At 12pm on Thursday, along with millions of other Britons, I stood to observe two minutes of silence in memory of those killed in last week’s London bombings. Poignantly, in my constituency of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, I observed the moment with some of my constituents outside the home of one of the suspected suicide bombers, reflecting on the horror and loss of life that resulted from the evil act he is presumed to have perpetrated. We wanted to send out a message of defiance to those who inflame discord and incite hatred in our communities: that their actions, rather than divide us, have served to unite us.
In reflecting on the events of the past week, I am profoundly aware that the British Muslim community now faces its most difficult and profound challenge yet. We have reached a dangerous crossroads, and the direction we choose will prove to be a defining moment in our history.
The knowledge that the bombers were British Muslims, living what were, to all appearances, respectable and unremarkable lives, has sent us a signal we can no longer ignore, that there is indeed an “enemy within”. The battle for the soul of the community has begun.
The stakes are high and the choice is stark: either we confront the voices of evil, or we sit back and allow wider British society to regard us as a community that condones such evil.
We must accept that the poisonous preachers of violence and hatred in the name of Islam, few in number though they may be, have to be halted in their actions. This means ending their access to, and their manipulation of, impressionable and vulnerable young men.
We Muslims must overcome our fear that criticising radicals in our midst gives ammunition to the far-right. In the past we have pretended not to see or hear the fanatical fringe who hang about outside our mosques, because of a genuinely held belief that their vile rhetoric could never manifest itself in action such as that which led to the carnage in London. But we can ignore them no longer. Their hate-filled rantings have now fuelled acts of hatred, with devastating consequences for innocent victims.
I have frequently, along with other Muslim community leaders, been called upon to condemn the extremists; often to my frustration, such words seemed to fall on deaf ears. How often, I asked myself, must we as a community be called upon to dissociate ourselves publicly from the words and deeds of a tiny, unrepresentative minority? What did we have to do to convince the British public that these people did not speak for Islam or for Muslims?
Yet despite my occasional frustration, I have voiced such condemnation: challenging the poison of Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed and al-Muhajiroun, his radical Islamist group, as I have challenged the poison of Nick Griffin and the fascist British National Party that he leads. I have made clear that there is no place for extremism of any sort in British society. But I believe the time has come when words of condemnation are no longer enough.
In the House of Commons last Wednesday, I was conscious of taking a gamble by calling on Tony Blair, the British prime minister, to help Muslims deal with the issue of extremists within our midst. Some would no doubt say that, in doing so, we are accepting some degree of culpability for the evil we have spawned.
And yes, I did fear a backlash from irate Muslims – but, in reality, I have been inundated with messages of support from all over the country, including from West Yorkshire where the suspected bombers lived. The Muslim community now realises it must unite in taking an unequivocal stance: we must confront as well as condemn.
We know what drives these young men: the feelings of isolation and disaffection, the political anger at what they see as the double standards of the west in relation to international Muslim areas of conflict, whether that be Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq or Chechnya, and, the hatred propagated by domestic extremists such as the BNP. But none of this can ever justify or excuse terrible criminal acts such as we witnessed last week, and we must make this clear to our fellow Muslims in our words and deeds over the forthcoming weeks and months.
This will not be an easy pill for the Muslim community to swallow. I have already come to the conclusion that in the short term there will be much discomfort and occasional pain, but now, standing at the crossroads, there is only one path we can take.