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Racist groups at work in the suburbs

THE quiet leafy streets of one of Scotland's most affluent suburbs are not a typical magnet for far-right extremists - yet a battle over a proposal to build a mosque in the grounds of a new "super-school" has split the community and prompted the Scottish Defence League to turn up in well-heeled Newton Mearns on the southside of Glasgow.

There is outrage that school land is being taken from children, claims of racism, counter-claims that racists have hijacked a legimate campaign, and a sense of simmering discomfort in an area better known for 4x4s and well-kept gardens than racial tension.

The furious backlash against the idea of the rezoning grounds at Eastwood High School, one of the best-performing state schools in Scotland, for the mosque, looks to have succeeded. This Wednesday, a full meeting of East Renfrewshire Council is expected to endorse a recommendation that the plan to build the mosque be rejected.

It will be a real setback for Muslims in the area who have sought a site to build a mosque for more than a decade.

Consultation by the council attracted nearly 3000 comments on the proposal. Nearly two-thirds - 1921 - were against the idea, around one-third - 995 - in favour.

Concerns aired over the issue in the past few months have ranged from the loss of school grounds and traffic congestion to claims that the site would become a target for terrorist-style bomb attacks. Local rumblings have included talk of a halal butcher and a refugee service being set up next to the school.

Opposition to the plans even prompted East Refrewshire Council leader Jim Fletcher, of Labour, to tell a local paper: "The Muslim community are now experiencing what the Catholic community experienced 30 years ago."

But residents who have opposed the development say they are not against the idea of a mosque in the area at all: they just oppose the use of this site, and they are furious over the Scottish Defence League "hijacking" their campaign.

For a site which has provoked such furore it doesn't look like much: muddy, hilly land tucked behind newly laid astroturf pitches at the school which has recently had a £30 million redevelopment.

Among the mosque's opponents is Grace McCarthy, who has a son at Eastwood High and set up a petition which attracted more than 1000 responses.

She is keen to point out the petition was not against the mosque itself, but the prospect of losing ground which she says is clearly part of the school campus.

She said: "It would take away a huge chunk of the school campus and an important element, as it is the only grassed area for the children to use during breaks in the morning and at lunchtime. Whether it is a mosque or whether it is houses, that just shouldn't happen. It is part of the school ground and we shouldn't feel guilty about having that space.

"The petition is to stop East Renfrewshire [Council] from selling our children short."

She disputed the notion there was opposition to any mosque plan in the area and said the SDL had "jumped on the bandwagon" to put their "own poisonous views" forward.

"It makes us furious when we see their … banners saying things like 'supporting local residents'," she said. "We certainly did not ask them to support us and this is their own agenda. Of course, it is a sensitive issue, because you are dealing with faith, you are dealing with religion.

"We do not want to give any impression that people aren't welcome and that we don't want it [the mosque] round here, that is clearly not the case.

"But we don't want the children to lose that school ground."

However, McCarthy also warned puttng a mosque on the site could be "very divisive" and set back community relations which have been "carefully built up over the last several years".

She added: "It would be understandable because people would feel resentful they have lost the school ground."

David Jesner, chairman and planning convener of Newton Mearns Community Council, accused local politicians of risking "major community ­disharmony" to win votes from Muslims.

He said: "To build a new £30 million school and impose a mosque is just ridiculous. Nobody is saying the Muslims shouldn't have a mosque: what we are saying is they shouldn't have a mosque in a brand new non-denominational school.

"It has caused mayhem for the pupils as suddenly divisive lines have been drawn between Muslim and non-Muslim kids at the school."

Schoolchildren in the area say otherwise, however, and insist there is no sign of tension. Most do say, though, that they do not want to lose their school grounds to any development - religious or otherwise. Some point to nearby fields and asked why the mosque can't be built there.

The Scottish Defence League protest on Saturday, January 18, was heavily policed but attracted just 20 supporters.

Kirsteen Allen, another local community councillor who has a daughter at the school, said residents made it very clear the SDL was not wanted.

In a statement, East Renfrewshire Mosque and Community Centre (ERMEC), the group behind the mosque plans, said while there are local community centres providing facilities to pray, there is no dedicated mosque for the area's 3000 Muslims.

"This is particularly unfortunate considering that East Renfrewshire is a multi-faith and diverse community where there are numerous churches and synagogues," it added.

THE statement dismissed "misguided rumours" that a halal butcher, or refugee and homeless centre, would be based at the Eastwood site.

Dr Guftar Shaikh of ERMEC said there had been been a petition in favour of the Eastwood High site, with more than 1000 signatures.

"That was not necessarily just Muslims, it was also people from the wider East Renfrewshire community who acknowledge and support that there is a need for a mosque," he said.

He acknowledged there could be an element of Nimbyism - a "not in my back yard" mentality - in the opposition. "I think you will get that with anything, I don't think it necessarily has to be a mosque," he said.

"With everything, whether it is synagogue or church, there can be 'yes we will support it but not in my back yard.'"

He hoped there was no racist element in opposition to the mosque site, and said he felt most opposition did not stem from racism or Islamophobia.

The recommendations going to councillors this week suggest alternative land at Maidenhill in Newton Mearns should now be explored for a mosque.

Shaikh said this was unlikely to be suitable as it is less accessible and privately owned, raising cost issues.

"We have facilities locally, but primarily just to pray. There isn't anything like the facilities a mosque would offer, such as 24-hour access particularly during Ramadan when there are overnight prayers.

"Everyone has to trek across to Glasgow Central Mosque and that in itself is getting swamped as well.

"I think there is a need for a mosque and I think everyone acknowledges and accepts that - it is just how we take that forward."

lThe Scottish Defence League will stage a protest in Edinburgh next month targeting MP George Galloway.

The far-right extremists have been given council permission to rally outside the Assembly Rooms on George Street on February 3, when Galloway is holding an event to discuss independence there.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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