The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

Source:  Common Ground News

London - Studies show that poor educational attainment and professionalunderachievement are prevalent amongst young British Muslims. TheJoseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent development and socialresearch charity, found that British Muslims are less upwardly mobilethan their Hindu, Christian and Jewish counterparts. This trend appearsconsistent across Europe, where Muslims are almost three times morelikely to be unemployed than non-Muslims. 

Because Muslims are one of the most insular and least economicallyadvantaged groups in Europe, there is a real need to raise aspirations,increase opportunity and mainstream the involvement of young Muslims insociety. Local mosques and madrasahs can help.

Britain has an estimated 1,600 madrasahs, weekend or after-schoolreligious learning centres, most of which are associated with mosques.As many as 200,000 Muslim children of all ethnic backgrounds - agedfour to mid-teens - attend these madrasahs. The schools range fromoffering rote learning of religious texts to interactive places whereIslamic teaching and mainstream school subjects are taught in fun andcreative ways.

Mosque-based madrasahs remain popular with British Muslim families,as they are often the only places where basic Islamic education isavailable to children. As such, it makes them a largely untapped marketfor exposing young students to professional and aspirationaldevelopment.

Unfortunately, some madrasahs are disconnected from the real worldand the potential for children to achieve their full potential goeslargely unrealised. A recent Open Society Institute report, "Muslims inEurope: A Report on 11 EU Cities", confirmed that teaching methods inmany madrasahs, which include rote learning and strict discipline, areoften out of tune with contemporary educational thinking and practice,failing to nurture the skills essential for success in the modernworkplace.

Another report by the Islamic Foundation's Policy Research Centreshowed a need for more "joined-up thinking" between messages emanatingfrom madrasahs and those from mainstream education providers. The needfor greater engagement between mosques and professional sectors iscrucial in building confidence and broadening horizons for Muslims inBritain and across Europe.

One such scheme has been launched by CEDAR(, a European Muslim professional network. Ithas partnered with Young Enterprise, the UK's leading business andenterprise education charity, to work in collaboration with mosques toprovide professional mentoring sessions within mosques themselves. Thisinnovative approach synergises the special connections many youngMuslims have with their local mosque with the wealth of professionalexperience of CEDAR mentors, helping to provide a learning experiencethat young Muslims can really engage in.

The mentoring programme seeks not only to raise the aspirations ofyoung Muslims, but also to make introductions with Muslim professionalswho can act as career role models with whom they can build long-termconnections.

For example, a recent event held at Tawhid Mosque in London saw aninteractive session consisting of a range of experiential learningactivities for the mosque's madrasah students and other local youth.This included life mapping (tools and techniques to help young peopleplan for the life they want), skills development and a competition forthe best social enterprise business plan involving the building of acommunity centre. This competition encouraged students to think of thepractical needs of their local community - comprised of Muslims andnon-Muslims - beyond those of their own faith community.

Unusually, the mosque - considered to be one of the more sociallyconservative in Britain - allowed a mixed group of boys and girls towork together, and saw the value of a programme which allowed Muslimchildren to be productive in an environment more akin to the realworld.

After the session, 13-year-old Bassim el-Sheikh reflected on whathe had learnt: "My confidence is much better now; my teamwork is muchbetter; my listening skills and talking skills are much better."

Mosques in Britain are slowly trying to make themselves morerelevant to youth, women and non-Muslims. The larger mosques areseeking to become more holistic centres, not just places of worship,offering English classes, basic computer courses, gym facilities andregular interfaith events.

The more that mosques and madrasahs can be plugged into mainstreamsociety, raising the aspirations of the young Muslims that attend themand providing key life skills, the greater the chances of preventingthe mental and physical ghettoisation which has afflicted some Britishand European Muslim communities, and of contributing to improved levelsof education and professional advancement.


* Asim Siddiqui is a founding board member of CEDAR, and a foundingtrustee of the City Circle. This article was written for the CommonGround News Service (CGNews).

The government is facing a rebellion over its anti-terrorism strategy from Muslim groups that claim public funding to tackle social deprivation has been made contingent on security co-operation. 
Leaders of Muslim organisations have told the Guardian that the Prevent Violent Extremism (PVE) initiative is stigmatising Muslims and that much-needed money to tackle widespread social problems is only being granted with strings attached. 
The PVE strategy is under review by the communities and local government committee. Communities minister Shahid Malik said last month that it would be renamed and reformed, but some believe the government needs to tear it up and start from scratch. 
"Changing names is not the problem," said Khalida Khan, director of the Muslim women's group the An-Nisa Society. 
She said all social indicators "show Muslims at the bottom", and An-Nisa was desperate for money to tackle issues such as unemployment and family breakdown. But she said it would not take Prevent funding because it attached conditions such as "building resilience to violent extremism", a requirement she suggested was almost impossible to measure compliance with. "There's a lot of strings attached the government stance is just terrorism driven," said Khan. 
At a recent debate held by the student group Campusalam, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah, accused the government of seeking "back door" intelligence from Muslim groups, which were responding by "turning away from government funding". "Experience has shown that very often funds are accompanied with intrusion and attempts to influence decision-making," he told the Guardian. "This clearly is a risk factor." 
The Department for Communities and Local Government broke off formal contact with the MCB earlier this year over its refusal to remove Abdullah from office after he was criticised for signing a statement the government interpreted as condoning attacks on British troops. 
A report issued by the New Local Government Network last month found that Muslim groups in several areas had "refused to engage with programmes or seek funding under the Prevent banner". A spokeswoman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said it was "completely untrue" to suggest Prevent funding was linked to intelligence gathering or that Muslim groups had been put off applying. 
"We have acknowledged that the Prevent label can isolate some groups and that is why funding going into communities will no longer be branded in this way," she said. "The effectiveness of the Preventing Violent Extremism programme is dependent on everyone involved playing a positive part in standing up to, isolating and challenging those that seek to spread hatred and violence." 
This article first appeared on the Guardian's website on 4th October 2009. 

A SECRET MI5 report on Islamic extremism in Blackburn has raised "potential concerns" about some radical Muslim factions known to Jack Straw, the local MP and justice secretary. 
A senior security figure who has seen the report said it underlined concern among cabinet colleagues that Straw could be "too close" to the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a prominent Muslim umbrella group. The government formally severed links with the group after a blazing row over extremism earlier this year. 
"Jack's a bit too close to the MCB he sometimes appears to suggest they are the only game in town. There is a concern that proximity to them may colour [his] judgment," the insider said. 
The secret report on Islamist extremists in Blackburn was produced in August last year by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), based at MI5's London headquarters. 
The security figure emphasised that Straw was not mentioned in the report. "That is not the protocol of these reports. But the JTAC document does raise some potential concerns over some individuals who are key figures in the town. It's a small pond and by definition they are figures Jack would know or know of," he said. 
It is not the first time that fears have been raised over the influence of Islamists in Blackburn, where the majority of the electorate is Muslim. 
When Tony Blair sacked Straw as foreign secretary three years ago, it was suggested that the move was prompted by White House concerns about his views on the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice, then US secretary of state, was said to have been shocked to discover the influence of Muslims in Straws constituency when she visited him there in 2006. 
In March Hazel Blears announced that the government was formally suspending links with the MCB after Daud Abdullah, its deputy general secretary, signed a public declaration calling for military action against Israel after the war in Gaza. Blears, then communities secretary, believed the declaration also appeared to advocate attacks on the Royal Navy if it tried to stop arms intended for Hamas being smuggled into Gaza. 
Despite the ministerial "blacklisting" of the MCB, Straw remains close to several of the groups key figures in Blackburn. Critics claim that through a network of mosques they are able to deliver "blocks" of hundreds of votes among Muslim Labour voters. One long-standing supporter of Straw is Ahmed Sidat, who has previously served for four years as the Blackburn representative of the MCB's central working committee. He is also chairman of the Cumberland Street mosque, Lancashire's oldest. 
Moderate Muslim leaders claim the mosque has in the past invited leaders with radical views. One pointed out that its website still records a visit by a man who went on to lead an extremist group called the World Muslim League. The US government suspects the organisation has financed radical groups in the Middle East. 
The MI5 Blackburn report is believed to summarise raw intelligence indicating that some Islamic charitable groups may be channelling funds to Kashmiri militants and the Taliban. It is also understood to refer to Junade Feroze, who is serving 22 years in prison after pleading guilty to a plot to bomb the Ministry of Sound nightclub, in London, and Bluewater shopping centre, in Kent, as part of the so-called fertiliser bomb plot in 2004. At the time of the arrest, Straw said he knew Ferozes father, Mohammed, had expressed concerns about his son. 
The report was circulated in Whitehall as ministers, including Straw, were drawing up the governments new counterterrorism policy. One insider said there had been heated disputes between Straw and Blears over how far the new policy should go in asking Muslim groups to sign up to western values by condemning suicide attacks in Gaza. 
Although there is no suggestion that Straw supports suicide bombings, colleagues said they believed his line showed he might have aligned himself a little too closely with the MCB on the issue. That stance is said to have angered other ministers, who were keen to challenge those who defend terrorism and violent extremism abroad as well as in Britain. 
A spokesman for Straw said: "Jack's view is that suicide bombings are indefensible in Gaza, just as they are indefensible anywhere, and should be condemned by all. He has good relations with the MCB and is unapologetic about that. He fights against Islamophobia and always will." 
A friend of Straw also said there was no suggestion that Straw had ever supported terrorism. "Jack's a veteran politician who can decide who is and who is not a problem." 
An earlier JTAC report on Islamic radicals in Luton led security officials to warn Margaret Moran, the Labour MP for Luton South, to be wary when dealing with some individuals in the town. A senior official said it was likely that Straw would have been warned in the same way. "I'm not certain that Jack was warned. But if someone didnt warn him, they should do," he said. 
This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 4th October 2009.

Britain is facing the real risk today of a bombing campaign that targets random civilians for death, but it is being virtually ignored. When its supporters step closer every day to mass murder, nobody notices. When its perpetrators are caught, there is (at best) a little flick of information in News in Brief, before everyone goes back to talking about the Strictly Come Dancing race row. This silence suggests something dark about us, and requires us to change our behaviour, fast.

The campaign I am talking about is not being planned by jihadis or fringe Irish nationalists but by white "neo-Nazis" who want to murder Asians, black people, Jews and gays in the bizarre belief it will trigger a "race war".

They have struck before. Exactly a decade ago, a 22-year-old member of the British National Party called David Copeland planted bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane (where I live), and a gay pub in Old Compton Street. He managed to lodge a nail deep in a baby's skull, and to murder a pregnant woman, her gay best friend, and his partner. He bragged: "My aim was political. It was to cause a racial war in this country. There'd be a backlash from the ethnic minorities, then all the white people would go out and vote BNP."

The police are warning ever-more urgently that similar attacks seem to be coming today. The West Yorkshire Police recently launched a huge series of raids against far-right groups and found them in possession of 80 bombs, considerably more even than any jihadi group has been caught with in British history.

Last year, a 43-year-old man called Neil Lewington was arrested "on the cusp" of waging a "terror campaign", it emerged at his trial. He had built a bomb factory in his parents' house which he planned to use to launch attacks against people he considered to be "non-British". He was only caught by chance: he picked a panicked fight with a train conductor, and the police who turned up found he was laden with explosives.

The list of far right-wingers who have been busted for planning violence has spiked up in the past few years. In the home of a BNP election candidate called Robert Cottage in 2008, the police discovered "the largest amount of chemical explosives ever found in this country", they said.

The same year, a thug called Martyn Gilleard was caught with a huge stash of nail bombs, and rage-filled letters in which he declared: "I am so sick of hearing nationalists talk of killing Muslims, of blowing up mosques, of fighting back, only to see these acts of resistance fail to appear. The time has come to stop the talk and start to act." He was only caught by fluke: the police busted him for distributing child porn.

It's not hard to get in on this act. There are dozens of far-right websites that explain, with handy video links, how to make bombs, and then urge you to head to the nearest mosque, synagogue or gay club.

But as the New Statesman's Mehdi Hassan has pointed out, as far as public debate goes, it's as if these crimes never happened. While planned attacks by jihadis (rightly) dominate the news agenda for days, these remarkably similar plans pass unmentioned and unnoticed.

This disjunction exposes a rash of hypocrisy. The parts of the right that gleefully blame all Muslims for the actions of a tiny minority are mysteriously reluctant to apply the same arguments to themselves. If Martin Amis was consistent, he should now declare: "The white community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation. Strip-searching people who look like they're from Hampshire or from Surrey ... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."

But of course he won't. It shows the bigotry at the core of these make-all-Muslims-pay arguments: they see brown-skinned people as a homogenous mass who can be collectively punished, while they see white people as discrete units who should only be punished individually.

But these white bomb-makers also blast holes in the arguments put by some small parts of the left, who claim "terrorism" is only a response to "legitimate grievances". We can see that somebody like David Copeland simply had an insane hatred of black, Asian and gay people. It's a form of soft racism to fail to see that the same lunacy can happen to non-white people. The vile Islamist gang who wanted to blow up the Ministry of Sound really did say the women there were "slags" who deserved to die for wearing miniskirts. Sometimes (but not always), the grievances that drive violence are simply deranged and have to be resisted.

While the threat of far-right violence is rising, the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, is going to appear on Question Time next week. It would be easy, and emotionally satisfying, for me to join the many well-intentioned protesters who are saying he shouldn't be there, but I can't do it. There are two reasons ? one moral, and one pragmatic.

Freedom of speech includes the freedom to say abhorrent and repulsive things, or it isn't worth having. Why is our Britain vastly morally superior to the fantasy island that the BNP dream of building? Because we do not silence them, even though they would silence so many of us.

Then there's the pragmatic reason. The BNP is doing increasingly well in elections because there is a huge gap between the reality of the BNP and how their voters see them. I see this on the run-down estates where many of my relatives live: most of the BNP's voters believe they are a patriotic party who will peacefully defend the rights of the white working class, just as other organisations peacefully defend the rights of other ethnic groups.

When they find out the BNP leaders have in fact praised Britain's greatest enemy, Adolf Hitler, derided the Holocaust as "the Holohoax", had violent maniacs in their senior ranks, and want to deport many of our national heroes like Ashley Cole and Trevor McDonald, they are disgusted, and withdraw their support. There is only a very, very small constituency in Britain for Holocaust denial, mass "repatriations", and the mongering of "race wars".

So how do we close this perception gap? Shutting the BNP out of debate hasn't worked. They have been shut out and they have grown. In the darkness, the fungus can spread. The greatest disinfectant is sunlight, shone straight into Griffin's face. The only people who should fear free speech are the BNP, because when the British people hear what they have to say, and their lack of answers to basic factual questions, they are repelled.

One of the areas where everyone should see Griffin being challenged is over this question of far-right violence. He claims he is "strongly" opposed to these freelance attacks, yet he has kept violent attackers in his senior team.

His chief lieutenant for years was a man called Tony Lecomber, who was jailed for three years in the 1980s for plotting to blow up the offices of a left-wing political party. After he was released, he and a gang then beat a Jewish teacher unconscious. When he was freed after another three years inside, he was swiftly promoted through the BNP ranks. He was only ditched after he approached a Liverpool hitman to discuss how they could "take out" a cabinet minister.

One of the leading figures in the BNP's online operation, Lambertus Nieuwhof, tried to blow up a mixed-race school in South Africa in 1992. The BNP is happy to have him nonetheless. Nieuwhof says: "Everybody should be allowed to make a mistake."

The BNP is not directly organising violence, but it has tolerated violent madmen in its midst, and its arguments have encouraged violence. Griffin has demanded "rights for whites with well-directed boots and fists". He reacted to the Soho nail-bomb by one of his own party's members by attacking the victims, saying they were "flaunting their perversion in front of the world's journalists, [and had] showed just why so many ordinary people find these creatures disgusting".

Let Griffin speak his filth to the nation, and sweat under David Dimbleby's forensic questioning. He will only discredit himself.

But the country also needs to start acknowledging the danger of bombs thrown from the far right. David Copeland came from within the ranks of the BNP; so might the next one. The police need to monitor neo-Nazis as closely as jihadis, and the Government projects to prevent violent extremism should be working with white kids as well as Muslim children. We need to prepare ourselves now: the next person to bomb Britain might not look like Mohammed Sidiq Khan, he might look like me.

This article first appeared in the Independent on 14th October 2009.