Plans to turn an abandoned pub into an Islamic community centre have sparked a fierce debate.
The South West London Ismaili Community has purchased the old Worcester Park Tavern which closed in August 2012. The group is launching a public consultation on proposals to turn the former public house into a centre for activities, a library and an area for meditation and spiritual practices.
Many of those commenting on our online story hope that the scheme will rejuvenate the building which has been left abandoned and blighted by squatters.
Others have voiced their opposition to it, with one reader commenting: “I’m sorry but I grew up in the area and don’t want to see this. I don’t live in the Middle East, I live near Worcester Park. This will just drive the area down and drive away residents that have lived in the area all their lives.”
But Nikki R hit back: “The ignorance that comes out when people read the word ‘Islamic’ is breathtaking. If and when the centre is open, politely request to visit. They’d make you welcome and you may learn more about people than what the Daily Mail chooses to tell you.”
And David7 explained: “The Ismailis are considered to follow a modern, liberal, progressive interpretation of the Koran, and their leader is the Aga Khan. They certainly are not in any way radical Islamists. They have no requirement for women to wear veils or burquas, and women are regarded as equals of the men.”
Shiraz Mirza, a Chessington councillor and Surrey Police assistant crime commissioner, has also spoken out in defence of the centre. He said: “People need to accept the Ismailis are part of a social group – very humble and very educated people. This is not a mosque. It is no different from Raleigh House Centre [run by Kingston Age Concern] or MILAAP [a multi-cultural day centre in Kingston].”
An Ismaili group tried unsuccessfully to open a similar community centre last year in Kingston following a campaign by the English Defence League (EDL). One of its members set up a Facebook group against the centre, which drew comments ranging from planning questions and complaints about parking to threats of violence, swearing and anti-Muslim statements.
Councillors rejected the plans, during a meeting with police presence, after a 323-strong petition and 136 objections were submitted to the council citing traffic and parking concerns.
The Ismaili community, from the Shia branch of Islam, are different to the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’at group which had its second application for a mosque at the old bank chambers in Green Lane rejected last week. Members of the community have been living in the area for many years and the community comprises of professionals, entrepreneurs and students from a range of cultural backgrounds.
The Ismaili Centre in South Kensington was the first centre to be specially designed and built for Ismailis in the Western world and was inaugurated in 1985 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Update: See “Public consultations on Worcester Park Tavern Islamic centre relocated to pub itself”, Surrey Comet, 5 October 2013