The murder of a respected imam highlights the dangerous emergence of a radical and intolerant attitude towards religion.
Community leaders paint a bleak picture for young Muslims living in the borough of Rochdale on the outskirts of Greater Manchester. They have grave concerns that Muslim youth are increasingly turning to anti-western sentiment and extreme interpretations of Islam.
In recent months the peace in the narrow streets sitting in the shadow of the impressive Jalalia Jaame mosque has been shattered.
A respected holy man, Jalal Uddin, 71, was stalked and murdered because he was a practitioner of a form of Islamic faith healing called taweez which involved the use of charms to bring good luck, good health and deter evil spirits.
Friends Mohammed Hussain Syeedy, 21, who has been convicted of Uddin’s murder and Mohammed Abdul Kadir, 24, who is the subject of an international manhunt, had been Isis supporters and believed that those who practised taweez should be killed because they considered it a form of black magic, the trial at Manchester crown court heard. The murder of “quiet, dignified and well-respected” Uddin was fuelled by “hatred and intolerance,” the court was told.
It was not the only murder in Britain this year motivated by differing interpretations of Islam. In March, a sectarian dispute in Pakistan was played out on the streets of Glasgow when a taxi driver, Tanveer Ahmed, from Bradford, drove hundreds of miles to stab a fellow Muslim to death.
The simmering hatred towards Britain’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community spilled over into violence the day before Good Friday when Ahmed Shah was brutally murdered in his shop.
Ahmed, a Sunni Muslim, was offended by Shah’s religious proclamations on social media that he was the next prophet of Islam – something some consider highly blasphemous.
New figures given to the Guardian show that sectarian attacks have nearly doubled since last year, with a surge in incidents targeting Ahmadiyya Muslims since Shah’s murder.
The number of anti-Ahmadiyya attacks more than tripled over the last year, from nine to 29, according to the monitoring group Tell Mama. In total, there have been 40 recorded incidents of sectarian violence this year, the figures show, up from 24 last year.
Fiyaz Mughal, the founder and director of Tell Mama, said vulnerable young men were being radicalised online and “absolutely destroying and cannibalising” spiritual elements of Islam, such as taweez and sufism. “Spiritual dimensions of Islam are being eradicated by Salafist, Wahhabist stuff and young mindsets are seeing that as the devil within Islam,” Mughal said.
The fatal attack in Glasgow on 24 March had echoes of events in Rochdale five weeks earlier. Community leaders say it is a signal of a growing intolerance among young Muslims of those who do not follow Islam in its most extreme and traditional sense.
They say it is a disturbing trend of young Muslims adopting more fundamentalist beliefs on key social and political issues than their parents or grandparents.
There is strong evidence of a “growing religiosity”, with an increasing minority firmly rejecting western life and anything that they consider varies from traditional, almost hardline Islamic scripture, according to local elders.
Community leaders in Rochdale say youngsters now cherrypick a narrative to suit their own agenda and even question the imam’s authority armed with information from the internet.
Teenage rebellion is nothing new. But where previous generations of British-born Asian youths were tempted by the western vices of alcohol, drugs and sex before marriage, this new way of revolting against their moderate upbringing is to experiment with extremism.
This generation are more informed about the intricacies of Islam and educated enough to seek out alternative thought and teachings.
One of those who is becoming increasingly concerned is Rochdale councillor Ali Ahmed. Ahmed a 40-year-old father of five who has lived in Rochdale all his life and became a councillor just under two years ago, has seen a change in the way that young Muslims interpret Islam.
He said: “I guess some people would say that these were nice boys from a good family who have just fallen in with the wrong crowd, but I would agree that there is something bigger at play here.
“The younger generation of Muslims are better informed about Islam and they are not shy about questioning an imam if they feel that something they are preaching is incorrect. This is very different to the older generation. We would never question an imam – it was not the done thing. Your father taught you to respect authority and we blindly followed.
“This generation follow Islam in an almost deeper way and then of course there is Google. They are much more able to seek out information about the religion and no longer take the word from an imam as gospel. These youngsters are trying to catch the ustad [religious teacher] out.
“The way the religion is being interpreted is also changing and there are also more and more divisions appearing. In Rochdale alone, there are many different mosques, catering for all these different ideologies and this can cause problems.”
It is under this fractious atmosphere that a respectable man was murdered. Some youngsters believe his practice of taweez and ruqya was akin to black magic, a practice strictly prohibited in Islam.
Ahmed added: “These practices went on when we were young but we just considered them harmless, but things are changing and the younger generation of Muslims are far more vocal about their views.
“We are worried about this. There is a sense that these young men are seeking something, whether it is the kudos or the approval of outside forces, and we need to keep our community safe.”
Ahmed tells of how nervous the community has become about its own youth and of the fears about the divisions between young Muslims which are sometimes leading to violence. On Sunday night outside his home, a group of young men gathered, dressed in traditional Islamic dress with ultra-conservative turbans. Some older members of the community were contacted and the youths were dispersed.
“That is why when we saw the young men in turbans gathered together that we all went out and told them to clear off. We feel something is brewing and we don’t want any more trouble,” he said.
“We have many youth projects in the area to try and keep them occupied but there is only so much we can do. Our biggest problem is the access to the internet – we cannot stop them if they want to seek something out.”
Meanwhile, Habibul Ahad, who runs the Bangladeshi Association and Community project in Rochdale, and who knew Uddin, Syeedy and Kadir, said Muslim youths should not be demonised for being religious.
“Yes, they follow Islam differently to the way that we did,” he said. “But that isn’t necessarily always a bad thing. Sometimes it makes them better people and gives them purpose.
“I think the issues arise when they start researching on the internet and refuse to get any of their information from teachers and imams within the community. That is when we worry about radicalisation.
“We need to all join together to condemn these acts of violence. You cannot kill somebody because you do not agree with their school of thought. We need to be able to live side by side like we have in the past.”