Anger at clerics' extremism as race attacks rise

Terror in America: British Muslims
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The Independent Online

Moderate Muslims complained yesterday that two self-appointed Islamic clerics were provoking racist incidents because of their extremist rhetoric in support of last week's terror attacks.

Muslim leaders have been horrified at the blanket media coverage of the provocative comments of the London-based "sheikhs", Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza. The Egyptian-born Mr Hamza, 43, has praised the terrorism as a "justified" attack on "a crazy superpower".

Mr Bakri's group, Al-Muhajiroun (The Emigrants), has distributed leaflets welcoming the attacks and claiming that "Allah has responded once again to the cries and supplications of the Muslims worldwide".

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said he was "examining the exact statements" to see if they contravened Britain's race hate laws.

On Tuesday, Mr Bakri summoned camera crews to the Pakistan embassy in London to issue a death threat against the Pakistani leader, General Pervez Musharraf, for his support of America.

Mr Bakri's two dozen chanting supporters were outnumbered by photographers. But the Reuters news agency sent a report around the world under the heading "UK Muslim chief threatens Pakistan leader".

For years Mr Bakri, who runs a Muslim centre in Tottenham, north London, has been regarded within the wider Islamic communities in Britain as an eccentric self-publicist.

Iftakhar Ahmed Khan, a London-based businessman who helped set up the Forum against Islamophobia and Racism, said Mr Bakri was seen as an "almost comical" figure by most Muslims. "He is like the John Cleese character in The Life of Brian who is always organising meetings but hardly anyone turns up," he said.

But as racist attacks increased across Britain, including the petrol bombing of a mosque in Bolton and a vicious attack on an Afghan mini-cab driver in west London, the effect of Mr Bakri's words are no longer being treated as a joke. Yesterday a 10-year-old Muslim girl had her headscarf ripped off by an adult outside school gates in Swansea.

Mr Khan admitted that the Muslim community had been "very complacent" in not coming forward to challenge Mr Bakri and Mr Hamza before.

Inayat Bunglawala, 32, a London IT specialist and spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said his organisation had decided to denounce the two men for the damage they were causing to community relations. "We are used to irresponsible comments from them but in this climate, where there are attacks on mosques and assaults on Muslims, these kind of remarks are highly dangerous," he said. "The Muslim council, which normally does not criticise other Islamic groups, has given me permission to openly criticise them because they are doing a lot of harm."

He said that Mr Bakri and Mr Hamza, a former nightclub bouncer who claims to have fought with the mujahedin in Afghanistan and now runs a mosque in Finsbury Park, north London, should be seen as marginal figures in a community that supports 800 mosques across Britain.

Al-Muhajiroun is dedicated to establishing a Muslim state in Britain. The organisation, which has been banned from university campuses, announced a fatwa this week against any Muslims who co-operated with Western intelligence services. Mr Bunglawala described the group as "the fatwa of the month club".

At Regents Park mosque in London, where 2,000 Arab, Asian, African and European Muslims gather to pray every Friday, the views of the extremists are also causing concern. The mosque's secretary, Tayab Ali, said its condemnation of last week's terror attacks had unanimous support.

"Any Muslim-abiding person or any person with any grain of sanity would not in any way support that," he said.

But Mr Ali accepted that extremists such as Mr Bakri and Mr Hamza had an appeal to a small group of "misguided" young people. "There is probably support among the youth but this is a section of society which is always the most difficult because of other grievances," he said.

Al-Muharijoun has the backing of between 500 and 1,000 supporters. Mr Hamza's organisation, the Supporters of Shariah, has about a hundred followers, and has been linked to terror attacks in Yemen.

In numerical terms, the two groups are no more representative of Muslim views in the UK than the British National Party is the authentic voice of British public opinion.

But though mainstream Muslims may recoil at last week's attacks, many share the distaste for American foreign policy which provoked them. Mr Bunglawala said "a very large number" of British Muslims were "opposed to America" because of its support for Israel and treatment of Iraq.

Paul Weller, a professor of theology at Derby University, said "swaths" of conservative Muslims shared with a small radical element a sense of "historic injustice" towards the Muslim world. "But the way in which people engage with those concerns and do something with them is very different," he said.