Struggle for a British Islam

Rahim Jung glances nervously upward and brushes water from his beard as raindrops begin spattering the small crowd of demonstrators gathered along busy Park Lane, which runs alongside Hyde Park. Around him, women pull their hijabs closer as the assembly raises aloft homemade placards reading "Not in the Name of Islam," and "We love Britain."

"Our message is that it's perfectly possible to be a practicing Muslim and abhor the atrocities that happened," says Mr. Jung, a social worker from London who helped organize the demonstration. "We are part of Britain."

Jung is part of a small but increasingly vocal number of reformists who aim to counter the radical ideology behind the 7/7 and 7/21 bombings with a peaceful and distinctly British Islam.

Notably, they're not taking their cues from Britain's leading Muslim clerics. Rather, their effort is largely spontaneous - a grass-roots phenomenon that is emerging to bridge the disconnect between faith and nationality that, for some Muslims, ends in violence.

"We believe that we are as British as anyone, if not more, because we are British by choice," says Dr. Akmal Makhdum, a psychiatrist who organized the gathering. "The way of life here does not mean you have to give up your culture, because the British way of life allows you to keep it."

Polls taken since the bombings, however, show that men as unabashedly pro-British as Mr. Makhdum face a daunting challenge. Nearly two-thirds of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims have considered leaving the country, a Guardian/ICM poll this week showed.

Between Makhdum and the rejectionists opposing him, the bulk of ordinary Muslims have been thrown into the thick of the debate by the Islamic terrorists who struck London twice in a fortnight.

"The bombers are throwing away everything our parents have done for us," laments Wasif Khan, who works for global professional services firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu in London. "It's so frustrating."

"It's only been in the last 10 years that we've been able to say we are British," says his wife Ayesha, a third-generation Muslim who remembers the lingering racism her elders had struggled against. "All [the bombers] were thinking is that they, personally, were going to heaven," she adds bitterly. "They'd been brainwashed for a larger cause, but individually they were completely selfish. They need to figure out what true Islam is."

Wednesday, four men were arrested in Birmingham, England, in connection with last week's failed bombings in London.

Ayesha and many moderate Muslims like her insist that Islamic terrorism arises from a distorted interpretation of Islam.

"If young Muslims had a greater knowledge of the history, literature, art, and other aspects of Islamic civilization, they would know that organizations like Al Qaeda are un-Islamic," says Nasar Meer, PhD sociology candidate at the University of Bristol.

A return to Islamic civilization's rich cultural heritage is precisely what some Muslims now propose as an antidote to the stark, politically driven creed of militants. "We need a cultural agenda for British Muslims," says Abdel-Rehman Malik, a contributing editor at Q-News, a Muslim magazine based in London.

"One thing that drives people to blow themselves up is a feeling of inferiority," says Aburraheem Green, head of school visits and outreach at the London Central Mosque, who also advocates a return to Islam's past.

But he warns against distracting believers from Islam's central teachings through too much emphasis on Muslim culture. "It seems absurd to be talking of art and architecture when [Muslims around the world] are dying everyday," adds Mr. Green, referring to conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Mr. Malik, however, argues that British Muslims' hand-wringing over faraway military struggles distracts them from challenges facing their own community.

""The external issues like beards, scarves and halal [that which is acceptable in Islam] are still the most discussed issues. We need a cultural agenda for British Muslims," he says. "The Islam [we need] does connect people to a larger narrative - but it's a spiritual narrative, not a political one," he says.

Some British Muslim artists are already striking out ahead of Malik.

"The bombers wanted to say something about how they feel," he says. "Why can we not take these things and use them creatively?" says Farooq Chaudhry, producer of the Akram Khan Dance Company, which blends Asian and British Dance.

Aki Nawaz, leader of the hip-hop group Fun-Da-Mental and head of Nation Records in London, has set out to do just that. For over a decade, Fun-Da-Mental's provocative titles and politically tinged lyrics have provided a release valve for the frustration common to young Muslims.

Hard-hitting and danceable Fun-Da-Mental's music is just one of many ways in which well-integrated Muslims can speak about Islam and Britishness to young people who might otherwise turn to Islamic radicals for answers.

"One big plus that came from the bombing was a wake-up call," says Mr. Khan. "Now Muslims all over the country say we have to connect with these angry kids."

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