Islamophobia comes to Putson

Hereford Islamic Society centre

Although the Muslim population of Hereford is not large – according to the 2011 census there are only 360 Muslims in the whole of Herefordshire, well outnumbered by the county’s 560 Buddhists – the lack of a permanent centre for this small Muslim community has been a problem, as it has outgrown the rented premises it currently uses.

Unfortunately, the proposal to establish what would be Herefordshire’s first Muslim place of worship has faced extreme hostility from a section of the non-Muslim majority population. In 2012 the Hereford Masjid Fundraising Campaign’s Facebook page had to be taken down after being subjected to repeated abuse and threats from anti-Muslim bigots.

Despite this setback the necessary funds were raised and Hereford Islamic Society was able to purchase a vacant building on Holme Lacy Road in Putson with the aim of converting it into a small centre for the local Muslim community. In July the Hereford Times reported that a change of use planning application for the premises had been submitted. Again, this proposal was not universally well received.

Last week BBC News reported that some local residents had organised a public meeting to oppose the plan. One of them, Tracy Rock, was quoted as saying: “It’ll be overcrowded, it’s just not a suitable area for a day centre to be in.” Another opponent, Don Allan, said: “They’re going to be praying there from seven in the morning until 11 at night and we don’t really want that. It’s nothing to do with race or anything like that, just the volume of traffic.”

This objection ignores the very small numbers who would be attending the centre – a peak of around 50 at lunchtime on Friday, according to the applicants, with possibly 12 of them coming by car. There is a Tesco Express just across the road from the proposed centre which is open from 6am to 11pm every day of the week and undoubtedly generates far more traffic than the small-scale activities of Hereford Islamic Society ever could.

But let us concede that Mr Allan’s objections are not motivated by “race or anything like that”. The same cannot be said of Tracy Rock, the other opponent of the centre quoted by BBC News, who appears to have played a leading role in launching a campaign against the plan after it was announced back in July. When a Facebook friend declared “We dnt nd a bloody mosc were English not bloody islamic there takin ova slowly” and suggested stealing “the fuckin shoes they leave outside”, Rock’s reaction was to laugh and agree.

In a letter of objection to the council planning department, Rock even took exception to Hereford Islamic Society’s statement that one of the centre’s aims would be “the promotion of religious harmony for the public benefit by fostering better relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities”. She retorted: “My self and my husband both feel that if we wish to further our knowledge on Muslin/Islamic religion we are more than happy to attend our local library or gain this information from the internet.”

It’s not hard to work out the sort of internet sources on which Rock depends for her views on Muslims and their faith. Last week when she was canvassing support for her campaign, and one man who objected to her aggressive approach told Rock he wasn’t interested, her response was: “You will be interested when they’re spitting on our daughters for not covering their faces and body in the street.”

Friday’s public meeting was advertised as having been organised “in light of recent events”. Quite what these might be was not specified. There appear to have been no events in Hereford that had any particular bearing on the planning application, so presumably this was a reference to the terrorist acts of ISIS or perhaps to so-called “Muslim grooming” in Rotherham. It is perhaps indicative of the character of the meeting that the three ward councillors and local MP who had been invited to attend declined to do so.

The Hereford Heckler posted a report on Friday’s meeting under the heading “Thinly-veiled racism at mosque meeting”. While there were some among the 60-strong audience who “did seem to care little for the race or religion of the applicants”, the Heckler noted, others had argued that “allowing ‘them’ to get a foothold in Putson would mean ‘they’ would inevitably spread across the whole city”.

In particular, there was one woman at the meeting – presumably Tracy Rock – who was “constantly having to self-censor the racist comments that seemed to be forever on the tip of her tongue” due to the presence of two police officers: “‘Can you go now?’ she repeatedly asked officers, in hope of being allowed to go off on a bigoted rant.”

The Heckler continued: “As the police left towards the end of the meeting, and a check was made that no Hereford Times reporter was present, audience members were encouraged to ‘speak their mind’; racism was now allowed and encouraged.”

For the Heckler the Islamophobic nature of the campaign against the centre was clear: “what was evident from Friday’s meeting was that had a Christian church of a similar size taken on the old Magenta building on Holme Lacy Road they would be unlikely to face the same stiff opposition.”

During a subsequent exchange of views on the Heckler‘s Facebook page over its report of the meeting, Rock dismissed accusations of racism (“Pissed off with this shit …we live in a country with freedom of speech I will say what I want if I want when I want to hell with justifying anything”) and told her critics to “fuck off”.

You might wonder who poses more of a threat to the people of Putson – an Islamic centre promoting religious harmony or an obnoxious foul-mouthed bigot like Tracy Rock. I know who I’d prefer to have as a neighbour.

Hereford proposed Islamic centre
Holme Lacy Road: the proposed Hereford Islamic Society centre is on the right with a sign over it, Tesco Express is on the left