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Tuesday, 10 September, 2002, 12:08 GMT 13:08 UK
British Muslims: Pride and fear
Najmul Nisa Khan
Najmul Nisa Khan: Faced abuse

The past year has seen British Muslims come under scrutiny for who they are. And many are saying it's time to rise to the challenge.

Should anyone fear an 18-year-old young woman walking down a British street because she wears the hejab scarf?

Najmul Nisa Khan, whose name means "Star among the Women" is among many Muslim women in Leicester who wears the hejab as a profession of her faith.

She is British-born and hopes to go to university before a career in newspapers.

Before 11 September she believed she was treated with respect because of the hejab, not least because it diverted the excessive attention of boys.

Since then, some of that respect has been replaced with fear, despite the fact that she lives in the city always touted as Britain's beacon of multi-ethnic life.

If you think that I am oppressed what about celebrities in the magazines and women who look up to a twisted image of beauty?

Najmul Nisa Khan
Najmul and many women like her have been spat at, shouted at and at times physically attacked.

As we talked over a coffee at a pavement café in Leicester, three white teenage boys casually threw some packets of sugar at her before running off.

Later, we were interrupted by a woman, apparently drunk, who gave us her not-so considered thoughts on Islam.

"I just try and ignore it," said Najmul. "It's got a lot better but I feel sorry for them if this is what they are reduced to doing."


There has been no substantial research into the effects of 11 September on race relations in the UK. One report by Leicester University found that there had been a rise in "Islamophobia" - the fear and suspicion of Muslims because of their religion rather than their ethnicity.

But the past 12 months has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Muslims, including Najmul, who believe that Islam, their way of life, and their legitimate place in Britain has been questioned and subjected to a scrutiny unheard of in the UK.
A British mosque
British mosques: More school visits

"I first put on the Hejab when I was trying to discover more about who I was," said Najmul.

"It was the simplest of choices. "It does not mean that I have been forced to wear it. What it means is that I am proud of being a British Muslim."

"If you think that I am oppressed what about celebrities in the magazines and women who look up to a twisted image of beauty?"

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September Najmul said that many women like her found themselves "isolated" because they were easier to single out for abuse than Muslim men.

"I felt like I was being forced to question who I was. People were blaming Islam," she said. "And yet there was nothing to question. The problem is that there is a lot to explain."

Explaining Islam

Since 11 September, there has been a thirst for knowledge about Islam and what it stands for. Islamic cultural centres have reported increased interest from the non-Muslim public.

Many more schools are now involved in schemes taking children into Mosques. In Leicester, Najmul is herself involved in a project actively challenging preconceptions of faces in the crowd.

Ibrahim Mogra and his son Rukanah
Ibrahim Mogra: "We must be proactive"
Leicester is further ahead than many other Muslim communities in being pro-active and challenging preconceptions of Islam.

The city has well developed inter-faith programmes which lever the media muscle of the Church of England to help put the case of other communities.

It also has an extremely active local Muslim federation led by media-savvy figures from all walks of the community.

One of those figures is Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, a prayer leader with a young family who smiles wryly when described as Islam's answer to the "trendy vicar".

A British graduate, he is one of an emerging generation of Imams within British Islam who are reinterpreting the faith for today's needs.

It saddens me to hear that a Muslim family are neighbours of a non-Muslim family and have perhaps never moved on from just saying hello to each other

Ibrahim Mogra, Leicester Imam
Ibrahim Mogra regularly tells conferences it is up to British Muslims to explain to the white majority what their faith stands for.

"There's been such a huge interest this year in Islam. But it's sad that it took the events of 11 September to bring this about," he said, bouncing his baby son Rukanah on his knee.

"I find myself asking why did the British people not want to know before? Or did they want to know and we didn't realise?"

"What is clear is that we have to make sure that we don't come across as a threat to others in society. We live in Britain, our homes and families are in Britain. Our children are schooled here.

"When you are in your own home you want to feel safe and secure. So do other people in Britain.

"Muslims have just as much a role to play in bringing this about as everyone else in society.

"This is my jihad - to give the British people a true picture of Islam, a picture of love, respect and peace."

Handover of power

Young leaders such as Ibrahim Mogra are involved in the gradual generational transfer of power to new community leaders. With this handover, will come new ideas from leaders who have never known anything other than British life.

"If we are going to challenge how people perceive us, we need to be proactive. We need to build relationships - and friendships," said Ibrahim.

"People have possibly kept to themselves to much and never felt the need to engage.

"But people need to live in the world of the now. It saddens me to hear that a Muslim family are neighbours of a non-Muslim family and have perhaps never moved on from just saying hello to each other.

"I'm not saying that they should stick their noses into each others' business, but there is a fear of the unknown that holds people back."

Politics and perceptions

Whether you want to interfere, there remains a gap between how British Muslims see themselves and how they are regarded more widely.

They say that if the media treated British politics the way it reports extremist Islam, newspapers would be full of reports on the far-right British National Party while stories on Labour or the Conservatives would be restricted to the back pages.

Islamic text books
Islam: Unprecedented interest from the public
Secondly, there are many Muslims who believe their way of life has been sullied by ill-considered statements from ministers.

Muslim leaders believe Tony Blair is a true friend who has genuinely sought to understand their faith.

But the same leaders then ask whether or not some of his cabinet and the security services take the same view.

For instance, they ask, why did police break into a mosque to arrest an Afghan family instead of using negotiation?

Secondly, there are many angry young Muslim men - and some older ones too - who have been visited by members of the security services with no apparent evidence of wrongdoing.

These tensions are real and have been exacerbated by a complicated combination of factors including Afghanistan, Kashmir, conflict in the Middle East and far-right activity.

"The government needs people with expertise when dealing with Islam," said Ibrahim Mogra. "Home Secretary David Blunkett should have access to such people.

"It would have been nice if [on his recent visit to a mosque] he said that the government knows not all newcomers speak English, so he is going to do something constructive and supportive.

"Instead, he comes across as shutting all the doors. I think that, at best, he has been ill-advised over the past year."

Flashpoint Iraq?

In Leicester, the leadership of the county's Federation of Muslim Organisations, has been actively involved with the police and other communities in preventing Islam from being misrepresented and improving its image to the outside world.

Manzoor Moghal
Manzoor Moghal: "Muslims concerned over Iraq"
But, said Manzoor Moghal, the organisation's chairman, months of work in cities right across the UK could be threatened by the new flashpoint: Iraq.

"Should Britain join America in attacking Iraq, many British Muslims will be inflamed," said Manzoor.

"This is not because they think that Saddam Hussein is a good Muslim. "It is because those who would be carrying out the attacks apparently tolerate dictators elsewhere."

The city's faith leaders, led by the Diocese of Leicestershire, have already voiced these concerns in a joint letter to the government warning of community tensions if there is war.

For the time being however, the work continues in Leicester and other cities like it.

The Muslim Council of Britain is publising a book detailing how the place of British Muslims has changed over the past year. The Quest for Sanity will be available from 18 September.

Click here to go to Leicester

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See also:

29 Sep 01 | Politics
10 Sep 02 | Americas
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