Stopping the Newham call to prayer

24 June 2021

A guest post from an anonymous resident of Newham.

It is May 2020, the airy summer breeze flows and all is serene. Suddenly, Islamic religious proselytisation is rung in the airwaves, disrupting the peaceful stillness. Residents within the vicinity of the mosques producing this sound can hear the Arabic tune as it pierces through the walls of their homes. Translated, the jarring melody repetitiously proclaims that: “There is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger,” immediately followed by the command to pray.

This is the Islamic call to prayer (CtP), formally known as the Adhaan. You would be forgiven if you thought this was a scene from a majority Muslim country. But no, the scene here is set in the London Borough of Newham (LBN), a borough where 68% of people hold religious beliefs other than Islam.

Sitting there, I at first thought this was the action of some mosques gone rogue, playing the tune out loud as if in some warped phase of a rebellious flick. However, much to my dismay, I found out that between 15 May – 23 May, the Mayor of Newham, Ms Rokhsana Fiaz, had taken the executive decision to allow 19 mosques to publicly broadcast the CtP (Adhaan.) To further add to my shock, it was revealed that the mayor had permitted a further 33 mosques to broadcast their Eid celebration (Takbeerat) on 24 May 2020 at 9.30am.

I was enraged. I got on the phone and talked to others impacted by the disruption of the normally peaceful and cool summer afternoon. I talked to a fellow friend, an ex-Muslim, who had escaped persecution in Pakistan. Here he elucidated further the meaning behind the Adhaan. Back in Pakistan, he explained, the Adhaan had been used to intimidate non-believers, while simultaneously pressuring Muslims to drop all that they were doing to go and pray. It was wholly exclusionary and there was no way to escape it, “well…” he somewhat jokingly added, “unless you chopped your ears off!” I found the dark humour in it and smiled, but not for long. I was still fuming.

Muslim clerics in Newham were quick to suggest that this becomes a daily occurrence, with one Imam stating: “Just one symbolic adhaan per day, if Newham Council allows us.” This marked a dangerous shift, and one I and many other residents desperately wanted to avoid.

“But what about Church bells,” a friend of my mine asked, “that’s the same thing, is it not?” Stumped, I thought about her question momentarily, then exclaimed with certainty, “absolutely not!” You see, the CtP (Adhaan), unlike other religious-induced sounds, in this example, Church bells, has a clear and divisive message to it. It is a statement of faith, carrying an explicit and direct message of religious superiority. Church bells, on the other hand, carry no effectual message apart from their innocuous tintinnabulation.

I, and a few other Newham residents, troubled by the spiritually dark overtones these events indicated, decided to act. I speedily threw together a complaint in a document, stating my many oppositions to the CtP. Others did the same. In a quick-fire manner, we then shot our emails to the mayor and local Councillors (Cllrs) stating our very strong concerns and opposition to the CtP.

Having received an unsatisfactory and, dare I say, robotic response from the bureaucratic heights that is the LBN, I decided I needed to step up the pressure. I wanted to challenge her face to face, one-on-one. An opportunity arose when I managed to scrounge a Zoom link into the mayor’s (somewhat exclusive) drop-in session for 28 May 2020. She would have to engage with the issue herself directly now. No more running.

Donning my suit jacket, and fresh crisp white shirt, I sat and patiently waited for the Q&A slot, listening to the many various borough domestic issues. When the time came, I immediately indicated I had a question to ask. Wiping the sweat from my brow due to the nerves, I gathered myself together and, having given some background on the issue, then point-blank asked the mayor why she had: “covertly allowed an exclusionary and divisive message, that is the CtP, to be publicly broadcast in Newham.” The mayor was shocked, this was a quick change of pace for her. She mustered herself and, to her credit, engaged in the response. Her responses included the adage that she had allowed the public broadcasting of the CtP because of the “extraordinary times” we were in. She, of course, was referring to the lockdown and how it was currently impacting Muslims during the Ramadan period.

The mayor explained that the decision to allow mosques to broadcast the CtP was to “encourage worshippers to stay home.” Indeed, the Adhaan, she added, was modified to represent such a sentiment, with a ‘Stay at Home’ message included. On hearing this, two objections immediately sprung to mind.

Firstly, most Muslims, for many years, have had access to remote Adhaan apps which broadcast the CtP to their private mobile and personal devices. Was there any need for all to be forced to hear the mosques pump out the CtP via their concert-style speakers?

Secondly, many other religions in our multi-cultural and diverse borough of Newham had certainly felt the disruptive might of the lockdown on their religious festivals, yet no special favour was expected for them. For example, Jewish people observed Passover and Yom Hashoah (8 & 20-21 April 2020), Christians had celebrated their holy week (5-12 May), Buddhists celebrated Visakha Bucha Day (7 May), and Bahai’s celebrated the ascension of Bahaullah (28 May). No special favour was needed there to remind those of faith to observe the lockdown despite their religious observances.

I was not having it; something was not right here. To me, it sounded more of an excuse, rather than a real reason. Indeed, I was later not surprised when I heard that the Takbeerat, which had been broadcast following a separate and further-reaching executive approval by the mayor, did not contain any such “Stay at Home” message. Hah, so much for “encouraging worshippers to stay home.”

The mayor’s explanation, therefore, increasingly seemed like an excuse to take advantage of the Covid-19 situation and cater towards her religion. Indeed, as Newham’s first Muslim mayor, she had taken an executive decision, bypassing the normal planning permission route, to pass this decision.

The residents and I all had one request to the mayor: could she guarantee that she would not allow another public broadcast of the CtP during her tenure as mayor and/or during Ramadan 2021?

The mayor and councillors, while at first responsive, even offering to meet residents in person to discuss the matter, rapidly turned the cold shoulder to residents. On 26 June 2020, the councillors, whose duty it is to represent the people who live in their ward, stopped replying to residents on the matter. Offers to meet with residents individually were eventually not honoured.

It was at this moment I and three other Newham residents formed a Call to Prayer Group to support one another. This group of four contained two ex-Muslims, who were alive to the dark spiritual nature of the CtP and eager to ensure it would not be broadcast again. We had one mission, wasting no time, we got straight to work.

A determined member of the newly formed group made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request on 11 June 2020, with the LBN as the recipient of the request. This request stipulated that all documentation behind the decision to allow the CtP in May 2020 be released. The order was acknowledged by the LBN of 15 June, and with a 20-working day response date set, the due date for the LBN to meet this request was 13 July. They would go on to miss not only this deadline but four other deadlines too (three of which had been set internally by the LBN and one even set by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).)

Eventually, having been threatened by the possibility of being held in contempt of court by the ICO, the LBN handed over the relevant material on 13 January 2021. This was a massive 7-months after the initial FOI request had been made, characterising the uncooperative nature of the LBN during this matter.

The material handed over by the LBN was shocking. It revealed that not only had they not conducted a Community Impact Assessment on allowing the CtP, but they had also actively declined to do so. Furthermore, it confirmed that the mayor had decided in an executive style manner, bypassing the planning permission route.

In February 2020, armed with new information on the matter, the CtP group sought the assistance of Christian Concern to drive forward the next steps. This would take the form of a legal letter to the LBN challenging their decision, and ultimately seeking a guarantee that the CtP would not be repeated during Ramadan 2021.

Christian Concern drafted in a specialist planning barrister who advised on the situation. This followed the use of the Christian Legal Centre to draft the powerful legal letter, utilising on-the-ground information provided by the Call the Prayer Group.

The letter was sent out on 17 March 2021 and argued, amongst other things, that the decision taken to allow the CtP by mayor Rokhsana Fiaz was illegal because:

  1. The Council did not undertake a public consultation before authorising the broadcasts, and actively declined to do so;
  2. The Council failed to carry out its duty of conducting an Equalities Impact Assessment despite knowing that the Public Sector Equality Duty was engaged;
  3. The ‘Stay at Home’ message in the CtP only formed 10% of the broadcast Adhaanand was not even present in the broadcast Takbeerat.
  4. Several refugees within the Newham area were traumatised by suddenly hearing the CtP of their persecutors’ religion in their ‘safe and welcoming’ new home in the United Kingdom.

The LBN responded via their solicitors on 9 April 2021. They admitted that they had indeed had some recent conversations with the Newham Muslim Forum about a further CtP. However, they indicated that they did not plan to authorise the broadcasts during Ramadan 2021. A victory!

The journey to get the LBN to engage on this matter was challenging, but the result was worth it. The FOI request revealed that the LBN had acted, at best, in an unlawful manner, and at worst, in a self-interested and self-serving fashion to propagate the mayor’s religious tenets. The legal letter ensured the response from the LBN that they would not repeat the CtP for Ramadan 2021.

I and the Call to Prayer Group were pleased with the results, and obviously extremely thankful for the overwhelming support of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre. This was a victory hard fought for by all. We are under no illusions that the LBN may attempt to one day to sanction another CtP, but we can rest assured that 2021 will certainly not be their year.

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