Blair seeks to appease the Muslim community

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Every articulate Muslim in Leeds seems to have been contributing to the Government's attempts to comprehend what turned three of the city's sons into suicide bombers on 7 July. But the Prime Minister had to admit yesterday that he wished he'd found Hayder Khan a little sooner.

The 19-year-old did not articulate everything Mr Blair wanted to hear at a consultation exercise with young Muslims in the city. "We're losing confidence and trust in you," Mr Khan told him, unflinchingly. "With this foreign policy Muslims feel you are attacking them. We all used to vote Labour but not any more. You need to row back and take us with you."

Yet Mr Blair, on his first visit to the city since the attacks, acknowledged that he had found someone who represented the real voice of teenage British Islam; a young man who had never even heard of the Government's weighty "Tackling Extremism Together" report published last week because, as the Prime Minister admitted, Muslims like him are hard to find.

"If I am asked to see the Muslim community, what I will get is the same great and the good of the community," Mr Blair conceded. "That means we are [not] getting down to people in the community."

Bright, entrepreneurial, sports-loving and a university student: Mr Khan has the same positive attributes that the family of July 7 bomber Shahzad Tanweer remember in their son.

Individuals like him, not community leaders, will provide the most meaningful answers about what might turn positive young men to radicalism, though Mr Khan's idea of retribution for a foreign policy he dislikes came when his father asked how the family should vote in last election. "I told him 'we should go Liberal Democrat'."

Around the table with Mr Khan and Mr Blair to discuss "extremism" at a primary school in Chapeltown were other young people who know how hard it has been to be a Yorkshire Muslim since the bombs in London.

There was Aneela Mather, one of the few white faces in the room, who cannot fail to notice "the way people look" when she is walking in Leeds with her Pakistani grandmother. There was also Waseem Naeem, star-struck enough to snap Mr Blair with his mobile phone but not so much that he, too, could not challenge foreign policy and the political party's "failure to engage" with British Muslims.

Mr Blair, who was visibly tired, said everything about his current travails when asked how he was. "I'll need to set up a government committee to answer that," he replied. But he left with some answers about how Muslims and non-Muslims might better understand each other.

Making Eid a public holiday for all would delight the non-Muslims and "make them examine what the festival means", said an optimistic young woman. A compulsory course on comparative religion would have the same effect, added a young man who proudly offered up the historical fact he believes every Briton should know: that the 2.5m Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis who fought for Britain in the Second World War are the biggest volunteer force ever to have served this country.

Help for some of the parents of these young people, whose lack of English has disenfranchised them from an understanding of their children's school development, was also suggested.

Someone helping to divorce the concepts of terrorism and Islam would be a step forward, Ms Mather told the Prime Minister. "Every time there is a picture of the suicide bombers on the television, it is followed by people praying at a mosque." Divorcing nationality from religion would also help, added another. "I'm Muslim but that has nothing to do with my Britishness, which is about being free to go out for a drink and to dance."

Mr Blair seemed heartened as he left. "You get people in Northern Ireland who are Protestants who will go to kill a Catholic because they are Catholic but no one says 'that's Protestants for you'," he said.

He promised to attempt to convert some of these thoughts into practice but made it clear who, in years to come, he expects to be at the front of the community to introduce them as policies. "I'll open the door. You must walk through it," he said.