Muslim Leaders in Britain Pledge Solidarity Despite Divisions

Iqbal Sacranie, center, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, listens to statements outside Prime Minister Tony Blair's Downing Street office, where two dozen Muslim leaders met with government officials.
Iqbal Sacranie, center, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, listens to statements outside Prime Minister Tony Blair's Downing Street office, where two dozen Muslim leaders met with government officials. (By Toby Melville -- Reuters)

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By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

LONDON, July 19 -- Two dozen leaders of Britain's Muslim community emerged from meeting with Tony Blair at the prime minister's Downing Street office on Tuesday, pledging solidarity with one another and the government to address the root causes of the suicide bombings that killed at least 56 people here and injured 700.

But even as they spoke of working together, many of the leaders -- the most prominent of Britain's Muslim moderates -- acknowledged strong disagreements among themselves, with the government and with radicals in their community over who or what is ultimately to blame for the attacks, which police say were carried out by four young British Muslims.

Is it the government's foreign policy, including Britain's participation in the Iraq war? Is it Islamic extremists who preach hate and condone violence? Or is it the Muslim community, which has failed to recognize and root out a cancer in its midst?

"We've gone through this shock period immediately after the bombing when we all reacted simultaneously to condemn it," said Nazir Ahmed, a Kashmiri Muslim and member of the House of Lords who attended Tuesday's session. "But now many people are confused as to how to deal with it."

Many Muslims blame the Iraq war, as do Britons in general. A poll in the Guardian newspaper Tuesday said two-thirds of the public believed there was a link between the bombings and the war, echoing the view in a briefing paper on Britain's security services issued by Chatham House, a prominent foreign policy research center in London.

Blair heatedly rejected such reasoning at a news conference after the meeting with the Muslim leaders, warning that it was perilously close to "the sort of perverted and twisted logic" used by terrorists.

"Of course, these terrorists will use Iraq as an excuse, or use Afghanistan," Blair said. "September 11, of course, happened before both of those things and then the excuse was American policy, or Israel," he added, referring to the 2001 attacks in the United States.

The anguished and impassioned argument among Muslims here over why four young people each strapped 10 pounds of explosives on their backs and blew up three subway trains and a double-decker bus is in part a debate about a minority community's relationship with larger British society. It is also a conflict over who speaks for the Muslim community, pitting moderates against extremists and, to an extent, Muslims from the Indian subcontinent against Arabs.

Yamin Zakaria, a Britain-based computer technician who publishes fiery manifestos on various Islamic and political Web sites, contends that the bombings were payback, not just for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but for a long series of atrocities committed by the West against the Muslim world. In his view, these include the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Bagram prison in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.

"It's human nature for people to fight back when they're attacked," he said. "You've slaughtered us for years, and no one hit back, but now that someone has, you cry foul."

Zakaria says the moderates who appeared at Downing Street are co-opted careerists and sellouts who do not speak for young Muslims. He is equally disdainful of those who want to see the bombers as brainwashed or disturbed.

One Muslim leader who was not invited to the Downing Street summit was Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian academic who is a leader of the Muslim Association of Britain, a coalition of mostly Arab Muslim groups that was at the forefront of the antiwar campaign here. Tamimi is considered a moderate by many in the Arab community, but he also is a longtime supporter of Hamas, the radical Islamic group that rejects Israel's right to exist and is responsible for many of the suicide bombings there.

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