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Luton: a town pulled apart by extremism (Filed: 04/11/2001)
In mixed communities throughout the UK there is anger at the misrepresentation of Islam by groups targeting vulnerable youngsters, reports Jenny Booth
SHAHED, the leader of the Luton branch of the extremist Islamic group Al Muhajiroun, is at home this weekend with his doors locked. For a man who had much to say earlier this week about sending young British Muslims to Afghanistan to die as martyrs he is strangely silent.
"It is coming from head office that for the time being we don't want any media interviews," says Shahed nervously into his mobile phone. "I was attacked on Monday. I'm fine, yes, I'm OK."
Shahed was jostled outside the Call To Islam Centre because he had taken a journalist into the prayer room for an interview and photographs, implying that his tiny band of extremists are part of mainstream Muslim life in Luton.
Shahed claims to have 50 members and 200 adherents, most of them young, extremist and second-generation Asians. While their parents work hard and prosper, many of their children have turned against Britain, taking their call from hardline Islam.
Those who have known Shahed for years say that the true number of hardcore Al Muhajiroun members in Luton is just four, all disaffected students.
Even so, older members of the 30,000 strong Muslim community, 20 per cent of the town's population, are worried that Al Muhajiroun's doctrines of hate are appealing to younger British Muslims.
"We are very anxious to reach out to these young men who are being pulled this way and that," says Akbar Dad Khan, whose community group, Building Bridges, helps young Muslims find their feet. "The vast majority are able to make bright choices for themselves, but some get lost along the way.
"These are the young people vulnerable to extremist groups who say: `This system isn't serving you well, we have better ideas, come along to our meetings and have a cup of tea', and everything sounds rosy.
"Al Muhajiroun has a policy of discouraging young people from attempting higher education. I know of many young people who have become linked to this group who have given up their education. By the time they realise that the world is not rosy it is difficult for them to get back what they have thrown away.
"Al Muhajiroun claim you cannot get a proper education in a country which is not a religious state: but we live in the 21st century, we have to make the best of the circumstances that exist. Islam can comfortably live within Western traditions."
Mr Khan, originally from Pakistani Kashmir, has no fears that his eldest sons, one at university and one at senior school, will be attracted by the doctrines of hatred and isolation.
He has lived in Luton for 26 years and believes in the process of integration that has seen six Muslim councillors elected and Muslims represented in every walk of life.
The parents of 23-year-old Mohammed Qasim, a council worker, have 15 shops in the town and are on excellent terms with their Christian neighbours, to whom they give presents every Christmas. But yesterday Mr Qasim's mother postponed her Saturday shopping because she was afraid.
Mr Qassim, who's parents emigrated from Pakistan 40 years ago, said: "I was born in Britain, I hold a British passport. I love this country, and my parents feel the same.
"Luton is a very nice town. It took us a long time to build a multicultural society here and we are not going to lose that for anyone, especially not a group like Al Muhajiroun, whose religion is not Islam, but hatred."
Yet no British Muslim in Luton has a good word to say for the bombing of Afghanistan, which is killing Muslim civilians. This has created an area of confusion for British Muslims, loyal to the country where they live, yet afraid to speak out for fear of being labelled extremists.
This grey area has been exploited by Al Muhajiroun. Last Monday, Shahed claimed that three recruits from Luton had been killed by American bombs at a Taliban compound in Kabul. Next morning, he was on the front page of national newspapers in Britain, Europe and America, claiming Luton was a hotbed of Taliban conscription.
On Wednesday, a group of Muslim leaders warned him off. "We told them: stay off the streets, don't set up your tables or hand out your leaflets, don't come to the mosques and don't talk in front of the cameras with your views, because they are not representative of Luton's Muslim community," said Sultan Mahmood, the development officer at Bury Park Community Resource Centre.
Tensions were last night running high in the predominantly Asian area of Bury Park. Muslim women have been taunted in the street. The Call To Islam Centre took the phone off the hook because of threatening calls.
Asian shops and homes were warned by the police on Friday to beware of attack this weekend by the Men In Gear (MIGs), a gang of white football hooligans who terrorised Luton Asians 10 years ago.
A local paper reported that the MIGs met in the Nags Head Inn in Dunstable on Monday night to draw up a battle plan. The landlady, Lynn Seamans, denies this, but, in an atmosphere of fear and recrimination, rumours have more power than facts.
Luton Borough Council and Luton Council of Faiths have taken out full page ads in all the local papers this week to try to reverse the damage, by launching a Keep The Faith in Luton campaign.
Mr Mahmood said: "It happened in Oldham, it happened in Bradford, and this week is the acid test for us. But Luton is too a strong community to allow that to happen."
-- Anonymous, November 04, 2001