Landscape Changes for Muslims in Britain after Bombing

An imam who's lived in Britain almost all his life, and a journalist who tutors imams on how to better relate to younger Muslims, talk to Steve Inskeep about life in the country one year after the London subway bombing.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Almost a year after suicide bombers struck London subways, British newspaper readers woke up to a startling survey.

LYNN NEARY, host:

More than one out of ten British Muslims said the suicide bombers who struck their country should be regarded as martyrs.

INSKEEP: The survey was commissioned by The Times of London. It came around the same time that British Prime Minister Tony Blair was criticized by a member of his own party. A Muslim lawmaker said the government was not doing much to reduce the danger.

NEARY: The United Kingdom is one of many Western nations with a Muslim population that's large, and young, and growing. Now, British officials and Muslim leaders are trying to understand that population.

Mr. KHURSHID AHMED (Chairman, British Muslims Forum): I think that there is a growing sense of alienation and bewilderment amongst our young people.

INSKEEP: Khurshid Ahmed, an immigrant from Kashmir, offers several reasons for that alienation. We found him in Birmingham, England, where he leads a group called the British Muslims Forum. He's worried about employment for the sons and daughters of Muslim immigrants. He's also worried that religious leaders, imams, are out of touch with young people.

Mr. AHMED: I think choice of imam in mosques has been pretty ad hoc. We have very large settlements originating from rural areas in Pakistan, in Kashmir, in India, in Bangladesh. Whole villages have actually come and settled in the U.K. They have mainly invited imams from their own villages.

The vast majority of our imams do not speak adequate English to intellectually engage with our young people. That is a big gap in our capacity. When it comes to engaging with young people, they have a huge competition with these negative, radical elements coming in from outside, because they are better able to communicate with young people than the imams themselves.

INSKEEP: Khurshid Ahmed said his group and others just announced a plan to change the way that imams are chosen. As the bombing anniversary approached this week, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Muslims should do more.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (United Kingdom): Government itself cannot go and root out the extremism in these communities. It is better that you mobilize the Islamic community itself to do this, where the moderate majority actually go and stand up against the ideas of these people, not just their methods.

INSKEEP: Those words from Tony Blair give us a starting point for our next conversation with Fareena Alam. She is editor of Q-News, a Muslim current affairs magazine based in Britain.

Is Tony Blair right about the Muslim community not standing up enough against extremist ideas?

Ms. FAREENA ALAM (Editor, Q-News): No, I think he's being very defensive. But, at the same time, he's partly right. I think a lot of the responsibility does lie with Muslims. There was a real wakeup call after 7/7 when Muslims realized, you know, that someone has hijacked our faith and it was right under our nose.

INSKEEP: There was a survey, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which looked at the attitudes of Muslims and others across Europe.

Ms. ALAM: Yes.

INSKEEP: And it talked about the spread of extremist ideas. And one question was this. Violence against civilian targets in order to defend Islam can be justified sometimes, rarely, or never. Fifteen percent of British Muslims said it could sometimes be justified. That's a lot of people, isn't it?

Ms. ALAM: Absolutely. It's a very, very worrying figure. I think that a lot of Muslims are not aware that attacks on civilians are never justified in our faith. I think that's the kind of education that we need to undertake.

INSKEEP: Granted that you're unhappy with Tony Blair, and that many people are in Britain right now, Muslim or not, is he right on the substance, in that there are a number of Muslims, a lot of Muslims who are moderate in general, but they're standing on the sidelines?

Ms. ALAM: I think he is right. I mean, it's not enough to say that 7/7 was not right. It's all - we have to oppose the kind of attitude that leads to the acceptance or the condoning of such acts. For example, just a few months ago, an imam up north in England was caught on camera. And he didn't realize he was being filmed. He said that 7/7 was justified. So we have individuals like him thinking crazy things. That is something we need to fight against very, very actively.

INSKEEP: We just heard a moment ago Khurshid Ahmed talking about the way that imams have been chosen rather randomly, he said...

Ms. ALAM: Hmm.

INSKEEP: ...in Britain. And that a lot of them seemed out of touch with the younger generation, the English-speaking generation of British Muslims, and he wants to change that. Is that the right course?

Ms. ALAM: I think that, yes, we need to change the way our imams are recruited. But I think that we need to give it time, because right now, our mosques are controlled. And I don't mean in a sinister way, but controlled by the first generation immigrants; our parents and our grandparents who still insist that they need imams from back home, so-called, that I really feel that, as a very young community, we need to think about who is becoming the imam in our local mosque.

Because usually we have the worst of the lot, people who can't get into law school, or can't get into university in general, who, you know, their last choice is to go into imam training school. That is not acceptable. We need to offer incentives so our brightest and our best young people feel motivated enough to become imams.

INSKEEP: How young is the British Muslim community?

Ms. ALAM: Well, at least 50 percent are under the age of 30.

INSKEEP: And you're right there. You're 27, right?

Ms. ALAM: I'm 27, yes. And I've done imam training. It was a really interesting experience.

INSKEEP: You weren't training them in religion, but in adapting to England.

Ms. ALAM: Yes. I was training them to understand the context in which young Muslims are living in the West, because they were going to be posted out to Germany, to France, to England, and they wanted to be trained in how to understand what the youth were going through. And obviously, language; big, big stress on English language, which I think is really, really good step. But I think that we still need to get our, you know, recruitment criteria right.

INSKEEP: Since the attacks that are known as 7/7 in Britain, is there a conversation that you've been involved with where a gulf between Islam and the West has come into view?

Ms. ALAM: I think that after 9/11, there was a big opening. A lot of people were talking to each other. But 7/7 was really bad. I feel that a lot of relations have broken down since 7/7, and it's really, really distressing.

INSKEEP: Relations between whom?

Ms. ALAM: Relations between Muslims and the rest of society. I think that has broken down a great deal. On a very individual level, I've seen the level of trust between myself and a non Muslim person, you know, passing by me on the street, or my neighbor, I think that trust has broken down. And I almost don't blame them.

INSKEEP: What do you see? Do you see something in their eyes as you go by?

Ms. ALAM: Yeah. The way they look at me, or the way the - you know, converse -you know, friendships have actually fallen apart. We have some, you know, really sad examples of friends who have changed their phone numbers. Not with us, personally, but our friends of friends who have changed phone numbers and cut off relations with their Muslim friends because they cannot deal with the trauma of 7/7, and how it was allowed to happen. This is what terrorists want. They want to polarize societies. And it's very, you know, it's a very sad situation.

INSKEEP: Fareena Alam is editor of Q-News in Britain.

Thanks very much.

Ms. ALAM: Thank you.

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