Page last updated at 05:10 GMT, Saturday, 3 April 2010 06:10 UK

Afghanistan Mullahs in London to bridge cultural divide

Emily Buchanan
BBC News world affairs correspondent

Haji Mulla Meherdell Kajar
Hajji Meherdell is against premature withdrawal of British forces

Their faces etched from years of conflict in the war-torn deserts of Helmand Province, four senior Islamic scholars step into a pod on the London Eye.

As the giant wheel turns they stare in silence at the city spread beneath them; the River Thames, the Houses of Parliament and miles beyond.

It is their first time ever in Britain. As they soak up the sights, they know this visit is about much more than tourism.

It marks a new initiative in British government strategy; the recognition that military progress in southern Afghanistan will not hold unless international forces also win the battle for hearts and minds.

In the intense propaganda war on the ground, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office now hopes to improve communication with ordinary Afghans by targeting their religious leaders.

Massive influence

Officials invited these scholars to see life for themselves in the UK, as they have the unique ability to influence thousands of mosques and their congregations in Britain's key military campaign ground.

Across Afghanistan there is widespread ignorance and deliberate misinformation about Britain and Britain's military intentions.

Ordinary people will listen to religious scholars often before politicians. The Taliban uses its religious credentials to tell local people repeatedly that the British are an occupying force which wants to destroy Muslims and their faith.

We have found true Islam in this country, a peaceful tolerant society
Haji Mulla Meherdell Kajar

The four scholars, or ulemas, are supporters of the Afghan government and defy the Taliban, themselves often suffering death threats. They view the Taliban as an arm of foreign powers in the region who want to keep Afghanistan weak, and they are adamant they do not see Britain and its allies as occupiers.

Haji Mulla Meherdell Kajar, chief imam of the Central Mosque in Lashkar Gah, says the foreign forces are doing what they can to help Afghanistan and are making huge sacrifices in the process.

"The propaganda says that the invaders want to destroy us, and illiterate people listen to the propaganda. But these forces were invited in to help overcome our problems."

He was amazed to hear from the BBC that some British Muslims want the international forces to pull out. Hajji Meherdell was emphatically against a premature withdrawal.

False beliefs

"Those Muslim brothers who say Britain should leave Afghanistan - they don't know Islam. Don't they know our whole country is at war? They should advise the British not to withdraw their forces until they bring stability, security and development to us, and then they can go."

What surprised the scholars most, though, was to find Muslims in every walk of life in Britain.

Whether meeting them in the Foreign Office, or as security guards on the London Eye, they had not known before that Muslims had jobs. They believed that Muslims were treated badly and not allowed to practise their religion.

Haji Mokhtar Aqqani
Haji Mokhtar Aqqani is the most senior religious figure in Helmand

They were particularly taken aback by the Afghan mosque in north-west London. They watched as several hundred turned up to pray.

Haji Mokhtar Aqqani, the most senior religious figure in Helmand, addressed the congregation. In Afghanistan he has spoken out against the Taliban, delivered radio messages condemning suicide bombings, and issued a fatwa against the growing of poppies. However even he still thought that Muslims in the UK could not go to the mosque.

After prayers, he told the BBC: "People in Helmand say that in Britain there are no mosques and no freedom to worship, so I was really surprised to see so many people come and pray here freely. I will take that message back home."

The scholars went to other mosques too in Birmingham and London.

Small cost, big dividend?

By the end of the trip, Haji Meherdell concluded: "We have found true Islam in this country, a peaceful tolerant society where Muslims are not harmed, the opposite of what the Taliban and insurgents tell us."

The Foreign Office hopes that if the scholars can go back and influence opinion in Afghanistan it will not just help the security of Afghanistan, but it will disarm the arguments of those who want to recruit young jihadis to strike Britain.

If it proves successful, there could be more attempts to try and bridge the gulf in knowledge and understanding between the two cultures.

Exchanges with British imams could also influence how Muslims in Britain view the international operation.

However this battle progresses, at least it is cheap; the cost of the ulemas' tour being a tiny fraction of that of the military campaign.

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