Leading the change in Britain's mosques

Mosques in Birmingham are being helped by the Government to register with the Charity Commission, improve their governance and become more inclusive. Simon Ellery reports

Mosques (Getty Images)
Mosques (Getty Images)

Birmingham has more than 200 mosques, serving one of the UK's largest Muslim populations. Many of them have thriving congregations and are visited by up to 5,000 people for weekly prayers.

Most of them are registered charities with strong leadership and governance, but some have admitted that their constitutions and governance are not as robust as they could be.

The city has been named in leaked intelligence reports as a major recruitment centre for Al Qaeda, and there are allegations that extremists have exploited poor governance in some mosques to recruit young Muslims who might be angered by what they see as a war against Islam in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Matters were not helped by Operation Gamble in 2007, when nine suspects were arrested in Birmingham during an investigation into a plot to behead a British Muslim soldier. Searches of houses lasting up to three days left Muslim communities and their faith leaders tense and angry.

But there are now multiple projects under way, backed by the Government and the Charity Commission, to improve the way mosques are run. Birmingham City Council is playing a key role.

Leading the drive against extremism is the city's cabinet member for equalities, councillor Alan Rudge, who consulted widely with the community after the Operation Gamble police raids.

"Many mosques did not realise extremism was operating within them," says the Conservative councillor. "There was a misuse of facilities."

The council identified key issues and put measures in place to tackle them, including the training of imams on 'Britishness', help for Muslim women to identify and deal with extremism and projects to improve mosque governance.

Under the Government's £5m Preventing Violent Extremism Pathfinder Fund, launched in 2007, the council spent £51,000 on improving governance at 10 mosques. Between July 2007 and March 2008, it worked with the mosques on management systems, building capacity and professionalism.

Using guidance documents and presentations by third sector governance expert Karl George, the charities were encouraged to work together to meet Charity Commission requirements. This meant creating a clear vision with aims and objectives, a transparent board and committee structure, and rigorous auditing. It also included setting out policies and procedures in a publicly available folder.

George says: "Their governance was not up to the standard that you would expect for organisations with charitable objectives." He says key areas included the competency of boards, which needed a broader range of skills and more diverse members such as younger people and women.

"There is a lot of work to be done on mosque governance around the country," he says. "A lot of small voluntary organisations don't realise what they don't know."

'A model mosque'

Birmingham Central Mosque is hoping to become a 'model mosque' and a central hub for the community, offering educational and recreation facilities that embrace non-Muslims. It plans to work alongside other mosques and act as a mentor for good governance, and is gearing up to become a resource for the community by offering a raft of non-religious activities.

Kajid Khan, a spokesman for the mosque, says the programme could not have come at a better time. "I would say the difference the programme has made is that the mosque, which is mainly staffed by volunteers, is a better, smoother-running and more transparent organisation," he says. "All too often in third sector organisations there can be less of a focus on professionalism.

"We want to ensure that we have the capacity to deal with any issues that arise in the city - radicalisation is one potential issue."

Kamran Fazil is an executive member of the Hazrat Sultan Bahu Trust, another mosque that took part in the programme. It runs a school, nursery and college. "The programme helped us finalise our policies and procedures and solidify our constitution," he says. "All the mosques were doing this together, so we could all see the governance structures and the training we needed."

The mosque's constitution was written in 1983. "It was outdated," says Fazil. "We needed a new constitution and greater local public representation."

Muhammad Afzal, a spokesman for the Sparkbrook Islamic Centre, says the organisation already understood key issues such as child protection and Criminal Records Bureau checks, but the governance programme brought it all together.

"We produced a folder, and in that we have our policies for every area," he says. "The programme highlighted relevant new legislation and practices as well as executive structures.

"There is a much stronger trust in the community - it is much better than before. I think it will improve as well. I don't think there are many people that are radicalised."

Having been awarded £2.4m under the Government's latest anti-extremism programme, the council is to extend its work, and will run programmes with 80 other mosques during the next three years.

Paul Marriot, manager of the Birmingham arm of the Preventing Violent Extremism programme and a former police intelligence officer, says: "Our goals are simple: to support mosques and help them draw in members of the community who could be led astray by radical elements.

"Feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, and that, to us, is the greatest measure of success."

Following the London suicide bombings of 2005, ministers set up the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. The aim of the body is to increase the leadership skills of imams and advise mosques on how to avoid being used by extremists. Other initiatives have sought to engage young people and women.

Mushuq Ally, head of equality and diversity at Birmingham City Council, says: "We have consulted Minab and kept them informed. They are very supportive. They are going to use the evaluation of our projects to inform their own work."

He added that the council had been working with the Faith and Social Cohesion Unit at the Charity Commission, "which is very supportive of our governance work because it ties in with theirs".

Confronting violent extremism

As part of the Government's drive for Muslim scholars and leaders to have the skills to confront violent extremism, the Faith and Social Cohesion Unit was established in the Charity Commission in October 2007 with £1.2m funding for two years.

Its brief is to conduct outreach work and offer practical guidance to encourage mosques and other Muslim organisations to register with the commission in accordance with the Charities Act 2006 and improve their governance.

Muslim charities have been the first focus of the organisation's work because of Islam's position as the fastest-growing religion in England and Wales. A project board, which includes representatives of Minab, directs and evaluates the unit's work and provides specialist advice.

The latest figures show that the unit has engaged with more than 300 mosques and Muslim organisations across London and the Midlands. But Ghulam Rasool, who heads the unit, has admitted it has struggled in its drive to register mosques as charities (Third Sector, 3 December).

The Charity Commission recently unveiled its counter-terrorism strategy. A spokeswoman told Third Sector: "The commission has been clear that terrorism involvement and abuse of charities is completely unacceptable.

"We recognise that we deal with very few cases involving terrorism, but a single case has the potential to damage public trust and confidence in charities."

Badly run mosques could clearly pose real dangers to society. The drive to improve regulation is intended to reduce any risks and win over any Muslim leaders who believe Islamophobia persists in the UK.

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