In the early hours of Monday morning, a [white] terrorist in a van deliberately drove into a group of worshippers as they left the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. It was a heinous, unforgivable act. When the van finally came to a stop, the crowd grabbed the driver and were getting ready to hand out some heavy mob justice when, in an act of outstanding bravery, the Imam stepped in and saved the terrorist’s life.
Imam Mahmoud, it turns out, is made of the Right Stuff whilst the white guy in the van is not!
To the watching world, these reversals of stereotype were undeniably unexpected and, at least as far as the Imam is concerned, reminded me of a small incident some years ago that, perhaps, bears repeating now.
As I travelled into work early one Friday morning on the train, my phone got stolen. It was the iconic Nokia 6310i and the best phone I’ve ever had. Those were the days when a phone was a phone.
I arrived at work and dialled my number. Not because I expected to get through to anyone, but because I didn’t have a better plan. Back then, there was practically no security on mobile phones. They were dead easy to hack. All you needed was a freezer and 24 hours. So, ten times out of ten, when your phone got nicked, you were never going to see it again.
Anyway, there I was hopelessly calling my phone, not expecting the thief to answer it (too busy hacking it, probably), when a voice said “Hello!”.
I said “I think you’ve got my phone”. Frankly, that was obvious, but there wasn’t anything else to say. Instead of hanging up, as I expected, Mohammed (for that was his name) replied that I had left my phone on the train and said he had picked it up, hoping I would call. He was very happy to bring the phone to me if I would just tell him where I worked.
Nice, I thought. Now, he’s gonna try and sell it back to me!
Well, I offered to meet Mohammed somewhere convenient, and he said that since it was Friday, I could meet him at evening prayers. At the Finsbury Park Mosque…
Now, back in the day, the Finsbury Park Mosque did not have great PR. On the contrary, it had a fearsome reputation as a haven for extremist idealogues. Abu Hamza, the radical cleric, was the Imam from 1997, and Richard Reid (the Shoe Bomber) and Zacarias Moussaoui (one of the 9/11 plotters) had both attended the mosque. This invitation to hang out at the F.P.M. was definitely going to take me outside of my comfort zone and then some.
But I wanted my phone back, so, at 5 pm that evening and against my better judgement, I turned up at the mosque, took off my shoes, and walked in. A tall guy in shimmering white robes smiled and said As-Salaam-Alaikum and, utilising the full and total extent of my conversational Arabic, I replied with the customary Wa–Alaikum-Salaam!
Can I help you? he asked.
“Yes please”, I said, “I am looking for Mohammed”.
“So are we all, my brother. So are we all!” he replied.
“Oh no!” I explained. This Mohammed had my phone and I was just there to pick it up.
Then, Mohammed walked over and, with a huge smile, handed over my Nokia 6310i. Delighted, I offered him something for his troubles, but he was having none of it.
“It is only my pleasure to be able to return your phone to you! I want nothing in return” he said.
I glanced at the phone and realised I hadn’t even locked it. I had left it on the train ready to use. And then I had behaved like an idiot, attributing ill intent where none existed, only good.
I turned and walked slowly back outside, reflecting on just how wildly off the mark I had been and ashamed that I was so quick to jump to my easy, but completely wrong, conclusion.
People are not all the same. You can be a devout Muslim and love peace. Millions do. You can read the Koran every day and be the wisest man on your street, or have the biggest heart in your neighbourhood. Or both. The Finsbury Park Mosque isn’t what it once was. Imam Mahmoud just showed everyone what good looks like.
Now that I think of it, the Imam’s first name is Mohammed. Maybe, a long time ago, he returned a lost phone to a grateful, chastened, fellow traveller.