For British Muslims, revival of old fears

Tension: Increasingly, they feel that they `aren't wanted here.'

July 12, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Zaheer Ali sees the odd looks again, the untrusting stares and anonymous snickers that frightened him so much three years ago that he moved his family to Pakistan, where his skin and religion didn't turn heads.

Pakistan was too foreign for them, and the family quickly returned to its native England, but Ali said England is once more becoming a difficult place to be a Muslim. He became certain of that two days ago when he saw the newspaper picture of Shahara Islam and realized how thankful he was that she was dead.

Islam is a 20-year-old bank teller and devout Muslim, missing since she left for work Thursday morning and thought to have been crushed in the wreckage of a London subway car. Ali feels sick when he thinks how her family must miss her and how happy he felt to learn that a Muslim had died in last week's bombings - that the rest of Britain might see that Muslims suffered, too.

"Can you believe that? Can you understand what an evil thing it is for me to even think that way about something so tragic?" Ali said. "But that's how confusing it feels, how mixed the emotions are.

"I was born in this country. My children were born in this country. But we increasingly start feeling like Muslims aren't wanted here, that our culture is under attack."

Ali's experience is, in many ways, typical among British Muslims since Thursday's attacks, for which no one has been implicated but which Prime Minister Tony Blair said bear trademarks of "Muslim terrorist groups."

The circumstances that turned Ali, a 36-year-old computer specialist, into a devout and committed Muslim also reveal much more. They show Britain as welcoming and hostile to one of its largest ethnic minorities, host not only to vast and deep-rooted Muslim communities, but also to seeds of distrust that have often sprouted into resentment and hate.

"Nobody I know - no sane Muslim in London, certainly - would support that kind of attack against innocent people. It is contrary to every teaching of Islam," Ali said, standing before a collection of Qurans and ancient coins that he uses to teach about the religion's history.

"But I think a lot of people understand where the jihadist mentality comes from, why people think that their religion is under attack."

Humayun Ansari, a University of London professor who has written about the treatment of Britain's Muslims since 2001, said the country "has conjured up Islam as a dangerous, powerful force, irrational, violent and fanatical, that requires tight control but also needs to be kept at a distance."

As a result, he said, "Muslims in Britain constantly face the challenge of proving that they do indeed belong to British society."

Muslims in Britain suffered widespread abuse after the 2001 attacks in the United States, including an assault on a taxi driver who was left paralyzed. Many people said this week that they fear more of the same.

Muslim organizations and publications have reported at least half a dozen incidents of vandalism against mosques, none of which could be confirmed.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, an umbrella organization that advises police departments in the United Kingdom, said it has not detected a measurable increase in violence against Muslims, but it noted that "the Muslim community is feeling increasingly vulnerable and concerned."

The Muslim Welfare House in London's Finsbury Park area feels it. It held an open house Sunday, inviting people to remove their shoes, tour the compact mosque, learn about its community outreach and education programs, and nibble on skewers of food.

Mohammad Shakir, a London college student and member of the mosque, greeted visitors at the door and assured them that they were always welcome.

"We don't have any negative viewpoints, and we feel as much at home here, as much a part of this community, as anyone else does," he said. "And a lot of people have come here to tell us that they know that and to support us."

The scene was different three blocks away at the Finsbury Park Mosque, a distinctly different organization that has done much to cement Britain's reputation for tolerating radical fundamentalism.

Once a headquarters for well-known suspected terrorists including Sept. 11 suspect Zacarias Moussaoui and failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid, the Finsbury Park Mosque was a refuge for radicalism before its leader, Abu Hamza al-Masri, was arrested and new prayer leaders assumed control.

While the tours of the Muslim Welfare House were under way down the street, police patrolled outside the Finsbury Park Mosque, interrogating anyone who made suspicious moves such as scribbling in a notebook or snapping a photograph.

Disparate images

The contrasts illustrated the disparate images of Islam in London and Britain, people at the Muslim Welfare House said.

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