The two faces of Islamic tolerance

As `extremist' Muslims prepare for a big London rally, a gentler interpretation of the Koran tries to make itself heard
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The Independent Online
YOU CAN see them all over London, Bradford, Birmingham and Leicester. Neat young Muslims handing out pamphlets from a stall, like Mormons. They belong to a small but energetic group called Al-Muhajiroun ("The Voice, the Eyes, the Ears of the Muslims") and this week they'll be distributing leaflets promoting a rally to be held next Sunday in Trafalgar Square.

The organisers expect several thousand people at the "Rally for Islam" listening to speakers urging them to obey the so-called fundamentals of Islamic law.

Al-Muhajiroun was founded and is led by Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammed, a Syrian-born Islamicist who came to Britain in 1982. He works from a small room in north London's Lee Valley "TechnoPark", a brick and red steel block in a cul-de-sac leading to the council rubbish disposal site, where he writes pamphlets and books, speeches, lectures and internet pages.

He has a disarming smile, speaks smartly about world affairs, and is extremely polite; the plaque on his office suite ("Info 2000") sounds innocuous. But his aims are not innocuous. He wants nothing less, as he put it, than "to see the black flag of Islam flying over Downing Street".

Muslims usually resent the way that Islam is represented (or misrepresented) as violent or fanatical. Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammed seems unconcerned. "We do believe in violence; we think it's healthy," he said. "And we support any uprising against the forces of oppression [ie non-Muslims] in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Indonesia. But there are two types of violence. We're like a doctor who performs a caesarian section. That's a kind of violence, but it's pro-life. What Al-Muhajiroun wants is one global Islamic nation with a single leader."

His critics say the leader he has in mind is Osama Bin Laden. But Islam is a house with many mansions, and a few miles south of his office (and several worlds away) dwells an entirely different vision. The Islamic Centre for the Promotion of Religious Tolerance is in a lavish consulting room in Harley Street. Its founder, Dr El-Essawy, spends the day as a dental surgeon, then settles behind his huge desk to work on his translation of the Koran. He's big, amiable and devout, but realised, when the cosmopolitan culture of Bosnia was ripped apart by sectarian feud, that tolerance could not afford to be a mild idea.

"I suddenly discovered that tolerance needed teeth," he said (an apt enough metaphor for a dentist). So he set up his own pressure group, a loose association of scholars. That led to a sentence of death pronounced on him by Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei. (He has seen a half-page picture of himself in the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, with his head in a hangman's noose.) But it has also led to his involvement in the Rushdie affair, as a mediator between Britain and Iran.

He knew nothing of next week's rally in Trafalgar Square. "Al-Muhajiroun," he sighed. "Well, we're at the opposite end of the spectrum. We stand for tolerance. They stand, you could say, for intolerance. I've met him [Sheikh Omar] and I am puzzled how someone as intelligent as he is can believe what he believes. They've had a lot of success in universities recruiting young British Muslims, but what they're selling is politics, not religion.

"I've read the Koran a million times, and believe me, there's nothing there to support their argument. Their message is repulsive even for Muslims, so what are non-Muslims supposed to make of it? And it's sad, because this is what gives people the impression that Islam is violent."

Away from the intellectual debates, wedged between the A40 flyover and the main line out of Paddington, lies yet another manifestation of Islam. The finishing touches are still being applied to the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, but it will be an impressive institution.

The result of an unlikely sounding alliance between Islamic charities and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, it is an imposing development with practical rather than ideological aims. It will house a prayer hall, a reference library, counselling rooms, language courses and a computer training centre.

It's a far cry from Trafalgar Square, but maybe it is in quiet rooms like these that the much-vaunted multicultural society is being slowly put together.