DUBLIN, Ireland (CNN) — At a recent debate over the battle for Islamic ideals in England, a British-born Muslim stood before the crowd and said Prophet Mohammed’s message to nonbelievers is: “I come to slaughter all of you.”
“What are Muslims supposed to do when they are being killed in the streets in Afghanistan and Baghdad and Palestine? Do they not have the same rights to defend themselves? In war, people die. People don’t make love; they kill each other,” he said.
But in the same debate, held on the prestigious grounds of Dublin’s Trinity College in October, many people in the crowd objected.
“These people, ladies and gentleman, have a good look at them. They actually believe if you kill women and children, you will go to heaven,” said one young Muslim who waved his finger at the radicals.
“This is not ideology. It’s a mental illness.”
‘Foreign policy has a lot to do with it’
This war of words is part of a larger debate going on in Britain — the war within the Muslim community for the hearts and minds of young people. The battle of ideas came to the fore again this week when the trial began for six men who are accused of an “extremist Muslim plot” to target London on July 21, 2005.
The Woolwich Crown Court was told the men plotted to carry out a series of “murderous suicide bombings” on London’s public transport system, just 14 days after the carnage of the July 7 London bombings, which killed 52 commuters and four bombers.
While Islamic extremists are believed to be a tiny minority of Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims, they have no problem having their criticism heard. They have disdain for democracy — and, most of all, the Bush administration’s war on terror policies.
A poll taken in June 2006 for the Times of London newspaper suggested that 13 percent of British Muslims believe the July 7 London bombers were martyrs.
“Foreign policy has a lot to do with it,” said Hanif Qadir, a youth worker and a moderate voice for Islam in Walthamstow, one of London’s biggest Muslim neighborhoods. “But it’s the minority radical groups that use that to get to our young people.”
In August, British police descended on Walthamstow, saying they had foiled a conspiracy to blow up a dozen U.S.-bound airliners with liquid explosives. That set off the biggest security alert since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Police arrested 24 people in connection with the alleged terror plot, although one man was released after it was determined he was an innocent bystander.
Britain’s Scotland Yard and MI5 have also said they are aware of at least 30 terrorist cells and potential plots inside Britain.
‘Blowing people up is quite cool’
Young Muslims are easy prey, Qadir told CNN, because they believe the British government crackdown has scapegoated them because of their religious beliefs. The youth also can empathize with those who castigate the Bush administration.
There are some who believe “blowing people up is quite cool,” Qadir said.
Qadir asked them why that was justified.
“The answers that I got back is: When a bomb goes off in Baghdad or in Afghanistan and innocent women and children are killed over there, who cares for them? So if a bomb goes off in America or in London, what’s wrong with that?” he said.
Qadir is trying to get mosque leaders, many still practicing the tribal traditions of Pakistan, to communicate with the younger generation. But he says it is an uphill battle when radicals like Choudary dominate the debate, getting their faces — and their message — out in the public.
“Our scholars … are not coming out of their holes — their mosques and their holes — to engage with these people. They’re frightened of that,” Qadir said.
The message of extremism can also thrive among youth who see no way out of ethnic ghettos.
“They’re into all kinds of vices — street crime, gun crime, drugs, car theft, credit card fraud. But then now you’ve got another threat,” Qadir said.
“The new threat is radicalism. It’s a cause. Every young man wants a cause.”
Activist calls for Islamic law
Choudary, whose group Al-Mahajiroun disbanded before the British government could outlaw it under its anti-terror laws, spoke to CNN and made clear he wants to see Islamic law for Britain.
“All of the world belongs to Allah, and we will live according to the Sharia wherever we are,” said Choudary, a lawyer. “This is a fundamental belief of the Muslims.” (Watch a call for Islamic law Video)
Asked if he believes in democracy, he said, “No, I don’t at all.”
“One day, the Sharia will be implemented in Britain. It’s a matter of time.”
Choudary cited the videotaped “will” of one of the London subway bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, who said, “Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight.”
Choudary said he sides strongly with that statement — “we have everything we need in those wills” — and he cited passages from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, that he says justify jihad.
“I happen to be in an ideological and political war,” Choudary said. “My brothers in al Qaeda and other Mujahedeen are involved in a military campaign.”
While Choudary and other radicals continue to try to spread their beliefs, others say there is no justification for jihad in England. Imam Usama Hasan memorized the Quran by the time he was 11 and at 19, he briefly fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
“If you have the wrong intention, you can justify your criminal actions from any text — whether it’s the Quran or Bible or Shakespeare,” Hasan said.
He said it makes him “furious” when radicals quote the Quran out of context to justify killing of innocents. It’s a “very tiny” minority with such beliefs, he said, but “it only takes a handful, of course, to create devastation.”
“Many people are terrified of Muslims. They are terrified of a brother walking down the road with his eastern dress and his hat and his beard, because they have seen these images associated with suicide bombers,” he said.
“It is up to us to dispel that fear — to smile at people to tell them that … the message of Islam is not about bits of cloth. It is not about the beard or head scarf or the face veil or violence. It is about peace.”