The rich smell of Indian spices wafted along the road.
Voices babbled in Urdu and Sylheti, a Bangladeshi dialect
that my own family speak. Thick-bearded men in robes strolled
the streets and youngsters wore their jeans rolled above
the ankle after leaving the mosque, as Muslim custom requires.
I felt both at home and in a foreign land. This could
almost be an Asian city, I thought, rather than Beeston,
the suburb of Leeds where two of the July 7 bombers had
I had come to gauge the mood of the community after the
7/7 attacks, which struck London a year ago this week.
The world I knew as a British Muslim sprang from cosmopolitan
roots, and I wanted to discover what the people of this
more insular community really felt about the bombers and
I found myself both drawn to the warm embrace of the Muslim
community that dominates Beeston, and shocked by the views
it espoused in private.
Take, for example, Anhar Ghani, a community worker at
the Hamara centre on Tempest Road that was frequented
by Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the bombers. Ghani
became my first “friend” during six weeks of living in
Beeston as an undercover Sunday Times reporter pretending
to be a student, and at first he displayed a generosity
of spirit hard to fault.
Like me, he is in his twenties and of Bangladeshi
origin, and we warmed to each other immediately. We chatted
in English and Bengali about his family — he is married
with one child — and how to get a job and draw up a CV.
Though Ghani normally dealt only with teenagers, he went
out of his way to help. In his trendy jeans and trainers,
he seemed like just another hopeful in modern multicultural
Britain — and I, a stranger in town, found him comforting.
But his kindness to me was coupled with a darker outlook
on the wider world. I was shocked when one day at the
Hamara centre he began explaining how the London bombers
could be seen as martyrs.
“The western mind and the Muslim mind are two different
psychologies,” he said. “The Muslim mind will see that
this life means nothing unless I sacrifice myself for
Inside I flinched, but outwardly I nodded with a look
of sympathy. I did not want him to close up as much of
the community had done after last summer’s attacks.
I wanted him to speak honestly.
“My life means nothing, you know,” he continued. “I would
give up this evil, two-seconds of a life.” Earthly experience,
I think he meant, was but a moment compared with paradise
Later he went on to eulogise Abdullah Faisal, a firebrand
Islamic cleric who was imprisoned in 2003 for inciting
the murder of Jews. Faisal, said to have been a strong
influence on the 7/7 bombers, has advocated the spreading
of Islam “by the Kalashnikov” and declared that one aim
of jihad is to “lessen the population of unbelievers”.
To Ghani, the cleric was “one of the good ones” and he
advised me where I might obtain recordings of his sermons.
As I looked at Ghani, a young man with much to live for,
my shock turned to anger. How could he, so similar in
many ways to myself, view the world through such different,
bellicose eyes? How could he have become trapped in vicious
Though I would hardly be described as devout, I see myself
as Muslim — and have been increasingly mindful of it since
9/11. Yet I feel nothing like Ghani’s disillusion and
anger at the West. Where had our roads parted? What makes
places such as Beeston breeding grounds of hate?
My parents brought me to Britain when I was two and settled
not in a city, but in an Oxfordshire village. My father
opened the only Indian restaurant there and I grew up
in a rather English environment, though my parents were
IT WAS only when I was about 10 that we moved to Tower
Hamlets in east London — a culture clash that was almost
as great as being a Bangladeshi transplanted to an English
In Oxfordshire I had been the only Asian in my school;
in Tower Hamlets my school had barely any white faces.
For the first time I learnt, from my new peers, to swear
Thanks to my earlier experience, however, I was always
open to the world outside this community; close by, too,
were more prosperous areas of London with many different
cultures vying for attention.
I rarely worried about my identity or how other people
perceived me as a Muslim — until the 9/11 attacks. Suddenly
there was a war on terror and Muslims were under scrutiny
as never before.
The effect, to my surprise, was to make me feel more Muslim,
not less. I am sure the impact on young people growing
up in Beeston, an area more deprived and isolated than
Tower Hamlets, was even greater.
Beeston is a suburb of Victorian terraces that have been
slowly unravelling since the decline of the textile and
coal industries. Unemployment is about 8%, twice the level
in Leeds overall, and 42% of residents are classed as
Over the years Asian Muslims of Pakistani, Kashmiri and
Bangladeshi origin have congregated in the area and now
run many of the businesses and shops. They open and close
with Muslim prayers throughout the day.
In the six weeks I spent there, the only person of non-Asian
origin I spoke to was the caretaker at a bed and breakfast
place — and that was owned by Asians. I began to feel
curiously detached from the Britain I had known, like
a contestant in some weird reality show.
Social structures in Beeston revolve around certain community
centres, shops and the mosques. Three principle mosques
cater for different groups: the Hardy Street mosque is
run by Kashmiri Muslims; the Stratford Street mosque is
dominated by Pakistani Tablighi Jamaat Muslims, a missionary
group; and the Bengali mosque on Tunstall Road is dominated
The days were punctuated with mosque gatherings where
people exchanged news and information. I found the sense
of brotherhood very comforting: as we knelt and prayed,
feet facing straight towards Mecca, our shoulders touched
to squeeze out Satan who would fill in the gaps if they
Unused to such literal rubbing of shoulders with new friends
I felt a strange unity, even a growing intimacy. It was
not hard to see how young men, ignorant of Britain’s opportunities
beyond Beeston, could find purpose in Islam.
Some worshippers attend more than one mosque, of course,
and at least one of the London bombers, Khan, is known
to have frequented all three. Ghani did not discourage
me from attending the Stratford Street mosque, but he
did warn me that the Tablighis can be a little “forceful”
in their preaching.
This group has its centre 10 miles away at the Markaz
mosque in Dewsbury, where thousands of worshippers arrive
every evening from all over Yorkshire. It’s an extraordinary
sight: I had experienced nothing like it before in Britain.
You approach the Markaz mosque through an area packed
with Asian shops. Men in robes throng the streets. Women
are nowhere to be seen. Inside the building is one huge
hall, plus two smaller halls where the sermons are translated
into other languages.
Invited by Sabeer, a senior member of the Stratford Street
mosque, I attended Marqaz several times. On one occasion
after listening to a biyan, or sermon, Sabeer took me
to the canteen. We sat cross-legged on the floor on sheets
of white paper and were served by men with large buckets
of lamb curry and rice. We ate with our hands, one great
communal gathering sharing food.
Was I dreaming? Had I time-travelled? I had to keep reminding
myself that this was Yorkshire, land of broad vowels,
warm beer and Geoff Boycott; but it felt like Pakistan,
a country I know and the country that two of the bombers
visited, apparently for training, before their attacks.
It was Eid ul-Adha, the festival celebrating the time
God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. Muslim custom
is to dress in new clothes and visit friends and family
at Eid, and I had bought myself a new pair of shoes and
At the Bengali mosque in Beeston that morning the congregation
I felt odd being away from home during Eid, but people
tend to be generous at this time and one man, whom I knew
as Jabbar, invited me to his house after prayers.
Jabbar, clean shaven and in his thirties, ran a DIY shop
on the Dewsbury Road. On the face of it Jabbar, who lived
nearby with his young family, was one of those responsible,
hard-working people who weave communities together. He
insisted I stay for tea, and then rice and curry.
As I brought up 9/11, I was taken aback when he began
to talk about a “western conspiracy against Muslims”.
I had been in London on the day of the 2001 attacks and
like everyone else had watched in amazement and horror
as the twin towers fell. I had never doubted that Osama
Bin Laden had inspired the atrocity and that Islamic terrorists
had perpetrated it.
Jabbar doubted it. He told me the 9/11 attacks were a
conspiracy and that he had a DVD which proved it. So were
the London bombings, he said.
I found myself in a ferment of mixed emotions. Here was
a man who had shown great courtesy and kindness, yet believed
the West was so corrupt it had staged terrorist attacks
against itself. How could he be so deluded? Jabbar, however,
was far from alone. One of the sternest advocates of conspiracy
theory was Imran Bham, a shopkeeper running Idoo PC, a
computer equipment shop.
“You don’t get anywhere with the dirty kuffar (infidels),”
he told me, claiming there was a widespread conspiracy
against Muslims and that the 7/7 bombings were part of
it. “These brothers never did it,” he said. “And understand
this. In order for America and Britain to go to
Iraq they have to have reasons and sometimes, I’m afraid,
if you haven’t got a reason, you make up that reason.”
He showed me pictures of the bomb blasts from the BBC
on his computer, claiming ID documents must have been
placed at the scene by officials because the blasts would
have destroyed them.
He offered me £5 to go and buy a piece of beef, telling
me to place the meat in the oven alongside my credit card,
passport and other ID and then turn the temperature up.
After half an hour at medium temperature, he said, the
documents would melt but the beef would only be sweating.
I could then draw my own conclusions.
Once again, I felt as if I had entered a strange bubble,
a world where the reality I had known before had been
suspended. Bham then asked me if I would ever blow myself
up for Islam. I replied that the Koran says you should
not harm innocent people.
“What Koran was that?” he countered. “Don’t fool yourself
by saying jihad is a struggle within, to get on with life,
to motivate myself to get up for prayers and that sort
of thing,” he said. “That’s not jihad. Who told you that?”
AFTER six weeks I left Beeston quietly, slipping away
to Leeds and back to London by train. As I travelled out
of the Victorian streets towards Leeds city centre, I
felt the claustrophobia lifting. It was relief to rejoin
a wider, more diverse world.
I felt, too, guilt at having moved among the people of
Beeston under a false guise. They had welcomed me; but
they had also revealed an important facet of Muslim life
in Britain today. While I was there an imam of the Bengali
mosque, Hamid Ali, had praised the bombers, saying their
actions would make non-Muslims “prick up their ears” and
listen. I had learnt such sentiments are, one way or another,
widespread in Beeston. Ghani, Bham, Jabbar and many others
believe in some form of conspiracy against Muslims.
Even the seemingly sensible Sabeer insisted the western
“enemy” was out to get him. “It’s the way of the enemy
really, the kuffar,” he said. “I’ve always known it as
divide and rule.”
He’s utterly wrong in seeing a conspiracy, in my view
— but he’s right that there is division. The Muslims of
Beeston and other such areas are retreating, not engaging.
But look at the price isolation also exacts.
Sabeer’s view was, I believe, a defensive reaction
to a perceived threat. But it is also a stance coupled
with an idea of a global Islamic “brotherhood” taking
precedence over other communities.
Unless the cycle of Muslim suspicion and separation
can be broken, the dangers will remain. Ghani and
his friends will continue to feel that, as he claimed,
the western mind and the Muslim mind are irreconcilable.
But for me this is a false dichotomy.
Beeston brought home that I cannot separate what is
Islamic about me from what is “western”.
I do not see myself through the prism of us versus
them, good versus evil, Muslim versus kuffar.
I’d far rather embrace the things we share.
what we can do if we stick together"