Leading article: We should recognise our friends

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The Independent Online

A number of lessons should be drawn from yesterday's verdict of an Old Bailey jury that Abu Hamza al-Masri is guilty of inciting murder and stirring up racial hatred. An obvious lesson is for the Government. In the wake of the July 7 bombings, the Prime Minister's knee-jerk reaction was to introduce new laws to outlaw the "glorification" of terrorism and to close down radical Islamic groups. This would have been a dangerous curb on the right to freedom of expression, and also - as yesterday's conviction has demonstrated - quite unnecessary. Hamza was prosecuted under existing legislation. Those fanatical preachers who truly present a threat to public safety can be brought to account under the laws we already have.

There is a wider lesson too. The impression generated by the extensive coverage given to Hamza's rants by the populist press has been that he is somehow the authentic voice of Islam in Britain. But what the reaction to yesterday's verdict demonstrates is just how unrepresentative are figures such as Hamza. There were no cries of support for him from mainstream Islamic organisations; the Muslim Council of Britain has long called for Hamza, and others like him, to be silenced by the law. There were no popular demonstrations in his name either.

We should also bear in mind that the Muslim Council wasted little time in denouncing last week's offensive London demonstration by a small number of extremists against the Danish cartoons of Mohamed. The council is now planning its own demonstration in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. This will be a welcome attempt to reassert the non-violent face of British Islam.

Extremists such as Hamza who are given so much free publicity by our media have no real hold over Britain's 1.6 million Muslim population. All but a tiny number of British Muslims desire only to practise their religion in peace and in a spirit of mutual toleration. They are a valued and economically essential part of our national life.

The antipathy that the cartoon controversy has generated between Muslims and politicians around Europe is unsettling. That it has not been replicated here in Britain to the same extent may be partly a result of the decision of British newspapers not to publish the offending cartoons, but is also partly because the Muslim community here feels less excluded than do Muslim communities on the continent. We should take heart from that.

These are violent and disorientating times. But provided we recognise that British Muslims are friends - rather than our enemies - our society will ultimately emerge into brighter days.

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