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From the archives: Moderate Muslims raise voices to influence the young

Times Staff Writer

It is nearly 9 p.m. on a summer evening and the shadows are growing long at Spring Hill Park in the down-at-the-heels Hackney borough, but the young men of the North London Muslim Community Center are still hard at play.

Their sport is cricket, and these dark-haired teenagers, the children and grandchildren of Indian immigrants, are in the process of shutting down a team of peach-skinned blonds from the Highgate neighborhood.

As they do, they joke and banter, aping the posh accents of their opponents and laughing at the "geezers" — anyone older than 30 — who wander onto the neatly groomed lawn. The deep green of the grass sets off their white cricket outfits, just as their coltish spirits contrast with the strictly business play of the Highgate side.

It's typical teenage stuff, but in the wake of bombings in London this summer by working-class Muslims like these young men, even seemingly harmless fun is burdened with a nation's questions. Who are they, really? What do they want?

And do they even want to "belong" to Europe? Long before the deadly attacks, the continent's once-homogenous societies struggled with assimilating their large, and rapidly growing, Muslim populations. In turn, many new immigrants struggled with fitting in while quietly preserving their traditions.

Today, however, some young Muslims reject a pluralistic, secular continent, opting to retreat into the confines of what they feel is a purer, truer form of strict Islam as taught by radical clerics and websites.

The attack of July 7 and attempted reprise on the 21st, and similar bombings in Madrid last year, suggest that a small portion of Europe's new generation of Muslims may already be lost to extremist clerics and hate-filled Internet dogma.

But arrayed against fanaticism, there is a strong current of moderation within Europe's Muslim population that has become increasingly vocal in the wake of the London bombings.

Munaf Zeena, who runs the North London center, believes that if there is a solution to defeating extremism, it is a sense of community.

Like three of the July 7 bombers, Zeena is the Yorkshire-born son of immigrants. But far from attacking the country that bore him, the 45-year-old has embraced it. He is not only British, he says, but English — because England is the only home he has ever known, even if he is a Muslim and has an Indian name.

He is aware of the eerie parallels between his life and those of some of the bombers. As a young man, he faced racism from British nationalists. Like them, he sometimes felt a yawning gulf between his own, British-born generation and his parents' generation.

"What turned them into terrorists and what turned me into a man of peace?" he asked rhetorically. "That needs to be looked at so we can protect young people…. We need to look at it, we need to analyze it."

His center, Zeena believes, is an anchor in a confused and conflicted world. He is convinced that what sets his boys apart from the young bombers from Leeds is that they have a strong community around them, shaping them, grooming them, with supervisors and mentors who have taught them the correct meaning of Islam and citizenship.

He also believes the role of the mosque must be limited. "Mosques are places of worship," he said, insisting that they should not take the place of schools, community centers or other institutions. "Those that want to see mosques being used for the purposes that Prophet Muhammad used the Medina mosque should be aware that we live in a different age."

The center, in a pair of tawny brown Victorian row houses just off Stoke Newington High Street, looks out to an ethnic checkerboard of a neighborhood, the "new Britain" in microcosm.

Across the street is a Jewish primary school. One nearby restaurant, the Motherland, is African; another sells Middle Eastern kebabs. At the mosque next to the center, Muslim men in long robes, bushy beards and skullcaps chat on the sidewalk, while nearby walk Hasidic Jews with side locks and black broad-brimmed hats, coats, breeches and stockings.

Every day after school or work, the Muslim boys of the neighborhood congregate at the center, a few dozen of them at any one time, ranging in age from about 10 to 25. Inside, the place has an institutional feel, its bulletin board plastered with numbers to call for energy assistance, warnings about bowel disease and a note on the Islamic method for brushing teeth.

The youths rush past, upstairs to play pool and snooker in a game room, or down to the basement to surf the Internet or study Arabic or math. But for most, cricket and soccer are the mainstay of their lives, after religion. About 7 p.m., they dutifully go say their late-afternoon prayers at the mosque next door, then return to their sports in the park a few blocks away.

In a sense, their lives mirror those of Shahzad Tanweer, Mohamed Sidique Khan and Hasib Hussain, the young men who blew themselves up this summer, killing dozens of commuters. But unlike them, the boys of the North London Muslim Community Center say they have not fallen under the spell of militant anti-Western preachers.

"I think I can speak for everyone that comes to this community center, and probably everyone that comes to the mosque, that none of us are Al Qaeda sympathizers or none of us are potential terrorists or bombers," said Zakaria Gajia, a 25-year-old regular who says he grew up at the center.

"It's totally against what we believe in and how we've been brought up, you know, even if we were to be taught something like that," he said. "You're looking at a very, very small minority of Muslim … leaders or imams that would encourage that sort of behavior, and I guess only if you are really weak at heart, you're a weak Muslim, then you might fall into that trap.

"But any strong Muslim, anyone who knows anything about Islam, knows that that's not the right way to go."

"I sort of understood the point they were trying to make," said Sohail Zina, 18, another youth at the center who is entering college, "but basically it was the wrong way of trying to go about it."

Taha Bham, an 18-year-old regular at the center, said the young men of this neighborhood hadn't been exposed to anyone agitating for militancy, and in the mosque next door, there was little political preaching aside from the collection of money for homeless people in Iraq. Particularly since the London attacks, he said, the imam has spoken out against violence.

Bham, a skinny kid with a wisp of chin beard and dreams of being a businessman or a social worker with a wife and children, reflects both the strength and insularity of the close-knit community. He's a hard-working student who traveled more than an hour each way on the bus and subway for college-preparation classes in the Kensington district and has been accepted by a university in Hertford, north of London.

The self-described "family man" spends his days helping at his father's business, a fostering agency that places distressed or abandoned children in good homes, or participating in outreach programs that invite "Muslim brothers" in the surrounding area to come and pray. He likes to play video games with his young nephews, hang out with his friends at the center and go on family picnics and barbecues at the seaside.

He doesn't believe that Muslims or South Asians are subjected to significant discrimination in British society.

"I think there are equal opportunities. It's simple, really: If you go to college and you do well, then you're bound to get rewarded for it," he said. "Because I have seen it happen to other people, Muslim boys, older than me. If they do well and they have got a good degree in whatever, they were bound to find a good job somewhere along the line."

But success doesn't mean moving away from his parents or this neighborhood. He expects to always to be near them and to marry a girl from within the family or the community.

For now, he likes to hang out at the North London center, which doesn't attract only young men and boys. White-bearded men congregate each day in the downstairs library, and a moms-and-tots program operates in the basement.

Zeena said a community center for all ages is a better model than a youth center such as the one in Leeds frequented by the July 7 bombers. At such a center, he said, workers barely would have been older than the young people they were serving, and the community at large would have been in the dark about what was going on there.

He acknowledges that he sometimes worries when he sees the boys off alone, or up in the game room, without responsible adult supervision. And he particularly dislikes it when he sees young people hanging out on street corners for hours on end.

Yet a few streets away, near an abandoned lot they call "the block," some of the boys who use the center have found a venue away from that adult supervision. It is a place to smoke cigarettes and marijuana, and to gossip and talk about politics.

The youths, about a half a dozen of them in their late teens and early 20s, have adopted an American hip-hop style of dress. They wear baseball caps, baggy jeans, hooded sweatshirts, heavy jewelry. Slightly embarrassed to be found, they keep insisting that they are just like anyone else and that they like to do the things that kids everywhere do, such as hanging out and smoking pot.

Here, just as at the center, there is a wariness when talking to outsiders, perhaps understandable when the Muslim community in Britain senses that it is under intense scrutiny. But could this be a place where generalized anger at the West begins to metamorphose into something more sinister?

Zeena sees no room for complacency when it comes to keeping his charges away from extremist influences. "Muslims need to engage with young people more than ever before," he said.

He referred to one young man who has had difficulty finding work despite having earned a good degree; it is not unusual, he said sadly. British South Asians have the lowest rate of educational achievement and the highest level of unemployment within the society.

Will that make him a bomber?

No, he said, but it could put him at risk. Jobless young men have too much time on their hands and not enough of a support structure on a daily basis.

"Maybe they will go to somebody who gives them something, or promises them something, you know? People who obviously misuse them and have conniving ways of doing it, you know?" To counter such influences, he said, the community and the center are vital.

"We have to develop them to become good citizens, and to make sure that they don't stray."



Muslims in the mix

Throughout most of the European Union, Muslims make up a small segment of the population. But in some nations, particularly Germany and France, their numbers have grown substantially. CountryMuslim% of totalEthnicity, populationpopulationorigin France5,000,0008.3Algeria Germany4,000,0004.9Turkey Britain1,600,0002.7Pakistan Spain1,000,0002.4Morocco Italy1,000,0001.8Morocco Netherlands886,0005.5Turkey Greece450,0004.1Turkey Belgium364,0003.5Morocco Sweden350,0003.9Yugoslavia Austria339,0004.2Turkey Cyprus200,00026.0Turkey Denmark162,0003.0Turkey Slovenia47,0002.4Bosnia Portugal35,0000.4Mozambique Czech Republic20,000-30,0000.2-0.3n/a Finland20,0000.4Somalia Ireland19,0000.5n/a Luxembourg6,0001.4Montenegro EstoniaLess than 6,0000.4Tatar Poland5,000Less than 0.1Tatar SlovakiaLess than 5,000Less than 0.1n/a Malta3,0000.8n/a Lithuania2,7000.1Tatar Latvia300Less than 0.1Tatar Hungaryn/aLess than 0.1n/a Source: U.S. State Department



Minority's majority

Britain's Muslims are a tiny minority, but they are the majority among non-Christians. They are predominantly British-born and of South Asian ethnicity:


All Britons

Christian: 72%

Muslim: 3

Other religions: 3

No religion: 15

Religion not stated: 8


Non-Christian religious pop.

Muslim: 52%

Hindu: 18

Sikh: 11

Jewish: 9

Buddhist: 5

Other: 5


British Muslims' birthplace

Britain: 46%

South Asia: 39

Africa: 9

Other Europe: 4

Other places: 2


British Muslims' ethnicity

South Asian: 74%

White (including Turkish and Arab): 11

Black: 6

Other: 9


Source: http://www.statistics.uk.gov

Times staff photographer Damon Winter contributed to this report.

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