Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Who are these self-appointed clerics that so mislead our young Muslims?

'Anyone can become one of these leaders, though it does help if you are large and hairy'
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A letter by one Muslim in response to my articles claimed, quite rightly, that I did not represent "Islam as practised by the clear majority of more than 90 per cent of Muslims not only in the UK but globally". I am very happy about this and would go further and say that no one in the world can claim to represent 90 per cent of Muslims here or globally.

A letter by one Muslim in response to my articles claimed, quite rightly, that I did not represent "Islam as practised by the clear majority of more than 90 per cent of Muslims not only in the UK but globally". I am very happy about this and would go further and say that no one in the world can claim to represent 90 per cent of Muslims here or globally.

The grand role of representation I leave to others, particularly those individuals who have made careers for themselves as mullahs, muftis, Muslim clerics, religious scholars. This self employment sector has been growing impressively in areas with large Muslim populations. Anyone can become one of these leaders, though judging from the pictures of the most vocal of the band, it does help if you are large (maybe your words come across as more weighty) and hairy. Battle wounds, lost eyes, legs and hands give you image advantages too.

Charisma and erudition are less important than a ruthless desire to take over the minds and lives of ordinary Muslims who simply want to walk the road of life. The road in Britain has long been hard, as it is for most immigrants who have to fight for rights and against the panic of cultural and religious loss. Now these headmen constantly stop and search them, harangue them about their sinful ways, then push or pull them into positions where they must accept authoritarian forms of "Islamic" behaviour.

We know of Omar Bakri and Abu Hamza, whose activities in various mosques put other forms of fanaticism to shame. Clever men both, they intimidate the keepers and trustees and have taken over patches where they call upon young Muslims to enlist as religious mercenaries in the war against evil. Now comes the cleric Abu Qatada who has declared that Muslims admire Mr bin Laden and have a duty to fight infidels. He lives in the UK which for him must be an infidel country, on benefits from taxes paid mostly by infidels and allegedly has a large bank balance presumably in infidel banks.

Wretchedly for the rest of us, the media loves these men with their wild eyes and hot words. So they get all the space they crave to express their views. Kalim Siddique, the late leader of the Muslim parliament, was the only Muslim in this country to have had eight full newspaper profiles. He was always on television and radio as the voice of British Muslims. The reason? He rabble roused by repeatedly defending the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, which he had encouraged the Ayatollah to pass on a visit to Iran.

These "leaders" become heroes for the young Muslim men in this country who are locked in a cycle of under-education and unemployment. There is a growing educational gap within British Muslims. In 1994, twice the proportion of young Muslim men entered university as white men. Yet among 16- to 24-year-olds, twice as many Pakistani men were failing to get minimum GCSE qualifications as white men. Figures such as Bakri and Hamza give these men a sense of power and self respect. These high-profile stirrers know exactly what they are doing and why. They know they are irresistible to the susceptible.

They intoxicate many young men who are lost in the modern British world into which they were born but to which they have never been allowed to belong, not by Paki-haters and not by their own elders who still imagine that there will be a return to the homelands one glorious day. Fuad Nahdi, a Muslim journalist, once wrote: "Platoons of young, angry Muslims are mushrooming all over the country. Twisted and disfigured by the twin evils of racism and Islamophobia, they are bitter and resentful – potential fifth-column guerrillas for the numerous causes in the Muslim world."

Yunus Samad, a social researcher, pointed out that young Muslims he studied were rebelling against their parents not by turning their hair green or drinking to oblivion, but by espousing a "purer" and harder form of Islam than their parents. Others have come from the darker corners of society, from lives of crime and anti-social activities. Just like the Taliban, the hardline leaders have moved their devotees away from these activities. What they have given them instead, though, is infinitely more destructive.

Others also ferment trouble, though less openly. These are Imams and mullahs who work within mosques and religious schools. Again, they are imported from outside the country and are conduits, willingly or unwillingly, (their paymasters are hard-line Islamicists, mostly Saudis) for practises which forcefully encourage Muslims to dissociate from all the values of western democracies. In the past they were supported by families who were worried that they needed to reconnect to their true origins. Now they have taken over and dominate the thoughts and actions of their congregations.

Moderate Muslims – I still say we are the majority – are revolted by these imported, self-imposed imams. And we are worried that since 11 September these captains of fanaticism have got themselves high on outrage (and the daily bombs on Afghanistan only help them) and are now drawing in even more angry young men.

I have been talking to young Muslims a lot in recent weeks and many of them are under intolerable pressures exerted by the lieutenants of the mullahs. Hafeez, a medical student, told me what I heard many times: "The fanatics of Bakri and others have been seeking us out to say that we are on the side of Islam and that we hate America. I had to tell them my mum was half-American so I couldn't do that. They said I was a kaffir and that Allah would punish me for my betrayal."

There is hope. Some home-grown imams are coming through and they are highly educated and devoutly British. There is also a growing recognition that there is enormous diversity within Islam in Britain and a resistance to the idea that we are identical. Examples of the new, bright lights would be individuals such as Sohail Nakhooda, an LSE graduate who works with the Islamic Foundation in Leicester. He studied Catholic theology in Rome and now runs an inter-faith unit. At The Islamic Society of Britain and the Al-Khoei Foundation you find leaders who would probably be the first to be strung up by the likes of Bakri and Qatada. Now I fear that the latter have such a grip on our young and the irresponsible media that the voices of sanity and sophistication will all be drummed out especially as the war escalates and becomes ever more a display of American indifference to Afghan victims.