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What turned four lads from Leeds into suicide bombers?

2005 July 14

You can find it if you want to. There’s a grey stone wall outside a Muslim girl’s school elsewhere in Leeds on which graffiti has been sprayed in three foot high letters. PAKI SCUM, it says on one side. BIN LADEN it says around the corner.

But there is no sign of any of that kind of tension in the little red-bricked terraced community of Beeston to the south of the city which is still coming to terms with the fact that it was from here that two young men apparently left to travel to London to plant the bombs which exploded causing such carnage last week. Rather, all the locals, Asian and white, say that it is a model community where black and white have lived together harmoniously for decades.

Yesterday afternoon Muslim leaders had a meeting with police, local councillors and MPs, and key figures from the area’s other religions to consider how the community should respond. They held a press conference afterwards at which they expressed  their shock and sadness, offered their sympathies and prayers to the victims and said that such outrages have no sanction in Islam and no play in the British way of life.

“So what are you going to do about the radical element in your community?” asked an American reporter.

One of the most striking features of the horde of journalists crawling all over the story in Leeds yesterday was that the majority of them seemed to be American. There were camera crews from major US tv networks with satellite vans in the streets, and reporters from major Washington and New York newspapers, and countless US radio reporters. They seemed determined to view 7/7 as the sequel to 9/11.

“I can honestly say,” said Hanif Malik, the Muslim community leader chairing the event, “as a lifelong resident of Leeds, and someone fairly active in the Muslim  community, that I’ve never come across any of these radical elements whatsoever.”

“Believe me, these people are there,” said another US journalist

“The general consensus is that we’re not aware there is an radical element at all in this community,” said Dr Hassan Alkatib, chair of the Leeds Muslim Forum.

“There are radicals,” said a third American reporter. “We know that.”

“Those of us who live here don’t,” said Hanif Malik.

Quite how journalists with a two day acquaintance with a place can purport to know better than someone who has lived there for 40 years is one of the mysteries that is contemporary journalism. Certainly what struck me was the sheer ordinariness of the place and the extent to which cultures live here together with unremarkably normality.

The meetings had taken place in the Hamara Health Living Centre, a joint Muslim/Christian project run by the area’s multifaith umbrella group, which goes by the pedestrian name of Faiths Together in Leeds 11.

Across the roads the shops testify to the multicultutal nature of the place with Ahmad Bros Fashion Cloth House cheek by jowl with Nash’s Bargain Basement and Decent Auto Spares. Outside them a mixed gang of Asian and white youths were teasing journalists by pointing them to “the real story” in a massage parlour up the road.

A white man leaning over his garden wall was a testament to the balanced way in which most local people are coming to terms with the shock that the bombers are said to be from where they live. “They’re a respectable family, and they’re very distraught,” he said, peering up the road to where the police had cordoned off one suspects house. “Of course the Muslim community has to educate its youth that this isn’t the way to go, but I hope there won’t be any reprisals.”

Muslim parents feel they have already done that. The Muslim community in Leeds was one of the first to issue at statement after the London bombs, sending a copy to prime minister and to the national press. It condemned “these actions, committed by whomever, [as] despicable and cowardly in the way they targeted innocent individuals. Such actions have no place in our society and we strongly and unequivocally condemn these barbaric actions which are an attempt to damage our democracy, freedom and community relations.”

“We were shocked when it landed on our doorstep,” said Councillor Mohammed Iqbal, who represents the ward where the two alleged bombers lived. “I’ve been on streets all day and everybody – without a single exception – is fully supportive of the police and the job they’re doing. There is not one single person who thinks differently.”

“This is nothing to do with religion,” said Zaher Birawi, chairman of Leeds Grand Mosque. “They are terrible crimes, and should be treated as such.”

And yet, contrary to some reports, Leeds is not a city of fear. It is a place of sadness, of bewilderment and of anxiety. “We’re downcast concerned but not fearful,” said one of the city’s MPs, John Battle. “We’ve never had race riots like other places over the past few years. We’ve kept things together in Leeds. It’s a multicultural city facing great challenges but with great strength.”

That can be seen in north of the city centre in Burley where 500 residents have been evacuated from their homes after the police found what they believe to be the bomber’s factory there. The authorities opened a local sports centre for them to sleep in but only 30 people turned up there. The rest had been offered beds by other families in this close-knit community, where whites and Asians also live side by side.

The evacuation is a precaution because forensic scientists and bomb experts are working together there to dismantle dangerous devices, rather than simply disposing of them – in the hope that they might find the thumbprint of an outside mastermind bomb-maker.

An outside is certainly what everyone is hoping for to assuage the shock of the thought that local lads have become the first suicide bombers to strike Britain.

the thumbprint of the mastermind might be on them “These guys are pawns on a chess board,” said one friend of one of the alleged bombers, who did not want to give his name. “We need to find the players who are moving these pawns – whoever it was who did these lads’ heads in, in Pakistan or wherever.”

None of which is to say that Muslim youth does not have problems. “The third generation have been educated here,” said one Leeds social worker yesterday. “So they have a sense of what they’re entitled to and what they’re excluded from, economically and culturally.”

In part that is about high rates of unemployment. “But it is also about how their refusal to drink alcohol excludes them from going downtown drinking with the lads and lasses they went to school with. They are left hanging round on their own on the street.”

Many in the Muslim community, like Hanif Malik, are impatient with such mitigation. “Clearly there are issues in the Muslim community, but there is no suggestion that those factors are responsible for this kind of extremism,” he said.

Whatever is the cause, the time has come for a gear-shift in Muslim responses to it, believes the MP for Dewsbury, just down the road and the bomb of a third suspected bomber.

“The Muslim community has to rise to the challenge that it didn’t realise it was on its doorstep,” says the MP, Shahid Malik. “In the past wild talk outside the mosque was tolerated or dismisses as vile rhetoric. But everybody now realises this can’t be allowed to go unchecked.”

There are a variety of reasons for that. Older Muslims wanted to avoid confrontation, or shied away from being told they were not good Muslims, or were reluctant to create a fuss which could be used as ammunition by far-right groups. The British National Party has already started producing leaflets with the twisted wreckage of the Tavistock Square bus on it and has started a campaign to persuade Sikhs to join them in their anti-Muslim activities.

“But whatever reasons the old way has to be challenged,” says Shahid Malik. “We have to go beyond condemning and into confronting. There must be zero tolerance of views we know are wrong. This is a watershed moment for Muslims in Britain.”

The key thing for the white community, believes John Battle, is “not to start getting suspicions and fearful of your neighbours”. Instead it must: “Give the police the time they need while the rest of us to hold our nerve and not to be panicked. We must remain solid as  a community.”

Compared with the mood in previous summers in many of the former milltowns – from Burnley to Bradford – the atmosphere in Leeds feels positive. There is a paradox in that. For it does little to solve the great riddle which the past few days has thrown up, not just for the people of Beeston and Dewsbury, but for the rest of British society.

What turned four lads from Leeds into suicide bombers? To find the answer may well mean looking beyond the streets of Leeds.


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