britain in despair

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    July 31, 2005
    LONDON - The Somali-born man speaks perfect English with a slight British accent. He wears western clothes and follows soccer and cricket. Yet after more than a decade here, Abdir Rahman still feels like a second-class citizen.

    "The ruling class here just want the Somali people to be cleaners and part-timers," said Rahman, 29, who is employed as a part-time postal worker despite being a tri-lingual college graduate. Instead of helping Somalis integrate into the mainstream, he said, some Britons "call us Taliban" or make racial slurs about their dark skin.

    Notwithstanding Britain's professed embrace of multiculturalism, disaffection in Muslim communities appears rampant, creating enormous challenges for the government in preventing further bombings by homegrown militants.

    Though the bombers in this month's attacks were of foreign heritage - including Pakistani, Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian - all were Muslims born or raised in this country.

    "Thousands are feeling so disenfranchised with the system and with democracy that they might be willing to take up terror," warned Shahid Raza, a prominent imam and spokesman for the British Muslim Forum, a collection of Muslim religious and community leaders.

    In dozens of interviews since the bombings, British Muslims from an array of backgrounds and countries denounced the attacks as an affront to Islam. But many said they understood why Muslims born or reared here might be willing to blow up fellow Britons.

    Even Pakistanis, whose communities are far larger and more integrated than those of recent arrivals from war-torn East Africa, said they'd been systematically discriminated against by white Christian Britons. And almost all Muslims expressed rage and despair over what they consider London's and Washington's disregard for Muslim lives in countries including Iraq and Afghanistan.

    "The British and the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and are killing our innocent brothers and sisters. Why?" asked Ali Hassani, 21, a cell phone customer service representative, as he stood in a park in Beeston, the suburb of the Midlands city of Leeds where three of the alleged July 7 bombers lived, worked or prayed. A group of Pakistani and Bangladeshi boys passing by on bicycles stopped to listen and nod.

    "You be in their shoes," chimed in another Pakistani-Briton who wouldn't give his name and whose grammar suggested he mostly conversed in Punjabi. "You be good Muslim man, you be peaceful, you no do anything taboo, but people say, 'You bad just because you Muslim. You blow people up.'"

    "Why America can check for weapons in Iraq but no one can check for weapons in America?" the man asked. "Why in Abu Ghraib [prison] they show Iraqi man with dog leash and no clothes on? For Muslim man, this big shame. Slap me, kill me, but no take my clothes off so other Muslim man see me like this."

    War on terror or Muslims?

    Four-fifths of British Muslims believe the war on terror is a war on Islam, according to a poll conducted for the Guardian newspaper in November.

    Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, a London-based group that tracks bias crimes and conducts surveys of British Muslims, described the level of alienation among British Muslims as "shocking." In one of the group's nationwide surveys of Muslims last year, more than half disagreed with the statement that the British government respected Muslims, and four out of five said they'd been victims of Islamophobia.

    "That's a huge percentage," Shadjareh said, noting the poll was taken before the bombings, which authorities say have caused bias crimes against Muslims to increase more than tenfold. "If Muslim people feel more part of society, then extreme views would not have as much of an impact."

    In such an environment, terror recruiters have their pick of homegrown terrorists-in-waiting, said Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al-Qaida - Global Network of Terror."

    "The preachers of hate who radicalize Muslims in Britain welcome cradle Muslims and converted Muslims. And they do not discriminate based on color or country," Gunaratna said.

    In words, at least, the bombings have served as a wake-up call among government officials, who have been brainstorming with Islamic leaders on ways to dissuade more potential terrorists from within Britain's 1.6 million Muslims. High on the agenda is expanding interfaith, multicultural activities, from soccer to street fairs, at the grassroots level. "You've got to get right into the entrails of the community to do it properly ... to deal with the warped teaching that causes this type of extremism," Prime Minister Tony Blair said after one such meeting.

    Engaging young Muslims

    Another goal is to create more programs within mainstream mosques and Muslim centers where young Muslims can freely express themselves and obtain advice on subjects including jobs, housing and ways to participate in a democratic society.

    If young Muslims don't feel embraced by their mosques, warned Zaki Badawi, the respected chief imam of the London Central Mosque, "in the void between the imam and the young person comes the agitator, who can fill them with bad ideas."

    Shortly after the first London attack, U.S. authorities refused to let Badawi enter the country when he arrived to lecture on ways mainstream Islam could isolate fringe elements.

    Though U.S. officials later apologized, many young Muslim men cite Badawi's deportation as further proof of a conspiracy against Muslims. Some went so far as to insist that the United States instigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or that the British government was behind the London bombings.

    At a recent vigil for bomb victims in London, Shak Khan, 30, a Muslim social worker, dismissed such theories. But he sounded stung as he accused Blair of ignoring the 2 million Britons, many of them Muslims, who marched two years ago against Britain's involvement in Iraq. In that climate, he feared, imams' calls for dialogue might be futile.

    "The problem is that we Muslims and young people feel we haven't been heard," Khan said. "We don't have proof that the democratic path works."

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