Frustrated Muslim youths targeted by extremists

Monday, July 25, 2005

The bombings in London have put pressure on Muslims to find potential terrorists in their midst.

LONDON -- Field trips, soccer matches and art exhibitions -- those are some of the activities British Muslim leaders are proposing to reach out to disaffected youths in the hope of preventing them from falling prey to extremist recruiters.

More important, however, the elders want to make sure that their young men and women are not getting the wrong message from radical Islamic preachers.

The string of suicide bombings in London July 7 have forced British Muslims to look inward, and especially at their youth, since the attackers were ages 18, 19, 22 and 30.

All four bombers who carried out attacks on the London transport system two weeks ago were British Muslims -- three of Pakistani heritage and one Jamaican. At least 56 people were killed and about 700 wounded in the bombings on a bus and three Underground trains.

On Thursday, another wave of attempted copycat explosions that failed shocked London, causing widespread disruption in the transport system, but no casualties.

The blasts have put pressure on Muslims to find potential terrorists in their midst. And the attacks have raised disturbing questions with Muslim leaders asking how can anyone ruthlessly kill innocent people in the name of their religion, which means peace and submission to God?

Social deprivation is severe among Britain's 1.6-million Muslim community, where unemployment is three times that of the general population. But none of these grievances -- which normally lead to petty crimes -- as well as racism and anger over the sufferings of fellow Palestinian and Iraqi Muslims justify the killing of fellow humans, the leaders say.

"It is completely wrong to overburden an already deprived, an already marginalized community with a further task of identifying and handing over these criminals," said Khurshid Drabu, an adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organization of several Muslim groups, who is helping organize a task force to tackle the youth issues.

"If we knew who they are, then they would be in the hands of the authorities anyway. They are a menace to everybody," he said.

Since the July 7 attacks, the Muslim community and the Council has been scrambling to come up with a broad plan to find ways to channel the anger and frustration of Muslim youths to more positive use. This way, they hope, they won't be easy targets for extremist recruiters.

"There's no time to lose," said Drabu, adding the community needs the cooperation of all other faiths to succeed.

The Muslim Council has been meeting with industry and government officials to find solutions to the unemployment problem.

Already, local mosques and youth centers in the Muslim-populated neighborhoods of London are teaching young men and women that Islam doesn't condone terrorism.

In one gathering, several young men wanted to know if the action of the bombers was right.

"They were confused," said Abu Zubeir Islam, a 24-year-old school teacher in Tower Hamlets, an East London neighborhood near Aldgate station, the site of one of the July 7 bombings. The neighborhood is home to many with roots in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

To avoid revenge attacks, four teenagers wondered if it was against their religion to change their Muslim names to English ones and shave their beards.

But mostly, educators emphasize that Islam bans the killing of innocents.

The Quran is clear on that, said Sheik Anwar Abdie Hamid Mady, deputy director general of the London Mosque.

According to the holy book, Mady said, "Anyone who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole of mankind and anyone who has killed another person ... it is as if he has killed the whole of mankind."

The Quran passes the severest punishment -- "suffering in hell, God's curse and infliction of great pain" -- on those who kill innocent people, he said.

Mady said his mosque, the largest in London, is organizing activities such as seminars, field trips and soccer matches for youths -- under the supervision of imams, or prayer leaders.

The imams will tell the youths that it's normal to be angry.

"Every human being, when he sees the shedding of blood and demolition of Palestinian people and the killing of young children will feel angry. To feel angry is OK, but ... it is totally wrong to express your anger the wrong way," he said in English.

They can express their anger by taking part in peaceful protest demonstrations, he said. "We have to separate between religion and politics. Islam is a religion of peace, mercy, tolerance -- that's my teaching to youths."

Drabu said it's important to change the "culture of mosques" in Britain -- by bringing them under a unified national management instead of being run by individual local communities as they are now.

All mosque leaders, he said, must agree on a new constitution for management of the mosques to ensure "any person who has contact with children is properly vetted by the police."

Mosques, he said, shouldn't just be a place of worship, but also centers for community activities where youths have a major role in running them. That way, he said, "whatever frustrations, whatever problems they have are contained within and don't spill out."

In May, the Muslim Council of Britain launched a Books for Schools project providing mainstream schools with books, CDs, DVDs, videos and accompanying teaching aids.

The project is designed to facilitate teaching of Islam within the school curriculum.

An important element in the education of the youths is to make sure that words and verses from the Quran aren't used out of context, something extremists, including radical preachers have been doing over the years in England, the Muslim leaders say.

Jihad, or holy war, for instance, is a popular word militants use to indoctrinate youth. But in the Quran, jihad -- derived from the word effort -- refers to a struggle to restrain oneself from evil temptations. In the context of holy war, Muslim scholars say, it is only used as a struggle to free one's land from foreign occupation, but doesn't include killing civilians.

On Monday, the Muslim Council of Britain held an emergency meeting with youths.

"They thought we were out of touch," said Drabu.

Abu Zubeir Islam, the young teacher in Tower Hamlets, said at his local mosque, youths were being taught the fundamentals of Islam, the need to pray five times a day and that God would reward them in Heaven. The four bombers also prayed five times a day, friends and family say.

"They're a very small minority who are radical. They probably made their own interpretation of the religion," said Islam, sitting on the carpeted floor of the East London Mosque.

He and others blamed radical preachers -- such as Sheik Omar Bakri and Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is in jail -- for misleading some of the youths.

"Terrorism is not part of Islam. Suicide is not part of Islam," insisted Islam.

Twenty-year-old Ahmed Hafiz's advice to his fellow young British Muslims is simple.

The best way to prevent falling into the trap of extremists, he said, "is to learn the religion ... and beware of groups out there who want to take advantage of you.

"Muslims should pray. They should tell non-Muslims that Islam was not behind the bombings," said Hafiz, who's of Bangladeshi origin and wears a long goatee.

He reads books of the Salafi or Wahhabi school of Islam, a puritan form that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden also adheres to. Hafiz, however, denounced bin Laden as "a dog of hell."

"Bin Laden is not a Salafi. If he were, he wouldn't kill anyone," he said.

Hafiz said he had read more than 500 Salafi books since he turned to the faith when he was 16. He was perusing the crammed shelves at a bookshop in Tower Hamlets that sold books, CDs and cassette tapes on Islam, including several on Salafism.

Asked if he had a problem living in Britain where Western social values were liberal compared to his, Hafiz said: "What makes me feel more bad is when a Muslim kills. I don't want non-Muslims seeing Islam so bad."

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Scheherezade Faramarzi spent the past two weeks in Leeds and London after the July 7 suicide attacks interviewing dozens of people, including friends, relatives and neighbors of three of the four bombers, as well as community and Muslim leaders, and radical figures. She also interviewed ordinary British Muslims for an assessment of how the community is coping since the attacks -- their fears, anger and attempt to move on. Based in Morocco, Faramarzi has followed militant Islamic movements in Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian terroritories and Egypt over the past 25 years.

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