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World: Muslims In The West -- Young People Struggling To Cope With Social Exclusion, Deprivation, Discrimination (Part 2)

  • Robert Parsons --> Muslims leaders after the London bombing Britain is still struggling to come to terms with this summer's bombings in London, which killed more than 50 people. The attacks were perpetrated by Muslim extremists. But three out of the four suicide bombers were born in Britain. That fact has focused renewed attention on Britain's 1.5-million strong Muslim community -- from the contented, to the disaffected, to the radical. In a three-part series, RFE/RL profiles members from each of these segments of the population. In Part 2, RFE/RL spoke to disaffected young Muslims in London about their lives, and to those who are trying to help them cope.

London, 2 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- At the Muslim Youth Helpline in north London, Issrah Jawad councils a caller struggling to comes to terms with life as a Muslim in Britain.

"Muslim Helpline. Hi. That's fine. You can talk to me. Yeah, go ahead. It's fine. Carry on. Yeah, yeah, it's fine. Carry on. What happened? OK. Well, what do you think you can do about that? OK, that sounds like a good idea," Jawad says.

Since its opening in December 2002, the Muslim Youth Helpline in north London has been inundated with appeals for assistance. The helpline's team of 50 workers have witnessed a growth in mental health and social problems among young Muslims struggling to come to terms with social exclusion, deprivation, and discrimination.

Imran Saifna is a project manager at the helpline. The London bombings, he suggests, may be the price Britain is paying for closing its ears to a desperate cry for help.

"A young child in a classroom who continuously puts his hand up and is ignored knows that if he starts screaming, the teacher will turn around and look at him. So if he does something radical, the teacher will actually turn around and say, 'Well, what's wrong? What do you want?' Whereas, if he just continues to silently put his hand up, nobody will ever ask him. He will just be ignored in the background," Saifna said.

And feeling ignored, it seems, is what defines the existence of many young British Muslims. They feel ignored, in particular, over the war in Iraq. It was a theme that kept coming up as I wandered around Whitechapel Market -- just down the road from the East London mosque and home to one of the biggest concentrations of Muslims in Britain.

"They're killing so many innocent people in Iraq -- kids, women. They're raping women. They're killing little babies," one man said.

"You've got to understand. People won't just come and blow your country up for nothing. You declared war on them and, of course, they declared war on you. A whole family is wiped out and only a 10-year-old boy is still alive. What do you think that 10-year-old boy is going to do? Do you think he is going to come to your country and start shaking your hand? I don't think so. This is only the start. I watched TV the other day. They said there's about 2,000 suicide bombers up and ready and trained by Al-Qaeda. It's only a matter of time," another man said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair rejects any link between the war in Iraq and the London bombings.

Abdul Rahman Malik is a contributing editor to "Q-News," a monthly magazine that appeals to educated, liberal-minded young Muslims in Britain. I met him at a cafe around the corner from Tavistock Place, the scene of the bombing of the No. 30 bus on 7 July.

"This is the most globalized generation that's ever lived. They have a Muslim identity, and when Bosnian Muslims were killed in the thousands, to think that a young Muslim in Bradford wasn't affected by that is ludicrous. Of course they were. That's an identity-forming experience. We need to understand that low-level noise -- almost white noise -- that's going on, the rumbling at a street level of what's going on with a lot of these young Muslims. I think the rumble is that there is an emerging identity, there's a political situation, and that weds itself to a radical theology," Malik said.

Malik is quick, though, to distance himself from the idea that the London bombings can be explained by Iraq alone. Extremism in Islam goes back a long time, he says, long before Iraq or Afghanistan. But it provides a tempting outlet for the frustrations of the angry and disaffected.

"I can speak from personal experience. My father had been a political activist in Pakistan. I had grown up with a strong sense of my Muslimness. But when I went to university, part of the attraction of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood was that they gave you a mission. That missionary zeal finds favor amongst young people who are looking for an identity that they can wear on their sleeve. And the kind of books we started reading were books [by radical Egyptian writer] Sayyid Qutb, [for example,] which were describing a world in polar terms -- them and us. And for me to snap out of that took some time," Malik said.

The idea that British society -- and, in particular, its politicians -- are not listening is a recurring theme throughout the Muslim community.

Azzam Tamimi is a Palestinian and chief spokesman of the Muslim Association of Britain. He fiercely rejects the notion that Muslims share collective responsibility for the London bombings. And like so many others, he keeps coming back to the travails of Muslims throughout the world.

"I think many youngsters don't find the right avenues for expressing their feelings. Many mosques have a policy of no politics inside the mosques. Much of what is of concern to the youngsters nowadays is of a political nature. What has been happening to the Palestinians is deeply engraved in the memory of every Muslim. And then comes Iraq, and the war on terrorism, Abu Ghurayb, Guantanamo Bay, the dishonoring of the Koran. All these images bombard youngsters. Some cannot take the pressure," Tamimi said.

It's 9:15 on a Sunday evening, and the Jamme Mosque on London's Brick Lane is full of worshippers -- both young and old. This is the face of acceptable Islam in Britain. All of those I spoke to here roundly condemned the London bombings.

There is a growing voice within the Islamic community that says official Islam is failing second- and third-generation Muslim Britons. Often, the clerics don't speak English. Malik is not alone in saying they are out of touch with the lives of young Muslims.

"A lot of their religious needs are not being met in the mosque. In a way, the mosques have become patsies. Their crime is disengagement, not engagement. It's not that the mosques are creating wicked young men. No, those wicked young men are being radicalized outside of the mosques," Malik says.

Because, he says, the mosques are becoming irrelevant, and Muslim leaders are not addressing the most important questions.

"Where's the vision for a British Islam beyond beards, scarves, and Halal meat? That's the question we asked in 1993. And the sad, sad conclusion in 2005 is that beards, scarves, and Halal meat are still the critical issues for a lot of Muslim leadership, not terrorism," Malik says.

Angry, alienated, disaffected. These are the adjectives most used in recent weeks to describe Britain's young Muslims. Excluded by mainstream British society and poorly understood by their fathers. But that, according to Sara Waseem, a Muslim student activist, is not the whole story. She says you can't understand the anger of young Muslims if you ignore the social context.

"One of the main things amongst the youth is the fact that there isn't equal access to mainstream services, recreational facilities, because perhaps, culturally, from their parents or their families, they have this idea that there are certain things which are not best to do and then, in trying to understand their faith, they have no way of really expressing that. This kind of exclusion leads them to search for another group which perhaps makes them feel included and the question should be why isn't the community catering for the inclusion of these people?" Waseem says.

There's no easy answer to that question -- as Tony Blair is now discovering.

He's set mechanisms in place to redress the balance, among them the creation of a council of Muslim experts to find out what is wrong and what can be done about it. Yet he was soon criticized -- the people he had chosen were too old, too much part of the establishment.

There is a gulf to bridge, and Britain is struggling to find the means to do it.

See also:

Radical Believes Suicide Bombers Acted With Right Intentions

Family's Hearts Are In England, Their Roots In Iran