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Britain’s Muslims Brace for Fallout

Special to The Times

Muslims in Britain reacted with quiet dread Thursday to news that authorities had rounded up 24 suspects and executed searches in predominantly Muslim enclaves, in connection with an alleged plot to blow up U.S. airliners.

“We sympathize with the position the police are in. But we also understand the damage these incidents can do in terms of public perception,” said Inayat Banglawala, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. “Some people are keen to portray British Muslims as a fifth column, a mass reservoir of terrorists prepared to slaughter their fellow citizens. So let’s just wait and see.”

Police and government officials took pains Thursday to avoid casting blame on the country’s million-strong Muslim community.

“This is not a case of one civilization against another, one religion against another,” British Home Secretary John Reid said at a news conference. “It is a case, in general terms, of terrorists who wish to use evil methods against the rest. And, therefore, there is common cause in this country among all the people of this country, from whatever background, religion or ethnic dimension, because the threat is common to us all.”

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The arrests and searches were executed at dawn Thursday in Muslim-dominated areas of London, as well as in the Midland city of Birmingham and High Wycombe, west of London -- both of which have significant Muslim communities. Pakistani authorities also reported the arrests of several British nationals in the port city of Karachi, leading investigators to suspect a link to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The names of those held have not been released, but officials close to the investigation have described them as predominantly of Pakistani heritage.

The arrests put Britain’s mainstream Muslim community in a quandary, some leaders said Thursday.

“The Muslim community is between the devil and a hard place,” said Shahid Aziz, the United Kingdom secretary of the moderate Ahmadiyya Assn. for the Propagation of Islam. “Because they’re very wary of these hard-liners and extremists who give everyone a bad name, yet at the same time they are not actually convinced of the government’s good intentions either.”

Since the July 2005 London attacks, when British Muslim suicide bombers killed 52 people in the public transport system, trust between Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government and Britain’s Muslim community has diminished sharply despite promises of inter-community cooperation.

Tarique Ghaffur, Britain’s highest-ranking Muslim police officer, said this week that new anti-terrorism laws discriminated against Muslims and that law-enforcement agencies ran a “real risk” of criminalizing ethnic minorities.

Ghaffur, assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, said people of Asian appearance have borne the brunt of increased stops and searches. Police say the practice is “intelligence-led,” but Ghaffur says it is “more based on physical appearance than intelligence.”

Muslim resentment focuses on the June anti-terrorist raid by 250 police officers on a house in Forest Gate, East London. Two houses were targeted based on intelligence that they were the location of a chemical bomb factory run by two brothers, Mohammed Abdul Kahar and Abul Koyair. Kahar was shot in the shoulder. But no evidence of terrorist activity emerged, and the brothers were later released.

“If the police believe there’s a major terrorism threat, they have to act. At the same time, we would urge a note of caution,” the Muslim Council’s Banglawala added. “We’ve been here before, with Forest Gate and many other incidents.”

Aziz said the Pakistani community was beset with fear of being perceived as terrorists.

He said members of the community were discussing Thursday’s arrests in private.

“There’s obviously talk,” he said. “People are ringing round and asking: ‘Who are these people? Do you know them?’

“Obviously the likelihood that they have parents who came from Pakistan is high because some of the arrests were in High Wycombe and High Wycombe has a high proportion of Pakistani-background people. They’re concerned.”

People whose families are originally from Pakistan and Bangladesh make up two-thirds of Britain’s Muslim population.

At London’s East End Mosque, evening prayers were muted, with no special message to worshipers. But in the women’s gallery, the London-born offspring of Bangladeshi and Pakistani natives voiced discontent in Cockney accents. “The way we’re presented in the media nowadays is so one-sided that it will be hard for us Muslims to regain our faith in the government,” said a student who wouldn’t give her name.

Banglawala nonetheless held out hope that Muslims could win praise for helping foil the alleged plot.

“It’s worth asking the police whether it was a tip-off from the Muslim community that led to these arrests,” he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Terror in the sky: Major aviation attacks since 1985

June 1985: Hijackers seize a TWA jet en route from Athens to Rome and force it to land in Beirut. A U.S. serviceman is killed.

June 1985: An Air India jetliner is destroyed by a bomb near the coast of Ireland; 329 people die.

November 1985: Hijackers of an Egyptian airliner kill an American passenger. Egyptian commandos storm the plane in Malta; 60 people die.

December 1985: An Arab suicide hit squad attacks U.S. and Israeli check-in desks at airports in Rome and Vienna; at least 18 die, including four guerrillas.

April 1986: Four passengers die after an explosion aboard a TWA plane making its descent toward Athens airport.

September 1986: Palestinian terrorists board a Pan Am 747 in Karachi and hold 400 passengers and crew for 16 hours; at least 15 people die when Pakistani forces storm the plane.

November 1987: A bomb explodes on a Korean Air Lines jet over the Indian Ocean; 115 are killed.

April 1988: A 747 en route from Thailand to Kuwait is diverted to Iran; two people are killed.

December 1988: A bomb explodes aboard a Pan Am airliner. The crash in Lockerbie, Scotland, kills 259 people aboard and 11 others on the ground.

September 1989: A French passenger jet is destroyed by a bomb over Niger; 171 people are killed.

October 1990: Terrorists seize a Chinese Airways jet, and it crashes in Guangzhou; 128 die.

November 1996: An Ethiopian Airlines jet crashes into the ocean near Mozambique; 127 die.

December 1999: Hijackers take over an Indian Airlines flight from Nepal to New Delhi and hold passengers for eight days; one passenger is stabbed to death.

March 2001: Chechens hijack a Russian airliner and force it to land in Saudi Arabia; three die when Saudi commandos storm the aircraft.

September 2001: Al Qaeda terrorists hijack four domestic airliners and crash into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. Passengers challenge terrorists on one plane, which crashes in rural Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people are killed.

December 2001: British citizen Richard Reid attempts to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with an explosive hidden in his shoe.

July 2002: A despondent Egyptian man kills two people at the El Al counter at LAX before authorities shoot him to death.

November 2002: Israeli sky marshals foil a hijacking attempt from Tel Aviv to Istanbul.

March 2003: Hijackers force a Cuban airliner to land in Florida.

August 2004: Chechen rebels are suspected for the nearly simultaneous crashes of two Russian passenger jets in different parts of Russia; 90 people die.

Sources: Compiled by John Jackson and Los Angeles Times library using World Almanac, Reuters, Times files


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