Don't blame us, says student Islamic society
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a plane, ran the UCL Islamic Society. But its current members tell Indlieb Farazi that they deplore extremism and terrorism
Monday 25 January 2010
The ground floor of the Bloomsbury Theatre, home to University College London (UCL) students' union, is filling up with crowds of students, patiently waiting their turn to enter the small metal lifts that will take them up to Friday prayers.
It's the first Friday back at the university since news broke over the Christmas holidays that a former UCL student and worshipper here, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day.
On the second floor, the main prayer hall is packed. Around 150 "brothers" – a term of respect to symbolise the Muslim family – cram into the room. An additional 80 pray on the floor below, and the "sisters" pray in a side room, next to the main hall.
The imam addresses the worshippers – now amassed over the two floors – through speakers. "Islam is a religion of peace. Muslims are tolerant people. We must be patient during these testing times. Allah punishes the killing of innocent civilians – this is not the opinion of someone standing on the pulpit, or a small number of Muslims, this is the opinion of 99 per cent of the Ummah [community]."
During a non-alcoholic "happy hour" after prayers, the students crack open bottles of Coca-Cola and lemonade. Mojeed Adams-Mogaji is a third-year engineering student and president of UCL's Islamic Society (Isoc). He says he is still troubled by the news he heard during the Christmas holidays. "Once again, we're being attacked for the action of an individual. But I have to say that as Muslims, Islam totally denounces all acts of terrorism, be it against Muslim or non-Muslim alike, and we at UCL Islamic society, we totally denounce and dissociate ourselves from such an action.
"As a society, we organise events to publicly discuss the issue of extremism and terrorism; and the kind of events that we hold do not in any way instigate radicalisation or terrorism," he adds.
Mohammed Mahmoud is a third-year biology student who knew Abdulmutallab well. "I met him through the Islamic Society. He was president at the time, and I remember he was delivering the khutbah [Friday sermon] when I first met him. I can't remember what the sermon was about now, but I can remember he was softly spoken."
Mahmoud also remembers that he was very courteous. "I cannot express to you how well-mannered he was. He was so polite and calm. I never heard him raise his voice, I never saw him get angry and he would never, ever, use bad language."
Mahmoud was at home when he heard the news about the Christmas Day attack. He said that at first he thought the news reports were referring to another man with a similar name, but when he realised it was the Abdulmutallab he knew, he was shocked. "I still genuinely can't believe he would do something like this. I keep trying to come up with theories as to why, what's really going on, but all my theories fall flat. I just don't understand."
Since the incident, the UCL Isoc students feel victimised. However, they all say one thing: the actions of one former student do not represent them or their faith. Adams-Mogaji says: "I do understand public concerns. Be it Muslim or non-Muslim, we are all concerned by this surge in terrorism. Yet terrorism, extremism, radicalisation, do not differentiate between Muslim or non-Muslim.
"We are students, we want to be like other students, we want to take part in university activities, we want to do well academically, we want to live a good life after we finish our education. But with this kind of media, it's something that will actually affect us individually as Muslims."
Many UCL Isoc graduates have gone on to establish illustrious careers. Sheikh Asif Mehmood graduated in 2006 with a project management degree. The 26-year-old now works as an engineer for a multi-billion dollar American construction and engineering company.
Sohail Malik read politics and East European studies. He graduated in 2004 and is now working as a television producer for an international news channel.
Zakir Matin studied mathematics and biology, he graduated in 2006 and after completing a PGCE he is working as a maths teacher in south-east London, in one of the most socioeconomically deprived boroughs in the country.
Ruksana Begum, another maths graduate, left UCL in 2005 and has since been teaching the subject to secondary school pupils, helping them get through their Key Stage 3, GCSE and A-Level exams. She's off to do some voluntary work in Peru later this year.
These are all professional young men and women, who have productively contributed to society. They have not claimed benefits, nor have they been involved in "radical" activity.
Qasim Rafiq, a former UCL Isoc president who was a close friend of Abdulmutallab, is now a spokesman for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. He says: "If a speaker hasn't promoted violence, if they haven't incited hatred, then surely we are doing a disservice to the population, Muslim and non-Muslim, by not allowing speakers to come on to campus, and not allowing them to engage in these sorts of discussions. That for me is the role of universities, allowing these debates to take place.
"I admit that if an individual or a group of individuals, maybe five, six or seven members of the Islamic Society, all conspired and were involved in a terror-related arrest or conviction, that obviously does raise questions about that Islamic Society at that particular time, but there's never been an incident like that."
Rafiq is studying for his PhD in stem-cell research at a university outside London – another example of a successful former UCL Isoc member. He says he last came into contact with Abdulmutallab in 2008, a couple of weeks after graduating. Abdulmutallab mentioned that he wanted to study for an MBA in Dubai, which it seems that he did, and from there he went to study in Yemen.
Rafiq says it is wrong to question UCL Isoc's activities because of the Abdulmutallab case. "For me, it begs the question: what happened [after his time at UCL]? People look at Umar and say 'He was the president of the Islamic society, therefore the UCL Islamic society is promoting hatred and is a breeding ground for extremism', but I can say categorically – as many others can – that it wasn't his time at UCL [that caused him to become radicalised].
"Islamic societies are part of the solution, they are not the problem, and by focusing on them and pressuring them and victimising them, you're taking away the very tool that we can use to combat this evil," says Rafiq.
While media speculation may continue to tarnish Islamic Societies throughout Britain, UCL's Isoc members gain strength from one another, through prayers, football – and non-alcoholic happy hours.
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