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British Muslims

Joanna ImpeyNovember 18, 2013

Monday marks the beginning of the trial of two men accused of murdering a British soldier in Woolwich, London, in May. The attack was widely condemned by faith leaders and has caused unease in the Muslim community.

Prayers in the East London Mosque (Photo: DW / Joanna Impey)
Image: J. Impey

British soldier Lee Rigby was killed in broad daylight outside his barracks in southeast London on May 22, 2013. The attack provoked a public outcry, because the accused told passers-by that they were killing a soldier to avenge the killing of Muslims by the British armed forces.

Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both converts to Islam, pleaded not guilty to the charges during a hearing in September. On Monday, the two men will appear in court. In the morning, roughly 30 protesters demonstrated in front of the courthouse, according to Agence France-Presse. Among them was the leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin.

The attack against Lee Rigby was widely condemned by religious leaders, but still led to a rise in threats made against Muslims and mosques in the days and weeks following the murder.

Shaynul Khan of the East London Mosque says the atmosphere was tense.

"We heard many incidents of mosques and other institutions, as well as people, being attacked in the wake of the Woolwich incident," he told DW in an interview. "So I think at that time the community was gripped by a certain degree of fear."

Calm restored

Several months later, however, the situation seems calmer. On the roof of the East London Mosque the call to prayer cuts through the sound of traffic on the busy street below. Thousands of people, many of them of Bangladeshi origin, worship here every week.

Roof of the East London Mosque (Photo: DW / Joanna Impey)
From the roof of the East London Mosque, the call to prayer cuts through the sound of trafficImage: J. Impey

"What happened in Woolwich was unspeakable and it's not something that anyone can forget in a hurry. So I think the impact of that will still continue to linger on with us for a while to come," Khan said.

Some three million Muslims live in Britain today. They face a number of challenges. On the one hand, right-wing extremists, such as the English Defense League, are seeking to stir up sentiment against them. The EDL staged a number of anti-Islamic protests in the aftermath of the Woolwich killing.

On the other hand, Islamist extremists are seeking to radicalize disaffected people on the fringes of society.

But there are also organizations working with the Muslim community to promote integration and protect against extremism, such as the Quilliam Foundation - a think tank that seeks to challenge extremist views.

Extremist threat

Usama Hasan works for the Quilliam Foundation. He knows the dangers of extremism only too well. By turning away from the radical Islamists, he and his colleagues became a potential target for these extremists. Their office in central London is now fitted with bomb-proof windows.

Osama Hasan in the Quilliam Foundation building (Photo: DW / Joanna Impey)
Osama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation has a bomb-proof officeImage: J. Impey

Nevertheless, Hasan feels that the Muslim community has made a lot of progress since the Islamist attacks on the London Underground and buses in July 2005, which killed over 50 people.

"One of the silver linings from the Woolwich incident was that ordinary British Muslims really felt a strong sense of revulsion, as the whole country did. And their reaction was 'enough is enough,'" Hasan said.

Youth support

But it's young people - young men in particular - who most risk radicalization. That's why the Osmani Youth Centre, a short walk away from the East London Mosque, offers support to youngsters in the local area, notably those at risk of joining gangs.

"We find that sport is a very good tool," program manager Abu Mumin told DW.

"Sport is a language that everyone understands and it's a good way of engaging young people from all types of races and faiths. It's one of our more successful programs."

Abu Mumin in the Osmani Youth Centre, London. (Photo: DW / Joanna Impey)
Abu Mumin uses sports as a way to distract young Muslims from the dangers of radicalizationImage: J. Impey

Mumin feels Muslims tend to get bad press in the British media, even though he says the vast majority of them are well-integrated into British society.

Shaynul Khan of the East London Mosque agrees with him. For him, the UK is still one of the best places in the world to be a Muslim.

"I've grown up here all my life," he said. "I consider no other place home other than Britain. And I think the liberties that I'm offered here are far better than anything I would see across the globe. So I'm really proud to be living here in Britain."