Leicester's Muslims shocked by arrest of eight terrorism suspects

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The Independent Online

Leicester's Muslim community declared itself in state of shock after a crackdown on alleged supporters of Osama bin Laden's terror network in the city.

After hearing of the police's swoop on predominantly Muslim areas of the city and the arrest of eight men under new anti-terrorism laws, Islamic leaders embarked on frantic efforts to find out how extremism might have found its way into a normally moderate and peace-loving community.

What they claim they found both shocked them and offered cause for relief. The arrests, they say, are of outsiders who may have used the city's calm atmosphere as "camouflage" for their alleged activities.

Ethnic minorities make up about 40 per cent of Leicester's population, yet the city has enjoyed racial harmony, tolerance and prosperity over the past 30 years or more. After riots last summer in Bradford and Oldham, two reports into the disturbances hailed the city as a shining example of how races can live together in peace.

At about 35,000, the Muslim population forms only a small part of the whole – Hindus being largest ethnic grouping - and since 11 September they have been anxious to project themselves in a different light from what one leader called "the hot-head element".

Manzoor Moghal, chairman of the Federation of Muslim Organisations in Leicestershire, spent yesterday contacting members of his umbrella grouping to find out it any of the 11 people arrested – eight under the new anti-terrorism legislation and three for immigration violations – had anything to do with the city's 16 mosques.

He said: "It was a complete puzzle. No one seemed to know these people. We have very good relations with the police, and we have been told by them to go back to our community to reassure people that they are not suddenly going to become a target for a police crackdown.

"From what we can understand, it would seem these people are of Middle Eastern origin. The Muslim population here is made up mainly of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and, more recently, some people from Africa. We believe the people who have been arrested are Arabs. It is believed that some of them married local girls and blended in.

"We have not found any one particular mosque that they congregated in. They seem to have just gone to their local mosques, lived a quiet life and got on with whatever they were doing."

Journalists in the area, particularly on the Leicester Mercury, have also been trying to find out whether any mosques, mainly in the Highfields area of the city, have been home to Islamic fundamentalists, but one said: "We certainly haven't found any to date."

Alarm bells rang in all Britain's Muslim communities after Al-Muhajiroun, a radical Islamic organisation, claimed to have been recruiting for al-Qa'ida in Luton. Although its claims have subsequently turned out to have been massively inflated, it did nevertheless persuade some British Muslims to join Osama bin Laden's jihad.

Leicestershire Police refused to confirm the identity of those arrested except to say they lived in the Highfields and Northfields areas of the city. However, a spokeswoman added: "We can't stress enough how co-operative the Islamic community in Leicestershire has been before and since September 11. We enjoy an excellent relationship with Muslims here and we are anxious for it to continue."

News of the arrests surprised officials at the central mosque, where one said: "This is a small city where we want to live in peace and harmony. It is very integrated here, we have always had good relations with the Christian community, the mosque is open and people from all the different communities regularly visit."

Next month the mosque is holding one of its regular inter-face meetings where Muslim, Christian and Jewish groups will meet to discuss common understanding.

A Muslim teenager who lived next door to one of the men arrested said the man arrived in the area about six months ago but did not mix with his neighbours. "He did not mix much even in the mosque. He was coming from a politics angle rather than religious," the teenager said.