A House of God: From the Mosque in Soho to the Temple in Islamabad

I first visited Piccadilly circus in January 2015 with a friend. Some say that no visit to London is complete without seeing a show at the West End. The name West End comes from the area’s historic location. Medieval London covered two adjacent cities; City of London to the east and city of Westminster to the West.

Industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century led to an increasing urban population. London being the centre of a growing empire, expanded beyond the borders of the old city, towards the West End and Westminster. The city of London became a centre for banking, finance and legal sectors while West End became associated with arts, leisure and entertainment. Although the name West End stuck, it is now a district of central London.

London’s West End theatre, along with New York’s Broadway is considered the crème de la crème of commercial theatre. But my friend and I, being not the most posh and swanky, when visited the area, went there mostly for the lights. Before you judge, with more than a hundred year history associated, Piccadilly lights are considered a London icon.

Piccadilly circus, the centerpiece of West End and a popular tourist attraction, is to London, what Times Square is to New York, and more. It is the nucleus of the area known for fashion, music, arts and all things R and R. In a half mile walk from Piccadilly circus to Soho square, you may cover more restaurants, bars, clubs and theatres than many would in a life time.

The adjacent area of Soho acquired a reputation as a base for sex industry and night life for most of 20th century. Gentrification and competition from internet have been bad for business but the area is still considered London’s red-light district. That aside, the music history of the area can be traced back to 1948, when Club Eleven became the first venue in UK where modern Jazz and bebop was performed.

Over the years The Beatles, Queen, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Elton John; you name the icons, the venues and studios in this area have hosted them. It is also a hub for independent film and video industry, with links to Twentieth Century Fox, HBO and Warner Brothers. London’s gay community is centred on Old Compton Street and the area is a centre for annual Pride in London parade, serving as a platform for LGBTQ+ community.

So, when my friend texted me about a late flurry of objections to the planning permission of a mosque in Trocadero building, located in the heart of West End, I was more confused than surprised. Trocadero, although considered one of the most iconic buildings in London by some, has certainly seen better days. At one point it was one of the best tourist-oriented entertainment centres in London but the closure of SegaWorld Theme Park and Funland Arcade centre were the main strike in demise of the building.

The building is now shepherded by Aziz Foundation, who in February submitted a planning permission to Westminster City Council to convert the derelict basement and ground floor into a community centre and a place of worship of 1000 capacity. According to the foundation the mosque would “serve the Muslim community who live and work in the West End and provide community space to those of all faiths and none.”

A campaign has since been whipped up against the application. Many objecting to the plan have described the proposal as a “mega mosque”. In a video uploaded on Youtube by Gavin Boby, the so called “mosque buster”, a planning permission lawyer specialising in opposing mosque applications, he calls the plans for mosque “nasty” and “horrible”. In his words “(it is) a battle to get back our own country and home.” Social media is being used to encourage people to lodge objections.

Other than raising concerns about increased traffic and congestion in an already bustling area, one of the letters to Westminster Council dated 27th May 2020 compared it to erecting a church in the centre of Mecca. It reads further, “Even though we in London pride ourselves on our open-minded liberal society, we are in danger of losing what makes us distinctive and unique as a society. We are not an offshoot of Islamabad, Cairo or Jeddah.” Other than these letters that have been allowed on the City council website, there has been a flurry of racially abusive comments that have been removed by the council.

Bearing liberal views myself, I am surprised that the residents of a multi-ethnic and open minded community like West End, are opposing an act that would further highlight the progressive, inclusive and pluralistic nature of the society they are part of. Of all the people, I would not have thought of them as the ones to judge the whole community, based on acts of a few. There is also a change.org petition going on, which at the point of writing this has around 11,000 signatures opposing the mosque.

So, my friend mentioned a petition in favour of the mosque. Since we were at the good work and this not being the only place of worship in news these days for the wrong reasons and there had been a mention of Islamabad in one of the objection letters, I asked if we should start a petition or a letter of support in favour of the Shri Krishna Temple in Islamabad.

My argument being that there are around 3000 registered Hindus living in Islamabad and the two temples that currently exist are non-functional: one being a national heritage site and the other one deemed a security risk. Hinduism is the second largest religion in Pakistan and according to some estimates there are around 8 million Hindus living here. There are 428 Hindu temples in the country and only 20 are functional. The remaining have been leased for commercial and residential purposes by the Evacuee Trust Property Board.

The Hindu community in Pakistan has faced decline and discrimination since partition, though their love for the land is unquestionable; when others migrated, this is the land they chose because of nothing else but endearment and attachment.

The current PTI government has already shown some good gestures of inclusion and tolerance like opening of Kartarpur corridor, renovation and opening of the 1000 year old temple in Sialkot, Asia bibi case and the subsequent crackdown on protests against the verdict. Showcased in the capital, this would be a symbol of pluralism but instead has turned into an ugly display of bigotry.

On 3rd of July, a week after the ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of the temple, a fanatic mob desecrated the site, demolished the boundary wall and stole the construction material. Since then voices opposing the construction have grown loud, the project has been halted and the case referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology. I am not sure if I am more surprised at the opposition of the temple or the fact that one does not already exist in the capitol, which of all the places should be more representative of the citizens of the country.

I find it quite ironic that application for one house of God is being blocked by “non-believers”, while construction of another is being halted by “believers.”
With that, I turned to my friend, to set up the petition. He refused. What loads of hypocrisy!

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Dr. Faisal Chaudhry

Dr Faisal Chaudhry is a graduate of King Edward Medical University and is currently working in Oxford University Hospitals. He is an avid traveler and an advocate of social awareness and dissidence.