British Muslim rights groups and ordinary faithful said they felt singled out by a tough new anti-terror law unveiled on Wednesday, labelling the planned legislation divisive and rushed. While there is agreement on the need to prevent would-be British jihadists from joining the ranks of the Islamic State group, there is also unease over the government’s hardline strategy.
“For us to live in the same community and work together, we have to fight together. I think these laws will separate us,” said Fatima Ali, 46, a nurse. “I think they were made too hastily,” she said.
Britain has around 2.8 million Muslims, making up 4.4 percent of the population, and many are concentrated in London in ethnically diverse areas like Whitechapel where Ali works.
The area is home to the East London Mosque, billed as the city’s oldest and as serving the country’s largest Muslim congregation. Stalls line the streets near the mosque selling headscarves and long robes, and most shops nearby sell either Halal food or Islamic books.
A short walk down the road is Aldgate tube station, site of one of a series of coordinated bombings that killed 52 people in London in 2005, carried out by four radicalised young Muslim men.
“I don’t think they can stop the terrorists with this law,” said market trader Mohammed Ali, 55, against a backdrop of multi-coloured and sequined cloths. “This law targets the Muslim community…. Just because one part of the community is criminal, it doesn’t make the whole community criminal,” he said.
The new laws would increase surveillance and relocation for people identified as Muslim radicals, force universities to bar extremist preachers and toughen laws against would-be jihadists planning to leave for Iraq and Syria and those returning.
There is broad support from the main parties in parliament for the draft Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which also includes the establishment of a civil liberties panel to monitor implementation. But campaign groups like Liberty, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and CAGE have already come out against the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, defining it as hasty and counter-productive.
“The new anti-terror drive seems to be more geared to creating otherness in our society than security,” IHRC chair Massoud Shadjareh told AFP. “I don’t think there has been any consultation with the Muslim community,” he said, adding: “The consultation seems to be only with a narrow group of people who think like the government.”
The Muslim Council of Britain, the largest national association of British Muslims has not commented on the proposals so far but has lobbied against parts of existing anti-terror legislation. “One of the best repudiations we can give to terrorists is by ensuring that we will not curtail our cherished freedoms which they wish to destroy,” the Council’s secretary general Shuja Shafi said earlier.
Security services say they are struggling with a rising tide of Islamic radicalisation, fuelled by wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and fear that Britons who have gone to fight in those conflicts may return to conduct attacks on British soil.
The government estimates around 500 Britons have joined the Islamic State jihadists in recent months and one of the group’s executioners – seen in a series of grisly videos – has a British accent.
In Whitechapel, Javad Iqbal, 51, another market trader, agreed with the purpose of the legislative proposals but said they risked stigmatising Muslims. “I do understand where they’re coming from, why they want to toughen laws, because of a very small minority of so-called Muslims,” he said.
Careworker Mohammad Haque, 35, said radicalisation could not be separated from Western involvement in Muslim countries, or the poverty that blights many Muslim communities in Britain. “They have to go to the root of the problem. They have to give Muslims more opportunities. We need equality in the job market so they don’t think about extremism. When people are young and jobless they think in a wrong way.”