Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Britain's 'orphans of Islam' turn to terror

Navid Akhtar:

Just after the 7 July attacks on London I felt a second wave of intense horror as it emerged that three of the four suicide bombers hailed from my community. Like me they were British, Pakistani-Kashmiri and Muslim.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised: they were not the first British Pakistani terrorists, but the successors of young men such as Omar Khan Sharif, who attempted to blow up a bar in Tel Aviv in 2003.

But for many in our community the London bombings were a watershed and left us feeling the time had come to face up to some harsh realities. The community has failed to address a growing crisis of identity.

Since the bombings I have been making a film for Channel 4's Dispatches series, Young, Angry and Muslim, in an attempt to understand and explain what it is about my community that has put us at the centre of terrorism. I've had to examine painful truths about our failure to combat the alienation of the younger generations and the rise of extremism.

We now have three generations of Pakistani Muslims in the UK, but we are not part of the 'Asian Cool' success story, like other South Asian groups from India and East Africa. Our community is fracturing - we live in the most deprived areas of Britain, family ties are breaking down, personal conflicts and 'honour' killings are on the increase.We have low educational achievement, high unemployment and one of the largest prison populations for any ethnic group. A once law-abiding community is now plagued by drugs, crime and violence.

Part of the problem is the disenchantment with the government's foreign policy. But the community's failure to integrate is also based on daily experiences. Akram Sharif, a taxi driver in Leeds, sees the seedier side of British culture. 'They swear, they are abusive because they are intoxicated. People try to smash your car window in, just for a taxi.' Akram told me he felt as if he were caught in the middle. I understood; to be both British and Muslim now is to be torn in two very different directions.

Close to one million strong, 45 per cent of all Muslims in Britain are of Pakistani origin and 80 per cent come from villages in Kashmir and Punjab. They brought with them a rural tribal mentality, where everything remains in the family group. Marriage, business, religion - who your friends are, who you vote for, everything from the cradle to the grave - it's all designed to keep power with the elders, who are in turn answerable to clan elders, who may be answerable to senior members in Pakistan. This clan system is called the Biraderi.

In a community with two thirds aged under 35, the closed doors of clan power mean frustration. Clan elders have for years provided huge vote banks for mainstream parties, in return for positions and influence in local politics. Uneducated, even illiterate, Biraderi elders can get elected as councillors. Younger members of the community talk about a closed hierarchy, which does not recognise talent or ability. I am No 53, in a huge extended Biraderi, and no amount of personal achievement will change that.

Things are changing, however, and young people are standing up for the kind of life they want, no longer giving blind support to old clan loyalties. I met Fatema Patwa, a lawyer who prosecuted an electoral fraud case in Birmingham. She told me people were bribing postmen to get postal ballots and altering the votes of family and friends. People who had trusted these individuals felt abused and disgusted. This wasn't British democracy, it was Biraderi.

Young Pakistanis are losing faith in mainstream politics. Tribal people are reluctant to break old relationships, so despite anger over foreign policy clan elders continue their relationship with Labour. The effect is rising support for radical parties, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir which campaigns for restoration of the caliphate and sharia law, basically a return to Islamic rule in the Muslim world.

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