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Under siege on all sides, Muslims plead for peace

As a wave of arrests strikes fear into Britain's Islamic community, Martin Bright reveals how the feuding generations are being driven apart

Sunday December 7, 2003
The Observer

The shots slammed into a row of Asian businesses on Dudley High Street early last Tuesday. The town's Muslim Association was the first to be hit, then a Kashmiri jeweller's and an Asian barber's. The backlash had begun.
At the beginning of last week, Usman Choudhary and Umar Ijaz, two devout young men from the long-established and traditionally peaceful Kashmiri community, were rounded up in a nationwide anti-terrorist sweep that saw 21 people taken into custody. A third Dudley man, who has yet to be identified, was arrested in nearby Walsall, with a man from Luton. The four are suspected of conspiring in a substantial credit-card fraud, and anti-terrorist officers are investigating links to the funding of extremist groups. So far no charges have been brought against them, and their families and friends deny any wrongdoing.

As the news broke of the arrests, the reaction from the local white community was swift. Apart from the shooting incident, cars in the streets where the two men lived were trashed and police set up extra patrols around their homes and mosques.

The arrests were a devastating blow for the older generation of Muslims in Dudley, who have gained a reputation for moderation and taking a stand against terrorism. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the Dudley Muslim Association was one of the first in the country to condemn the attacks and, on the two anniversaries since, it has organised a memorial event for the victims.

One of the men arrested, 23-year-old Choudhary, is the son of the chairman of the central mosque. This close-knit community has been torn apart. People here are painfully aware that they are just a mile away from Tipton, the home of two young men caught fighting for the Taliban and detained by the US in Guantanamo Bay.

The suggestion that the Black Country is harbouring terrorists has deeply wounded this community. Khurshid Ahmed, head of the Dudley Muslim Association, said years of work to encourage Muslims in the West Midlands into the mainstream had been jeopardised: 'We have been at the forefront of the war against terrorism. We have helped gather intelligence to root out dangerous elements. But because the chair of the mosque committee's son was arrested, that somehow tars the whole community.'

The shock waves of last week's anti-terrorism raids are still resonating. Even Muslim leaders who have worked closely with the police and the Home Office to root out extremism have been surprised by the scale of the arrests. So far, only two have been charged with terrorist offences, including Sajid Badat of Gloucester, who has been charged with conspiring with shoe bomber Richard Reid. Four Algerians arrested in Eastbourne under terrorist legislation have been charged with fraud and in Cambridge two women were released and then rearrested on immigration charges.

The arrests are part of a police strategy of disruption reported by The Observer last year, aimed at dismantling terror networks, even when there was little hard evidence of criminal activity.

But Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, of the Muslim Parliament, said the arrests threatened to alienate Muslims further and people were deeply cynical about the reasons for the arrests. 'People believe this is just a cover-up for failure in Iraq. It is playing on xenophobia to persuade people there is a fifth column in this country and show that something is being done.'

In Dudley, the Muslim elders feel under siege. They perceive a threat from the police, an increasingly hostile media, local thugs and the British National Party, which has fed on fears of Islam to recruit in the area. But perhaps more seriously, there is a growing realisation that the community is also under threat from within - radical puritanical strains of the religion imported from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are a particular concern, as are extremist groups such as al-Muhajiroun (the Emigrants) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), which recruit at colleges and universities. There are fears that young activists are being drawn away from the more moderate interpretation of Islam fostered by their parents' generation.

Ahmed is also chair of the British Pakistani Association and a commissioner at the Commission for Racial Equality. As well-placed as anyone to identify the problems facing British Muslims, he says they now have to acknowledge that a small but growing number of young Muslims are turning to extreme forms of Islam.

'Radicalisation is extremely serious and something we have to blame ourselves for,' says Ahmed. 'The leadership has not been effective in dealing with young people. We have left them to the mercy of extremist groups who have preyed on them at colleges and universities.'

There is no doubt that a small minority of radical young Muslims have been politicised by the countless conflicts in the Islamic world: Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir all have the ability to provoke deep passions. Many of Britain's mosques quite legitimately raise large sums of money for charities and aid organisations working in these conflict zones.

But the increase in radicalism has other causes much closer to home. Dudley's 7,000 Muslims are the largest ethnic minority in the area, but they also have the highest levels of unemployment, illiteracy and are over-represented in the local crime figures. Those young Muslims who manage to fight their way out of these desperate conditions to get an education face further frustration - according to Ahmed, young Muslim graduates are eight times less likely to find a job than their white counterparts. Over-educated and underemployed young men: the classic breeding ground for Islamic radicalism. The pattern is replicated across the country.

Disbelief surrounds the arrest of Choudhary and Ijaz. Both were known as highly religious young men, but they mixed well with less devout Muslims and were both thought to be good cricketers. Ghulam Choudhary said he was 'heartbroken' by the arrest of his son and remains convinced of his innocence, He told The Observer: 'His only crime is to be a religious Muslim, if that is a crime. I'm sure he is not involved with any extreme organisation.'

Nabeel Shabir, 19, whose father's jewellery shop was hit in the shootings, said few people believed the men were terrorists: 'They prayed five times a day. You always saw them at the mosque. But we never expected anything like this. We have never seen such scenes in all our lives.'

It is perhaps significant that Choudhary and Ijaz chose not worship at the mainstream, westernised Dudley Central Mosque, but instead at the more orthodox Queens Cross Masjid at the other end of town. This mosque follows the puritan Ahl-i Hadith sect, which grew up in nineteenth-century India to take Islam back to its roots in reaction to British imperialism.

Police have made clear there is no link between the mosque and the crimes being investigated in Dudley. There is no suggestion that the mosque's imams are preaching anything other than peace. But it may be a sign of a growing generation gap that these young men chose a more austere and orthodox sect to their parents. The imam of the mosque, Mohammed Abdullah, moved here two years ago from Saudi Arabia and speaks little English. He is part of a growing number of imams imported from Saudi religious universities to meet the demand in Britain's mosques.

Via a translator, Abdullah told The Observer that terrorism and suicide were outlawed by Islam. 'If one person is killed, the whole of humanity suffers,' he said. But Home Office and Foreign Office ministers have expressed concern that figures such as Abdullah fail to understand the complex pressures facing young British Muslims when preaching their orthodox message.

Chief Superintendent Dennis Hodson of West Midlands Police described the arrests as 'deeply unfortunate' and should not be connected to any of the town's mosques. 'These police inquiries have to continue. But whatever happens, we need to reassure Dudley's Muslims and the wider community. We can understand people being fearful, but the Muslims must not become scapegoats. This applies here, but also to the rest of the country when these kinds of sensitive arrests are made.'

Elsewhere in the town, tension was raised during anti-war demonstrations when a small minority of Muslim youths shouted their support for Saddam Hussein. In the Litten Tree pub in Dudley Town centre, Norman Povey and Andy Johnson said rumours were rife that mosques had been raided in the area. 'I have Muslim mates and we have a laugh and even a drink together. But it's the younger ones who are the problem,' said Povey. 'And when you hear them shouting "Saddam, Saddam", I do think something should be done.'

There are signs of hope. Around the walls of Ahmed's office are full-colour plans for the grandly named Pride of Dudley Project - a vast £5 million hilltop mosque to rival the only other major landmark in this down-at-heel Black Country town: the crumbling ruins of its eleventh-century castle, home to the earls of Dudley.

The project was conceived, in part, as a response to 11 September as a gift to the town, with a 'community and enterprise centre' for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Perhaps controversially for some Muslims, the mosque has been designed with cathedral-like windows as a tribute to the Christian influences on Islam. The mosque will celebrate Christmas as well as Muslim festivals.
'It is meant to be a celebration of our heritage and Christianity and Judaism are part of that heritage. We believe this will be the first mosque in the world to have half-Christian and half-Muslim architecture. We are very proud of that,' said Ahmed.

But when Ahmed took plans of the mosque to be framed, the shop manager said: 'I used to envy and admire your community because your children were so much better behaved. But when we see kids from your community fighting in Afghanistan or in Guantanamo, we wonder how safe we are.'

Ahmed knows it is such doubts that fuel the deep anti-Muslim feeling emerging in Britain. 'It is understandable that people have these fears and it is up to us to reassure them about our young people.'




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