Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait Splits Britain's Muslims

BRITAIN'S 2 million Muslims have been deeply affected by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the Western response to it. Some find that their loyalty to their adopted country is being severely strained. Several hundred Muslims living in Britain have volunteered to fight alongside Iraqi troops, according to the Iraqi Embassy here.

Some Muslim leaders have publicly opposed the American and British military presence in Saudi Arabia and have demanded an early withdrawal of Western forces.

The most extreme statements have come from radical Islamic leaders in Britain's northern cities, where Muslims form large communities.

Sher Azam, president of the Council of Mosques in Bradford, which has a sizable Muslim population, said last Sunday that the government's decision to send troops to the Gulf was ``against the will of the Muslim community of this country.''

Claiming to speak for all British members of his faith, he called on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Bush to remove all non-Muslim forces from around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He said that the Koran, the sacred book of Islam, expressly forbids the presence of non-Muslims in and near the holy places.

Yusuf Islam (the former pop singer Cat Stevens) has been another leader of Islamic protest in Britain since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Western response. Last week he led a delegation of British Muslims to the London embassies of Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Azmi al-Salhi, Iraq's ambassador, told the delegation that his country had no aggressive intentions toward Saudi Arabia. His officials later said that ``many British Muslims'' had contacted the embassy, offering to join Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

When the group visited the Saudi Arabian and Kuwait embassies, Mr. Islam said later, they called for a withdrawal of Western forces and their replacement by an Arab peace force.

Afterward, a Kuwaiti diplomat denied that the Koran banned the defense of Islamic holy places by non-Muslims.

Few British Muslims have voiced support for the Western sanctions against Iraq and the military buildup in the Gulf, but a leading member of their community here said privately that this did not mean a majority supported Sher Azam and Mr. Islam.

The Gulf crisis has revealed deep splits among British Muslims, some of whom in recent months have been urged by their leaders to distance themselves from British institutions and work for the creation of what has been called a ``nonterritorial Islamic state,'' with its own parliament and financial resources.

Meanwhile, British officials concerned with race relations have been careful not to enter the debate about the Gulf crisis.

Privately there is considerable concern in the Home Office at the readiness of Muslim leaders who speak for only one part of their community to claim to speak for all Britons professing Islam.

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