Army chiefs are worried about the 100ft minarets but local Muslims say they need more space for worshippers
Islamic centre in Camberley Muslims running the Islamic centre in Camberley, have applied for permission to demolish the building and build a mosque. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian
Plans to erect a mosque next to Sandhurst that have divided locals and prompted interventions from a Tory minister and the Ministry of Defence are to be considered at a public inquiry this week.
The proposals – to demolish a locally listed Victorian schoolbuilding in a conservation area in Camberley, Surrey, and replace it with a £3m domed mosque – have pitted members of the Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey Bengali Welfare Association against thousands of residents, army chiefs and the constituency MP and education secretary, Michael Gove.
The residents say the mosque would be out of keeping with the town’s architecture; army chiefs dislike the idea of 100ft-high minarets overlooking the parade ground of Sandhurst Military Academy; and Gove wants the application withdrawn for the sake of community harmony.
Camberley mosque The proposed mosque for Camberley to be built on the site of the Victorian school, see top picture, now being used as an Islamic centre.
The mosque is also described as a “supremacist statement” by a collective comprising local churches.
The inquiry, to be held at Camberley Theatre, is scheduled to last six days and is the culmination of a year-long struggle between the association and its equally doughty opponents over the fate of the former Roman Catholic school sitting on an unsightly stretch of the A30. Alan Kirkland, from Save Our School, was among those who gathered 7,000 signatures opposing the radical redevelopment of the site.
“There is nothing in the Qur’an that says you should have domes and minarets,” he said. “It doesn’t even have to face the qibla [direction of Mecca]. It doesn’t matter what the mosque looks like if you’re only going to pray there. They need a mezzanine floor that is for women only. To most people, that’s objectionable.
“They are trying to target us as racist. I’m slightly offended by that. My ex-brother in law is Muslim, so are my niece and nephew.”
The Bengalis say the existing building, designed by Charles Buckeridge, does not suit their needs. Camberley Muslims have used the old school as a mosque since 1996, purchasing it for £300,000 following a generous contribution from a Kuwaiti billionaire.
But it is dilapidated, inside and out, and lies empty for much of the week except Friday, when Muslims pour into every available space, including the kitchen, for prayer. The capacity is 350, which the association estimates is a fraction of the Muslim community within a 10-mile radius.
The new mosque would accommodate classrooms, segrated facilities for men and women, a morgue, a community centre and thousands of people.
The Bengalis agreed to restrict access to the minarets – making them ornamental and partially solid – but only after the Ministry of Defence raised concerns over them.
The compromise – the only one to date – has failed to appease to Save Our Schools, which has raised £10,000 to ensure it has legal representation at the inquiry.
Ivar Hellberg, also from Save Our School, is outraged at the BWA’s perceived indifference to Camberley’s heritage. “They are bad stewards,” he said. “Why haven’t they looked after the house of Allah?”
Abdul Wasay Chowdhury, from the association, said: “It is hard to collect money to renovate the school. It is not a religious building, it is not a mosque. We don’t want to extend from the back because then it won’t be a school or a mosque. It will be neither. If people were so concerned about heritage, why didn’t they buy the building? If we hadn’t bought it, it would have been empty for the last 15 years. That would have been worse.”
“The local church is out of keeping with the area. The steeple will be taller than our minarets – why don’t they complain about that?”
He points to Robins Cinema, a building with art-deco frontage, and the boarded-up Duke of York Hotel, built in 1816, opposite. Both face demolition. “The problem is, if you try to save everything, you end up saving nothing.”