A Muslim builder from England arrived in Scotland’s remote and media-shy Isle of Lewis to build its first mosque. First confronted with suspicion, what follows is a story of love and kindness.
Gordon McIntosh (name has been changed at his request) was away from his hometown of Stornoway, Scotland when a friend called. He was told a group of Muslims from “someplace else” was converting an old church building into “a place for dead bodies.”
Frantically, the 52-year-old, who had lived in Stornoway his entire life sent messages to other friends but received no further information. In a slow-paced town of 8,000, on a remote Scottish island, if one person knew something, everyone else was bound to know too. So what was going on?
In Mecca in 2015, Aihtsham Rashid, a 37-year-old property developer from Leeds, England, felt as if a volcano had erupted; not spewing lava but dead bodies. His father had passed away from heart failure whilst performing the hajj. Rashid arrived at the morgue, alone, unable to speak Arabic and using only body language to arrange for the storage of his father’s corpse. Within a few minutes, thousands of other bruised and battered bodies surrounded him, brought by helicopters and trucks. The infamous hajj stampede of 2015 had just happened.
This was a turning point for Rashid. Having worked his way up from a toilet cleaner to a property developer, this experience inspired him to build more mosques with facilities for the respectful handling and washing of dead bodies, an important Islamic ritual.
So when McIntosh was frantically searching online to learn what Muslims might be up to in Stornoway, he came across a number of videos posted by Rashid. In several of them, Rashid and his construction team explained they were developing Stornoway’s first mosque which, amongst other things, would finally provide a place to “wash dead bodies.” (Until its opening, bodies of deceased local Muslims were washed in cold, cobwebbed garages with funeral prayers held in cramped living rooms).
Initially this didn’t ease McIntosh’s worries. “You hear a lot of stuff about Muslims and Islam in the news. I don’t mean to sound harsh or nothing but I was thinking to myself, you can never be sure, you know what I mean? Anyway, I didn’t think there were enough Muslims in Stornoway for a mosque. I didn’t think it was a good idea to have one – it could bring in trouble, I was thinking.”
There were approximately 80 Muslims in Stornoway. Many of these were descendants of Pakistani migrants, who arrived in 1945. More recently, though, a number of Syrian refugees had been resettled there. In the more than 70 years since they relocated, Muslims have been welcomed in the community, with some running successful businesses.
Until it opened in May, the closest mosque was 160 kilometres away on the mainland. There had been a drive to build one for decades but nothing had ever come of it. Eventually a derelict building, formerly home to the caretaker of an adjoining church (which had since been turned into a shop), was purchased and planning permission was granted soon after.
National and international media had focused heavily on opposition to the mosque from the local branch of a small Presbyterian Christian sect known as the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). Reasons included the deemed “threat” Islam posed to their “religious and civil liberties.” McIntosh did not belong to this sect but knew people who do. He initially shared some of their concerns.
Nervously, he said: “I’ve heard about parts of England where there aren’t that many Muslims but there are loads of mosques and the towns have ...” he hesitates and lowers his voice, “well, what can I say … changed. I was worried Stornoway might be heading for something like that which seems weird for a small island town. Can you understand where I’m coming from?”
This was not a view shared by most residents in Stornoway. Reverend James MacIver of the Free Church of Scotland (from whom Continuing broke away) explained: “No one has ever mentioned anything to me other than a positive view of the Muslims having this mosque. Muslims have contributed much to the community since they’ve been here, economically, commercially. They had and continue to have a respect for the culture and dominant Christian religion on the island.”
If there was an attempt to remove Christian traditions from the island it was not coming from Muslims. The Christian practice of not working on a Sunday, instead using it as a day of rest and worship, known as the Christian Sabbath, was widely maintained throughout the Isle of Lewis, one of the few remaining parts of Scotland to do so. He explained: “There is a campaign locally to change that. It’s not coming from Muslims, or any religion as such, it’s coming from secularism. This has a small but very vocal group on the island. The local arts centre has now decided to open on the Sabbath, as often as they can. I don’t know of any businesses run by Muslims disrespecting the Sabbath. I don’t think there has ever been any request from a Muslim to go out with the practice of not opening on the Sabbath.”
As part of a secular country, Stornoway was deemed an anomaly with its pious and bilingual population. (Street signs were written in both Gaelic and English and until a generation ago the latter was the dominant language). Not only did most businesses stay closed on Sunday, but swings in parks were chained up and people were discouraged from hanging their laundry out. Alasdair Macleod, a 36-year-old Stornoway member of the Free Church of Scotland felt this piety was portrayed badly in the media and hence people around the world may have come to believe the mosque, too, was unwelcome in the town.
“The media always want to take this line there’s this little island with all these devout Christians and they’re anti-any kind of fun; it’s so unoriginal. From the inside when you are seeing these kinds of things being rehashed in the news it makes you quite angry that the island way of life is being completely misrepresented because it fits this nice stereotype that makes a good story.”
Though many in Stornoway were uncomfortable talking to media, Macleod expressed his deeply held convictions: “As a Christian my authority is the Bible. I regard that and the Presbyterian church as the authority, the word of God. If there was a conflict between the law of the state and God’s law, we’d have to go with God’s law. We don’t recognise the authority of the state where it interferes with what we practice.”
As a Muslim, the importance of faith in one’s life was something Rashid knew well. This was why in early April, upon the request of a friend, he put on hold a multimillion pound construction project in Leeds to build the desperately needed mosque in time for Ramadan.
He worked without pay to have the mosque ready in time, and raised money to pay for materials and labour via JustGiving. The target was doubled in one week as donations came in from as far away as the USA, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Pakistan. Eventually, even local non-Muslims donated.
He faced numerous obstacles. His bag of personal belongings was lost at the airport, building materials required were not available on the island and initially local workers didn’t want to get involved; he had to fly materials and workers out from Leeds.
“People wouldn’t talk to me,” Rashid said. He said shop staff refused to serve him which he felt stemmed from opposition to the mosque.
Macleod thought there was another reason. “Knowing islanders, there is a real kind of shyness, especially if they meet a guy that looks different. If he was going up to people and being really outgoing, islanders would need a bit of time to get used to you before they come round to you. It’s not meant to be disrespectful.”
Rashid admitted he doesn’t look like a builder. His charisma, good looks and love for sunglasses made him look more like a Bollywood actor. His natural exuberance might have aroused aversion, or even confusion, in some islanders. Yet the derelict building was not all he transformed.
Before he left he said people who were previously cold had warmed to him and were hugging and congratulating him.
“I just stayed humble in the face of the animosity. I got on with the job. I kept making videos to raise funds and spread love. If you show love no one can deny you. Eventually I got more support than hate. That’s because deep down inside, we are all the same.”
As his love for Scottish treasures like Irn-Bru grew and as he spoke well of Stornoway in the media he said they began seeing him as one of their own. Eventually he was able to hire some locals to work on his project.
McIntosh saw this transformation first hand. “They got past his flashiness and said he’s a good lad”. Asked if he now thought the mosque was welcomed, his response was both encouraging and overwrought ...
“They’ve managed to turn me around, for the most part. So long as they don’t have any funny business going on in there; I mean there was a guy in Aberdeen who went to fight in Syria. So long as there is none of that going on and I don’t think there will be … it’ll be alright.” He lightens up. “I might even pop in one day.”
NOTE: Name changed upon request of interviewee.