Underwear bomber's London mosque under pressure

Members of the East London Mosque say they feel increased scrutiny since Nigerian "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up an airplane. 

Mary Knox Merrill/STAFF
The East London Mosque on the city’s Whitechapel Road emptied after prayers in October.

It's Friday evening at the East London Mosque, off Whitechapel Road. London's terror threat level is "severe." Tony Blair is defending the Iraq invasion. As one Pakistani adherent in the mosque says quietly, "it is not an easy time to be a Muslim in London."

Yet doors open, shoes slip off, men say "salaam" with conscious courtesy. Solemnity mixes with an easy camaraderie. This mosque, dating to 1910, is a center of the community. Apartment listings flutter off a wall near a book table. One display certificate shows more than $20,000 collected for Haitian earthquake victims. Another shows the take from the Friday prayer: some $8,000.

The scene evokes a Dec. 17 comment by Prince Charles at a black tie gala London dinner for the Islamic Relief fund, many of whose officials pray here: "We hear rather too much misleading information about a small minority of your community and not nearly enough about the vastly more numerous acts of compassion.…"

Yet only days later, that minority came front and center – in the failed Christmas bombing of an airliner by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who reportedly prayed at this mosque while a university student in London.

At the height of the Iraq war, among stalls lining Whitechapel Road, young Muslims handed out leaflets about jihad study groups. Much of this culture has been curbed or gone underground. With police closely watching more radical groups at nearby Finsbury Park, some migrate here, not wanting trouble.

Still, London's significant Muslim community – a "silent majority," as Khizar Humayun Ansari of Royal Holloway, University of London, calls it – feels again under a cloud.

In interviews that often start with suspicion, it is clear that Muslims here love Britain and, as in any large family or church, they feel saddened by the student who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight. How often Mr. Abdulmutallab prayed at East London is unknown.

"I don't think there is a connection between praying at the mosque and turning terrorist," says Professor Ansari, who has written a history of the East London mosque. Muslims "live ordinary lives in the same way everyone else in Britain does. Their norms and values are solidly British. That needs to be recognized, but I'm not sure it is."

After three generations, including a period in the 1970s and '80s when this mosque was under attack by punks, skinheads, and right-wing groups, Muslims still feel "on trial," as one puts it. "Yes, we feel under scrutiny, but I understand that," Samir, a tall engineering student from Somalia with impeccable English and a smart wool coat. "I love London, and I will live here until they ask Muslims to leave. Most of us obey the law, despite what you may hear."

Mosque chairman, Dr. Abdul Bari, is also the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. Last month, the council formally admonished the controversial group Islam4UK when it tried to hold a protest march along the streets of Wotton Bassett, where fallen British soldiers from Afghanistan are carried. The British government recently banned Islam4UK, making membership in it a crime.

One South Asian Muslim, with no beard ("the beard is in your heart," he says) points to a number of new pressures in Europe for Muslims: Switzerland voted to ban minarets at mosques. France seems set to ban the burqa. British antiterror police recently told Muslim clerics that they will share the e-mail and phone lists of the Islamic Society of University College London, where Abdulmutallab was president, with other intelligence agencies if asked.

From the Muslim point of view, right-wing hate groups haven't disappeared; they are just smarter.

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