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Last Updated: Sunday, 31 December 2006, 23:47 GMT
2007: Moving on after the veil row
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Veiled Muslim woman (file image)
Veil: Heated debate of 2006 - but was there any light?
If headlines and comment in the British media are anything to go by, then 2006 was a bad year to be a Muslim in the UK.

A raging debate over multiculturalism spread nationwide as Britain tried to make sense of the threat from terrorism - and found that those anxieties opened up a pandora's box of other questions.

Those at the sharp end of this angst were Britain's Muslims. So a year that started badly with the global row over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, ended on an equally downbeat public note with a British row over the Islamic veil.

As the New Year dawns, the question is where are we now heading?

Against a background of very real fears over terrorism and security, Britain continues to struggle with some key issues, including immigration, diversity and national identity and the very simple issue of how we all get along.

So when Leader of the Commons Jack Straw raised the question of the veil's role in integration, or rather the lack of it, the ensuing debate was hardly surprising.

Many Muslims agree with Jack Straw that the veil is a bad idea. What did however shock Muslims was the tone of the debate - a debate which has seen a growing sense of defensiveness.

Many felt the debate in the media shifted from a rational discussion of a largely peripheral issue in their own communities (the number of women who veil is tiny) into a full blown attack on a faith and a culture.

Government action

The government for its part says its wants a full and frank debate on where Britain is going and how minorities such as Muslims fit in. Mr Straw's intervention fits usefully into that strategy.

But is this all talk and no action? A key test is to see how much more progress the government makes on integration issues.

A mosque dome in Birmingham
Mosques: Hopes for new professional body
A major commission on integration and cohesion will report later this year.

Muslim critics of the government also complain that little has been done on the recommendations from Preventing Extremism Taskforce established after the London bombings. This complaint now sits alongside historic concerns over relatively high levels of poverty, educational under-achievement and unemployment among Muslims - some of it linked to prejudice.

But some of the most important change, say ministers, must come from within communities themselves.

At the heart of this change is the emergence of a new generation of British-raised Muslim leaders, people the government is increasingly backing to deliver change.

So while the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) remains the largest umbrella group, government is taking a keen interest in other small but growing organisations, such as the Midlands- and north-based British Muslim Forum.

Critically, the government has taken a step back from the MCB, not least because of its past refusal to attend Holocaust Memorial Day.

New younger leaders appear to be leading the way in key areas. One of these, for instance, is the lobbying of mosques to sign up to what could become a new self-regulatory watchdog of professional standards in religious institutions.

Another area where there is radical change is in the debate over Islam's place in modern Europe.

Provocative thinkers are using forums such as the Radical Middle Way, a lecture circuit funded by the government but run by two community organisations, and the City Circle, a professional Muslims' networking body, to spread new ideas.

Critically, there are signs of new Islamic thinkers coming through British universities.

The I word

Most Muslim leaders remain furious that the government has not held an inquiry into the causes of the London bombings because it is this link between radicalisation, terrorism and the war they want to talk about. Some organisations go further and accuse the government of talking up the threat of terrorism to divert attention from foreign policy. Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation the prime minster said he would ban, but so far hasn't, argues this point among the young British Muslims who follow its call for an Islamic state in Muslim lands.

Eliza Manningham-Buller
Manningham-Buller: Call to understand radicalisation

But the enormous fear among many Muslim leaders is that the war in Iraq, Britain's involvement and a perceived lack of more open discussion on foreign policy issues, makes is easier for extremists to peddle the idea to young men that the West is utterly incompatible with a Muslim life.

There has not been another successful Islamist-politics inspired attack on the UK since 7 July 2005.

But MI5's chief Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller said in a critical speech in November that the security services had been dealing with 30 plots and 1,600 individuals:

She said: "More and more people are moving from passive sympathy towards active terrorism through being radicalised or indoctrinated by friends, families, in organised training events here and overseas, by images on television, through chat rooms and websites on the internet.

"My service needs to understand the motivations behind terrorism to succeed in countering it, as far as that is possible. Al-Qaeda has developed an ideology which claims that Islam is under attack, and needs to be defended."

That was a direct appeal to both communities and government to get on with the serious work of understanding that radicalisation process in the UK.

As the New Year begins - Britain's Muslim communities are nervous, at times angry - but mostly enormously frustrated at having the spotlight thrown upon them.

But as one community leader recently said: "It would be nice to wake up to find that all of a sudden everyone thinks my faith is banal, rather than something to panic about."






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