The Muslim community: 'It's our beef because it's our people. I've never been to Iraq but it makes me angry'

In Leeds, poverty and lack of integration leave teenage Muslims vulnerable to militant teachings. Shiv Malik reports

Published: 24 July 2005

I spot the plumes of black smoke while driving up Harehills Lane, Leeds, on Friday. It is a day after the bungled London bombings. By the time I park, the windows of the KPS Pound Shop, opposite the Bilal mosque, have started to explode. The flames surge out, accompanied by a smell of burning shelving and kids' toys. Evening prayers have stopped and at least 100 people gather to watch firemen hose the place down.

The man serving at the counter tells me that four white guys came in, lit some towels at the back, then one of them lit a cigarette. The shopkeeper told them that they couldn't smoke in the shop, and after a bit of an altercation they left. Before he knew it the shop was alight.

Fifteen minutes later, people start shouting and pointing at another plume of smoke on the skyline about 500 yards away. One of the two fire engines rushes off to the scene and for half an hour it seems that Harehills - just a few minutes' drive from Hyde Park, the area where the 7 July bomb factory was found - might just be consumed again by racial tensions.

A few hours before the arson attack I meet Kasim Khan, 17, before he goes out clubbing. I ask him if he's bothered about politics and the Iraq war. "I do care but I care more about getting a job. I'm a British citizen, right. Friday, Saturday night I go out to clubs and get stoned."

But his friends disagree. "Look how many Muslims are dying and no one cares. One gora [white person] dies and it's on the TV all day," says Kami, 17. He doesn't want to give me his second name. I ask Kami if he really feels that what is happening in Iraq has anything to do with him personally, since he's from Kashmir.

"It's our beef 'cause it's our people," he replies. "I've never been to Iraq, yeah, and the media hide a lot of things but what they say is enough to make me angry." A third friend who doesn't want to be named at all chips in: "I'd go to Iraq if I had a chance but I've got family." I wonder if this is just teenage bravado and so I ask him again. He replies that, yes, he would go to Iraq. Then Kami interrupts: "Yeah but if we didn't give a fuck about our family we'd be in lock-up anyway."

These teenagers, all a year younger than one of the 7 July bombers, Hassib Hussain, live in one of the most deprived areas in Britain. This sense of hopelessness, born of poverty, makes them easily susceptible to ideas of victimisation. Identifying with Muslims abroad, even though they are culturally completely different, is just another way to express their anger.

The statistics of deprivation are clear. The area in which Kasim and his friends live is ranked as the 116th most deprived area in England and Wales. It's the 115th worst area for housing: 61 per cent of residents live in rented accommodation (double the national average); 75 per cent of houses are below acceptable standard; 45 per cent of houses (five times the national average) do not have central heating.

The jobless rate for male residents aged 16 to 64 is 9 per cent, but when you add to this all the other economically inactive categories, that figure climbs to 34 per cent. So it is no surprise that 64 per cent of the dependent children in the area live in income-deprived families.

There are broader statistics that apply just to Muslims. For example, according to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Muslim children in Britain are almost four times more likely to live in overcrowded conditions. And the most damning: the Pakistani and Bangladeshi are the most deprived ethnic minority communities in the UK. Surely the need to channel anger makes Muslim youths vulnerable to recruiters from radical organisations.

A former recruiter from Hizb ut-Tahrir, Britain's largest radical Islamist organisation, agrees that in the North, most of the people who join the organisation are largely uneducated, disaffected youths. Joining the group gives them a sense of identity and purpose which might otherwise be lacking. He adds: "It is mainly guys who are either unemployed or never received a university education or who hadn't even done A-levels."

Though Hizb ut-Tahrir is ostensibly non-violent, the organisation is banned in most of the countries it operates in, including Germany where membership of the group was outlawed in 2003 after it was deemed anti-Semitic.

The recruiter, who doesn't want to be identified, tells me that Hizb's vision of an Islamic state, known as the Caliphate, gives a sense of hope to disaffected Muslim youths. "They will say 'it's the Caliphate that will bring the criminals - as in Bush and Blair - to account' and this kind of rhetorical, loaded terminology."

But for second- and third-generation British-born Muslims, finding a sense of identity in political Islam is not just about escaping deprivation. Abdul, 20, reads computing at Leeds Metropolitan University. He's angry at the Government's foreign policy. "When Mohammed al-Dura got shot, that was a real wake-up call," he says. Al-Dura was the 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed by Israeli soldiers as he cowered in the arms of his father. "That the thing, though," says Abdul. "When Muslims see that oppression they don't know what to do. This is the thing with the young. They don't know what to do because the mosque itself hasn't told them what to do."

Abdul lives in Moretown, a richer part of Leeds. He's not poor or lacking in opportunities. He says he comes to the Bilal mosque in Harehills because this is where he grew up and went to Koran classes. "All blame lies squarely with mosque leaders. What have mosque leaders done in regards to al-Muhajiroun [another extremist group]? They're banned from giving leaflets and that's just forced them to go underground," he says.

Abdul says that most sermons are delivered in Arabic by imported imams, and British-born Muslims don't really understand them. "[The mosques leaders] are not really talking to the youth. They're not really giving them an alternative." He says that in a way it's not the first generation's fault. They just haven't learnt how to integrate and so they don't actually know how to channel the political frustrations of young Muslims.

"They [the first generation] have come across from Pakistan and they loved this country so much that they stayed and raised their children here. They built their mosques here. But the problem is a lack of integration. Muslims need to join the police force and become school governors and join the media," he says.

This also creates a frustration of which recruiters for extreme organisations can take advantage. "If you look at the community leaders in the country, they seem to be this older generation, who are essentially disconnected from the challenges of growing up in modern British society," he says. "Whereas anyone from the subcontinent faces questions of our place within British society, many of them are unable to answer those questions. So the kind of talks or sermons they give don't resonate with youths."

So there are two dynamics here: one of poverty and a need to escape deprivation and also an inability for the first generation to understand the growing political pains of their children. But what about Islam itself? I put a few question to Taj Ali, president of the Bilal mosque.

He says that they have had a younger imam delivering the sermon in both English and Urdu and that banning extreme groups from leafleting outside the mosque was the right thing to do. He explains that it is hard to ignore the injustice perpetrated on Muslims around the world as Muslims are part of a global community called the Umma. Though he condemned the bombings as un-Islamic, he said that Britain was now "suffering the consequences" of its foreign policy.

The idea of an Umma raises important questions. When I asked Ali how did he explain Sunni and Shia sectarian violence, he brushed it off, saying they were also un-Islamic deeds. Did being part of a global community make him responsible for the deeds of the Taliban in Afghanistan? No, as again they weren't true Muslims. So maybe there is something that makes it easier for young British Muslims to join radical groups. Like 11 September, 7 July has raised questions of identity for British Muslims, but this time with the bombers part of our home, it is not so clear how any of this is going to be resolved.


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