Scottish Muslims: Prayer for Justice
By Alan Crawford, The Sunday Herald, October 2001
It is Tuesday evening, barely 48 hours into the bombing campaign over Afghanistan, and more than 400 people are packed into a roasting Moir Hall in Glasgow for a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition. It follows a meeting in Pollokshields multicultural centre the previous evening which drew almost the same number, most of them from the Muslim community. Many of those same people are here to hear Tariq Ali, the writer and veteran peace campaigner, who attempts to explain how the events of September 11 could have come about. He begins by sketching the mindset of someone who chooses to follow the world's most wanted man.
Take a young man in, say, the West Bank or Saudi Arabia, he says. He is perhaps the second or third generation of his family to have suffered under an oppressive regime. Add a massive amount of military force routinely employed against his people, who are ill-equipped and mired in poverty.

Then introduce a dissenting voice, someone who claims to understand his situation and denounces his oppressors. Someone who appears to offer a solution, a chance to shape his own destiny, to get back by taking up arms and embracing his fate. Someone like Osama bin Laden.

Harsh realities breed stark choices, says Ali, however unacceptable the consequences. It is an analysis that seems to strike a chord with many Muslims at the meeting, especially young Muslims.

Scotland's 50,000-strong Muslim community finds itself in an impossibly awkward position following the attacks on the US. Despite UK and US government insistence that the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, many Scottish Muslims feel caught between the rock of US-led military retaliation and the hard place of maintaining community relations built up over years.

The strain is beginning to show. A majority within the Muslim community are evidently unhappy with military action against Afghanistan, yet what they are prepared to do about it differs enormously between young and older generations.

'The Muslim community has been very unfortunate in their leaders, in that most of them believe they need to play along with the establishment. But that's not going to work,' says Ali. 'What's happening is a younger generation is coming up and, unless the community leaders are careful, lots of their young kids will be attracted to Osama bin Laden -- some are already. They see their own leaders as in the pocket of the establishment.'

Wednesday, and the papers are full of bin Laden's call for Muslims worldwide to rise up in a holy war against the West. All is quiet down at the Central Mosque in Glasgow, which caters for around 30,000 Muslims living in the Strathclyde area, as well as the many students from Islamic countries who come to Glasgow to study.

Muhammed Shaheen sits behind an old desk in the Islamic centre office. Below a mop of grey hair, his face creases into frowns then expansive smiles when asked about the world crisis. 'Tony Blair, wonderful,' he says . Shaheen, who served with the British army from 1943 to 1948, predominantly in Iran and Iraq, before coming to Britain in 1958, says he is all for the war on terrorism. He stresses he is speaking on his own behalf, but as president of the Islamic Centre as well as president of the Islamic Council of Scotland, he knows his opinions carry weight.

He pulls out a letter from a member of the public concerned that Muslims as a whole may be blamed for the September 11 attacks.

'Wouldn't it be wonderful if our people become closer as a result of these terrible events,' it says. Shaheen says he has had many such letters, and has received just one piece of hate mail. He insists community relations have not been damaged by the crisis. ' So far everything is first class. This is a multi- cultural city, a multi-ethnic and multi- religious society .

'People come here to pray from all over the world and I have not come across anybody who says they are worried that something is going to happen here.'

There is no question that Scotland's Muslim community was as shocked and horrified as anyone else by the events of September 11. It is worth repeating that between 600 and 700 Muslims were killed in the World Trade Centre that day.

Shaheen produces a copy of a letter dated September 12 sent on behalf of the Muslim community in Scotland to George W Bush expressing 'deepest sorrow' and 'totally condemning' terrorism.

'Osama bin Laden is totally not acceptable to anybody,' says Shaheen. 'If he is responsible -- which I don't know -- then this is absolutely unacceptable. To kill innocent people in the USA is unacceptable. But at the same time, when other organisations go and kill other innocent people, it's also not acceptable to mankind.'

Shaheen follows this by saying the 'root causes' must be tackled before any notion of a war on terrorism can be successful.

'We feel the time has come for the killing to be stopped. In Kashmir 80,000 people have been killed without solving anything. In Palestine, where all the prophets came from, that place is on fire.

'The only way we can have peace is to discuss these issues, put them on the table and understand others' point of view. Only then can it be solved. All people here feel this way.'

Robina Qureshi, who chaired Monday night's meeting in Pollokshields, is more vocal in her condemnation of the military strikes. She talks of 'double standards' and 'hypocrisy' on behalf of the British and Americans.

'There's a feeling of isolation, of not wanting to comment, not saying what we feel. For years and years the people of Afghanistan have suffered and there's a feeling of double standards. They're talking of 6000 lives being lost [in the US] but are those lives any better than those lost elsewhere?

'People are turning to peaceful means of saying war is not the answer to this.'

Qureshi feels there is insufficient evidence to prove that bin Laden and al-Qaeda are the perpetrators of the US attacks. If there were, they should be tried in an international court similar to the Lockerbie case.

Thursday, and the Bush administration is talking of taking the war on terrorism to countries beyond Afghanistan. The Taliban meanwhile says that 15 Muslims have been killed inside a mosque during bombing raids over Jalalabad.

In Edinburgh, work is continuing to repair the damage to the Annandale Street mosque after it was firebombed last week. A 16-year-old appears in court that afternoon charged with the offence.

Over coffee and biscuits in his translation bureau, Masud Khan, an executive director of the Pakistan Association in Edinburgh, which runs the mosque, says he is 'appalled' and 'extremely concerned' by the actions in Afghanistan.

Choosing his words carefully, he stresses he is speaking personally, adding: 'The feelings I have are not particularly because I am a Muslim, it's from the point of view of a civilised society.'

Khan says he has not encountered a single person who was not shocked and hurt by September 11, but adds that he is concerned by loss of innocent life anywhere in the world, in Afghanistan as well as the US. He believes nothing justifies the military action 'without proof'.

'Across the Muslim world,' he says, 'there are downtrodden, oppressed people who certainly perceive themselves as being in that position due to policies of faraway powers, which is why you see Muslim and Arabic peoples who are extremely unhappy.'

Khan cites Western support for the hardline Saudi regime 'because it suits them' and the 'selective implementation of UN resolutions'.

Khan also talks of a discernible split developing between younger and older members of the Muslim community, with younger people far more willing to speak out about their grievances.

Glaswegian Ghizala Avan, a part-time lecturer at Paisley University, is a case in point. Speaking from Heathrow airport, while waiting to catch a plane to Pakistan where she plans to volunteer for one of the many relief agencies working in the country, she tells of bad feelings brewing between whites and ethnic minority populations in Glasgow.

One Muslim woman had a bottle broken over her head, while others have been subjected to verbal abuse such as shouts of 'bomb Afghanistan', she says.'I don't normally wear a headscarf but I have been wearing one to show solidarity and support for the women that do.

'Blair and Bush may say there's no anti-Muslim feeling but women in particular have had a pretty bad time.'

Friday, day six of the bombings, and The Guardian reports that the US is to make determined efforts to force Israel to come to the negotiating table with the Palestinians.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, concedes the West is in danger of losing the propaganda war with Osama bin Laden. He talks of the need to counter the perception that the West is not interested in the Middle East peace process.

But Blair should begin at home, according to Tariq Yusuf, a lecturer in social justice at Strathclyde University. Sitting in an armchair in his Glasgow home smoking Marlboro Lights, he talks of a 'sense of oppression and resistance' within the Muslim community in Glasgow. This, he says, is leading young Muslims to express dissent against the establishment views of their parents, as espoused in the city's mosques. The growing peace movement is providing young Muslims with the catalyst they have been looking for.

'This has been a very de-politicised community, but I have seen a massive increase in young Muslims getting politicised, getting involved, trying to understand the issues,' says Yusuf.

'The sense I get is they're looking at the legal basis of what's going on. People wonder what happened to the rules of natural justice and the presumption of innocence. Most people find it problematic that we can't have any role in this decision-making process -- and it's not specific to Muslims.'

Yusuf says the 'general media analysis' divides everything into the West and the East, leaving no room for dissenting voices.

'It's not a question of us or them. The majority of people don't see it in terms of West and East, but of imperialism.'

He adds: 'We have to be responsible in the way we address these issues. But to paraphrase Blair's statement on crime, it's no use looking at terrorism if you don't look at the causes of terrorism.'

Back at the Central Mosque in Glasgow, groups of Muslims mill around the courtyard in the afternoon drizzle. A CND activist hands out leaflets advertising the peace demonstration to take place in George Square the following day.

Omar Tufail, who has just returned from Pakistan where he worked as a website designer, is distributing copies of the Central Mosque weekly newspaper. He says the talk during Friday prayers was of maintaining a balanced viewpoint.

'Islam is about taking the middle path. It is not about extremes and this man [bin Laden] has taken things to extremes.

'I don't know much about law, but I do know you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Whether this guy is guilty or not, he should be proven guilty before they try and kill him. Justice should be beyond religion and colour and everything else that divides us. Everything just seems to be turned upside down.'

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