BIRMINGHAM, England – A packed mosque, an influential cleric and powerful denunciations against violence in the name of Islam: The scene was exactly what British authorities want to see.
“We must save Islam from the dark forces of hate,” shouted the preacher to more than 2,000 men and boys in the grand Gamkol Sharif mosque. But this new kind of jihad will test the faith like no other, warned Mufti Muhammad Gul Rehman Qadri, who heads Britain’s largest Sunni Muslim coalition.
This holy war is Muslim vs. Muslim.
“Be strong,” said Qadri, thumping his cane into the crimson carpet. He then read the first major fatwa, or religious edict, condemning suicide bombings and the July 7 attacks against the London Underground that killed at least 56 people.
The gathering last week is at the heart of a broad – and closely watched – British strategy that seeks to reach directly into Islam’s angry fringe. Mainstream Muslim leaders are being pushed hard to lead the way.
The idea is to rouse Islam’s moderate majority, using its moral and spiritual clout to crush extremist ideology in one of the faith’s most important outposts in western Europe, where some forecasts say the Muslim population could double to nearly 30 million, or close to 8 percent of the population, within the decade.
At the same time, Muslim envoys and clerics are being drawn into uncomfortable watchdog roles – asked to assist authorities in ways much sharper and stronger than after the attacks in Spain last year or even in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
And they must do it in the world’s most diverse Muslim community: about 1.6 million strong with roots in every corner of the Islamic world.
This week’s developments can only ratchet up the pressure: Another attempt on Thursday by attackers to blow up three subway trains and a bus – an eerie if failed replay of the deadly July 7 strikes – followed by the anti-terror shooting of a man in an underground station.
The long-range hope of the Muslim policing effort is that anti-Western preachers and factions around Britain will eventually wither under internal pressure. Success in Britain, the theory goes, could spark an intellectual assault against Islamic radicalism around the world.
But it’s a mission with many serious complications. Not the least of which: How to open debate and dialogue with radical groups that are being driven further underground by police measures.
“Moderate Muslims have been given a giant task,” said Ali Ansari, a professor of Islamic studies at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. “The world is watching how they respond.”
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with top Muslim envoys and told them to “confront this evil ideology.”
“Take it on,” Blair said, “and defeat it by the force of reason.”
Yet relying on such Western-style arguments is another weak point of the effort. The strains of Islam that see violence as a legitimate tool have deep roots with their own logic and perspectives – often developed as a rejection to what they consider flaws in modern Islam.
One of the most pervasive is an Egyptian-born movement called el-Takfir wa el-Hirja, which has provided underpinnings for groups including al-Qaida and professes to shun anyone perceived as against “pure” Islam or “corrupted” by Western ways. This would include clerics working alongside British officials.
Also, radicals often draw strength in their distance from the mainstream, portraying themselves as the shepherds for struggling Muslims in Britain and champions for broader Muslim causes such as the Palestinian self-determination, opposition to the Iraqi war and battlefronts in Chechnya and Kashmir.
Sheik Omar Bakri, a hardline cleric who has described suicide bombings as an acceptable weapon by Iraqi insurgents, claimed Britain is seeking to “divide and rule” Muslims.
“So we’re left with moderate Muslims preaching to moderate Muslims. That gets us nowhere,” said Lord Nazir Ahmed, a Muslim member of Britain’s House of Lords who has supported the deportation of extremist preachers. “We have to get in there and smash this violent ideology. It is a cult, not a part of real Islam. Words aren’t enough.”
The gathering in Birmingham showed the limitations.
Inside the mosque – which towers over a mostly Muslim district – Britain’s largest Sunni Muslim coalition denounced radicals from all angles. Clerics called any violence a sin and terrorism “an ideology alien to Islam’s core values.”
The fatwa went further: “The attacks in London have no Islamic justification, are totally condemned and we equally condemn those who have been behind the masterminding of these acts” – which claimed at least 56 lives and, like 9/11, has entered the British lexicon as 7/7.
A few blocks away, however, another kind of meeting was taking place. Four young men sat in an Islamic bookstore to finish hand-drawn fliers to protest the “crimes against Muslims” – a list including the occupation of Iraq, Palestinian struggles and the perception of a permanent underclass status for Britain’s Muslims. They titled the missives: “The two sides of 7/7.”
“No one can condone the attacks in London,” said one of the men, who gave his name only as Munir. “But you also can’t ignore the feelings of Muslims and the pain they sense. We have to look a lot deeper than just condemning violence.”
Some question if the moderate Muslim leadership in Britain is willing to go in that direction. It moves them toward some awkward choices – making distinctions between terrorism and what’s considered legitimate Islamic struggles.
“It gets awfully messy when you try to rank violence,” said Gholam Rabbani, who leads a mosque in Walthamstow, east of central London. “We can’t say a suicide attack by Palestinians is acceptable, but one in London or Madrid are not. We have to say it’s always wrong.”
But this is where radical Islam often finds its footing.
London-based clerics such as Abu Hamza al-Masri quickly gained a wide following by praising attacks against Israel and U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Al-Masri, who is awaiting trial on charges of incitement to murder, has been linked to terror suspects, including Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States with crimes related to the Sept. 11 attacks, and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid.
A reported associate of Al-Masri also is being sought in connection with the London blasts. At the request of British officials, authorities in Pakistan are searching for Haroon Rashid Aswat, who reportedly had been in close contact with the suicide bombers. Aswat, 31, is of Indian origin and his whereabouts are unknown.
“Young people have drifted away (from the mainstream) either because they were banned to discuss controversial issues in the mosque or found nothing inspiring on offer there,” said Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, a leading London-based Muslim activist.
A report last week by two respected British institutions – the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Economic and Social Research Council – concluded that the situation in Iraq had given “a boost to the al-Qaida network’s propaganda, recruitment and fund-raising” and provided a training ground for al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
On Tuesday, the group that claimed responsibility for the London bombings threatened to continue “a bloody war” on Denmark, Britain, Italy and other European countries unless their troops are removed from Iraq within a month. The authenticity of the statement by the Abu Hafs al Masri Brigades could not be verified.
But the Blair government has repeatedly rejected the widely held opinion that Iraq played a role in the bombings. The stance was seen by some as another blow to the credibility of the moderate Muslim leaders working closely with authorities.
“They are not speaking the language of the people; the language of the streets, the language of the youth,” said Hanif Malik, a Muslim community leader in Leeds – the northern city that was home to three of the four suicide bombers. “We’re afraid they will miss a chance to reach the Muslims who are at the most risk of following the misguided call of violence.”
Even if moderate leaders’ outreach efforts were more successful, they still might not be enough, said Peter Singer, who studies Western policy outreach to the Islamic world at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
What’s needed is a strategy similar to fighting an insurgency, which requires an overall shift in laws and attitudes aimed at choking off Islamic extremists.
“Britain has to decide whether it’s trying to influence the individual or influence the environment that has allowed this radicalism to exist,” said Singer. “The key to success is changing the environment to make radical Islam completely unacceptable. … It’s not just draining the swamp. You have to poison the sea.”
Part of this attempt could be new laws to target hate speech and other forms of religious extremism. Proposals for the bill, which could enter parliament as early as September, include regulations demanding self-policing among Muslim groups such as requiring background checks on imams and closer scrutiny of financial records.
“The Muslim community has to act,” said a government statement. “You have to harness the energies of the moderate Muslim community.”
But there’s also potential risks in asking Muslims to pick sides.
“You could set up an ideological war within Britain’s Muslims,” said Carl Ernst, a specialist in Islamic affairs at the University of North Carolina. “You’ll have people going into mosques to see who is a `good’ Muslim and who is a `bad’ Muslim. This could be even more dangerous and terribly divisive.”
It also raises the chance of “group punishment” if moderate Muslims are seen as failing the difficult task of reining in radicals, said Ernst. It’s a worry that hasn’t been lost on Muslim leaders calling for a groundswell against violence.
“This time the British society has given you the benefit of the doubt,” said Sunni Council spokesman Sardar Ahmed Qadri in a speech at the Birmingham mosque. “If you don’t stand up now, the next time it could be different. Our mosques could be targeted. Our institutions could be targeted. Our communities could be targeted. I beg you: stand up and speak out.”