In the media
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
Sunday December 7, 2003
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
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
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
'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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