Page last updated at 09:37 GMT, Wednesday, 15 February 2006

Imams hit road to beat extremism

By Cindi John
BBC News community affairs reporter

It is a Friday night in west London and nearly 1,000, mainly young, men and women are packed into a hall eagerly anticipating the evening's main event.

Naveed Mustaghfar
Naveed Mustaghfar said there was a lot of "confusion" about the Koran
But it is not a pop concert they have come to attend.

All these young people are giving up their Friday evening for the latest event in what has been dubbed the "imams' roadshow".

The audience are nearly all Muslims who have come to hear influential Islamic scholars - or shaykhs - from all over the world give their views on the Koran's teaching.

It is one of a series of talks aimed at steering Muslims away from extremism by clearing up misconceptions and misinterpretations of the Koran, part of the Radical Middleway Project.

The initiative was one of the suggestions from the Muslim Taskforce set up by to advise the government in the wake of the London bombings last July when four young men blew up themselves and 52 commuters.

It's not a narrow audience. I've seen members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and sympathisers of al-Muhajiroun at these events
Abdul-Rehman Malik, Q News

Events such as this have been taking place around the country over the past three months with the project to run until December.

It is a completely different face of Islam from the angry, banner-waving Muslims seen recently after cartoons satirising the prophet Mohammed sparked outrage in Britain and around the world.

'Constructive ideas'

Marwan Ghannam, of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), one of the groups behind the events, explained one of the roadshow's main tasks.

"When you're young, you always want to change the world for the good which you can do with radical ideas.

"But they don't have to be extremist ideas, they don't have to have a destructive effect, they can be constructive," he says.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf
The peaceful nature of Koranic teachings was emphasised

Scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, of the US Zaytuna Muslim educational foundation, who has written several books about Islam, is among the speakers.

The Koran stresses Muslims should "speak well to people" and "debate in a beautiful manner", he says.

"These are the type of Koranic teachings which need to be highlighted especially when the Muslim community feels under siege and the media amplify minority voices from within the community which are not representative," he says.

It is a theme Shaykh Hamza and his fellow speakers - Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian-born scholar renowned throughout the Muslim world and Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, an adviser to the government on Muslim matters - expanded on.

'Measured response'

Afterwards audience member Kobir Ahmed, 22, a medicine student, said he found the topic very pertinent in light of the Danish cartoons row.

"Most of the scholars raised a very important point that before we start accusing others we need to look at ourselves.

"If we start to embody what our religion says we won't have these problems," he said.

Saliha Afzal, a scientist, said she believed such events would help tackle extremism.

Denise Kadijah
Denise Khadijah is thinking about converting to Islam

"One of the reasons people get so frustrated is because we don't have Islamic leaders in this country to provide us with a measured response to people who try to create tensions in the community.

"I think the response of the shaykhs is exactly what we needed," she said.

Naveed Mustaghfar agreed, saying there was a lot of "confusion" about the Koran.

"When you have someone like Shaykh Hamza who can give you some guidance on how to interpret it the way it was intended to be interpreted, that can really help people to understand the religion and apply it the way it was meant to be applied," he said.

Non-Muslim Denise Khadijah said: "I'm looking into becoming a Muslim so I came along to get more information.

"I enjoyed the event because there's a lot of negative press at the moment so it was nice to hear something positive."

While the audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, is there a danger the shaykhs are preaching to the converted?

Not according to Abdul-Rehman Malik, of Q News, one of the event's organisers, who says people from groups across the spectrum attend.

"It's not a narrow audience. I've seen members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and sympathisers of al-Muhajiroun at these events.

"I think the very fact that they're in the auditorium, they're listening and they're respectful, they're out here debating, agreeing and disagreeing is engagement in itself," he said.

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