Saturday, March 05, 2005

British Muslims learning to apply political leverage

The New York Times - Inayat Bunglawala had just finished his talk on "Islamophobia and the Media" at the London Muslim Center when a man stood and berated him. "Where is your beard and your thobe?" Mr. Bunglawala said the man shouted, referring to the long garment worn by some Muslim men. "How dare you come to the mosque without them. How dare you preach about the new Koran."

Then something unusual happened on that day in January, said Mr. Bunglawala and others who were there. The several Islamic militants in the room were chased outside by the crowd, and a fistfight broke out. The militants, followers of Abu Abdullah, a firebrand imam, quickly retreated. "These jihadis are like schoolhouse bullies," said Mr. Bunglawala, the communications director for the Muslim Council of Britain, the country's largest Muslim organization. "We sense a feeling of enough is enough now."

If the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks plunged the Islamic population in Britain and elsewhere into a state of alarm and dread, then the Iraq war and its aftermath have had an unforeseen consequence here: they have helped galvanize and embolden a core group of mainstream British Muslims to find its voice and make demands.

Mainstream Muslims have lined up against the war and Prime Minister Tony Blair, opposed new restrictive antiterror laws and warned of the dangers of Islamophobia. But they are also speaking out with uncharacteristic fervor against Islamic militants, making sharp moves to isolate them, and working to strengthen ties between moderates and the British establishment.

"The war brought people together, in a way," said Lord Nazir Ahmed, who was born in Kashmir and became the first Muslim peer in the House of Lords in 1998. "It was a wake-up call. We really have to decide now what we want to stand for."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Britain has rounded up from heavily Muslim areas a number of militants like Abu Hamza al-Masri, a blind, one-armed cleric, and Abu Qatada, a Syrian cleric who Britain contends was the spiritual leader for Mohamed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers. The government has detained hundreds of other Muslims, who have since been released without charges.

Anti-Muslim attacks have increased as well, as has support for the white supremacist British National Party. The risk of misperception and a strengthening hostility against Muslims have heightened the sense of urgency among them, many of their leaders say.

Muslims are still the poorest group in Britain, but their leaders say that they have nonetheless learned to organize for what they want and have started making small but important gains still rarely seen among Muslims in the rest of Europe.

"Mainstream Muslims in this country have become much more organized in terms of being members of the community and lobbying for their own causes," said Peter Riddell, a professor at the London School of Theology, Center for Islamic Studies and Muslim-Christian Relations, an evangelical school.

Much of this change is being driven by a generation of young Muslims, born and reared here, that is coming of age a half century after the first Muslims settled in Britain, believing that the move was only temporary.

These younger Muslims identify more with British football and "EastEnders," a popular soap opera on the BBC, than they do with Pakistan, Bengal, Bangladesh or Kashmir and their old-world traditions. Most are not deeply religious. Home to them is not the village in Pakistan but Leicester in England.

"There is a political awakening in many respects," said Hussain Shefaar, 27, a teacher at the London Muslim Center and an active member of Islamic Forum Europe. "People are saying, 'Look, we want to be heard here.' "

The growing influence is seen most vividly in Muslim representation at all levels of government. Five peers in the House of Lords, 2 members of the House of Commons, about 220 local council members and 12 city mayors are Muslims. Muslim millionaires number about 5,000.

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