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British struggle against extremists could alienate Muslim youths

LUTON, England—The bearded imam at the central mosque in this heavily Muslim community didn't mince words as he condemned London's mass-transit bombings.

"This was an attack against all humanity," Masood Akhtar Hazarui said. "I or my sister or my mother could have been on one of those trains. ... The people who were killed, most of them were probably against the war in Iraq. So that is not a rationalization."

Down the street, a young taxi driver in wraparound sunglasses had a different take.

"What they did was wrong, full stop," said Kamran Khan, 26. "But you have to ask why they done it. The main reason was to make a point. To be heard, in a sense. I don't agree with what they done, but I understand what drove them to do it."

The revelation that four middle-class Britons would blow themselves up to slaughter civilians in the heart of London has exposed a startling level of alienation among younger generations of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims, a chasm of mistrust that could complicate the government's attempt to deal with the problem.

Great Britain, stung by ethnic riots in 2001, has maintained a relatively lax approach to extremists living within its borders, even after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Fundamentalist clerics preach hate in London mosques, and British courts on occasion have refused to extradite terrorism suspects wanted by other countries.

Last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair signaled a change in that policy. His government proposed a law that would make it easier to ban extremist clerics from entering Britain, the first step in what's expected to be an anti-terrorism crackdown.

Blair also called on British Muslims to battle what he called "an extreme and evil ideology, whose roots lie in a perverted and poisonous misinterpretation of the religion of Islam."

Some people worry that such a crackdown may simply fuel the belief among many younger Muslims that the fight against terrorism unfairly targets them. A poll in November showed that 80 percent of British Muslims equate the "war on terrorism" with a war on Islam.

"What happens now depends on how the British government responds," said Luton resident Sadaqat Hussein, 18. "They need to stop blaming all Muslims for it. And they need to wake up and realize we are in a democracy, and we need to stop this illegal war in Iraq."

In interviews over the past week, young Muslim men repeatedly made clear that while they disagree with the bombers' methods, they're sympathetic to the presumed cause: a passionate opposition to Britain's role in what they see as deeply immoral wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For many young British Muslims, there's little difference between the attacks on the World Trade Center and this year's U.S. invasion of Fallujah, which killed 1,500 Iraqis.

"George Galloway said it best: Tony Blair's got blood on his hands," said Razaran Khan, 18, referring to a left-wing member of Parliament who suggested that Britain's role in the Iraq war had provoked the London terrorist attack. "He put Britain in the firing line."

Hussein, who said he wanted to be a police officer, and Razaran Khan, who wants to study medicine, don't come off as extremists. Polite and well informed, they live and go to school in this faded former industrial center of 184,000 people, about 15 percent of whom are Muslims whose families hail largely from the Kashmir region of Pakistan.

The four London attackers took the train from here on the way to their target, 30 miles to the south. Luton previously made news when three of its Muslim residents were reported killed in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban.

Hussein and Razaran Khan look on such people as brainwashed. They said they were shocked that men their age would mount a suicide attack. They also said they enjoyed living in Britain and considered themselves British.

But, they said, they can't accept that the British government embarked on what they consider an illegal war in Iraq after millions marched in the streets of Europe to protest it.

They feel so strongly, in fact, that they said they'd find it acceptable for a British Muslim to go to Iraq and fight against the British soldiers stationed there.

Kamran Khan, the taxi driver, who was interviewed separately, said much the same thing.

For these young men, the brotherhood of Islam trumps national identity.

"Not everyone goes that far, but there is a lot of alienation and suspicion," said Massoud Shadjareh, a spokesman for the Islamic Human Rights Commission, which has done detailed surveys of younger Muslims. "That is what is very dangerous: The alienation of Muslim youth is not just from the establishment, it's also alienation from the older Muslim leadership."

A large plurality of British Muslims have roots in Pakistan, a country where, according to a poll released this month by the Pew Global attitudes project, 51 percent of the population has a favorable view of Osama bin Laden.

In a poll of British Muslims last year, 13 percent of the respondents, which could mean 208,000 people, said al-Qaida attacks on America were justified.

Yet there's little doubt that British Muslims are far more accepted than their counterparts in other European countries. There are Muslim members of Parliament, chief executive officers, government officials and media personalities. In France, for example, with a larger Muslim population than Britain, there are no Muslims in Parliament.

Still, some here argue that the British haven't done enough to make sure that immigrants and their children are loyal to the country.

"The disaster is that we no longer make any real demands of loyalty upon those who are immigrants or the children of immigrants," former Conservative member of Parliament Boris Johnson wrote last week in the Daily Telegraph. "Too many Britons have absolutely no sense of allegiance to this country or its institutions."

Shahid Malik, a Muslim legislator from a suburb south of Leeds where one of the suspected bombers lived, said he'd follow Blair's call to work against extremism.

"This is a defining moment for this country," he told Parliament.

"Condemnation is not enough, and British Muslims must—and I believe are prepared to—confront the voices of evil head on."

It isn't clear that his constituents agree.

"If they start making anti-Islamic policies, it's going to be harder to be both Muslim and British," said would-be police officer Hussein.


(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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