Britain: 'Every Muslim a Suspect'

The arrest of 19 people -- all Muslims -- over what the police have described as a sinister plot to blow up U.S. bound aircraft from London, has cast a shadow of suspicion over the entire Muslim community in Britain.

Dramatically released information on the cracking of the suspected conspiracy led to cancellation of several flights in and out of Britain Thursday. Many flights remained disrupted Friday. Passengers were being allowed almost no hand luggage on board.

The extent of security precautions dominated news, and with that provoked new suspicions about Muslims, estimated to number about two million in a population of 59 million.

The plotters, as they have come to be called, were arrested in London, High Wycombe, just north of London and in and around Birmingham, about 100 miles north of London. Most of the raids leading the arrests were carried out in Muslim middle class neighbourhoods.

The arrests came just days after Tarique Ghafur, Britain's highest ranking Muslim police officer, warned that Muslim youth were becoming disaffected and hostile because they felt picked upon by the police as supporters of terrorist activities.

Ghafur said at a meeting of an association of black police officers that Muslims were being frequently stopped and searched under new police powers. The searches were "more based on physical appearance than intelligence," he said.

"We have young people telling us all the time that we have no respect, no dignity, that we are called Paki (a word of abuse in Britain)," Ghiyasuddin Siddiqui, head of the Muslim Institute, a leading independent Muslim group in Britain said. "They tell us we have British passports, but what is the use of that if we are being treated like this."

But for the moment many Muslims are not convinced that the police have strong evidence on the arrested men.

"First they made the arrests, and then they tell us that now they are looking for the evidence," Siddiqui said. "But the whole publicity has been damaging."

Many Muslims are now recalling the botched police raid at a house in Forest Gate in East London in early June in which a 23-year-old Muslim was shot in the chest. He was suspected of making chemical bombs inside the house. A four-day search after the raid by 250 armed police officers led to nothing.

"Who knows what the police have found in these houses," Sultan Miah, a Labour Party local leader in Walthamstow in East London said. Eleven of the arrests were made in his neighbourhood.

"They are talking of liquid bombs," he said. "They have to show us what they found. We do not know anything, nobody in our neighbourhood or in our mosque knows anything. And still we are all being looked on like we are terrorists. Media is specially bad."

But Muslims have been on the defensive ever since the Jul. 7 bombings of last year in which four young suicide bombers killed 52 other people. The anniversary of that event last month led to several new assessments of the views of Muslims, and about them.

One of the most telling was a survey conducted by the Times Online news service that indicated that more than one in ten Muslims in Britain believes that the terrorists who blew themselves up Jul. 7 should be regarded as "martyrs". That itself is a number close to 200,000.

"Just when we were beginning to recover from July 7, this survey planted new suspicion in people's minds," Miah said. "And now we have this news of the bombing plot. Life for us Muslims here is becoming very, very hard."

There is little doubt that the vast majority of Muslims in Britain oppose terrorism, but the minority that could at least be in sympathy with violent ways seems to be a fairly significant one, going by the survey, and now by police reports of the new terror plot. Several Muslims believe that it is rising prejudice against the whole community that is being used to recruit many of the young to terrorist paths.

"Jihadis are managing to convince some young Muslims that the war on terror is a war on Islam," Siddiqui said. "And this is affecting everyone, even those who are peaceful and want to live peacefully. For a long time many Muslims have been trying to break out of their ghettos, all this is only driving them back to their ghettos."

But the news of the terror plot is also sending another kind of signal to Muslims who believe that the arrested people were in fact plotting to blow up aircraft. It is the signal that many others are prepared for suicide bombing missions after the Jul. 4 group.

After those bombings the police announced a recruitment drive for intelligence agents to be let loose among groups that could be seen as suspect. That move was driven by fears of further conspiracies, but the close police watch and the frequent stop and search operations that target Muslims could be provoking hostility rather than curbing it.

"We can only hope that sanity will prevail," said Siddiqui. "The kind of prejudices building up should not drive more and more young people to think that they are being seen as terrorists. That will be very damaging to the community."

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