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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

May 05, 2003

Islam in Britain

Times Online article notes that Extremists are preying on disaffected young Muslims
The discovery that a suicide bomber in Israel had a quiet upbringing in suburban Britain is disturbing. For the Israelis, the arrival of two extremists from overseas opens up the awful prospect of a potentially vast new security threat among the Muslim diaspora. For the British authorities, the recruitment of young men from Hounslow and Derby as terrorists bears out the warning, first voiced a decade ago, that Britain has become a haven for Islamist militants. And for the British Muslim community the suicide bombing will deepen fears of alienation and reinforce the association of Islam with terrorism.

The bombing raises questions that must be faced by the security services, politicians and society as a whole as well as by the Muslim community in Britain and those who speak in its name. Why are young British Muslims so susceptible to the siren voices of extremists and self-publicising militants such as Abu Hamza and al-Muhajiroun? Why do they devote so much time to causes overseas — Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya and Afghanistan — rather than grievances at home or getting ahead in British society? And why has the younger generation become more alienated than their parents and less integrated into the mainstream than the children of immigrants from India, the Caribbean or East Africa?

Classic revolutionaries have been recruited among the poor and the marginalised. In the case of suicide bombers, however, this is not so. The evidence suggests that Asif Mohammed Hanif and his accomplice Omar Khan Sharif were well brought up, well educated and reasonably well off. Others who have gone out to engage in terrorism overseas have also come from privileged backgrounds — Omar Sheikh, sentenced to death for the brutal murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, attended the London School of Economics. But they were spiritually disaffected, and like the frustrated and underemployed graduates from Middle East universities who form the backbone of al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, saw in radical Islam a cause. Many British Muslims, and not only extremists, mistakenly believe that Islam is under global threat and that they have a religious duty to defend it — by force if necessary.

Many Muslims, especially Bangladeshis, are noticeably worse off than other minority groups. There are pockets of great poverty in northern former mill towns, where Pakistanis settled a generation ago to work in the textile factories. Britain is a relatively tolerant society, but its liberal values are, almost by definition, offensive to the minority of Muslims who regard their doctrine as an excuse for intolerance. Socialising and socialisation can be far from simple. Women do not go out, and men do not congregate in pubs. Young Muslims have less opportunity to form easy friendships with others of their age. Some meet instead in mosques. And it is there they hear the corrupting message of jihad.

Such a message is cynically spread — sometimes by extremists seeking recruits for overseas causes, sometimes by imams who have been invited from Pakistan to fill posts here and preach a violent message. It falls on fertile ground. Islam has a keen sense of the “umma” or community, which can be distorted by “religious leaders”.

Some in the Muslim mainstream are now, commendably, speaking out against extremism as well as against discrimination and tokenism, but other community leaders remain reluctant to condemn acts of terrorism in a clear and loud voice. These leaders also need to look more closely at those shadowy figures who exploit the prison inmates, the idealistic and under-achieving young to lure them into “martyrdom” in God’s name. Their deeds destroy not only lives abroad but the standing of Islam in Britain