Britain's democratic rights clash with fears of extremism

Pre-Sept. 11 policies made London haven for Muslims

Religious Freedom

Bombings In London

July 08, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

Long home to millions of Muslims, Great Britain has struggled to balance fundamental democratic rights of free speech and free assembly with calls by a small number of prayer leaders for radical versions of Islam.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday implicated Islamic extremists in the four bomb blasts that struck London, but cautioned that the people he believed were responsible speak for only a small percentage of Muslims.

"We know that these people act in the name of Islam," Blair said, "but we also know that the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad are decent and law-abiding people who abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as we do."

Over the past decade, radical Muslims have flocked to London from the Middle East, some fleeing persecution. British courts rejected extradition requests from countries that used the death penalty or were accused of using torture.

"London has always been a center for radical Islamists," said Bernard Haykel, associate professor of Islamic law and Middle Eastern studies at New York University. "The refugee status laws until September 11 were extremely liberal and tolerant and protective of people who had hard-core beliefs. And you couldn't extradite them."

A radical Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza al-Masri, was scheduled to go on trial this week, charged with encouraging the murder of non-Muslims.

Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight in 2001, was among the Muslim converts who attended al-Masri's mosque in North London.

The government moved to restrict grants of asylum and made incitement to religious hatred a criminal offense.

"Extremists have been coming in from other countries seeking a haven," said John L. Esposito, of a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "The British have tried to walk a fine line that I think most democracies are faced with: ... How do you deal with extremists without compromising the civil liberties of the majority of the community?"

Most of the country's Muslim population is nonobservant, but there is growing dissatisfaction among second- and third-generation communities, according to Robert S. Leiken, director of the immigration and national security programs at the Nixon Center in Washington.

"There is a feeling of alienation," said Leiken. "They don't really feel like part of society."

"There has been a general resentment at America and Britain among Muslims everywhere as somehow retaliating in an excessive fashion for the Sept. 11 attacks," said Stephen Philip Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There is a widespread belief that the Iraq war has mobilized ... a younger generation."

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