Young Muslims alienated at home find solace at Haj

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The Independent Online

Yashir Nawab could hardly recognise himself. Gone were the east Londoner's spiky haircut, Gucci shoes and Armani clothes. Yesterday, as he wandered among the throng of pilgrims towards Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, his head was shaven, and he had grown a beard. His only clothing was a simple white robe, to signify all Muslims are equal in the face of God.

Mr Nawab, 28, is from Plaistow and works on the London Underground. He is a British-born Indian and, until recently, lived what he described as a Western lifestyle, staying out late with his friends, and often missing prayers.

No longer. For he is among a massive wave of young British pilgrims arriving here, motivated in part by an increasing sense of alienation in their homeland. He began the five-day Islamic pilgrimage of Haj yesterday, and at least 23,000 more Muslims from Britain joined him. They are part of a new, disenchanted generation who are rediscovering their religious identity. It is a spiritual journey, but the reason many have felt compelled to come has deep implications for multi-cultural Britain. They talk of rising levels of Islamophobia after the London bombings last year, and cite recent comments made by Jack Straw on the divisiveness of the veil.

So, while the Haj is a crowning moment of faith, a duty for all able-bodied Muslims to carry out at least once in their lives, the Britons joining this year's 3 million pilgrims are noticeably younger than in previous years, according to Muslim leaders. They are also more devout.

Crowds hundreds of thousands strong filtered out of the Grand Mosque in Mecca towards the desert valley, chanting Labbaik Allah Humma Labbaik - "Here I am O Lord" - and raising their hands to heaven. It was a remarkable sight.

They were hiking through an eight-mile desert valley to Mina, following a route around the mountains of the ancient city in line with a tradition established by the Prophet Mohamed. They carried with them blankets, food and water, and many stopped to pray at the roadside.

Walking with them, Mr Nawab said: "It is the negative hysteria in Britain that has brought me towards Islam. With what I think is Islamophobia, they are trying to break Islam down but they are just pushing me towards it. I want to preserve it. People are becoming less into Western culture. I've seen so many youngsters turn to Islam, so many young people are ignoring the Western culture."

Zahid Amin, the former president of Britain's Young Muslims, said: "The demographic of pilgrims has changed. Usually, parents in their 50s and 60s take the trip. Now, it's people in their 20s and 30s. Many feel they are under siege from the never-ending media stories involving Britain's Muslims - how 'ghettoised' they are, how separate, and how isolationist, what oddities a lot of young people are. "Younger Muslims are not feeling so Western no. I don't think it can be avoided, the negativity from the Prime Minister to Jack Straw, right down to Britain's newspapers, it is creating a feeling of alienation. Picking on a community so much while telling them to integrate will have the reverse effect - they will separate," he said.

His words were echoed by a pilgrim from Manchester in his early 30s. He felt "an implosion" within the Pakistani community in the city. "I have seen plenty of young people turning to religion to find their roots," he said. "It's an implosion as opposed to an explosion. If you have all the world saying all these things about our faith, you need to find out what's right and what's the truth."

Zenab Patel, 18, who works in a mobile phone shop in London, said her pilgrimage was also a quest to adopt the Islamic way, such as wearing a headscarf and praying regularly in Britain.

Islamic leaders dismiss any suggestion that young Muslims, however disenchanted, were likely to become radicalised during Haj. Inayat Bunglawala, the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "There's a big difference between a young person who is devout and questioning whether we in the West are practising values which we claim to uphold, and a youth who believes the West is an enemy of Islam."

At a time when Sunnis and Shia are warring in Iraq, Yusuf Tai, a British Burmese pilgrim, aged 26, said the Haj helped boost understanding."It was fascinating to see them together at the Kaaba. There are so many different facets to Islam. They were together, but they were all doing their own rituals. It teaches you to be more culturally tolerant."

And Mr Nawab? He was preparing for today's stoning of the devil ceremony in Mina. He will pick up seven pebbles and hurl them at a pillar, which represents Satan, and ask for forgiveness for his sins. The man who works on the District line is on a long, long journey.

The rituals

* The Haj: Five days of rituals centred on the holy city of Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohamed, aimed at cleansing sin.

* The Kaaba: The black cubic stone in Mecca, Islam's holiest site, which Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.

* Mount Arafat: The site where Mohamed gave his final sermon in 632. The pilgrims spend Thursday here in prayer and meditation before returning to Mina for the stoning ritual.

* Stoning of the devil: The ritual on Friday, where crowds of pilgrims file past three stone walls symbolising the devil to pelt them with stones.

* Eid al-Adha: The Feast of Sacrifice is a celebration which marks the end of the Haj. It begins tomorrow.

Incidents of Islamophobia?

* Jack Straw, Leader of the Commons, angered many Muslims in October by stating that the veil is a "visible statement of separation and of difference" and said he asked women visiting his surgery to remove it.

* A Muslim classroom assistant suspended for wearing a veil in lessons was sacked in November. Aishah Azmi, 23, was asked to remove it after the school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, said pupils found it hard to understand her.

* Between September 2001 and the end of August 2006 the police arrested 1,082 people on suspicion of offences under Terrorism Act 2000. Of these 664 were released without charge. Some 175 were charged with terrorism-related offences; 174 faced non-terrorism related charges; and 69 on immigration offences.

* More than 250 officers were involved in a botched anti-terrorist raid in June on the home of two Muslims, one of whom was shot. Mohammed Abdul Kahar, 23, and Abul Koyair, 20, were arrested at home in Forest Gate, east London, but later released without charge. The raids provoked anti-police demonstrations in London.

* Cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed published in a Danish newspaper provoked worldwide protests. A demonstration in London in February sparked outrage when placards gave out messages some said amounted to incitement to murder. Mizanur Rahman, a website designer, was later convicted of stirring racial hatred for carrying placards calling for non-Muslims to be "annihilated" and "beheaded" as he addressed more than 300 protesters outside the Danish embassy in London.

Jason Bennetto

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