Focus: Rebels in search of a cause
Some young Muslims feel they don't have a stake in British society. It makes them easy prey for militant Islamic groups
Sunday 15 August 1999
It is Friday, the day when Muslims gather at mosques throughout Britain for jummah, obligatory congregational worship. Here in a converted Victorian red-brick community hall, dozens of men in salwar and kameez mingle with teenagers in designer jeans, leather jackets and prayer caps. They line up, shoulder-to-shoulder, to face Mecca for prayer.
During the lecture that follows, the imam confines himself to qualifying the finer points of Islam. But it is at weekly sermons such as these that the self-styled London sheikh and leader of an extremist Islamic group in support of the Sharia code, Abu Hamza al-Masry, finds an eager audience among the disaffected Muslim youth of today's Britain.
It was his brand of anti-Western propaganda, together with a call for jihad - a holy war - against the corrupt West, that fuelled the events which led to the conviction last week of eight Britons for terrorist links in Yemen. Among them were Hamza's son and godson.
The Yemeni authorities claimed the men had been sent by Hamza to take part in a campaign of violence against the government. And Hamza, with his scarred blind eye, and amputee stumps, sometimes adorned with prosthetic hooks, fitted the part of villain perfectly for the British media, suspicious of his radical ideology.
Ordinary British Muslims as well as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Parliament are also fearful of Hamza and his influence among young disaffected British Muslim men. They believe that growing fundamentalism and political activity could lead to a backlash against the religion's two million British followers.
More than 65 per cent of British Muslims are aged under 35, and there is a rich seam of alienation and disaffection to be mined among young adults who are striving to define what it means to be Anglo-Asian and a Muslim in Britain. Last month some 500 members of Al Muhajiroun, another radical group calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and which supports Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, gathered in Trafalgar Square; yesterday they marched in Birmingham. Next month, Al Muhajiroun has booked the Royal Albert Hall for a similar "Rally For Islam" with 1,000 of the 5,000 tickets already sold.
Mr Bakri says that what starts off as reawakened interest in their parents' culture quickly develops among young people into a highly politicised view of Islam. "Every time a moderate Muslim is wheeled out on to television to apologise for fundamentalism, the more it convinces young Muslims that these people do not speak for them," he says.
Afrose Choudary, from Nottingham, like many young Bengalis, spent his teenage years trying to bridge two cultures. But at university he found it difficult to reconcile himself to Western values. "As I saw more of what was going on - the boozing and casual sexual partners, I found I had more affinity with my own kind. When I got married I found myself in contact with people and relatives from Bangladesh and it just seemed to be more honest to stop fighting my roots."
People such as Mr Bakri have been recruiting on university campuses for more than a decade. But recently the successful radicalisers of young British Muslims have been Kashmiri imams who have arrived in Britain, bringing the Taliban brand of Islam. They are viewed as authentic, fresh from the struggle.
Dr Philip Lewis, inter-faith adviser to the Bishop of Bradford, says: "They are able to stir deep emotions with romanticised notions of jihad that find a fertile seedbed in young men who want to affirm their Islamic identity in a dramatic way. And it would be naive to suppose that events such as those in Pakistan and Kashmir are exerting no influence on that constituency."
It sounds plausible enough. The tangled events of Yemen have left many wondering whether that episode was symptomatic of a wide radical movement.
But Dilwar Hussain, who writes on European Muslim identity for the Islamic Foundation, says that the notion that Islam enables a dispossessed Pakistani or Bengali to venture into terrorism is flawed. "It is like saying that any Irish person who is poor is a member of the IRA.
"To join up to Al Muhajiroun is anti-establishment. But it is the equivalent of selling Socialist Workers' Party newspapers outside Woolworth's when you're a student. Then you grow up, cut your hair and get a job and look forward to a Ford Mondeo and having 2.4 kids just like everyone else."
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