From Dudley to Detroit: a tale of two mosques

The tensions around new mosques in the west, from their construction to who controls them, are illuminated by the theory of religious economy.

Nile Green
13 June 2015

Many odd news stories emerged from Britain’s election campaign. None seemed more bizarre than the alleged attempt by a Muslim Conservative candidate to collude with the English Defence League, an anti-Islam group, on the back of opposition to the building of a new mosque in Dudley. The proposed mosque would fall within the constituency of Dudley North, one of two in the town, and the ensuing controversy forced the candidate, Afzal Amin, to resign from his party weeks before the election.

The tensions surrounding the mosque plans had pre-dated the campaign. Now they trickled further into the provincial politics of the "Black Country", as this part of England's west midlands, a former industrial powerhouse, is still known. Behind Dudley's story of local intrigue lies a much bigger process that will determine the future shape of Islam in Britain. 

Few may realise that campaigns to build mosques - and campaigns to prevent them - are far from new. A century ago, they also accompanied the earlier phase of globalisation that saw large-scale Asian immigration not so much to Britain as to the United States. Like the planned mosque in Dudley, the first purpose-built mosque in America was also linked to the migration of Asian factory workers. Inaugurated in 1921, it stood just outside the birthplace of the production line at Henry Ford’s famous (and now derelict) car factory in Detroit. The parallels with Britain’s major communities of south Asian, mainly Pakistani, origin - in Bradford and Manchester, Birmingham and Dudley - are clear.

Though the Detroit mosque long succumbed to the boom-and-bust cycle of America’s industrial cities, today the city’s suburbs are home to America’s largest (and largely middle-class) Muslim community. Despite opposition at the time, the first mosque in the Motor City is no longer newsworthy. Yet its history shows that, as a result of labour migration, religion is inseparable from questions of economy.

Economics not only offers a way of understanding business and finance. It also lends a theory for understanding how religion works in the everyday world of employment and elections, aspirations and protests. New models of "religious economy" suggest that we should think of religion as being promoted through religious "firms" and "entrepreneurs" who, like their commercial counterparts, compete for followers, or "customers", of the different services they offer. Little surprise, then, that one of the reason’s Dudley’s proposed "mega-mosque" is so large is that it also offers its would-be customers a sports hall, an education and training centre, computer facilities, multi-storey parking and other services. The various smaller mosques around the Black Country could scarcely compete. Indeed, the new mosque would replace Dudley's existing mosque, where customers and demands have outgrown the former Church of England school where it is located.

Religious economy also reveals the false premises around most positions that oppose or favour Dudley’s new mosque and others like it. For the theory teaches us that, like other franchises of religious firms, mosques are powerful institutions because they form mechanisms for the "entrepreneurial" individuals who control them to gather together religious consumers, transform them into a community under the entrepreneur’s leadership, shape their opinions, and mobilise them into society at large. To consider mosques, or for that matter non-Muslim places of worship, as solely "religious" spaces and hence separate from the sphere of "politics" is based on a narrow conception of politics.

The issue therefore isn’t so much whether mosques should or should not exist in towns like Dudley. In "liberal" religious economies in which the state promises its citizens freedom of religious choice, there is a legal and moral right behind their existence. Rather, the more important issue occluded by the debate around mosque construction relates to who controls these powerful institutions after they are built. This is not so much a question of community that, so often, turns into the broader struggle between proponents of multiculturalism and demonisers of immigration. It is instead a question of individuals, namely religious entrepreneurs.

The history of the Detroit mosque illustrates this nicely, because a newly immigrant evangelical Muslim preacher from India quickly seized control of the mosque from the Lebanese businessman who paid for it to be built. Clearly, then, the religious entrepreneur is not necessarily the person or committee who oversees a mosque’s construction. Nor is he necessarily a member of the local Muslim community, with their greater familiarity and respect for the surrounding non-Muslim environment. As the Detroit case shows, the most effective religious entrepreneurs are often ambitious immigrant preachers who use the institutional power of mosques to rise from nowhere into figures of collective influence.

In Britain, the most notorious case was that of Abu Hamza, the Egypt-born imam who took control of the Finsbury Park mosque in north London in 1997 (and in 2015, after a long extradition process, would be convicted by a New York court of supporting terrorism ). Though he was an extreme case, Innes Bowen, author of Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent, has shown that a large proportion of Britain’s mosque preachers are recent immigrants from Pakistan rather than products of Britain’s own more liberal religious landscape. Whether for immigrant or homegrown imams, religion offers an alternative and more attractive means of upward mobility than the factory drudgery of a former generation.

The opportunities that mosques offer to such religious entrepreneurs become even clearer when we look at the range of activities they offer. Like many churches, mosques gather many spheres of activity under one roof, lending greater authority to those who control the institution as a whole. They offer weddings and funerals, crèches and youth clubs, pilgrimages and fund-drives, along with a myriad other social ventures that forge collective identity. Of course, these are not in themselves dangerous things: as pro-religious conservatives point out, they are the building-blocks of community life. But in amalgamating the wider sphere of social and even recreational activities within a single institution, the services offered by religious institutions make their control - and thence the role of the religious entrepreneur - crucial in shaping the contours of community.

None of this is unique to Islam and, indeed, religious economy teaches us that the most effective entrepreneurs copy and adapt effective practices from other religions. Here again America offers a useful contrast with Britain. Though I grew up near Dudley I now live in California, which like other US states in the 1970s and 1980s gave birth to the phenomenon of the "mega-church". Superb examples of religious entrepreneurship in a free market of religious rights and freedoms, the mega-churches formed mass venues for the political mobilisation of religious conservatives that reshaped US politics. This is often seen as a uniquely American phenomenon. It is not. The theory of religious economy reveals that the underlying process is transferable: both "mega-churches" and "mega-mosques" place great power in the hands of those who control them because religious institutions are inseparable from the grassroots politics of producing and directing the social power of the individuals gathered within them.

As well as revealing the hidden politics behind "spiritual freedom" and "community rights", the theory of religious economy also teaches us about the underlying structures of different types of religious marketplace - whether liberal or illiberal, open or closed, dynamic or stagnant. In this regard, the first mosque in France offers an informative contrast with its American counterpart. Reflecting the central role of the state in French religious life, it was constructed in Paris in 1926 as an official government gesture to the thousands of Muslim soldiers who fought for France in the first world war. So, despite the decade of delays by Dudley council, unless its members aspired towards a Gallic coup by overturning the more liberal structure of Britain’s religious economy they had little choice but eventually to agree to the mosque.

But religious economy points to dynamics as well as structures. In this way, it again holds the lesson that who will control a mosque will very quickly eclipse debate over whether it should be built. And the former, unlike the latter, is something that Dudley’s local council can hardly determine. Instead, it will be determined by the dynamics of religious competition among the Muslims of Dudley, because contests to control of religious resources and institutions are one of the driving forces of religious economies. For any religious entrepreneur, whether Black Country born or recently arrived from a Pakistani madrasa, a "mega-mosque" would be a huge gain. Such high stakes invite another question, of who has the right - Dudley Muslims or Dudley citizens as a whole - to oversee the competition to control so influential a community building-block. If it were posed, everyone might benefit.

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