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British Muslims enlisted to battle extremism

British Muslims, called on by Downing Street to help fight extremism in their midst, agonize over the loss of young men to martyrdom, and struggle for a solution.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a basement mosque where suspected suicide bombers once prayed, the imam ended worship Thursday with traditional Islamic blessings, then turned to the subject on everyone’s mind: “The devil of radicalism is at our doorstep. We must fight it, brothers.”

Shahzad Tanweer — one of the suspected suicide bombers in the July 7 attacks in London — often filed through the low metal gate surrounding the Stratford Street mosque to pray here. Now Imam Munir refuses to mention his name, calling him only “one who failed the faith.”

Tanweer, 22, sometimes brought his friend, 18-year-old Hasib Hussain, but they began to drift away from the mosque in recent months, the imam said. Tanweer went to Pakistan for two months this year to study Islam. And some mosque members believe he and Hussain began holding private prayers sessions with the third suspected bomber, 30-year-old Mohammed Sidique Khan.

“We can proclaim peace as tolerance all we want,” said Mohammad Khan, a Pakistani-born shopkeeper who attended midday prayers at the mosque after walking around police barricades throughout the neighborhood of red-brick row houses in the Beeston section of Leeds.

“But we are fighting something so big. Our young people always hear these calls of martyrdom and jihad in the name of religion. Some follow it, and I’m afraid more will, too,” he said.

An enemy you can't see
“I think there was something we could have done to stop them. But what? How do you fight an enemy you can’t see; an enemy that resides in people’s souls?”

It is in places like this that “the real war on terrorism will be won or lost,” said Nadim Shehadi, an Islamic affairs specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

“London is the real capital of the Islamic world,” Shehadi said. “It’s from here where ideas spread. If you can rob terrorism of its intellectual strength in Britain the impact of this will be felt all the way around the world from Chechnya to Uzbekistan, Iraq, Syria and everywhere.”

Moderate clerics’ appeals to reject radicalism have become a familiar part of the cycle of Muslim denunciations and introspection after attacks from New York to Indonesia to Madrid.

But last week’s bloodshed in London has sharply raised the stakes within Islam to take a more active role in challenging and isolating its fringe elements.

Enlisting the community's help
British authorities have squarely placed responsibility on moderate Muslim leaders to join forces or risk being left irrelevant as officials move toward tougher measures against those preaching anti-Western venom or groups seeking holy war combatants for places such as Kashmir.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged Wednesday to open dialogue with Britain’s Muslims to tackle a “perverted and poisonous misinterpretation” of Islam.

“This is not an isolated criminal act we are dealing with,” he said. “It is an extreme and evil ideology whose roots lie in a perverted and poisonous misinterpretation of the religion of Islam. ... We will seek to debate the right way forward in combatting this evil within the Muslim community with Muslim leaders and it is our intention to begin this process immediately.

“In the end this can only be taken on and defeated by the community itself, but we all can help and facilitate,” added Blair, who met Wednesday with British Muslim lawmakers.

Pakistani groups are thought to have recruited some Muslims in Leeds to study and fight in Kashmir, a Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both nations.

Moazamm Begg, who spent two years in a U.S. prison camp after being accused of being an al-Qaida operative, said in an interview in London: “Just like the military doesn’t recruit the old, these groups know to go after the young. They’re stronger fighters, they’re more impressionable.”

This is not over
Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he would visit areas at the center of the hunt for the London bombers to better understand what led to the attacks.

“It is our special responsibility as British Muslims to take a closer look at the involvement of nefarious elements who may be operating in our community in order to help root them out.”

The bombings killed 54 people, including the four bombers, and wounded 700.

Hanif Malik, head of the main Islamic community center in Beeston, watched police stretched blue-and-white barrier tape over another intersection in the district. Block by block, the neighborhood was being searched. Some young men yelled to the officers: “Iraq, Guantanamo, Leeds.”

“Yes, everyone agrees the Muslim leaders must be more pro-active in fighting radical thought,” said Malik. “But it’s just empty words when Muslims feel the world is against them. You can say it’s not true. I don’t believe it’s true. But for who those who do, the call of the radical side is strong. We all know that this is not over.”