Joan Smith: Muslim leaders must rescue the young

Conspiracy theories must not be allowed to prosper
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The sequence of events has become wearily familiar: first the arrests and claims of a chilling terror plot, then the furious denials by community "leaders". It happened last week in Birmingham, where nine men were detained in connection with an alleged plot to kidnap and execute a British Muslim soldier. The chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque, Dr Mohammed Naseem, inflamed feelings by comparing Britain to Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia - just the kind of paranoid nonsense you'd expect from a man who was a Respect candidate. It plays straight into the hands of the BNP and is a triumph for political Islam, which seeks to divide the country between aggrieved Muslims and the rest of us.

I don't know whether there was a kidnap plot but it wouldn't surprise me if extremists copied the tactic from Iraq; the aim of a series of spectacular outrages, from the African embassy bombings to 9/11, Bali, the 7/7 attacks and a series of videotaped beheadings, has been to attract disaffected young men to an authoritarian political ideology based on a literal reading of the Koran. The enemy isn't Christianity or Western culture, although its Saudi and Egyptian leaders know that anti-Western rhetoric can be useful; what they hate, and want to replace, is liberal secular democracy.

Political Islam is pre-modern, rejecting the idea of individual rights which is a cornerstone of democracy. It dislikes secular modern Muslims as much as "infidels", which is why its supporters might regard British Muslims in the armed forces as "legitimate" targets - just as followers of al-Qa'ida in Iraq have no qualms about killing fellow-Muslims who don't want to live in an Islamic republic. But even if you opposed that conflict from the outset, it cannot excuse the slaughter of civilians by Islamic terrorists anywhere in the world, and it certainly doesn't mean we have to mute our response to the provocations of political Islam.

Islamic extremists are trying to create as much dissension as possible, training young British men in foreign terror camps, facilitating terrorist attacks in the UK and hoping the wider Muslim community feels victimised when the police claim to have uncovered another terror cell. They've had some success in persuading Muslim women to adopt the niqab and jilbab, encouraging them to espouse a paranoid view of male-female relations. Sometimes this manifests itself in bad manners, such as the time when a Muslim WPC refused to shake hands with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner at her passing-out parade. But the ideology behind the veil - that women should regard all men as potential rapists - isn't a recipe for social harmony.

Predictably, Dr Naseem and young Muslim men who attend his mosque claimed last week that the alleged kidnap plot had been orchestrated by the British state. I've heard the same thing said about the 7/7 bombings, but the most significant detail of the latest alleged plot - that the intended victim was a Muslim - should have rung alarm bells in mosques and at the Muslim Council of Britain. It points to the existence of an internecine struggle within Islam, with the battleground shifting unpredictably from the arid landscapes of Afghanistan and Iraq to British cities.

A victory for Islamists would be as catastrophic for modern British Muslims as it would be for anyone else, and that's why community "leaders" should stop encouraging conspiracy theories. They have a much more urgent task on their hands, which is to win back young men and women from a form of Islam which is violent, misogynist and implacably hostile to liberal secular democracy.