8 November 2009).

Connection Questions

  1. What is the role of religious institutions in the life of a community? Why do you think religion plays an important role in immigrant communities? How do those answers explain why it was important for Arshad to build a local mosque?
  2. Islamic scholar Riem Spielhaus explains, ‘Each [mosque building] conflict presents an opportunity to open communication because they raise rarely discussed issues.’ What issues do those conflicts raise? How can these conflicts be turned into opportunities to promote integration?
  3. How do you explain the initial resistance to Arshad’s proposal at the town council meetings? What role did fear play? How did Arshad overcome that resistance?

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