LONDON – Just down the way from the Whitechapel underground stop in the heart of Britain’s largest Muslim neighborhood, the young men of the Al-Muhajiroun movement had set up a campaign stand.
The message, referring to the June 10 elections for local government and the European Parliament, was blunt: “Stay Muslim. Don’t vote.”
“Democracy is an act of apostasy. Integration is a failure for Muslims,” one of the pamphleteers said, declining to give his name. The group’s leader, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad, has called the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “a magnificent operation in every way.”
Most paid little attention as women in burqas and men in skullcaps streamed through, shopping in the main market in what has become known as Banglatown. Islamic extremism is nothing new here, and these views don’t represent the thinking of most of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims any more than the neo-Fascist British National Party, which wants to “resettle” nonwhites, speaks for most Christians.
But opinion polls indicate that sympathy for both strains of thought is on the rise. A feeling of mutual alienation has come to pervade the debate over how Britain can best accommodate its growing Muslim minority, Europe’s third-largest. And it’s not only about politics: Law-enforcement officials worry that the young, disaffected Muslim population is fertile recruiting ground for terrorism.
A similar dilemma confronts France, Germany and much of the rest of Western Europe, where Muslims from South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East are the fastest-growing demographic group, and where white majorities are growing fearful over what they see as the negative social repercussions of that. In Britain, the chasm has widened and the tension heightened because of the nation’s role in U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
British Muslims, most of Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent – many here for decades – say they have been unjustly demonized since the Sept. 11 attacks and never accepted by the majority population.
Skeptics complain that any criticism of Islam or Muslims is branded racist, and say Muslims have not done enough to integrate with the majority or combat extremism in their midst.
Among the broader public, unease over the integration of minorities is driving a desire to close the borders: In April, 80 percent of Britons told pollsters that the country was overcrowded and that its immigration policy was “not tough enough.”
People seem to be talking past one another. This month, the private Commission on British Muslims issued a report on what the British call “Islamophobia,” which argues that Muslims are increasingly victimized and that the government isn’t doing enough about it. Just as the report emerged, the Sunday Times newspaper obtained a 100-page plan by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor cabinet to reach out to Muslims, with particular attention to a hard core of 10,000 young people believed to be ripe for al-Qaeda recruitment.
According to the Sunday Times, the Blair plan cited data showing that Muslims tended to be undereducated, underemployed and ill-housed, and stressed the need to address those issues. The report came after the April arrests of nine British-born Muslims – and the seizure of huge amounts of fertilizer – in what authorities said was a terrorist bombing plot.
But the proposal, which includes a scheme for the government to fund moderate Muslim television stations and back pro-British imams, was quickly derided by leading Muslims.
“I’m afraid it’s far too little, far too late,” said Khurshid Ahmed, the government-sponsored Commission for Racial Equality’s chief spokesman on Muslim issues. “I think the government means well, but I don’t think they’ve got the answer right.”
There may not be a good answer, though, for the bitter disagreements Muslims have with British policies on Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an aggressive domestic law-enforcement approach toward suspected terrorism. In a March survey of Muslims by ICM Research, 80 percent called the Iraq war unjustified, and two-thirds said the U.S. and British war on terror was a war on Islam.
The same poll offered worrisome hints of extremism and a lack of interest in integration among sizable minorities of Muslims. Thirteen percent said further attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda were justified, while 45 percent said they would send their children to Muslim-only schools if they could. And while 33 percent said Muslims needed to do more to integrate with the rest of society, 26 percent said there had been too much integration already.
But the animosity and mistrust run both ways. Muslims are just 2.7 percent of the British population, 92 percent of which is white. (Other major nonwhite populations include Indians and blacks, many from countries in the former British Empire.) Yet in an April national survey by polling company YouGov, “immigration and asylum seekers” was seen as the country’s second most important political issue, after health. Sixty-two percent of Britons disagreed with the idea that immigration improved the cultural life of the country.
Even before the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war, long-simmering tensions exploded in riots in the summer of 2001 in three northern industrial towns with large Muslim populations. A government investigation into the riots concluded that whites and ethnic minorities in Britain were almost totally estranged, leading “parallel lives [that] often do not seem to touch at any point, let alone overlap and promote any meaningful interchanges.”
Since the World Trade Center came down, the gulf has widened. It is difficult to find a British Muslim who has not experienced – or known someone who has experienced – an act of hostility, from angry slurs to physical violence.
“I have personally had verbal abuse hurled at me at traffic junctions, while parked at red lights,” said the equality commission’s Ahmed, who also chairs the National Association of British Pakistanis. “My wife has had those kinds of experiences while shopping.”
The news is not all gloomy, however, and the Al-Muhajiroun movement is not the only force at work in East London’s Banglatown. On June 11, thousands gathered for the opening of a multimillion-dollar community center in the borough formally known as Tower Hamlets, where 71,000 Muslims make up 36 percent of the population. The neighborhood is home to Brick Lane, a street of curry restaurants immortalized in Monica Ali’s acclaimed 2003 novel by that name. In the last few years, Brick Lane has become one of London’s most popular dining districts, frequented by people of all ethnicities.
Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the British Muslim Council, lamented that the news media do not cover that kind of event with the same intensity they give to someone such as Abu Hamza, the extremist cleric from North London who is being extradited to the United States to face terrorism charges.
“We have our lunatics, and the damage they do is terrible,” he said. “But Abu Hamza was from one mosque in North London. We have hundreds of mosques. These extremists are marginal figures, yet they are given an exposure far out of proportion to their minuscule influence within U.K.”