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Story Publication logo December 4, 2005

Soul-searching in Britain


The following article ran as part of a seven-part series by Jon Sawyer and Tim Townsend, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch December 4-11, 2005.

LEEDS, ENGLAND -- When Ruqqayah Collector led a protest march last month through the downtown streets of this old industrial city, she was making a stand for justice, for her faith and, not least, for her hometown.

Collector, a 21-year-old Muslim and the daughter of Indian immigrants, grew up in this part of Yorkshire, a region with relatively high numbers of Asian Muslims and a history of periodic racial strife.

New infamy for the city followed the terrorist attacks in London on July 7. The bombings killed 56 people, including four suicide bombers, and wounded another 700. It turned out that the bombers were from metropolitan Leeds.

So this city - which takes pride in its art museums and theaters, and a gleaming new downtown based on a financial-services boom - finds itself the focus of media caricature, of anti-immigrant politicians and of challenges to the patriotism of people like Collector - people who have never lived anywhere outside the United Kingdom.

"I find it difficult if someone says, 'Are you British, or Muslim?' because it's not as if they clash in any way," she said. "The fact that they're even asking the question shows that they're already assuming that it's got to be one or the other."

The London bombings have produced much soul-searching, within the Muslim community and beyond, about what led a quartet of relatively well-educated and apparently well-adjusted young men - one of them a teacher, another a cricket player - to embark on such violence.

What is most surprising in the bombings' aftermath, however, is what hasn't happened.

The United States responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks four years ago by enacting sweeping new law enforcement powers and rounding up hundreds of Muslim Americans for indefinite detention, measures imposed with virtually no debate and little dissent.

The London attacks on July 7 were in one respect more startling even than 9/11: The four suicide bombers were born and raised in the United Kingdom itself.

Yet when British Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed his own sweeping increase in police powers, including the right to detain suspects without charge for as long as 90 days, he suffered his most stinging defeat since taking office eight years ago.

It's too soon to tell whether the rebuke to Blair marks a watershed. The House of Commons went on to approve detentions as long as 28 days, doubling the current limit. Debate continues on Blair's other proposals, making it a crime to "glorify" violence or to "incite" religious hatred, and giving police broad new powers to shut down suspect mosques and organizations.

British public opinion still strongly favors cracking down on extremist groups. Another terrorist attack might stiffen spines for even tougher measures. But there are signs, even here in Leeds, of a shift in mood.
The fish-and-chips shop in the working-class neighborhood of Beeston where suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer once worked has a new name, and a big sign out front says "Under New Management."

There is still plenty of evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment, from not-subtle job discrimination to newspaper tabloid headlines with deliberately provocative (and grossly inaccurate) headlines such as "Christmas is banned: It offends Muslims."

But when several dozen supporters of the anti-immigrant British National Party gathered a few weeks ago in downtown Leeds to protest the government's prosecution of their leader, they were met by several hundred counterprotesters chanting, "Black and white, unite to fight."

Carrying one end of an anti-fascist banner was Collector, 21, leading a group of students from the University of Leeds.
Collector was elected last spring as education officer for the university's Student Union, the first Muslim woman wearing hijab covering to stand for university office and win. She says pressures related to the war on terrorism have served to strengthen the faith of many Muslims.

"It led to people questioning, 'Where do we fit in? Why are we always challenged?'" she said. "It also led to more research into our faith. 'What does our religion actually say about everything?' It led to people experiencing their faith more, to being proud of the fact that they were Muslims."

Another university student is Nazar Waheed, newly arrived from Pakistan, who is working toward a master's degree in wireless communication. He says he is unfamiliar with Wahhabism or Salafism, the extremist strains of Islam cited by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Their violence is anathema to Islam as he knows it.

"Whatever is in the Quran, we have to follow," Waheed said. "And in the Quran nowhere is it written that you can kill. If anyone does that and calls himself a Muslim, I don't think he really is a Muslim."

Waheed says he has experienced no discrimination since arriving in England in September, either on campus or in the city. But he also notes his failure thus far to find a job, in a city whose unemployment rate is among the country's lowest.

"I've applied at least 80 places so far," he said. "When they see me, when they see I'm Asian, there are no jobs."
Peter Lazenby, a veteran journalist at the Yorkshire Evening Post, points to what he calls "a degree of racism" when it comes to employment and other opportunities for this region's Asian Muslim minority.

"You find Asians with university degrees driving cabs because they can't get jobs elsewhere," he said. "I think people see their names on applications and they don't get interviewed. It's a very quiet sort of racism, hard to pin down. But it's there."

Reactionary politics

Terrorist attacks and a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment have been good for the British National Party, which traces its roots to neo-Nazi parties. As recently as the late 1990s, it was identified with skinheads and soccer hooligans.

Now the party is actually winning council seats in some cities and making inroads beyond. In last year's elections for the European Parliament, the party polled 800,000 votes nationally, or 4.9 percent. Its share in the Yorkshire area around Leeds was some 100,000 votes, or nearly 10 percent.

"There was a time when we were happy to get whoever we could," said Nick Cass, 31, a former squash pro and now the party's Yorkshire organizer. "Now, thankfully, we can be choosier."

The party has dropped its call for the forced deportation of all Asians, Caribbeans and other "non-British" British; it talks up cash incentives instead. But the party would halt public funding of multilingual education, Cass said, and force Muslim women to give up head scarves.

"I can't go into a bank wearing a crash helmet," he said. "I'd be arrested, because with the helmet they can't see who it is. Yet I can't question women wearing burqa (full-body coverings)?"

The head of the party is Nick Griffin, a Cambridge University-educated lawyer and a smooth-talking Welshman who compares himself to Winston Churchill in the 1930s, a lonely voice warning his countrymen of troubles to come.
"We're in a long struggle," he said, "one that I believe will go on for 20 years, as to whether Western civilization as we know it will survive in Europe, or whether it instead will become Islamicized."

The campaign to clean up the party's image stumbled when the BBC aired a documentary last year based on undercover reporting. Griffin was caught on videotape calling Islam a "wicked, vicious faith." A colleague talked of blowing up a local mosque.

Griffin dodged eggs and jeers last month in Leeds, as he ducked into crown court for pretrial hearings on charges of inciting racial hatred. In an interview outside the courtroom, he insisted that publicity over the trial would only help his party's cause.

"It's a lose-lose for the government," Griffin said. "Either I get off - or they send me to prison for, among other things, warning a year ago that terrorist attacks were coming. If they want to send me to prison for that, fine."

"Far from the mosque"

Muslim community leaders in Leeds say they are mystified - and broken-hearted - by the London attacks, which they condemn as a perverse misreading of the faith. They suggest that the violence has more to do with British influences, and British policy, than with Islam.

"Unfortunately the people who do these attacks are very far from the mosque," said Jamil Ahmed, an educational consultant and secretary of the Islamic Center of Leeds, the city's largest mosque.

"The problem is that the government said, 'Don't harbor extremists,'" he added. "So when the young people talked that way, we sent them away."

After the July 7 attacks, the British Home Office recruited Muslim leaders to serve on working groups to assess the causes of extremism and recommend policies in response. Their reports, released last month, said Blair's government had erred in both its diagnosis and proposed remedies.

The reports recommend several new national policies, including:

A grass-roots educational campaign by influential Muslim scholars, aimed at young people, to counter extremist views.

A campaign to increase the visibility and opportunities for Muslim women. A curriculum for Muslim schools, drawing on the work of an advisory council of mosques and imams. Government resources to build partnerships between local police and Muslim communities.

The working groups rejected Blair's repeated assertion that British foreign policy, and specifically its support for the Iraq war, was unrelated to the attacks July 7. The reports called British policy "a key contributing factor" to extremist violence. It also said Blair's proposed new laws on shutting down suspect mosques and organizations would further radicalize such groups by sending them underground.

A key group that Blair has proposed to ban is Hizb ut-Tahrir (the "party of liberation"), a professedly nonviolent organization that critics consider a recruiting vehicle for more extremist Muslim groups. The group's spokesman, Taji Mustafa, rejects the charge.

Mustafa accused Blair of making "a crazy caricature of Muslims imposing their will on everyone - when in fact it's Blair who is imposing his view on the world.

"They don't see the fact that what is being crammed down the throat of people today is liberal democracy," he added. "You talk about human rights, but then you have Guantanamo. . . . You talk about democracy, but then you take us to war in Iraq over the objection of most British people. . . . You talk of free speech, but then you want to ban a nonviolent political party."

One neighborhood's view

In Bradford, a former textile center just west of Leeds, the Muslim face of Great Britain is evident in neighborhoods of brick rowhouses that were built for millworkers more than a century ago but are now filled almost entirely by Asian immigrants.

Bradford was one of several cities in Yorkshire rocked four years ago by race riots similar to riots this year in France. In Yorkshire, the unrest was spawned by British National Party sympathizers but escalated into a general outburst by Muslim youths that left 326 police officers injured and nearly $20 million in property damage.

Zameer Shah, a second-generation Pakistani immigrant, helps his father manage two grocery stores in the Barkerend section of Bradford. A candidate for city council, on the Conservative Party line, Shah says inter-ethnic relations in Bradford are generally good but that he worries about the younger generation.

"The problem is young Muslims, the second and third generation (of immigrants). They don't have the same ties to our homeland, or to their parents. They want to see themselves as British, but then they find they aren't really accepted as British. And that makes them vulnerable to extremist groups."

Shah says one such group is Hizb ut-Tahrir, which like some other Islamist groups, calls for the restoration of a single caliphate, or ruler, governing Muslims worldwide. "It has some appeal but it's not realistic," he said, noting that "there were lots of wars and rebellions" in the era of caliphate rule that ended with the Ottoman Empire's collapse. His own family is Shiite Muslim, he added - "and we know that under the caliphate Shiites experienced 1,300 years of persecution."

The Rev. John Bavington is the priest at St. Clement's Anglican Church in Barkerend, a parish whose population of 10,000 is now 75 percent Muslim. Ten mosques have sprung up in this part of Bradford over the past three decades, while the membership in Bavington's church has dwindled to 60. The church hall is now a Muslim community center.
"Vicars don't come with a job description, and I've had to ask myself what I'm trying to do," said Bavington, on a walking tour through the parish with Topspin, his black Labrador. "I'm trying to develop a Christian community in St. Clement's that supports, welcomes and loves our Muslim neighbors in a genuine way - that goes beyond me merely meeting with the local imams."

Bavington is well-suited to the task. He grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. His four sons include 3-year-old Akil, a Pakistani boy Bavington and his wife are in the process of adopting.

News that the four suicide bombers in London had grown up in this region left the community "stunned," Bavington said.

"The Muslims I spoke to were just horrified by it," he said. "Local shopkeepers, the imam at the nearest mosque - they didn't know what to say. They didn't want to apologize for it because that would imply they had something to do with it. And yet they knew that as Muslims they'd be associated with it."

Bavington said he wasn't surprised that Parliament has balked, so far, over Blair's call for a post-bombing crackdown on civil liberties and harsh treatment of Muslim mosques and groups that challenge British policies. He cited Britain's experience with imperialism as the reason.

"I think it's a question of history, the United Kingdom's role as world power in the 18th and 19th century, particularly our role in the Asian subcontinent," he said. "I think what the British learned, over a long time, is that you have to rule by consensus."

Bavington said the United States, a superpower only since World War II, had not yet developed that same sensitivity about the use of power - a sensitivity that he said was located at the heart of religious beliefs that Muslims, Christians and Jews all share.

"The Old Testament is full of challenges to people in power, to live such that those over whom they have power feel safe and secure," he said. "The relationship between the powerful and the ruled can only be secure when there is justice and human rights."

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