Muslim leaders warn of riots over anti-terror law

New police powers
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The Independent Online

By Severin Carrell

Muslim leaders have warned David Blunkett that his crackdown on terrorism and religious hatred could spark off fresh race riots. Members of the Muslim community in Britain fear police will target them unfairly.

In a 100-page submission to the Home Secretary, leaked to the Independent on Sunday, nine of Britain's most senior Muslim leaders warned they have "grave reservations" about his proposed powers for the police and courts.

The Muslim leaders fear plans to give police and Customs officers the right to demand that Muslim women remove their hijab face and head coverings may provoke serious disturbances, as they breach a significant article of faith for some Muslims.

They compared these powers to the abuse of "stop and search" by police in the 1980s, which sparked off riots in Brixton and Toxteth, Liverpool. "We object in the strongest terms to the introduction of these powers," they said.

Racial tensions, which have been exacerbated by high levels of poverty and unemployment in Pakistani and Bangladeshi areas, are still running high in the northern towns such as Bradford, Oldham and Burnley, hit by rioting earlier this year.

In Bradford last week, an Anglican vicar was stoned by masked Asian youths after he stopped them setting fire to his church. Muslim leaders will speak at the church's Remembrance Day service this morning in a bid to distance the city's Pakistani community from the attacks.

The criticisms from Britain's most influential Muslim organisations are a severe blow to Tony Blair's attempts to build a cross-community consensus on the US-UK attacks on Afghanistan. Earlier this month, three Muslim Labour peers and a Muslim Labour MP urged Mr Blair to suspend the bombing to allow aid to reach refugees.

Two of the nine signatories are bodies which hosted the Prime Minister's bridge-building speech to Muslims last month – the Al-Khoei Foundation and the Forum Against Islamophobia & Racism.

The document has also been signed by: Dr Zaki Badawi of the Muslim College, Yousuf Bhailok of the Muslim Council of Britain, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament, Yusuf Islam of the Association of Muslim Schools, the Union of Muslim Organisations, the Centre for Muslim Policy Research and the Muslim Women's Helpline.

Mr Blunkett, who will unveil his new anti-terror Bill on Tuesday, was given the document two days ago. A shortened version was also given to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Mr Blunkett's officials insist powers to order the removal of headwear would be used only in specific investigations into terrorist activity, not during general policing. "It's very important that people recognise if there's a specific threat, we need to react to it," said one source. "Muslims were killed at the World Trade Centre as well."

The Muslim leaders said their criticisms sprang from a "substantial risk" that these powers will be used mainly against ordinary Muslims because of the activities of a small number of Islamic fundamentalists and terror cells.

They warn Mr Blunkett their support for measures to outlaw religiously motivated crime and religious hatred will be conditional on ministers introducing "careful supervision" and controls of the police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts to ensure these powers are fairly and equally enforced.

They also accuse the Government of not going far enough to stop anti-religious discrimination in housing, the health system and public services. New regulations on religious discrimination in employment are expected to be very restricted, despite evidence of discrimination.

"The increase in anti-Muslim prejudice in the post-11 September period has created a substantial risk that discrimination will taint the exercise of any additional criminal powers that specifically target a religious group," they argue.

Khalid Mahmood, the Muslim MP for Birmingham Perry Bar, downplayed these fears. On the claims about head coverings, he said the police had the right to check people's identities but would use their powers sensitively.

Outlawing religious hatred was needed to stamp out blatant attempts by the British National Party to promote Islamophobia. Muslims were the only mainstream religious group not to be legally protected, he added. "This is something we've fought for since the late 1980s," he said.

* A march in Blackburn by supporters of the Taliban passed off peacefully yesterday. Only about 35 people supported the Al Muhajiroun rally, which took place in the constituency of Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary.