Ajmal Masroor’s response to suggestions that the man who attacked the muezzin at London Central Mosque on Thursday afternoon was a Muslim convert who had been praying in congregation and attending lessons there for months, was that he was a man pretending to be a Muslim. In his mind, the perpetrator had been planning to kill the imam all along, plotting silently as he sat in circles of knowledge, enjoying the attention and generosity of the congregation. Yes, this is the imam and broadcaster’s firm conviction, even before any of the facts are known.
I can’t say I am surprised by this reaction. Whenever a convert to Islam perpetrates a crime, is involved in extremist activities, expresses opinions contrary to the mainstream or raises concerns about mistreatment, the default reaction of many Muslim commentators is that they were never really Muslim. Convert survivors of domestic abuse are frequently labelled as Fake Muslims when they take a stand, while those that go on to disassociate themselves from the community find their convictions questioned. Converts are frequently put on a pedestal when they first embrace the faith, but are then tossed aside when they inevitably fall down. They are held to a higher standard than most other believers — a standard that is both unrealistic and not expected of most other Muslims.
Of course, imam Masroor could be right. History is replete with examples of people who pretended to be Muslim in order to pursue their own agendas, outwardly proclaiming one thing, while their hearts testified to something else. The Quran speaks about such people extensively, found in the vicinity of the Prophet, peace be upon him, from the earliest times to the end. In some cases, we have an idea who they were; in other cases, the scholars of hadith chose to obscure their identities for reasons of their own.
In our own time too, we know with near certainty about men and women who pretended to be Muslim for their own reasons: undercover police officers; intelligence agents; wannabee spies and fantasists; internet trolls; sexual predators; and journalists. Glenn Jenvey, Joshua Golberg and Sandeep Brar spring to mind. There are others that many Muslims suspect to be other than what they claim: those extremists always on the tabloid editor’s quick-dial, for example, who for years managed to escape prosecution despite clear incitement and who, when finally sentenced, were released early for good behaviour. Yes, many Muslims considered them suspect for years, but who knows? Perhaps they were just lucky.
So yes, of course, it is plausible that the perpetrator of Thursday’s assault on the muezzin at London Central Mosque was an undercover racist extremist sleeper, waiting for his time to strike. But it is equally plausible that he was indeed a Muslim convert who acted for an as yet unknown reason due to the fact that he is human. Perhaps he bore a grudge; perhaps he snapped; perhaps he was homeless; perhaps he had come under the influence of extremists; perhaps he was in the grip of an episode of psychosis. At this stage, we just don’t know. However, here are some observations.
1. Violence is not uncommon at the mosque
Anyone who has spent any time at this mosque — and any other — will be well aware that outbreaks of violence in and around the mosque are not unusual. As a large central mosque, it is a magnet for all kinds of people, from the well-adjusted and well-to-do to the homeless, addicts and insane. I have witnessed first-hand an individual either afflicted with a personality disorder or suffering from addiction to drugs — or possibly both — having a full-blown breakdown in the prayer-hall, which flared up in violence, to which the police were called to attend.
In another incident, an old acquaintance decided to confront a fellow worshipper who had introduced him to his estranged wife, taking him to task for his part in an alleged passport scam and their disastrous marriage. Naturally his companion took great umbrage to this and proceeded to beat my acquaintance to a pulp, leaving him in a pool of blood just outside the mosque’s gates.
Neither of these incidents was isolated or unique. Arguments, scuffles and fights used to break out frequently when I attended this mosque regularly in the late nineties and early noughties, although it was mostly low-level violence. Over the years you learn that some people are lovely, but others are very bad, so choose your companions wisely.
2. Mosques mirror society
You meet all sorts at the mosque, especially if it is a large central mosque in a cosmopolitan city. You meet good people, some of them students, young professionals and the retired, and may make life-long friends. You also meet very peculiar people; some of them benign eccentrics, others you would hope never to meet more than once.
It has been several years since I frequented this mosque, though I occasionally drop in for old time’s sake if I happen to be passing by. Some folk are part of the furniture, who have always been there, always ready to embrace a long-lost friend not seen in a decade. Some are real characters, who have aged like the concrete fixtures, but nevertheless still recognise you after all these years. The ever-smiling muezzin was one of these folk, hardly changed in twenty years.
But most people are strangers to one-another, coming in and out for each prayer, but sharing little more than a greeting. Relationships are transient. You may maintain friendships with a group of possibly like-minded folk for a few months, only to move on, parting company for good.
In the late nineties, I would attend this mosque every Saturday afternoon for the converts circle, kept going by a small group of dedicated souls for decades. I would arrive as Majiid Nawaz’s acolytes came streaming out of the mosque from his weekly circles, where he would spout anti-imperialist rhetoric to hundreds of young men and women desperate for something to believe in. My own companions were a bedraggled band of eccentrics: the sufi, the salafi, the manic depressive, the giant with the grip of steel, the middle-aged cynic. We would attend the lecture each week without fail, then head off to Malaysia House for a super-strength curry and really strange conversations.
I would return a few years later after my marriage to attend the weekly Saturday converts circle with my wife and then a fiqh class on Sunday mornings with the resident young imam. After 11 September 2001, the weekly Hizb ut-Tahir circle was banned and there were new classes for converts meant to counter extremism. Attending the latter were a few white converts that took exception to brown Muslims attending the circle, because they had not realised that Sikhs and Hindus were embracing Islam too. This stirred up ill feelings and a lot of people got very upset. It was a microcosm for all of society.
3. Converts are not special
Yes, converts are just Muslims like anyone else, and Muslims are just people like anyone else. They are not living saints. They carry baggage like everyone else. Uttering the shahadda does not transform them from a bug into a butterfly. If they were addicts, they’re still addicts. If they were ill, they’re still ill. It takes years to transform your soul.
4. Being a convert can be stressful
It is only looking back that I realise just how stressful it was to be a new Muslim — and I was in a pretty privileged position compared to many I knew. Most converts do not have the support of their family; many I knew experienced significant opposition, whilst some even experienced violence.
In becoming Muslim, many converts experience widespread alienation: from their family and those closest to them; from friends, self-inflicted isolation included; from cultural Muslims who view them as fanatics; from Muslims who knew them before, who do not believe the conversion is real; and in adopting new friends and acquaintances. Some friends you make when you become Muslim turn out to be friends for life, but many people are those you would never choose to spend any time with if you had a choice.
I will admit that I came to breaking point on many occasions in those early years, as many a friend could testify. At one point I would read everything published on polemical websites like Answering Islam, imbibing their hatred of my faith and fellow believers. At times, after a night spent ingesting a particular set of evidence-based claims, I would blast my friends with an angry email demanding to know why nobody had told me that this or that was part of Islam. Fortunately, my lashing out materialised in words alone, and in time I mellowed, the urgency of youth dissolving.
5. Converts are often needy
Many converts take years to mature. Some converts behave as if they have neuro developmental conditions, not fully aware of their own agency. Some converts expect to be served by those they first come into contact with when they become Muslim: they expect them to answer all of their questions, support them with personal difficulties and be full-time representatives of Islam. Most people are not equipped to deal with people like this. They cannot deal with people suffering from clinical depression; they need professional help. Most people are not that knowledgable about Islam. Indeed, most people are just trying to live their own lives, trying their best to live as good a life as they can.
Most converts don’t realise that the notion of a Muslim community does not really exist. What they at first perceive as community is really just the interactions of families. They may, for a while, be invited to partake in family life, but in the end they are strangers and will eventually have to make their own way in the world. For the isolated loner, this can be a difficult reality to grasp. Those that cling on obsessively will ultimately fall the hardest. Perhaps that is why some are such easy prey for extremists.
6. Converts are not that popular
Some Muslims expend a vast amount of energy attempting to convert people to Islam, but then spend even more energy pushing them away, by categorising them as good and bad, orthodox or heretic, sincere or hypocrite. Some converts are embraced initially, especially if they are or were once famous, but eventually they will be cast aside, particularly if they start articulating unpopular opinions.
What has become particularly evident to me over the past decade or so is that most Muslims do not like converts. Some activists exhibit outright contempt for them, associating them either with extremism or intellectual arrogance. Some Muslims begrudge the disproportionate attention white Muslims receive, given that they are such a tiny minority within a minority.
It must be hard for some converts to discover that they are hated both by their former tribes and by people they thought were their brethren. Converts are often bright-eyed and idealistic. Unfortunately reality then hits them hard. They discover that Muslims are just people like everyone else. Some are good, some are bad, some are in-between. Some Muslims are good people, some are very bad indeed.
7. Converts are expendable
When the going gets tough, a convert can easily be erased. You were never really a Muslim anyway. Your struggles were a charade. You were a fraud, an imposter, a charlatan and pretender. You were a fake Muslim, or at best, never really a true believer. Retain anything of yourself, or find yourself again, and you will face these accusations from activists with massive followings, who believe themselves capable of reading your heart, and declaring you a heretic or an apostate. Be either a useful idiot who toes the line, or be gone.
What really happened on Thursday, I am sure we will discover in due course. The attacker may turn out to have been part of a right wing racist sleeper cell, activated to coincide with attacks elsewhere. He may turn out to have been homeless, seeking shelter and warmth, uninterested in religion or politics at all. He may turn out to have been misled by an extremist ideology, convinced that the Saudis and Egyptians are part of a new axis of evil in the Muslim world — as was recently explained to me by an old friend who has been living in Qatar for over a decade — and considered an al-Azhar trained imam a legitimate target. He may turn out to have been a sincere young Muslim who lashed out violently in response to a text he had not come across before, which caused him to doubt everything. He may turn out to have been a paranoid schizophrenic who heard voices in his head. It may turn out he was addicted to violence and had a long criminal record and history of assault. These are the unknowns of the moment.
What we do know is that several British imams have been murdered by other Muslims over the last few years. Jalal Uddin was one, murdered by Mohammed Syeedy. Another was Abdul Hadi Arwani, shot dead on the orders of Khalid Rashad. We know too that Muslim on Muslim violence in commonplace. Sidali Mohamed killed by Louai Ali. Hazrat Umar killed by Adam Muhammad. Bashir Abdullah killed by Jamal Sheik-Mohammed. On and on. And we are sadly all too aware of the numerous cases of domestic violence, in which a spouse is killed in a fit of rage, like Asma Begum, who was stabbed over 50 times by her gambling-addicted husband.
Yes, Muslims do unspeakable things to other Muslims. This attack was also unspeakable. Perhaps we are all fake Muslims really.