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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July, 2004, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Strangers in the family
By Aminul Hoque

Reports of fears of extremism among Muslim youth in the UK seem plentiful. But what does the world look like for Islam's new generation, where conflicts of loyalty can come very close to home?

What would you do if childhood friends and family changed their whole philosophy to life?

For the past year, I've been looking into Islamic identity among young British Muslims and trying to answer that question.

I have found a pride in an Islamic identity which is stronger than ever - some people see it as positively cool.

But for some young Muslims with a growing prejudice against society around them, the events of 9/11 have become a source of inspiration.

The majority of Britain's Islamic communities are peace-loving and law-abiding citizens. But as I walked the streets of East London and Birmingham for a BBC Radio 1Xtra documentary, talking to 120 young Muslims, it became all too apparent there was a tiny minority who were taking their religion to a sinister level.

'Judgement day'

That feeling became clear when I managed to get into a gathering held by one of the fringe groups in the media spotlight, al-Muhajiroun.

Led by Sheikh Omar Bakri, the group is perhaps most well known for describing the 11 September hijackers as the "Magnificent 19".

Aminul Hoque
I used to think I looked pretty cool in my faded jeans, combat jacket and Adidas trainers - now to be cool and trendy you have to wear the latest Islamic gear
Aminul Hoque

I wanted to know what they were saying - and look for any faces I might know. I immediately saw people I recognised - and they saw me. But the one who looked the most embarrassed was a relative.

This was the last guy I would have associated with such a movement. What did he want with these people - what did they have to offer him? He had a good job and a happy family life.

I asked him why he was there. But realising I was there as a journalist, he warned me to be "careful". Why? Because I would be "judged on judgement day", he said.

In that split second, we became strangers.

Café chat

It was easier to get answers from people I didn't know. Two sympathisers of a fringe Islamist group - Abdul and Jalaal - agreed to explain to me what they found in the stance of Islamist groups.

As we sat eating cream doughnuts in a Whitechapel café, days after the Madrid train bombings, we understood each well enough to have been brothers. But their views showed we were actually polar opposites.

"Whether it be through a bomb on a train or a natural disaster, Muslims are always happy to see the enemies of Allah being killed," said Jalaal.

His sidekick Abdul nodded in agreement.

"We have been hearing warnings that if [the West] doesn't stop hurting Muslims we have a right to defend ourselves.

"We don't condemn and we don't condone. But God Almighty's response is fight those who fight you. If the Spanish are fighting the Muslims, then God's response is go fight the Spanish."

Identity

So should I be worried about my community? What became clear is that the question of identity keeps popping up when you talk to young people.

Muslims Against Western Values poster
Anger: Turning against the west
I was born in Bangladesh but brought up in the East End. Islam taught me the morals and disciplines which guide me on a daily basis - and that was as far as it went.

But these days I'm seriously out of fashion.

I used to think I looked pretty cool. Now, to be cool and trendy, you have to wear the latest Islamic gear. For the guys that means a hat, a beard and the long baggy shirt.

For the girls it means wearing the hejab headscarf or the jilbab long gown. Some manage to combine this with designer labels. It's urban Islamic chic.

Fashion aside, there is something which is deeply personal and almost magical about the appeal of Islam to young people, especially those whose identities are in a state of flux and confusion.

'Islam made sense'

And in the fallout from 9/11, many young people are practising their religion far more rigorously than their parents' generation.

"Islam made sense," said one 21-year-old woman who had come closer to her faith.

Another 18-year-old told me: "I am Muslim first, Bengali second and a student third."

Friends I grew up with have found a sense of international solidarity - the Muslim idea of "umma", or a community of believers which spans national boundaries.

Woman walks by sign that reads 'Hijab Awareness Day'
Pride: Identity becomes a positive community force

Some find strength in their faith in the face of adversity - for instance one young man told me how racists would call him Osama bin Laden because of his beard.

Others have adopted a "them" and "us" perspective - or come to think of themselves as victims.

And so, there is this growing minority who see violence as valid and segregation as the only option.

For all of the people I have spoken to - the radicals and the trendsetters - Islam offers a culture of resistance against western values.

The young men and women I worry about are those who are less contented with their Islamic identity, and feel more of a sense of alienation from British society.

I hope they don't decide the answer lies in withdrawing from wider society - or even worse - declaring war on it.

Aminul Hoque is a PhD student studying Islamic and Muslim identity in the UK.


Some of your comments:

There is a new breed of Muslims within the west. I grew up here but feel a strong pull to steer my life according to Islamic values.
I don't wear the Hijab, but feel now that it is the only way to be and want to start wearing it asap.
I do worry about the extremist appearing under the Islamic umbrella, but the majority of young people see Islam as a freeing entity and a way to live.
Since the troubles in the world, Islam has become even more apparent and for some is more than a religion-it is an identity, a brotherhood.
Raziana, Essex, England

Maybe those Muslims who so hate western values should stop living in the west. Somehow I don't think most of them would appreciate the reality of an Islamic state with the enthusiasm they apply to their fantasy of one, which comprises a misplaced sense of ideological superiority with the comforts and freedoms of our liberal cosmopolitan society.
Victoria Wilson, UK

Shouldn't we as a nation be working at joining together and not separating? All that as happened is the making of a separate nation within a nation. If this continues, we'll end up with something along the lines of Northern Ireland. We are very fortunate to live in a country that allows one to speak freely. Those who practise open condemnation of the country they in which they live should think about this.
Dave, Kendal, England

Aminul's story is based only upon his interview with 120 of the some 1.5 million Muslims in the UK. I feel it is unfair to make huge generalisations of a community based upon such a small handful of people.
Such interpretations about identity further reinforce the stereotypes that the Muslims are out to "get everybody" and do little to bring communities together.
They also belittle the efforts of the huge inter-faith dialogue which is taking place by many people from all walks of life.
Peace Rashid, UK

Some people may join extremist groups through being misled by the leaders of these groups (and by certain sections of the media) that the Western world is the enemy of the Islamic world.
Many people see being anti-American or anti-British as a trendy attitude. That sort of stupid, narrow-minded foolishness will only exacerbate the differences between Muslims and non-Muslims.
People should look more at the issues themselves instead of being blindly led by extremists.
KC, England

I am a white, middle class man with no desire to convert to Islam. Yet I can comprehend to some degree why young Muslims are turning away from British/Western values.
I am appalled by the dumbing down of British society, the loss of common respect, the aggression in daily life, the sexualisation of children and the desire for fame and immediate gratification.
I can share the sense of disgust that some Muslims feel [with the West]. To see my country, a decent tolerant nation at heart, being ruined by an anything-goes liberal approach, breaks my heart.
Anthony Metcalf, working in the United Arab Emirates

I am a British Muslim, 30 years old and reading this just gets me depressed. Most of us are just trying to make a living and get along. I have just one thing to say to you so-called Muslims who think killing and violence is right and good: If you hate it here so much, please leave. Go to Saudi Arabia or Iran, or anywhere else that isn't the West. If you can't do that, then shut up.
Anonymous

It baffles me to why groups like al-Muhajiroun receive so much media coverage when their influence on the general Muslim community is negligible. Therefore this negative press undermines the years of hard work of many mainstream Islamic organisations around the UK.
Abu-Zar, Scotland

This country has become a secular state, and not only does that mean that the white majority must make real efforts to understand and not discriminate against other cultures but it also means that the same responsibilities rest with those other cultures too. Living in a secular Western society doesn't mean you have to like it, but you have to find your place within that society and live your life the way you want to within the laws of the state (or emigrate somewhere more suited to your ideals). We'll never live in a peaceful and happy society until the extremists on all sides let go of their frankly childish ideas that everyone else has to conform to their standards and ideals.
Sebastian, UK

I come from a mixed Hindu/Muslim background and cannot relate to these people in the slightest. Why do you not interview normal middle-class Muslims? If [the media] focuses on these people with polarised views, the public at large will receive an impression that we are all like these people. It appears that the people interviewed are all from economically and socially disenfranchised backgrounds and will not become enfranchised until they try to assimilate.
P, England

I think [extreme Islamist] groups are no more influential upon the Muslim community than the National Front is upon the white community. And all this talk about different "communities" is half the problem: it drives a wedge between people and pigeonholes them under convenient umbrellas, at the risk of alienation.
Luke Dawson, Horsham, UK

As a recent white convert to Islam, what attracted me to Islam was its approach to life, its values and above all peaceful solutions to most problems. The minorities who tar all of us by using violence are twisting parts of the religion to suit themselves, and are a tiny, tiny minority. Most Muslims are welcoming friendly individuals regardless of your opinions on Islam. Islam is a peaceful progressive religion, and it is a few that have spoilt that image.
James, Manchester, UK

We need to have more Muslim public figures in the UK to promote a feeling of inclusion and demonstrate our belief that one can support British ideals and still be a good Muslim.
Mike, Isle of Man

Thank you for all your comments on this story.


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