Young UK Muslims work to bridge Islam, West (02/08/2005, by Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY)

MANCHESTER, England — When Prime Minister Tony Blair called a meeting of Muslim leaders July 18 to figure out how to tackle extremism in the aftermath of bombings July 7 in London, no invitation arrived for Mohammed Shafiq.

Born in Britain to Pakistani parents and reared in a suburb of this city 185 miles from London, Shafiq, 26, epitomizes the young Muslim who is defining his own brand of Islam. Fiercely loyal to the local Manchester United soccer team, Shafiq also is observant of the Quran, Islam's holy book. Like many Britons, he takes his tea with milk. At the same time, he adheres to a strict Muslim diet. He attended co-ed public schools here but went to Pakistan for a wife.

Shafiq represents the contradictions of first-generation Muslims reared in traditional Pakistani homes and educated in Britain's secular schools and on its gritty streets. He says he's exactly the sort of person Blair should consult.

He is among the young, observant Muslims working to address the disconnection between Islamic values and Western culture. In December 2004, Shafiq and about a half-dozen of his friends founded the Ramadhan Foundation. Their initial goal: to lobby for state-supported Islamic public schools in the area that teach math, history and English, along with Islamic lessons.

Now, the group works to help youths integrate into British society without abandoning their beliefs by making Islamic education more accessible to English-speaking Muslims and providing activities to keep them away from un-Islamic Western ways such as smoking and drinking. The organization went largely unnoticed before the London bombings on July 7 and July 21, but recently, the group sold all 2,150 tickets to its first Muslim Unity convention on Sunday in Manchester.

Before the bombings, the goal was to have Islamic scholars speak on social welfare issues and on how the Muslim community can capitalize on its commonalities. Now, the conference also will address extremism and the disaffection of Britain's Muslim youth. "We need to find the common ground," says Mohammed Saddiq, 25, a recent university graduate helping Shafiq organize the convention. "Unity is about bringing people together. You don't want a vacuum because then real extremists will fill it."

A chance to be heard

The foundation invited 16 Islamic scholars and clerics, including Sheik Mohammed Yahya of Atlanta and Imam Siraj Wahaj of Brooklyn.

Yusuf al Qaradawi, an Egyptian scholar invited to the convention, has justified suicide bombings in some cases. Qaradawi declined the invitation. Shafiq says Muslims of all stripes should have a chance to be heard at the conference. He says the danger comes when people feel left out or ignored.

The group did not invite British government officials to attend, but British officials have begun reaching out to Muslims. Hazel Blears, a minister in the Home Office, met community representatives Tuesday in Oldham in northern England. Race riots broke out there in 2001 after white youths attacked a South Asian family's home. Blears' meeting was the first of a series of gatherings she plans around the country.

People who attend Sunday's convention "will come away with an Islam based on peace, tolerance and the value of human life," Shafiq says. "We will explain why extremism and terrorism are not the answer."

But who is an extremist? "That's the $64,000 question, isn't it," says Shafiq, who works as an outreach adviser for the government's job center in nearby Bolton, helping his community access social and employment services. "Anyone who glorifies violence or justifies killing innocent people, in my eyes, those are extremists."

Shafiq blames the turn to extremism on a failure to understand Islam and the gulf between clerics and young Muslims.

Parents supplement public school education with after-school studies at mosques. But foreign-born Islamic clerics don't relate or communicate well with English-speaking youths who have absorbed British culture, Shafiq says.

He still attends the local mosque where he listened to clerics from Pakistan who didn't speak English. "I couldn't relate," he says. "They spend two hours in the mosque teaching the Quran and how to pray. We learn how to read Arabic. We memorize. But we don't know what we're saying."

A lack of knowledge of the Quran makes confused youth vulnerable to extremist preachers who may give them a distorted interpretation, he says. One answer is state-sponsored Islamic public schools with religious classes taught by English-speaking clerics. "It's about giving young people a purpose in life," he says. "I believe the only way to do that is through Islam."

Greater Manchester, which includes the surrounding suburbs, has 125,219 Muslims — 5% of the area's total population of 2.48 million, according to the 2001 census. Muslims account for almost 3% of Britain's population, making Islam the No. 2 religion after Christianity.

The influence of Muslims here is clear. Many restaurants in the predominantly Asian part of the city serve halal food, dishes that conform to Muslim dietary guidelines. Women wearing head scarves or traditional black robes don't stand out. Shafiq and Saddiq stop for food at Kebabish, a kebab joint on what Shaffiq and other locals call the "Curry Mile."

Manchester is the third most socially deprived city in Britain, according to a study in 2004 by the University of Oxford's Social Disadvantage Research Center.

The average income for Greater Manchester is 19,400 pounds ($34,350), compared with 21,300 pounds ($37,710) nationally. About 13% of the population receive welfare, compared with 10% for England, according to the City Council.

Th government, Shafiq says, should alleviate poverty and reduce unemployment — factors that contribute to the disaffection and anger of youth.

What Muslims can do

Shafiq says Muslims also must contribute through political activism and by instilling Islamic values. The mosque, he says, should be open all the time, so youths have a place to go.

The Ramadhan Foundation is helping to organize a soccer tournament as a way to capture teenagers' interest. "Most of them don't have anything to do but stand around the street corners and smoke cigarettes," Shafiq says.

Beyond the community, Muslims should unify to exert political pressure, Shafiq says. In 1998, he worked for a member of parliament from the Liberal Democrat Party. He also worked on an inquiry into institutional racism at Scotland Yard. He says he might run for a local public office someday.

Shafiq and Saddiq drive to a town house, headquarters of a community radio station. Shafiq is promoting the upcoming convention on The Islamic Hour, a talk show run by three Muslim women: Hibbah Shariff, Faiza Chaudhri and her sister Navila. The show airs once every two weeks.

The discussion moves to the impact of the bombings on Britain's Muslim community. "That's what the convention is about," Shafiq tells the radio audience. "How can we come together? How do we deal as a community with the extreme elements?"

He says the recent attacks will make his efforts harder. "We're going through very difficult times, Muslims in the UK," he says. He recounts a recent trip on a train from London to Manchester. He says it was the first time he experienced racism since schoolmates taunted him for being a "Paki."

"People would rather stand than sit next to me," he says.

WHY WE CAN LEARN SO MUCH ON HOMELAND SECURITY FROM THE US MUSLIMS (The Sun, August 2006)

Being a British born Muslim I was concerned that during the recent focus on Muslims we began to lose the real focus, the terrorists.  As a British Muslim I was disgusted when the 7/7 attacks happened in London and was amazed that a small minority were hell bent to defend this murderous act.  It was normal for me to believe that my faith Islam would never sanction this sort of terrorism.  I realised that we had to build a huge alliance to protect our country from future attacks.

It was with this aspiration that I got the opportunity to travel to the United States to visit Muslims in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit has the largest concentration of Muslims in North America and the largest Mosque.  With BBC Five Live we attended a dinner at the Mosque where the Imam talked to the congregation about why Muslims should thank God for giving them the blessing of living in the United States, he went on to talk about Muslims living the American dream and why it was important for Muslims to be patriotic of the USA and take homeland security very seriously.  I found this amazing that an Imam was saying such patriotic comments about the country he called home.  In further discussions with a young Muslim female student, she told me that at every Thanksgiving Day they cooked turkey and the whole family gathered to thank Allah for the blessings they were receiving in the USA, could we ever imagine this happening in the UK?

The contrast with the UK cannot be more different, Pakistani and Bengali students are some of the highest performer in the US whilst in the UK the same group are usually the poorest performer, In America there is so much focus on education and the benefits this brings – Education is the biggest tool to defeat extremism and terrorism.

In discussions with the Lee Baca the Sherriff of Los Angeles county he told me about his pride of setting up a group named “Muslims for Homeland Security” the basic idea is that Muslims come together and take a more active role in protecting the United States for potential terrorist attacks, taking this more visible and active roles creates an environment where terrorists can be marginalised and arrested.

Since 7/7 we have in this country been engaged in a debate about the wrong issues, the most pressing thing facing our nation is homeland security, we need to build an alliance across all communities that say not in our name to terrorism and take pride in our country.  We have something very unique in this country, the freedom to practice our faith and live in peaceful co existence with various communities. 

My lesson from Detroit is that Muslims in the UK need to take a more active role in protecting the United Kingdom; we can do this in partnership with the police and security authorities.  With a firm belief that Muslims as UK citizens are as concerned about security as other citizens and by working together we can eliminate this evil from our communities.  At the same time the Government has to deal with unemployment, poverty, lack of academic standards in the Muslim community – dealing with this will be the biggest indication that Muslims are equal citizens and can feel truly British.

I hope our Muslim community takes up this challenge with the same strength and commitment to making our nation safe and secure for the 21st century

GLASGOW TERRORIST ATTACK, (Guardian, Asian News, Asian Leader, Asian Trader)

Following on from the terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London there was once again in an increase microscope on the Muslim community.  In my own mind I was beset with worry about how things were going to plan out over the coming days.

I’m the press Spokesman for the UK’s leading Muslim youth organisation the Ramadhan Foundation.  The Foundation is working to build a better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims create a platform for Muslim unity and also deal with the issues of terrorism and extremism.  We are the most high profile Muslim organisation that appears regularly to provide a more positive image of Muslims in the UK.

In the immediate moments after the terrorist attacks my phone went mental with calls from journalists from around the world asking what the Muslim community response was.  I was keen to move away from passing judgement before we knew the true circumstances of the attacks.  

By early evening it was clearer that we had witnessed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, a press release was duly written and sent out to the media.  My first concern was that the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown may respond in the same way as Tony Blair, come out, use terms such as “Muslim terrorist” or “Islamic extremism,” and make a false link between Islam and terrorism.  I have to admit on reflection I have been impressed by the Government’s initial response, it has been measured, about bringing people together and yes not using them terms above to demonise a whole community.

The same evening of the terrorist attack in Glasgow I joined Steven Nolan on BBC Five Live to discuss these attacks and take calls from the public, there was mixed responses from not all Muslims are like this and lets put in perspective to the extreme lock all Muslims and kick them out. 

My response was very clear, our faith Islam not only condemns terrorism but forbids it, and the scholars are unanimous on this.  The Country cannot hold 1.6 million Muslims responsible for the actions of a small minority, I give the example of a murderer or rapist and the country says his or her family are responsible for the crime – this was stupid and dangerous.  We have to ensure that we all come together.

I then give a detailed interview on BBC News 24 where I talked about terrorism and how we had to come together as a country, unite, hold hands, and say not in our name.  I have to admit it was one of my best interviews, very serious and I received over 25 emails from people who saw the interview and said they compelled to write to me to thank me for my work and the contribution of the Ramadhan Foundation.  It’s when I receive feedback like this it makes all those nasty comments, threats, and demonisation worthwhile.

In the following days I did over 300 interviews reiterating the important point that Muslims are double victims, once when terrorists strike and a second from the demonisation and victimisation.

My record of action on highlighting the issue of terrorism and the challenges of extremism in the Muslim community has been very active and I’m clear that we have woken up to that challenge.  Could you imagine Muslim organisations 2 years ago coming out within hours of the terrorist attacks to not only condemn but also encourage people to work with the police to deal with this issue, we have seen a sea of change in the Muslim community and that is something we should all be proud of.

The most striking thing is that Muslims leaders and organisations like the Ramadhan Foundation have been proactive in tackling terrorism; we have seen many changes in the response from minority communities.  

I make no apology for saying that we need to engage, have a dialogue and yes debate with the extremists.  We have to use highly respected Muslim scholars to explain why their views are wrong and why they need to come back to the mainstream of Muslim opinion. 

And as Dame Stella Rimington, former MI5 boss has said that since our illegal war in Iraq and our perceived double standards in foreign policy the UK is at an increased risk of terrorism.  This comes on top of Sir Michael Jay, former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office who said in a leaked report in the run up to the Iraq war that if we went ahead we would be at an increased risk.  By all these people saying this does not justify terrorism or legitimise it but provides an opportunity to have an honest and open debate in the country about our biased foreign policy.

I welcome the new Government’s attempts not demonise and tarnish the whole Muslim community but we will judge the Government on its attempts to deal with the route causes of terrorism like poverty, unemployment, deprivation and isolation.

I am proud to be part of the next generation of Muslim spokesman that are proactively taking up the challenges facing our diverse communities, whether that be on terrorism, extremism or working with the Government.  Where we agree with the Government we will support them and where we disagree you can be sure I will be there attacking them.

My final analysis is that we do not need to erode our freedoms and Civil Liberties any further, when Sir Winston Churchill dealt with fascism he did not do it with doing away with freedoms and civil liberties and we can deal with terrorism without any further erosion of these rights that’s why we are opposed to 90 day detention.

I hope that my contribution is seen as reflecting the positive contribution Muslims are making to the UK.  It’s time to celebrate our achievements and what unites us not what divides us because the terrorist want to divide us and in that they will fail.

Only through unity will we prevail and defeat terrorism.

The Mosques must wake up now (Sky News Website)

The Ramadhan Foundation is very clear that when discussing the role of the Mosque.  We should always pay tribute to the elder community.  When they arrived in the early 1960’s there was no mosques or Imams and it was their hard work and sacrifices that enabled future generation to practice our faith in Mosques up and down the country.

Having paid this tribute to the elder community we have to understand that the Mosques in the UK are failing to address the key concerns of Young Muslims, enter any mosque on a Friday and you will surely see young Muslims sitting at the back talking about a host of other things whilst the Imam is preaching.  When I recently questioned some youngsters in my local Mosque in Rochdale I was told that the Imam didn’t understand English and they had problems understanding Urdu. 

The day after 7/7, I prayed at a Mosque in Newcastle, the Imam spoke very passionately about the evil of terrorism and how Islam forbids Muslims from carrying out these murderous acts, I was moved by his sermon but it was delivered totally in Punjabi, I remember looking around the Mosque hall and seeing many youngsters engaged in their own conversations.  The Ramadhan Foundation has for many years been calling for the Mosques to understand that tackling the issues surrounding terrorism, extremism, cohesion, integration, Islamic values, rule of law etc can only be done in English.

The People who run the Mosque have systematically failed to deliver Islamic education to young people that would equip them for the challenges of living in Multi Cultural Britain, in a society where we respect each other and live peacefully together.

Speaking to many young Muslims they are desperately in need of Muslim Scholars and Imams that speak their language and understand the issues facing young Muslims in the United Kingdom.  Whether it is on tackling extremism, preventing terrorism or learning the basic principles of the Islamic faith Imams must be able to communicate their message into English.  The Ramadhan Foundation accepts that Young Muslims must do more to understand their mother tongue as this will keep them in touch with their cultural heritage passed from generation to generation.

So what should mosques do?

  • It should ensure that every sermon is delivered in English along with other languages for the elder community

  • It should tackle and alert people to the evil of terrorism

  • It should train young Muslims in running the mosques and then give them the control to run the mosques. When young Muslims see this they will be empowered to get involved more.

  • Ensure that the Mosques are open and transparent, with certified accounts and meetings where decisions are taken openly and those in responsibility are held accountable.

  • Develop a structured curriculum that addresses cohesion, integration, tolerance, respect, tackling extremism and terrorism and contemporary issues such as low educational standards, unemployment, poverty etc

  • Establish lasting links with other faiths, schools and encourage non Muslims to visit the Mosque

  • Hold regular events in English that help youngsters channel their anger in positive ways, like the issues around double standards in UK foreign policy, illegal war in Iraq etc

  • Promote peaceful coexistence between different diverse communities
  • With an environment where young people can learn Islam we will be able to tackle many of the key issues facing our country, only together can we defeat terrorism.

The Ramadhan Foundation is hopeful that if Mosques carry out the above the Muslim community will be in a much better position than today.

 

 

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