Extremism relies on despair and is defeated by hope

A YEAR ago, Thursday morning: something on the news about a power surge in the London Tube; I get some breakfast, and it looks to have been a series of bombings; by lunchtime, it was the al-Qaida network and the Muslim threat within.

In the weeks that followed, I was hot property in the media's eyes: what can this young bearded man tell us about these Angry Young Muslims and the process of radicalisation? I don't know, I said; I can tell you anything about facts, but I'm not going to jump on any bandwagon and point the easy finger at the mosques, the youth, the Muslim communities.

I'm not interested in agenda-driven polls like in The Times this week - I reckon poll is short for "polarise". Muslims are horrified by terrorism, full stop. The London bombings affected people of all backgrounds and ways of life. They harmed not only all those people killed or injured, but also our whole society. Years of harmony-building effort were set back by this devastating criminal act, condemned in the sight of the Creator - whatever name we may call Him by.

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Just as it was hard to remember what life was like before 9/11, 7/7 became another turning point. Headlines in the papers became hysterical: one screamed "Radical Islamists at Scots universities" - which was news to me as a student well connected to Islamic societies around Scotland. The "story" was based on assertions made by Prof Anthony Glees, labelling Dundee University as a breeding ground for extremism on the basis of precisely nothing. I recall how distressing this was for Muslim students there, who have since faced increased scrutiny and visits by Special Branch.

I learned an important lesson that summer, though: not to assume that people are like some in the media portray, or that they are shaped by the negativity they are exposed to. I hope others can bear that principle in mind when thinking about Muslims too. The Central Mosque on Potterrow opened its doors every day in August for the annual Discover Islam Exhibition. So many people came, and I was amazed and heartened by their warmth and interest to know us and what we are about.

Discussions ranged from the theological to the political, but the key throughout was the sincerity to talk and understand. There's one sense in which I agree with the Prime Minister when he says the Muslim community must do more: we must create more opportunities for people to interface and share. There are still barriers existing today that should have come down decades ago.

It's easy to feel Scottish, and for me that hasn't changed since I was born. My home-grown Glaswegian accent certainly helps, but it is more about the attitude, the banter, the childish fun at the England football team's expense. I feel that with so much public discourse about integration and multiculturalism, we sometimes get in the way of nature running its course. A watched pot never melts, you could say.

When I speak to young Muslims around me, I find a range of attitudes. Remember that Muslim youth are a subset of the youth in general, so we have most of the same interests and problems as our peers. Many waste their time with the same mind-eroding things, and have little sense of community or awareness of world events. Some watch the news and end up in a state of despair at the injustices going on, many in the name of our country.

Then there are the radicalised Muslims, of the positive variety. Radical youth who strive for what youth is for - creating change. They protest against war and inequality and move to more proactive ways of shaping reality, engaging all the while with others who share their goals. When people are active for what they believe, we should encourage their peaceful and democratic efforts. The problem is that the current drive from the Government seems to be blurring the lines between activists and terrorists, and making communities feel criminalised and impotent.

I'm really quite positive about the future because I trust that the Muslim community will adapt and develop as it needs to, and that the wider society will continue to operate on the basis of its shared values and aspirations. If I hear someone sounding a note of despair about current difficulties, I try to turn that around - because extremism relies on despair and is defeated by hope and the taste of reality. This country is a place of free interaction and discussion, and so long as we defend these freedoms, things will always get better.

Here in Edinburgh we have a special opportunity in the form of the Islam Festival. I am proud to say that this August will see a uniquely British Muslim face to expression, art and dialogue, put on by the local community and special guests from abroad. I believe this city is leading the way.

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Sohaib Saeed works for the Islam Festival Edinburgh, which runs events throughout August. Log on to www.islamfestival.com for more information.