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Sunday, November 23, 1997 Published at 01:10 GMT

Special Report

Muslims in Britain

The creation of the Muslim Council of Britain this weekend is an attempt to highlight the problems facing the Muslim community. In this special report for BBC News online, the BBC Religious Affairs correspondent, Alex Kirby, looks at Britain's Muslim community - their origins, their beliefs and the issues which most concern them:

The number of Muslims in Britain is generally put at around 1.5 million, though some community groups suggest it could be nearer two million.

Perhaps half came originally from Pakistan, with the Middle East and North Africa accounting for around a quarter. Several hundred thousand originated in Bangladesh, with India also contributing significant numbers.

The largest Muslim communities are in Greater London, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Lancashire and central Scotland. Most belong to the Sunni tradition of Islam, which accounts for 90% of Muslims worldwide. Only a small proportion of British Muslims are Shi'as.

All Muslims affirm the oneness of God. They believe that all power belongs to Him (who they name Allah); they believe in His prophets and angels, in the books that He has revealed, in the Day of Judgement and in life after death.

[ image: The annual pilgrimage to Mecca]
The annual pilgrimage to Mecca
They pray five times a day, give two and a half per cent of their savings and income to the needy and observe the holy month of fasting and discipline, called Ramadan. And every Muslim who can afford to do so is expected to perform the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once.

British Muslims face growing tensions. Most came here from somewhere else, and were therefore once immigrants, people who naturally still looked back to their homelands. But they have put down deep roots, and their children -- a growing proportion of the entire Islamic community -- are Britons who happen to be Muslims.

They continue to face discrimination and disadvantage: Bangladeshis and Pakistanis together have a long-term unemployment rate nearly three times greater than people of West Indian descent. In the inner cities, nearly half of all Bangladeshi and Pakistani adults are out of work.

Again, the number of Muslims in prison in England and Wales rose by 40% in the four years to 1995 to account for nine per cent of the prison population, although Muslims constitute only about four per cent of the entire British population.

A recent report identified "Islamophobia" as a problem besetting British Muslims of every generation and background: an irrational fear of Muslims as people bent on imposing their religious and political views on the rest of society, if necessary by force.

The overwhelming majority of British Muslims are intent simply on living their lives without interference: faithful adherents of their chosen religion, and at the same time loyal citizens of their chosen country.

But the problems they face here are intensified by some of the acts committed in the name of Islam by people who most Muslims disown.

[ image: The Luxor attack adds to anti-Muslim sentiment]
The Luxor attack adds to anti-Muslim sentiment
The massacre at the Egyptian tourist resort of Luxor, the long nightmare of the civil war in Algeria, the treatment of members of other faiths by some Muslims in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the fatwa or religious edict by Iran against the writer, Salman Rushdie - all contribute to the mistaken identification of Muslims with violence and conflict.

The launching of the Muslim Council of Britain is an attempt, the organisers say, "to highlight the fact that we are an asset to the nation and to celebrate the contribution we have made to society".

It will tackle discrimination against Muslims in areas such as religion and education. Its founders expect more than 250 organisations to support the new umbrella group -- out of 500 that have been invited. But already it faces opposition from fringe groups who say it doesn't represent them.

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