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Extremism Backlash: British Muslims Grapple With Faith, Patriotism

Amid a wave of global Islamist violence, NBC News met with U.K. Muslims to discuss what their community should and can do to combat extremism.
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LONDON — Recent attacks by Islamist extremists in France and Denmark as well as well-publicized executions by an ISIS militant who appears to speak with a British accent have turned the spotlight on Europe’s 13 million Muslims.

In the mostly secular U.K., the threat level for international terrorism remains at “severe,” which means that security officials believe an attack is highly likely. Last week, London's Metropolitan Police revealed that three teenage girls were believed to have run away from home to travel to an ISIS-controlled part of Syria.

Jewish institutions and schools are on high alert across Britain. First-in-line-to-the-throne Prince Charles recently joined the debate when he referred to the radicalization of young people as being “one of the greatest worries.” A full quarter of the population admitted in a 2014 Pew Research Center poll that they have an “unfavorable” view of Muslims.

Some commentators argue that tolerance has contributed to Britain becoming a breeding ground for radical Islamists.

With growing questions about what Muslims can and should do to combat extremism in their ranks, NBC News met with members of London's Islamic community to get their side of the story.

The student

Areeb Ullah, a 23-year-old student of international politics at King's College in London, is deeply involved in politics. He is the vice president of the student union and a member of the British National Union of Students’ Black Students Campaign. The eldest of three sons of parents who emigrated from Bangladash in 1990, Ullah hopes to become a journalist when he graduates.

While Ullah said he appreciates the tolerance and freedom of expression and religion in the U.K., he is also frustrated that positive contributions Muslims make — such as their high rates of charitable giving — are often overlooked in favor of discussions about radical Islam and extremism.

“What I have issue with is the fact when things are perpetrated under the name of Islam or Islamic extremism ... the media and the people need to say, ‘It’s Islam’s fault, Islam is the reason why this has happened,’” he said.

Ullah worries that the population is slowly losing their fundamental freedoms in the name of security, he said.

“You’ve seen this a lot since in the post 9/11 era whereby a lot of our rights have been essentially taken away from us,” he said, citing attempts by British Prime Minister David Cameron to force Internet service providers to store customers' data.

Instead of stepped-up spying, the government should focus on “tackling the kinds of things that extremists can exploit,” like poverty, lack of opportunities and unpopular foreign policy, he said.

“A lot of Muslims are asking what is the future of our [state-run National Health Service], what is the future of my children in terms of employment, whether or not they're going to afford a place to live in a few years’ time,” he said. “Muslims aren't being listened to and Muslims need to be listened to. Otherwise you're negating a very large part of your community.”

Nevertheless, Ullah said he is in a privileged position as the child of immigrants. While people like his parents tend to be reluctant to speak out in their adopted country, second-generation Muslims like himself feel they can actively engage in politics and demand to be heard, he said.

The mother

Sufia Alam, a 43-year-old mother-of-three who migrated from Bangladesh with her parents in the 1970s, is the manager of women’s projects at a mosque in East London. Her work involves helping vulnerable women, tackling social and welfare issues and focusing on domestic violence and mental health. Alam also works closely with women in their community to help them integrate by, for example, teaching them how to cook traditional British food.

Every time a terrorist attack is committed in the name of Islam, she worries about anti-Muslim backlash and how that might affect her three daughters, Alam said.

“My daughter goes to university and the first time she heard about the Charlie [Hebdo] cartoons she said, ‘Oh no, now we’re going to be targeted.’”

A challenge for devout Muslim woman is that it is impossible to hide your faith, Alam added.

“As a woman you wear your headscarf, so you’re clearly a Muslim, you’re making that statement,” she said.

Attacks like those in France have even forced Alam to defend her beliefs to her own children, which is painful.

“We have to then explain to them that in our faith there isn’t anything about this behavior and those who do it are not of this religion,” Alam said. “They to do it in the prophet’s name, in God’s name, that’s not right.”

“And a lot of [Muslim] people feel the same way, there is no doubt in people’s minds,” she said.

The activist

Fiyaz Mughal founded Faith Matters, a charity that tackles religious extremism and promotes dialogue between communities.

As a second-generation Briton — his parents emigrated from Kashmir in the 1970s — Mughal said people from very varied backgrounds can make grow and make their homes in the U.K.

“Britain is certainly a good place in which people can widen their horizons, and feel a sense of identity,” he said. “Although there are challenges, very difficult challenges, as in the anti-extremism agenda, which is clearly there to tackle extremists.”

Nevertheless, he and other Muslims feel under pressure at the moment, the 43-year-old said: “Muslim communities feel as if they are under the spotlight right now.”

Tackling extremism takes a three-pronged support, he said. One is to target those who groom vulnerable individuals. The second is to work with religious leaders to point out how certain elements of their religion are misused by these people.

And finally, he said, the grievances young and sometimes marginalized people must be addressed.

Mughal is also the founder of Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), which tracks anti-Muslim hate incidents.

There is a definite correlation between international and national events, such as the attacks in France, and anti-Muslim hate crimes in London, the result of what he calls a “latent sense of prejudice,” Mughal said.

Muslims therefore must take it upon themselves to stand up and combat stereotypes that put Islam in a bad light, Mughal added.

The grandfather

Azmal Hussain migrated twice, first from his native Bangladesh to Sweden in the mid-1970s and then to the U.K. in 1999. He is now the owner of four restaurants in East London, and his main concerns revolve around whether his six children will be able to find decent jobs and raise his six grandchildren in peace.

Parents bear a huge responsibility when it comes to combating Islamic extremism, and making sure that children are not attracted to radical ideas, the 62-year-old said.

“When you have children between 11 and 18 years old, I think we have to check what our children are reading, what they’re looking at [on the Internet] and to explain what is right and what is wrong,” he said.

Parents must seek help from the community and the police if they find that they are not able to cope with their children’s ideas.

“If you don’t do it in future they will be in Syria, they will be in Iraq or any country and that will be the parents’ fault,” he said.

Muslim families need to make an effort to integrate into British society while also holding onto their faith and traditions, according to Hussain, who makes a point of saying he prays five times a day in his local mosque.

The feminist

Tehmina Kazi is the director of the non-profit organization British Muslims for a Secular Democracy, which promotes a clear separation of faith and state. The organization is based on a commitment to equality and universal human rights, even when these ideas conflict with religious beliefs.

Kazi — the child of Pakistani parents — explained why she does not wear the traditional Muslim headscarf:

“It doesn’t matter what they wear or what they look like or whether they choose to wear a headscarf or not, that’s a matter of choice ... We should do something to challenge the rhetoric that all Muslim women should be covering their head or their face.”

“What matters is to have strong Muslim female role models out there,” the 31-year-old added.

Kazi sees both the extremist Islamic acts and society’s demand that Muslims respond to them as problematic.

The response by some in the community who say essentially that “extremism has absolutely nothing to do with us, we completely distance ourselves from anything to do with it” is not helpful, she said. This is because by cutting themselves off from the national discussion on the issue in this way Muslim leaders unable to help find solutions to it.

At the same time, tarring all Muslim with the same brush by making sweeping generalizations about Islam does not work either because it neglects the vast majority who are not taking part in or supporting terrorist acts.

“Actually, the correct approach is to do what you can in your own circle of influence to challenge and combat extremist ... ideologies without having to apologize for individual acts,” she said.

Although Kazi makes says that the Muslim angle of extremist violence should not be singled out as categorically different from other forms of political violence, such as right-wing terrorism, she calls on her own community to take another look at what may be promoting such ideology within its ranks.