Imams are facing death threats from Islamic State, growing Islamophobia and a new generation of Muslims who congretate not in mosques but online
A generation of young British imams is under huge pressure to develop better ways of showing leadership in social and political issues while also facing death threats from Isis extremists, according to the most senior imam at Leeds mosque.
Imam Qari Asim, the imam of Makkah masjid in Leeds, told the Guardian: “To them, Isis, I am not any different to any other person in this cafe, or in a restaurant in Paris. For them, I am not a Muslim either.”
In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, Qari, 37, spent the week speaking to imams to make sense of what happened; attending vigils and talking to senior government ministers , while also consoling members of his congregation who fear an anti-Muslim backlash.
Earlier this week, Qari wrote an article in his local paper condemning Isis, writing: “As a Muslim, a Briton and a human being, I will not stay silent on attacks on our societies in the name of my faith.”
Along with other imams, Qari also signed a string of letters from groups of Muslims denouncing the terror group. A letter by Muslims of Norwich, written by Imam Abdassamad Clarke, who had converted to Islam in the 1970s, condemned the militant group in the strongest of terms, writing: “This group has long been known to Muslims as Kharijites, literally ‘those who have gone out’ of the Muslim community. They are nihilists and do not represent the clear teachings of Islam at all.”
“They’ve hijacked our faith, they are using the terminology of our faith, and as a result I have to say it has nothing to do with our faith,” he said.
But despite the condemnations of the attacks by British imams in the form of signed letters, sermons and social media posts – often not picked up by wider British press – he said his peers were met with accusations that Muslim leaders are not doing enough to tackle extremism.
Another British imam, Abdullah Hasan, said the view that imams were not doing enough to condemn extremism was not fair. He said: “I was given death threats by Isil sympathisers on TV. We are speaking out against extremists and we are hated by them.”
“Mosques are teaching good values, how to be good and proud British citizens while being committed to their faith,” he said. “[The extremists] see imams as being sellouts and not critical enough of the government’s foreign policy or the laws being passed down.”
Qari said: “I think the first thing to understand is that the imam’s role has changed over the years. Imams basically were there to lead the congregation [in prayer] traditionally – we didn’t have pastoral role as part of the imam training.
“Now we are expected firstly to have a pastoral role, and secondly to lead the community at a political and social level,” he said. “As a result we’re being unduly criticised, even though they are not trained and it’s not considered part of their role.”
Yet due to a previous vacuum of leadership in this area, Qari said he and his peers see it as their responsibility to give guidance on issues specifically affecting a British Muslim audience.
He said he was part of a loose network of about 100 British imams – most of whom were born in the UK, speak English, and studied at British universities.
The informal group includes Sunni and Shia spiritual leaders, from mosques across the country, who use a messaging app to discuss the issues their congregations are facing.
“It’s a loose network and has been ongoing for quite some time and the main reason is not for a political aim, and not for the media. The aim is more about how can we provide, in a digital world, guidance.”
Qari said they discuss how best to respond to events, such as their condemnation of the terror attacks last Friday in Paris, and denouncing Isis. It follows their action earlier in the year, when hundreds of imams signed a letter imploring their congregations to remain calm after the Charlie Hebdo attack.
The imam, a lawyer by profession before he took on his spiritual role, said on the night of the Paris attacks he was overcome with a sense of grief, shock and disbelief. “We genuinely do feel that. We are told in the Qur’an if there is an attack on a human, a Brit, on a Parisian, it is an attack on all of us. Because we are bound by humanity.”
He said after the initial reactions and emotion, for community leaders like him it becomesa damage limitation exercise, and that the next step is to “disassociate ourselves”.
Yet younger British Muslims do not always agree with some of the methods imams use, and being made to feel it is their responsibility to condemn every terror attack.
Abla Klaa, 21, a student at Leeds university, said it was frustrating to see community leaders apologise each time, but added: “It makes sense to make people aware that we are being proactive, to tackle the far-right narrative.”
“Anti-Muslim sentiment is something that has become a normalised aspect, after every terror attack,” Klaa said, adding: “Anyone in their right mind knows that we have nothing to do with Isis, but most people don’t get to hear both sides and only hear what the media says.”
The sentiments echo a report published just before the Paris attacks, which found that six out of 10 Muslims in Britain surveyed had seen Islamophobia directed at someone else, up from four in 10 when the survey by the the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) was first conducted in 2010.
More than two-thirds of Muslims told the survey they heard anti-Islamic comments by politicians. Half of those surveyed thought politicians condoned Islamophobic acts, and nearly nine out of 10 thought discrimination was driven by the way Muslims are portrayed in media coverage.
The day after the Paris attacks, Klaa said when she logged into Facebook that, “my friend, a visible Muslim women, said she was called a paki and was told to move out of the way. While another woman was asked what she thought of Isis.”
“It is scary at these times as a woman who wears hijab,” Klaa said, “but it is quite powerful – I can still remain truthful to my values, and as a visible Muslim woman it is empowering that I can be representative of my faith.”
Samayya Afzal, 24, is a sabbatical officer at a British university, who was was due to be in Paris at the end of the month for the climate change conference, but is no longer going as her parents are fearful for her safety, saidthat a growing number of young Muslims were asking: “Why are we apologising?”
“Is it a generational thing?” she said. “Is it because older people don’t want to rock the boat? As young people, our identity is being shaped by these events – the way we are treated in society is affected by what is happening in Syria.”
“This whole idea telling imams to stop people thinking things can encourage those young people to go deeper underground. But there’s a political role in putting the problem on Muslims, and we should not accept that,” Afzal said.
In the last 10 years, the congregation has shifted, according to Qari, with a younger generation of British Muslims no longer in mosques, but online. He said: “Somehow we need to make our mosques more dynamic – it’s just not about ritual prayers. It’s about community support.”
He said the young men joining Isis were not religious, not attending mainstream mosques, or going to study circles to learn about their faith. “In fact, we’ve learned some of the perpetrators smoked cannabis every day,” he said.
Calling Isis a death cult, Qari said the militant group was politicising Islam for its own “political territorial goals”. He called for better-funded recreational activities for young people who needed a sense of belonging is society and said: “Isis are calling people to an action: ‘Come and do this’. Whereas what we are saying, is calling them to inaction: ‘Don’t do this’. Society has to provide them with an alternative.”
Qari said Isis was an issue for society as a whole and that stakeholders of power needed to include Muslims in the solution. “As people of faith we need to reach out to those people who are being lured by the terrorist organisation who are traders of death, and we need to build castles of peace in people’s mind,” he said.