Blunkett changes entry rules for Muslim clerics

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Immigration rules for Muslim clerics entering Britain have been changed to reduce the number of imams who have little understanding of British culture, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said yesterday.

A leading Muslim academic said he had warned successive governments about the dangers of extremist imams but had been ignored. Zaki Badawi, the principal of the Muslim College, said many mosques recruited imams from abroad who sometimes brought in fundamentalist ideas or else could not speak English and so were unable to steer young members away from hardliners.

He said: "People coming from abroad who could speak English, and could actually approach the young people, imbued them with ideas which are strange both to Islam and this country. Mr Badawi claimed extremists were also using 300 after-school study groups to indoctrinate children and urged the Government to close them.

Mr Blunkett said he had changed immigration regulations that required Muslim students who trained to be imams in Britain to return to their home country and apply to re-enter Britain as a cleric. The rule made it easier for imams from rural areas of Muslim countries to obtain positions in Britain than those who had trained in the country and understood British culture.

Mr Badawi said: "The imam has to be an expert in the Koran ... but they [also] have to have some understanding of the culture, the world they're coming into and the impact of their teaching on the young people in their care."

Meanwhile, the Home Office said the imam at Feltham young offenders institution, where the suspected shoe bomber Richard Reid was an inmate, has been suspended for "unprofessional conduct". Abdul Rahman Qureshi is alleged to have made inappropriate comments about 11 September and distributed anti-US, pro-Taliban leaflets to inmates at Feltham in west London. He had not been at the institute at the same time as Mr Reid.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police Authority admitted that warnings about Muslim extremists such as Mr Reid might not have been taken seriously. Peter Herbert, the authority's deputy chairman, said allegations by Abdul Haq Baker, chairman of Brixton Mosque, where Mr Reid worshipped, that Scotland Yard failed to act "may be correct".

Police and other authorities sometimes did not know whom to listen to within the Muslim community and had not always heeded warnings from moderate voices, he said. "With the benefit of hindsight, many things that may have been looked at with more scrutiny after 11 September were not looked at in such a way beforehand."

Mr Reid worshipped at Brixton Mosque at the same time as Zacarias Moussaoui, a French man of Moroccan descent who has been charged with conspiracy over the 11 September attacks. Mr Baker said he believed Mr Moussaoui might have recruited Mr Reid at unofficial study groups.

The largest Muslim group in Britain has claimed reports about the influence of extremists were exaggerated and reinforced negative images of the Islamic community. Afzal Khan, assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council, said he would be surprised if as many as 50 study groups had been taken over by extremists.