The two faces of Islam UK

Horrified by images of fellow Muslims burning embassies in their name, thousands gather in London to stand up for moderation. Meanwhile, links between other London protesters and paramilitary group emerge

They came, the organisers said, to sound the "legitimate voice" of the Muslim community in Britain. After a week dominated by images of a hook-handed fanatic and placards in praise of the 7 July suicide bombers, it was a day for the moderate majority to stand up and be counted.

The thousands who gathered in Trafalgar Square in London for yesterday's rally did so to protest against both the caricaturing of the Prophet Mohamed and the extremists seeking to exploit the tensions for their own ends.

But as speakers called for unity and mutual tolerance on one side of the police lines, more than 30 trouble-makers, described by a police officer as "NF types", gathered nearby before being moved on.

Caught between the "hotheads" within the community and the racists outside it, Muslim leaders have rarely been under greater pressure as the international storm over the cartoon continues to rage.

While ministers publicly welcome the leaders' new willingness to assert mainstream Islamic values, privately they are warning of yet more sanctions against the radical fringe.

This newspaper has learnt that the Home Office is preparing to force through measures to close down mosques used to foment extremism.

Unveiled initially by Tony Blair in the wake of the 7 July bombings, the plans were dropped just before Christmas by Charles Clarke after an outcry by leading imams.

Now, however, officials are working on a new version of the proposed measure to be driven through unless there is concrete evidence that so-called " preachers of hate" are being denied access to mosques.

The jailing last week of Abu Hamza, who turned the Finsbury Park mosque into a hotbed of extremism, has once again focused attention on the issue. MI5 and Special Branch are drawing up a list of clerics to be forcibly excluded from mosques if self-regulation is ineffective, according to an internal progress report. The document also makes clear that the security services are putting together a hitlist of extremist bookshops connected to jihad-supporting organisations.

A senior Whitehall source said: "The message is very much that it's time to put your house in order. We will not hesitate to act if we don't see that happening in a fairly short period of time."

Gordon Brown, in a speech on terror tomorrow, will reinforce the message that more needs to be done to support the "moderate Muslim voice". But with a series of political battles looming about how to counter home-grown terrorism attention will remain firmly fixed on the other, extreme, face of Islamic Britain.

Nor is the international situation likely to help to reduce tensions as Denmark withdrew diplomats from Iran, Indonesia and Syria yesterday in the face of escalating violence.

Police broke up a riot that erupted in Jerusalem, and the previous day, the Muslim sabbath, saw angry demonstrations in dozens of countries. Police fired on marchers in Kenya, wounding one person, and protesters in Tehran threw firebombs at the French embassy. Eleven people died in Afghanistan last week during confrontations between police and rioters.

But the mystery over how the issue inflamed the Muslim world deepened with the revelation that an Egyptian newspaper had published several of the cartoons last October, less than three weeks after they first appeared in Denmark, without provoking a reaction. El Fagr reprinted the drawing considered most offensive on its front page, along with a highly critical commentary. Yet even though it was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, it took another three months for the cartoons to spread anger across the Middle East and beyond.

Evan Kohlmann, a consultant to the US government on terrorism and the internet, was in Denmark in September, when the local newspaper Jyllands Posten first published the cartoons. "There was an immediate reaction on the internet - threats, angry rants and discussion of plans to break into Danish websites," he said. "I warned them about it."

But the key event in internationalising the issue appears to have been an emergency summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), held in Mecca midway through December. A group of Danish-based Muslims, angered by the refusal of the Danish government to meet them or to discuss the controversy with ambassadors of Muslim countries, flew to Mecca. They took with them not only the Jyllands Posten cartoons, but much cruder drawings that had been sent to local Muslims, allegedly depicting the Prophet Mohamed as a pig, a paedophile and engaged in bestiality.

Ahmed Akkari, a Lebanese-born Dane who led the group, denied that the more shocking caricatures had been presented as having been published in Denmark. But the BBC said that Mr Akkari, speaking in Arabic on al-Jazeera, had supported a boycott of Danish goods and businesses by Arabs, while telling Danish media he opposed it.

The result of the OIC summit appeared to be official sanction for the campaign in countries such as Iran and Syria. The authorities in Damascus did nothing to stop demonstrators who set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies earlier this month. Several governments in the Middle East, under pressure from the US to democratise, used the issue to demonstrate to their own people what free speech could lead to. But it was also seized upon by their opponents to gain political advantage.

"It was more a symptom than a cause, but the issue exploded in violence in all the most volatile areas of the Muslim world," said Mr Kohlmann.

The chief editors of three privately owned, weekly papers in Yemen are also to stand trial for offending Islam after they published the Danish cartoons. The government also suspended licences for The Yemen Observer, al-Ra'i el-Am and al-Huriya.

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