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U.K.: Liberal Muslims Must Fight Growing Extremism

  • Jan Jun

British Muslims have reported rising incidents of hostility and bias ever since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States. Experts say the blame, in part, lies with the media, whose coverage of those events and the ensuing war on terror have failed to distinguish between Islamic extremists and the vast majority of ordinary, peaceable Muslims. They say the burden of restoring the public's faith in Muslims falls to the Islamic community itself. Are Britain's three million Muslims equal to the task of fighting back a wave of Islamophobia?

London, 25 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- British experts say it is "only a matter of time" before the UK becomes the target of a terrorist attack by Islamic extremists.

Such an attack, they add, would result in a sharp backlash against Britain's 3 million Muslims, many of whom say they have already felt the chill of creeping anti-Islamic bias in the nearly two years since the 11 September attacks on the United States.

What is needed, observers say, is for the country's vast majority of peaceful Muslims to go on the offensive, fighting for traditional European democratic values and against the militant minority.

But some experts wonder if Britain's Islamic community can find the cohesion needed to unite in a common cause. Peter Riddell is a professor with the Centre for Islamic Studies at London Bible College:

"Well, within Britain, the Muslim community is extremely diverse in all sorts of ways and there are a number of what you would call 'schools of Islam.' They tend to be defined along ideological grounds. The question is whether there is a specific school that is moving into a much more liberal, very, very advanced reformist line of thinking."

Riddell, who has co-authored several studies on Islam, says "Muslims are struggling to define the identity of Islam for the 21st century." He says the effort is hampered by the fact that the religion itself is characterized by an internal debate -- what he calls "a mosaic of voices."

He says some British-based Muslims -- like Islamic scholar Tariq Maldood and "Independent" correspondent Yazmin Alibi Brown -- are beginning to forge a liberal, reformist interpretation of Islam. But, he says, Britain "has some way to go before reformist liberal Islam is going to form a powerful school, which will come to have a big influence on the total Islamic scene in Britain."

Other observers are even less optimistic. One scholar, "Rashid" -- a recent immigrant who asked that his name not be used -- says militant Islam is growing stronger in Britain. He says the situation has been on the decline since the late 1970s, when Khurram Murrad -- a former top member of Pakistan's Jamaat-e Islami fundamentalist party and a supporter of the policies of the Taliban militia -- came to the U.K. and established the Leicester-based Islamic Foundation.

A 1982 declaration issued by the foundation stated that the Islamic movement was "an organized struggle to change the existing society into an Islamic society [and to] make Islam, which is a code for entire life, supreme and dominant, especially in the socio-political spheres." Murrad died in 1996, but the influence of the Islamic Foundation continues to grow. Islamic centers and mosques have mushroomed in Leicester, which was also eventually found to be the base of an Al-Qaeda cell.

Rashid says there is yet to be any true liberal school of Islamic thought in Britain.

"Well, I wish that it was possible for me to say [there was one]," he said. "There is a moderate view in Islam, but then the moderate view does not have a voice. And the voice it has is probably usually stifled by the more militant one, and they have no political agenda. The militants have both -- voice and the political agenda -- and they have the power to threaten people who stand in their way."

Rashid notes that there are more than 4,500 Koranic schools in Britain, a huge educational network over which the government has virtually no control. "A large number of children," he says, "could be under the influence of Islamist militants. So it's only a matter of time before we are going to see the end product coming out. Of course, people like [Saudi extremist] Muhammad al-Massari and others who are being given refugee status in this country are also continuing their campaign not only against the countries they came from, such as Saudi Arabia, but also building the Islamic think tanks, the militancy, the militant Islam in this country."

Perhaps one of Britain's most infamous extremist figures is Abu Hamza al-Masri, the former imam at the country's largest mosque in London's Finsbury Park neighborhood. A reputed Al-Qaeda recruiter, the Egyptian-born Hamza is wanted in Yemen on terrorism charges and until recently used the Finsbury Mosque for fiery speeches praising Osama bin Laden and the 11 September attacks. Both "shoebomber" Richard Reid and Zacharias Moussaoui, charged in the U.S. in connection to the 11 September attacks, attended Hamza's speeches.

The Finsbury Park Mosque has been closed since January, following a raid by British police, and Hamza may ultimately lose his British citizenship.

Caroline Cox, the deputy leader of the British Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords, is a human rights campaigner and the co-author of a recent book on Islam's relations with the West. She says there is a "desperate need" for dialogue with Britain's peaceful Muslim community in order to "support them against the Islamists."

She said: "To enable other people to realize what the situation is, to engage with the issues -- not to generate the generic Islamophobia against all Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims here and around the world are peaceable, law-abiding, hospitable, gracious people, but this militant movement and this march of a much more ideological Islam is something which we do believe does threaten our liberal democracies around the world. And we feel we must raise awareness in order for it to be an informed debate."