Immediately after I graduated high school, I enrolled in the Global Edge Program in the summer sessions at Berkeley, after which I spent my first regular term in London in Fall 2015, taking a number of courses in College Writing (CW R4B), Art History, and Political Science, courses designed to make the most of my experience in London.
For my College Writing course, I was assigned a final paper that required that I develop a research question focusing on a place of my choice in London and addressing its significance in spatial and symbolic terms.
I decided I would use this project to learn about a religious place, to fill in a gap in my knowledge and experience: I’m not religious, know almost nothing about any religious practice (whether connected with the “West” or East”), and had long wanted to learn more yet never had a strong enough incentive to follow through.
So, I decided to research the Islamic Cultural Centre and London Central Mosque (ICC), one of the most influential and active mosques in Europe. The ICC was an interesting place to research because it is a house of worship for Islam located in a country with a Christian-majority population and an historically dominant Christian presence.
Furthermore, layered onto its minority status was an unfortunate meaning created by our contemporary political and ideological context: its perceived connection to international terrorism and Islamic extremism. At the time I wrote my essay, the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks reinforced those perceived connections.
The ICC interested me because it faced scrutiny and external pressures as a consequence of its location in the West during the age of the global ‘War on Terror.’
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the project was that it required fieldwork. I made several visits to the mosque to write down my observations and take pictures, interview the head of the ICC’s media and governmental relations, and attend one of its community-oriented interfaith events. Along with substantially elevating my research — by providing information not found online and enriching my understanding in a way the ICC’s website could not — these experiences were empowering for me as a first year student in college.
On my first visit to the ICC, I was careful to read the rules of conduct listed on a sign outside of the building. It said female visitors should wear a garment to cover their hair, so I borrowed one of the scarves stored in their main office. At first, I thought my wandering around alone inside the mosque could appear slightly odd or creepy to the regular visitors, but I also realized it was normal for tourists to come to the ICC. Seeing the ICC’s physical structure in person gave me new ideas of how to analyze its architecture and geographical location. I discreetly took notes and pictures using my cellphone, and then headed home to set up my interview with the head of the ICC’s media and governmental relations, Mr. Ayaz Monir.
I arrived at the ICC with a page of questions, preapproved by my College Writing professor, which focused on uncovering all of what the ICC does to engage with Greater London society. Mr. Monir provided far more extensive detail and explanation than could be found online. For example, he detailed the nature of the ICC’s charity work, which not surprisingly included feeding the hungry and satisfying emergency appeals. He explained that the ICC places particular emphasis on its educational initiatives because they wish to secure long-term social and economic advancement. He also listed ICC’s numerous international engagements, such as advising politicians and administrative officials from abroad on how to shape policies intended to encourage cohesion and integration in their own communities.
Soon after the interview, I attended one of the ICC’s interfaith events, the Eastern Faiths Scriptural Reasoning Event, to see for myself what one of these events would look like in action. I emailed in advance to let the head of the event know I would be attending the event for my research project, and I arrived early to introduce myself.
The purpose of the event was for attendees to learn about and discuss the texts of the Muslim, Sikh, and Buddhist faiths. After a practitioner of each faith presented to the room a brief introductory description of their religion, attendees — seated at several round tables of about six people each — spent the rest of the time reading and discussing among themselves excerpts from texts of the three religions. I listened to the discussion at my table and took notes, without interfering in the conversations. I found that the other attendees were polite and that they received others’ ideas respectfully, thus encouraging productive conversations. Individuals were eager to learn from the get-go. Attendees were previously aware of the ICC and willing to do the research to find out about the event and take the time out of their evenings to participate.
Through this research I learned how actively the ICC’s administration works to disavow any relation to terrorists who execute attacks in the name of Islam. The ICC condemns terrorism through press releases and social media and promotes a more positive image of Islam than engendered by the news media by offering Introduction to Islam courses geared for the general public, maintaining a permanent exhibition on Islam, organizing interfaith community events, and coordinating educational group tours.
After reading journal articles on mosques located in western European cities, I became aware that the ICC is exceptional in that it is a centrally located, purposefully-built mosque with architecture that visibly identifies it as a mosque, whereas it is more typical for mosques in western European cities to be geographically located at the periphery and housed in spaces, such as basements, that have been functionally adapted for uses of Muslim worship.
Attempts to build mosques are often faced with opposition from non-Muslim communities: local residents claim the mosques would not blend with surrounding architecture.
The aesthetic judgment however, masks a deeper opposition from locals: their opposition largely stems from their misperception that mosques only serve a purpose for a tiny marginalized minority, one already under suspicion.
As a large mosque with a visible, symbolic presence — its prominent minaret and gold dome positioned near London’s historic Regent’s Park — the ICC is able to help legitimate Islam in the eyes of non-Muslims more than an invisible mosque in a basement can.
After this project, I finished my semester in London knowing more about the Islamic faith, the kinds of daily struggles experienced by mosques operating in the West, and how their architecture and location have significance with regards to the community’s quest for legitimacy and acceptance.
Additionally, this project helped me form skills that would be useful once I was back on the Berkeley campus. When I returned to Berkeley for the Spring semester, I joined The Daily Californian as a news reporter. As reporting requires interviewing sources and often going out into the field, I found it helpful that I had some experience in interviews and in making direct observations in the field.
Now in my sophomore year on campus, I remember this project as one of my more personally enriching assignments that has also influenced how I’ve approached subsequent endeavors.
By Anna Isabella Dell’amico (Undergraduate in Political Science)
Photo also by Anna Isabella Dell'amico
Note: CW R4B (Reading, Writing, and Research) is a College Writing course developed for instruction in London.