For many of us the 18th of February 2018 will be remembered as a day when we opened up our mosques to those who may never have been in one. Up and down the country there was a sense of excitement, a buzz, for not just the seemingly hurried mosque volunteers but also non-Muslims who attended them. One visitor explained to me, ‘I just didn’t know what to expect, but I’ve been made so welcome.’ And many visitors left feedback where descriptors like ‘amazing,’ ‘excellent,’ ‘countering hate with love,’ and ‘really enjoyed it’ were abound. It gained the attention of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, both of whom showed solidarity by visiting their local mosques. And at one point the #VisitMyMosque was trending in the top 10 hashtags. So to what extent was it a success?
Looking at the headline stats to start with, we can see a significant increase in the number of participating mosques, up more than 50 from 2017 to more than 200 or so. That’s an increase by a third with roughly 10% of coverage of all mosques in the UK. If we believe the likely estimate of a mean average of 35-50 visitors at each mosque, somewhere in the region of approximately 7000-10,000 non-Muslim visitors attended across the UK. Considering that this is only the fourth year of running the initiative, these numbers are quite reasonable; momentum is certainly building with each year. Many mosques which took part for the first time were from traditionally non-MCB affiliated segments. This kind of cross-sectional involvement, with mosques embracing the ‘Visit My Mosque’ branding is a sign of slowly loosening patterns among hitherto entrenched herding by limits of sectarian, political or ethnic affiliations. What it proves is that the MCB’s strategy for engagement is working.
A breakdown of visitors shows a more mixed and varied picture across mosques and between towns and cities. One common theme is the sizeable contingent of non-Muslim visitors who were already familiar with mosques and have well-established relationships with them. Among them were the police and fire services, politicians, Councillors and faith groups – all of whom have roles in fostering cohesion and community building, which you could argue necessitates turning up to these events to show support. Of the previously unmosqued non-Muslim visitors, which, according to a YouGuv poll, accounts for 90% of the British population, the demographics, anecdotally from experience, look somewhat skewed towards slightly older people. The portion of younger non-Muslims (who are mostly passive to religion) and those from volunteering sectors, professions and private enterprise were disproportionately few.
It’s important to have a targeted and well thought-out engagement strategy for this latter unmosqued group. The divergence between the seemingly ‘religious setting’ and the seemingly ‘not so religious setting’ is a dichotomy at the heart of the public’s perception of the value of belief in God and organised religion to society. This dichotomy leads to a perception of ‘cultic religion’ among non-Muslims and for Muslims it leads to, perhaps in a feedback-loop, a growth in cynicism with an unhealthily focus on risk and protection rather than gratitude and confidence in navigating the modern world. Breaking the back of this requires speaking of God in the modern vernacular that provides a deeper, more meaningful enlightened insight which, arguably, few can properly articulate today.
There’s good practice in some mosques which organisers would do well to share. Mosques where volunteers went out canvassing people door-to-door not just with flyers but pausing to have a conversation were more successful in attracting visitors. But it wasn’t all about simply canvassing in the run up to this one event. Successful mosques already had outreach activities without all the show-boating that goes on. This comes back to the problem of location. Unsurprisingly, most of our mosques are in areas where there is a large population of Muslims, and so, the engagement becomes more challenging while the need for opening up increases.
So if Visit My Mosque 2018 was good, how can it be better next year? Here are some ideas to think about. 1) Mosques should invite local news reporters from print and television and focus on putting out good news messages. 2) Mosque volunteers who work in major organisations should seek corporate sponsorship or PR similar to the very cool Ben and Jerry’s tweet. 3) Volunteers should upskill themselves in articulating faith in a way rooted in real life and not romanticism or idealism. 4) All mosques should invite organisations from the local charity sector – Barnados, Oxfam, Red Cross etc. 5) Mosques should co-ordinate activities with local Scout/Guide groups. 6) Mosques should make it a matter of routine to carry out productive outreach activities throughout the year and to do so in areas where there are few Muslims, though sensitivity applies of course. 7) In the run-up to the event, each town should take out a collective advert in their local newspaper. 8) Each mosque volunteer should take it upon them to invite a minimum of 10 visitors with a competition to see who can bring in the most visitors. 9) Mosques should make it an interesting experience by organising a variety of activities from tours, providing food, presentations, displays of art to showing prayer in action etc. 10) Volunteers should explain that it isn’t necessary for non-Muslim women visiting mosques to wear a headscarf, in order to make the point that Islam does not compel non-Muslims. 11) Mosques should give out welcome packs containing not just a good translation of the Qur’an but also literature about the positive contribution of Muslims to Western society in the past and today, as well as literature about common misconceptions.12) Mosques should practice open days by doing them in Ramadhan too.
To conclude, you might wonder why go to this length. Well, as a Muslim we must be minded to be ‘Muslim to God’ which in the broad sense entails being steeped in the virtue of high aspiration (‘uluwwul himmah) built on knowledge (‘ilm), sincerity (ikhlas) and desire (iraada) to achieve excellence.