Estimated reading time:11 minutes, 35 seconds
Everyone has a story. Chairman of the trustees of Finsbury Park mosque, Mohammed Kozbar, discusses the many ways the mosque interacts with the local community and the Muslims who worship there. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill.
Come out of Finsbury Park tube and the first significant landmark is Arsenalâs replica sportswear shop. Cross the Seven Sisters Road and you’ll soon see another famous Islington building, Finsbury Park mosque. Opened in 1994, this five storey red-brick building with its golden dome isn’t an architectural gem, indeed part of the building is covered by a huge poster with the very positive message, âAnd we have made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other. Quran 49:13.” But it plays a huge part in thousands of people’s lives.
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Islington locals know the mosque as a quiet place which hums with prayer-goers on Friday lunchtimes (women and men pray separately but every other activity is mixed) and there are crowds of Muslim families at Ramadan. But it hasnât always been this way. The mosque had a very bleak period when it was run by radical cleric Abu Hamza openly preaching extremism.
Then in 2003 the mosque was raided. At the same time Abu Hamza was arrested. He was subsequently extradited and is now serving a life sentence in a US prison.
By 2005 Finsbury Park Mosque, on St Thomasâs Road, had entered a very different era. It was taken over by a new team, headed by Mohammed Kozbar, chairman of the trustees of Finsbury Park Mosque.
âIt was a difficult challenge. No doubt about that. Because of this particular situation here during the Abu Hamza period and the problems facing not only the Muslim community but wider as well, including our neighbours. Everybody was affected by whatâs happened here, therefore it was important to sort out the problem. I was member of The Muslim Association of Britain and as a mainstream grassroots organisation we decided to go ahead and get involved.Â At that time the organisation had been approached by different people including the police, charity commission and local MP Jeremy Corbyn to try and help sort out the problem here,â says Mohammed (also known as Mr Kozbar) from his office in the mosque. Itâs a shoes off environment but Mohammad is in stripey shirt and jeans. He’s originally from Lebanon, but has been based in the UK since 1990.
Mohammed’s main job is running a property company, but at least two days a week he comes to Finsbury Park, âvoluntarily to help run the mosque. Itâs a lot of time. Iâm glad that I have the flexibility to do that, itâs important to make sure the organisation is running in the best possible way.â
It’s a busy place. There are five prayers held each day, and every day about 250 men and women join the prayers â thatâs more than 1,000 people every day. During Ramadan and Friday prayers there can be around 2,000 people.
Mohammed is not the mosqueâs imam. But as chairman heâs in charge of the mosqueâs activities and the main employer. What’s impressive is that under his watch the mosque has become a force for good.
âItâs not just a mosque any more with prayers, itâs a community centre now too, servicing the whole community Muslims and wider society,â he explains. âIt opens its doors to everybody for their different activities â homeless help, youth, women, counselling and inter-faith activities. We are proud that this is the case and that eryone is welcome and can come and visit the mosque any time.â
Since the van attack on Finsbury Park Mosque worshippers in 2017, many local N4 households (around Finsbury Park and Stroud Green) still have posters pinned up saying âunited against all terrorâ as a reminder of the local solidarity for their Muslim neighbours.
âWe have an excellent relationship with our local Muslim community and our local residents. They stand with us when we have a difficult time,â he says. It is heartening to know that the mosque is confident that it has local support and Mohammed is aware that this support is given even during difficult times.
âThe relationship with our neighbours is really positive. We listen to them when they have issues or concerns. But we never have had problems. They stood with us even when somebody Islamophobic attacked the mosque and at other times â weâve had the pigâs head dumped in the mosque, white powder, an arson attack and so on. Then when we had this terrorist attack last year (2017) hundreds of people gathered outside the mosque, many non Muslims. Some of them even gave us donations and flowers. This gives us a good impression about how our neighbours feel about the mosque.â
For the first time, just after that terrorist van attack, an iftar (breaking the fast evening meal during Ramadan) was held outside the Mosque in St Thomasâ Road. It was such a success â with a long white cloth laden with curries â that a second was held this year (2018).
âThere were 2,000 at the iftar gathering in the street,â says Mohammed, impressed.Â âPeople not only came from Islington, many came from outside the borough. We are proud that we have such a beautiful community who supported us. We shared food. We had speeches and people enjoyed the day. These sort of projects bring us together.â Itâs also the type of event that he hopes other mosques will start to do during Ramadan.
Places Mohammad Kozbar likes in IslingtonÂ
- My lunch is usually from Blackstock Road opposite the mosque. Itâs a very busy street. I eat kebab, fried chicken, different things â Turkish, Algerian, Somali and African food. Unfortunately, Finsbury Park doesnât have a Lebanese restaurant! My wife loves cooking and is very good. I sometimes cook when my wife is away but not complicated food, simple things.
- Sometimes if there are small things the mosque need, we buy from local shops around the Mosque. When we want to buy furniture, we go online and check for the best prices. But we try out best to keep business circulating in Islington. This is why we quite a few of our 10 employees are from Islington and our volunteers too (around 30).
- We go to Finsbury Park to enjoy the sun.Â Our youth play football there too.
- We used to hire the swimming pool at Highbury Corner for our youth, but stopped for lack of funding.
- We do some projects with Arsenal FC. We have a very good relationship. Most of our community here support Arsenal. A few of our youth groups have visited Arsenal and many are inspired by the players. We would love one day for some of these players to visit the Mosque and meet with these young people. I also support Arsenal and so do my children. Iâve been to both stadiums. Last game I saw was an FA cup match â Arsenal won.
âThe good thing about Islington is we have a very diverse community,” points out Mohammed. “During the holy month of Ramadan we have a lot of people coming to the area and we try to keep people quiet and not to disturb our neighbours. I donât mind concerts held in the area (eg, in Finsbury Park during the summer such as Community, Wireless etc), as long as people behave well and are not causing any problem to the local community. People like to enjoy themselves in their own way. We celebrate Eid after Ramadan and we have 1000s of people to celebrate that day and thatâs fine as long as people behave well. Same thing for others.â
Finsbury Park hugs a main road and has a reputation as rather a dirty and littered place. But in an effort to ensure the area is kept tidy Mohammed says that, âduring Ramadan we arrange with council to have a daily collection â as we are feeding 300 people for food every day.Â Itâs important to make sure we keep the area clean and tidy and not disturb our local community to make our relationship a strength and become more strong. At the end of the day this will effect whatever happens in the future as we still expect people to behave towards our mosque in a racist or islamphoboic way. Itâs happened before, but we know that the people of Islington are not that kind of people and they will stand with us. As they did before.â
Everyone who uses public transport is familiar with the âsee it, say it, sorted,â announcements to combat surprise bomb attacks. But at the mosque there is the added concern that attacks have already âhappened many times at the mosque and for individuals. This is a fact and we have to deal with that. We have to take extra measures to protect our community and our mosque and make sure nobody gets hurt. But you canât be always successful in protecting people from harm. If someone intends to harm you then they will do whatever they can. What we need to do is take every step possible to protect our community and mosque through security measures and liaising with police. But anything might happen. We have to be prepared for it. We shouldnât panic. We should deal in a professional way.â
âWe have an excellent relationship with our local partners (Islington Council, Islington Police, our local MP Jeremy Corbyn and Islington Faiths Forum), we work together for the safety and prosperity of our local communities here in Islington,â says Mohammed.Â âWomen are the most vulnerable because they are visible with head scarf and the perpetrators think they are the easy target. Some women come in tears because of Islamophobic attacks. They say, âwe canât come to mosque, take our children out to school or use public transport, we can not live our normal life anymoreâ. It effects lives and relationships and changes the way people live.Â Itâs not easy for someone who feels something might happen to them or might suddenly shout at them. But I can say our community is resilient, we donât get scared easily or give up our way of life. Our message is live your way of life as you want to live it, donât let these people change your way of life, donât be scared. Live the same way as you used to live and make sure you take all the extra precautions.Â We live in the UK. We are British citizens. We should feel safe and secure. We shouldnât feel that we are not safe in our country. And of course the police has a role to play. Hate crime and Islamophobia should never have a place in our society.â
Faith is a key focus of course, but Mohammed also wants the mosque to be able âto give more attention to our youth, boys and girls. We want our youth to stay away from four things – drugs, crimes/knives, gangs and extremism. This is why we try our best to encourage our young people to come here and have a healthy atmosphere in the mosque and away from people outside who try to brainwash them.Â Itâs the responsibility of us as community leaders and at all places of worship. We should all work together to make sure these young people are protected and not vulnerable.â
As a result, there are youth groups meeting twice a week and people are also encouraged to volunteer. “As we have a very diverse communities, we give the opportunity to all, for example, at the weekend the mosque is open for communities gatherings of Bengali, Kurds, Arabs, Albanians, Somalis and Eritreans and many others. They come here as families to enjoy themselves. This is a mosque, itâs open for all. We treat everybody the same. This is the most important thing,â he adds.
Finsbury Park Mosque also opens its doors to the homeless community every Thursday. âItâs not about only feeding them. We give them the opportunity to socialise, play table tennis, snooker, receive counselling and have fun,â says Mohammed.
If you only know Finsbury Park Mosque by its presence on the national news or through Wikipedia it might seem a daunting place. But for those of us based in Islington â and of course worshippers from further afield â the truth couldnât be more different. The mosque is a friendly, generous neighbour that takes its societal and faith responsibilities seriously. We are lucky to have people like Mohammed Kozbar creating such a strong community feel in Finsbury Park.
- 7-11 St Thomas’s Rd, London N4 2QH
Over to you
If youâd like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird dot green at gmail dot com. Many people suggested interviewing Mohammad Kozbar, including Dorothy Newton.
If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at theÂ A-Z Â index, orÂ search by intervieweeâs roles orÂ Meet IslingtoniansÂ to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola