The bombers. The victim. The soldier who died in action. They were all Muslims. And they were all British
On the day the soldier died, the big news was about England playing football and Muslims taking over Alton Towers. The Sun said there would be thousands of them going to the biggest theme park in the country. The booze and gambling outlets would be closed, the music silenced. And a 19-year-old non-believer was outraged after being refused tickets. “What,” he fumed, “is the world coming to?”
Imtiaz Hashmi may already have known about the Islamic Fun Day. Coaches will leave from her home city of Birmingham when it happens. But she could not have known that on the day of the report her son Jabron – the good boy who was saving his wages to pay for her trip to Mecca – was in so much trouble, thousands of miles away.
Taliban fighters were firing rocket-propelled grenades at his camp. The 24-year-old was close to his birthplace in Pakistan, but he was wearing a British uniform. He was defending a British base. His unit was in Afghanistan under orders from the British government. L/Cpl Hashmi was British. Eight days ago, while the tabloids were spluttering at the notion of his fellow believers having fun on the rollercoasters, he became the first British Muslim to die on active service since the beginning of the conflict politicians call the war on terror.
“Jabron was a committed soldier and a committed Muslim,” said his brother Zeeshan, who has also served. “He was fiercely proud of his Islamic background, and equally proud of being British.”
Islamic extremists based here posted on their website a photograph of Jabron surrounded by flames. They called him a “home-grown terrorist”. Their “vile views” were disowned by the Muslim Council of Britain, whose spokesman said: “If they don’t like living in this country one wonders why they don’t seek to emigrate elsewhere.”
So when outsiders ask what British Muslims are like, what is the answer? The soldier who dies for his adopted country? The terrorists who celebrate the death of a fellow believer? Or the politician who tries so hard to distance himself from extremism that he ends up sounding like Alf Garnett? None of them, of course, and any of them.
The men who blew themselves up on trains and a bus a year ago last Friday were British Muslims. So were some of their victims, like Shahara Akther Islam, a 20-year-old bank cashier from Plaistow in east London, who died on the No 30 bus on 7 July 2005. A devout follower of Islam and a modern Briton, she sometimes wore a shalwar kameez, but also carried a Burberry handbag. Shahara was still missing that evening, her body unidentified, when her father went to the mosque in the Whitechapel Road to ask if anybody had seen her. Fellow Londoners were at prayer, asking for the help and comfort of Allah the Merciful, the Compassionate. “These people are not human beings,” he said of the bombers. “They are not doing anything for Islam.”
Yusuf Islam is another kind of British Muslim. He used to be a pop star called Cat Stevens until he converted to the faith and felt led to smash up his instruments. Now the climate has changed and he is preparing a return to commercial music after nearly 30 years. And last Thursday he and the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, opened a festival designed to present the best of Muslim culture in this country. The Islam Expo at the Alexandra Palace in north London featured paintings by modern artists, calligraphy, dance workshops and a comedy team called Allah Made Me Funny. “We need to let the world see the whole picture of Islam,” said Yusuf Islam, “and there are many beautiful faces to that picture.”
But many of the dignitaries gathered for the official opening were still smarting from the words of Tony Blair, who had attacked “the moderate majority” among Muslims earlier in the week. They were not doing enough to combat extremism, he said. They had to reject “the completely false sense of grievance against the West”.
Why then, they wondered, was he ignoring them? The Prime Minister had gathered 100 prominent Muslims together after the bombings and asked them to think of ways to beat the extremists. They called for a public inquiry and made 63 other recommendations. But only three of the recommendations have been taken up so far. “They keep saying they want to hear from the Muslim community,” said one prominent businessman at Islam Expo, who did not want to be named. “We spoke loud and clear. They have totally ignored us.”
The trouble with that statement is that while everyone talks about the Muslim community, nobody really believes it exists. Not as a coherent whole with a single voice, anyway. The range of opinion and belief is far too wide and the arguments too fierce for that. The Muslim Council of Great Britain represents 400 groups, but would not claim it spoke for everybody.
The first permanent Muslim communities in this country were founded by Yemeni sailors in Cardiff and Liverpool in the 19th century. After the Second World War, when Britain called for help in rebuilding itself, men and women began arriving in larger numbers from India, Pakistan and the eastern part of that country which in 1971 became Bangladesh. Some of them have great-grandchildren now. There are a million people in the UK from the countries of south Asia.
In recent years economic migrants have been joined by refugees from troubled places such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkan states. Muslims here speak more than 50 languages. They have their own ethnic and religious prejudices against each other. The faith itself is hardly monolithic: nobody really knows how many are Sunni and how many Shia for example, not to mention other sects. There are 1,600 mosques, some led by liberals in tune with Western thinking and some by men who may be well-versed in theology but cannot speak English and have no pastoral training. One thing the Government did do in response to the task force, was to set up a board to advise on the recruitment of imams.
The first Muslim MPs were elected in 1997, but it was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that politicised many others. They became a driving force behind the new political party Respect (some were bewildered or enraged when its first MP, the maverick George Galloway, acted like it was his party then went on Big Brother to mew like a cat). They were also active in the Make Poverty History campaign, and gave millions to relief efforts after the tsunami and Kashmiri earthquakes last year.
Muslim Britain is young: 800,000 people are aged under 25, the vast majority straddling two cultures. “Art, music, film and other forms of culture are as much part of the daily lives of Muslims as are politics, religion and science,” says Ehsan Masood, author of a British Council guide to Islam in the UK published last month. “The majority won’t think twice before downloading music to an iPod or queueing up at the cinema when Daniel Craig makes his first outing as James Bond.”
Abdullah Mussa would be described as moderate and modern. The 22-year-old, whose parents are Egyptian, helped set up the first Muslim scout troop in Birmingham, helping young boys and girls meet people outside their community. But he understands why they prefer not to do so a lot of the time. “At school we could not go drinking in pubs or to nightclubs with our non-Muslim friends. We played pool instead or just relaxed in coffee shops instead of bars. It was unspoken, but the two groups grew apart. That is natural.”
MI5 has publicly estimated that al-Qa’ida has 8,000 sympathisers in this country, but Abdullah insists that while some young people will flirt with extremism – “just as I have heard young non-Muslims get a thrill out of saying Hitler had a couple of good ideas” – he believes very few will act on it.
Since 9/11 people sometimes ask if he is British or Muslim. “It just does not make sense to me as a question.” No other religion is discussed as if it were a different race, he says. And it is true that those who spit or shout or punch often get confused: their victim might just look vaguely Arabic. South Americans get stopped and searched by the police. A Brazilian was shot dead.
Perhaps the attackers should meet Batool Al-Tooma, as some police do. A white Irish woman, she was a devout Catholic before converting to Islam and now works for the Islamic Foundation in Leicestershire helping some of the 14,200 other British converts. Batool also advises the police, lawyers and others on Islamic ways. “They discover that we are normal families like themselves, doing our best to bring up our children to be honourable, respectable members of this society.”
At Islam Expo a small child came toddling past with a black balloon bearing the name of the charity Muslim Aid. His mother’s face was veiled. Behind her was a teenager in a short skirt and a boy wearing a hoodie with the name of Muhammad Ali on the front. Batool Al-Tooma smiled and said: “Having lived through the days of the IRA and the witch-hunt against the Irish I learned that we must not play the victim card.” Muslims should be a visible part of British society, she said – alongside others, not locking themselves away inside theme parks. On 17 September, Alton Towers will be closed to everyone but those who have bought tickets through a company called Islamic Leisure. “That is a total, abject, in-your-face failure to integrate.”
Muslims do face hostility, suspicion and violence every day, she said, but there is also “warmth, understanding and support” available from many other British people. “What does not kill you makes you stronger. It is sad that it has taken a situation like the London bombs to open up the community, bring it out of physical and psychological ghettoes, but that is happening. We are becoming stronger, more unified and more open than before.”