By ABDULHAMIT BILICI, LONDON
Sunday, November 26, 2006
[NEWS ANALYSIS] — Until countries such as India, Egypt and Malaysia gained independence, millions of Muslims lived under British rule.
Now the United Kingdom is a new homeland for more than two million Muslims from former colonial territories and elsewhere.
Until London was hit by terrorist attacks in July 2005, British Muslims were living in relative peace and freedom.
Many Muslims living in Islamic countries were envious of this free environment in the UK.
The libertarian British model was shown to contrast France’s prohibitive understanding of secularism.
There was a freedom of expression that allowed even the most radical religious discourse. Muslims were able to set up their own parliaments, open their own schools and receive financial aid from the state, albeit little.
Muslims also had broad liberties in clothing. Muslim women were able to wear all manner of headscarves, veils and even burqas.
Things have changed however.
The debate on the Muslim veil still continues, first ignited by remarks from former Foreign Minister Jack Straw.
Almost every day, newspaper headlines talk about a problem with Muslims. A terrorist who reportedly plans to blow the London subway occupies the newspaper pages…
The newspapers talk about a “Muslim Threat.”
Muslims in the UK are complaining about the British press.
Khurshid Ahmed from the British Muslim Forum said that constant negative press on Islam was causing reactions in society and making people more radical.
Andleen Razzaq, a young Pakistani Muslim, said, “The press does not prefer to talk to a modest Muslim like me; instead they want to talk to an extremist. They do not care that they are instigating mutual hatred.”
Even still, some say those living in the UK are still the luckiest Muslims in the West.
We asked London-based Pakistani journalist Shahed Sadullah, who frequently appears on the BBC, to compare the UK with other European countries.
“The UK still is the country where Muslims live the most comfortably in the West,” he responded.
When we asked whether the situation in the UK was better than the one in the United States, he stressed that it was, “a millions times better.”
It is not merely a subjective opinion that Muslims have benefited from civil liberties in Britain.
When we visited the Muslim College in London, founded by Dr. Zaki Badawi'nin, we were told that there had been a Sharia council in Britain since 1978.
The council has the right to judge legal and divorce issues of Muslims.
The right to apply to such councils, for many denominations, was granted in 1920.
Now, attempted terrorist attacks by several British-born Muslims have apparently disrupted this atmosphere.
The British government is taking more severe measures against terrorism with new laws while at the same time it is trying to establish closer relations with the Muslim community and limit the number of extremists.
Government working out solutions to radicalism
The British government attaches great importance on advertising its policies against terror and a growing radicalism among youngsters.
This was the main objective of the British foreign ministry program organized for 12 foreign journalists from places like Austria, the United State, Pakistan and Bahrain.
During the week-long program, we got the chance to hear how Britain and Muslims view terrorist attacks.
Ethnic minority groups make up nine percent of the 60 million people in the UK, including over two million Muslims.
A British Council media guide tells us that Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians make up half of the ethnic population. Other major groups are Algerians, Nigerian, Turks, Iraqis and Afghans.
The guide stated that 14,200 Britons had converted to Islam, such as Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.
Media foments problems
Andleen Razzaq, member of the City Circles, a debate platform for local administrations, is also complaining about the media.
Razzaq said a careless media had disfigured Muslims: “Quality newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent pose no problem. However, others never interview ordinary Muslim youth like me, while there are so many extremists to quote because sensational news brings in ratings. They do not care that such publications foment mutual hatred, make life harder for Muslims and push them to defensive position through constant pressure.”
During our one-week stay in Britain, Muslims were featured in the headlines almost every day.
Discussion on the Jack Straw veil debate was still ongoing.
Suddenly an alleged terrorist attack on the London subway was foiled.
Later a racist letter sent to voters by a female member of the conservative party was revealed. This was followed by the removal of a Muslim police officer who was guarding Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office.
Moreover, the chief of the British intelligence service MI5 stated that 1,600 terrorist suspects were being monitored.
A newspaper headline proclaiming a “Muslim threat” was quite depressing.
Two weeks after the July 7 attacks on London, attacks on Muslims increased seven fold.
Lack of legal regulations regarding Muslims has an impact on the rise of verbal and physical attacks.
The 1976 law foresees severe punishment for racial discrimination, but it is not applicable to crimes against Muslims. The law only covers Jews and Sikhs because they are recognized as race.
A notable case was that of Nick Griffin, leader of the conservative BNP party tried for insulting Muslims who was acquitted in November thanks to this loophole.
Abdurrahman Cafer, member of the Muslim Council of Britain, stressed certain problems were caused by mistakes in the implementation of recently enacted anti-terrorism laws.
Three youngsters were arrested and kept in prison for three months, but released by the court for lack of evidence. The same youngsters were later arrested for a credit card problem.