Community in crisis

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When Britain’s silver medallist for boxing at the Athens Olympics, Amir Khan turned pro recently he highlighted the dismal state of affairs that was plaguing his community in London. He dedicated his much publicised win to his community who had precious little cheer following the London bombings earlier this year.

For most young British Muslims like the celebrated boxer, life has undergone a dramatic change after the London blasts. Take the case of Abu Hasan who was born in Britain. He has never broken the law and was disgusted by the suicide bombers who killed over 50 people in London last month.

As a young Muslim living in Britain however, he says he feels constantly under suspicion, with people eyeing his beard and clothing and keeping their distance on the street.

“These bombers do not speak for me or my community but suddenly we are all under suspicion,” Hasan told reporters, standing near the Bury Park mosque in Luton, a slightly shabby town north of London where 35,000 Muslims live.

“I didn`t want this, I`ve always lived by the law but that counts for nothing now. Suddenly I feel totally alienated.”

Four British Muslims, three of Pakistani origin, killed themselves and 52 others in blasts on three underground trains and a bus on July 7. An attempt to repeat the attacks two weeks later failed.

In the days that followed, the government met with Muslim leaders to discuss the scale and root of extremism.

Hasan, 27 and of Pakistani origin, said he had always lived happily in England but felt the atmosphere had changed since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

“It is going quickly downhill for us all here,” he said, referring to the 1.6 million Muslims who make up just under 3 percent of Britain`s population. The vast majority hail from the Indian subcontinent.

“These are very bad times to be a Muslim living here. We have lived harmoniously in this country for decades but since 9/11 we have been under suspicion. We have done nothing wrong.”

Not everyone agrees. In the wake of the bombings, the Muslim community faced charges that it had not properly integrated into Britain, leaving young Muslims trapped between two cultures.

Russell Razzaque was in his late teens when he first experienced the radical interpretation of Islam. The writer and filmmaker believes that this historic lack of integration has helped militants spread their word.

“Growing up in a Muslim home is a completely different world to a Western home,” he said. “Then, when you get older and step out into the Western world, it is like stepping out into a different planet.

“You get literally smacked in the face. And it is then that the radicals swoop.”

Razzaque was approached by extremist groups when he was at university and hassled when he did not go to their meetings.

Razza Jaffrey agrees that integration is an issue and in 2001 helped set up a telephone helpline for young Muslims.

“They face a whole internal battle in being both Muslim and in trying to integrate into society,” Jaffrey said. “They are growing up in a society where it`s OK to be non-religious.

“And then there is also the generation gap, where their parents don`t really understand them … or their problems.”

An incident of racism or rejection could suddenly interrupt the integration process, both men said.

“You can be left feeling pretty sore and suddenly these extremists appear and deliver a whole mass philosophy about how you are someone great, special and different to these people who are persecuting you,” Razzaque said.

“They always know what age group to recruit and they are very effective. It`s like a hidden world but it is so prevalent.”

Some young Muslims want the government to do more to address their specific worries and fears.

“We (Muslims) have grown up here and been educated here,” Hasan said. “We are in every walk of society yet no one listens to us. No one will listen to my concerns,” he said, expressing anger over Britain`s role in the U.S.-led war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mahmud Ahmad, 27, said the violence in Iraq was all the more distressing because he related to the people there.

“I relate to them because that is all I am, a simple Muslim struggling in life. It doesn`t make me any less British if I relate to people in Iraq or Palestine.”

In much of the country, the British-Asian culture is still in its infancy as the majority of Muslims only moved to Britain in the last fifty years.

Unlike the black community in America, there are very few role models for younger Muslims to look to.

“Muslims who look to their parents see them as more Pakistani Muslim or Bangladeshi Muslim than British Muslim,” Jaffrey said.

The helpline chairman said the government had to act.

“What we need to do is marginalise and minimalise these people (militants) and push them to the boundary of society so they eventually become extinct,” Jaffrey said. “In order to do that you need to keep the mainstream Muslims on side.”

All the men agreed that the problem was urgent.

“There are people out there now who believe the same as the kids who killed themselves. It just takes a few people to see the suicide bombers as role models and you will start getting waves of attacks,” said Razzaque, “We need to act now.”