Frustration, anger and fear as Ramadan starts

War on Terrorism: British Muslims
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The Independent Online

"There is a law in Islam regarding injury when defending yourself," said Sad Allah, an elderly Muslim who had just finished praying on the first day of Ramadan. "If you must retaliate, then you must take into account the injury caused to you and not inflict excessive injury on the other person. Even taking into account those poor people who died in New York, I think the American reaction has become excessive."

"There is a law in Islam regarding injury when defending yourself," said Sad Allah, an elderly Muslim who had just finished praying on the first day of Ramadan. "If you must retaliate, then you must take into account the injury caused to you and not inflict excessive injury on the other person. Even taking into account those poor people who died in New York, I think the American reaction has become excessive."

These were considered words spoken calmly in an atmosphere of electric anger outside the Central London Mosque in Regent's Park yesterday. Shouting over him, with the help of a megaphone, were the militants of al-Muhajiroun, insisting he and others gathered there had to choose between being British or Muslim. Behind him was a young man arguing that the megaphone men were talking rubbish.

As a snapshot of the feeling among Britain's Muslims, it was perhaps fairly accurate: anger, frustration, moderation and confusion.

Across the world, the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, when followers fast between sunrise and sunset, was starting with the bombing in Afghanistan at the forefront of prayers and argument. Many were offended that the American bombing had not stopped; others were adamant it should never have started.

The men of al-Muhajiroun, who have been falsely claiming that large numbers of British Muslims are pouring into Afghanistan to fight alongside Osama bin Laden, held placards depicting George Bush as a "terrorist murderer". One shouted: "We are against the laws of this land. We are against this Government. We recognise only the law of Allah."

Another shouted without a megaphone: "I'm fed up with Muslims saying Islam is about peace. It is also about war. Allah will send an army of angels agains the allies of the West and they will go home in body bags."

But they were in the minority. Another man took to a small makeshift platform and urged moderation. "What kind of example is this?" he asked, pointing to the police officers forming a ragged cordon. "How will we ever convert policemen like these to Islam when we say we oppose their law? We all know there are Muslim policemen in countries like Pakistan and Iraq who kill people with impunity. You can't say that about Britain. We must get our own house in order first."

On a crisp day in St John's Wood, north London, this was a raw public demonstration of the debates that must be taking place in Muslim homes all over the country. The only thing that united the thousands who poured into the mosque to pray was the conviction that the bombing had to stop.

"Look," said one young man who did not want to be named. "There is no way that this is a war on terrorism but it isn't a war against Islam either. Like all wars, it's economic. There is a lot of oil in the countries bordering Afghanistan ­ in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. This isn't precision bombing, it's killing people. Describing it as carpet-bombing is inaccurate. This is fire from the sky."

Inside the mosque, Dr Fatma Amer, the head of education and interfaith relations, was circumspect. She is one of the senior Muslims who has been advising Tony Blair.

"Innocent civilians, women and children are dying," she said. "There is a feeling of anger and dismay among Muslims because ­ right from the start ­ people were hoping this could be solved through diplomacy and communication.

"There is no doubt the perpetrators of what happened in New York must be punished. It was savage, anti-civilisation and anti-humankind but, at the same time, we have to be concerned about justice being done and seen to be done.

"When I went to 10 Downing Street, I urged Tony Blair to make this a quick and incisive action and I warned him about the short, cold winter days that could cause a humanitarian disaster. Nothing has changed, and I would like to remind him of that, at a time when the American bombing is preventing the distribution of aid."

Outside, the men with the megaphone were talking of the divisions inside Afghanistan. "If the West thought the Taliban were bad, wait until they see the Northern Alliance in action," shouted one. "Only a few days ago, they were saying the things the West wanted to hear and already we have seen evidence of their atrocities."

Among the people who nodded in concern was Haroun Bhuran, a 40-year-old hotelier. Unlike some, he was deeply offended by the Allies' failure to stop bombing during Ramadan.

"Surely they could just put a halt to it for a month," he said. "Perhaps during that time things might cool down a little. What people see while it continues is the richest country in the world attacking the poorest. It is very offensive and it makes Osama bin Laden look good. Whatever you hear, he is more loved than hated."

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