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Amanpour: Radical, moderate Muslims battle for young English minds

By Christiane Amanpour
CNN Chief International Correspondent
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering the news and analyze the stories behind events. Christiane Amanpour describes the people she met while making "The War Within."

LONDON, England (CNN) -- When we reported the unprecedented suicide bombings of the London underground trains and buses in 2005, we were shocked beyond words that young British Muslims, born and bred here, would go to that extreme.

We could not understand what would drive them to kill themselves and their fellow citizens.

And so we started to investigate what we call "The War Within."

What struck us most was how deeply the Iraq war has radicalized today's generation of young Muslims in Britain. Whether extreme or mainstream, they are angry about the war, angry that their country so devotedly follows U.S. foreign policy, angry at what they see as a worldwide war against Muslims and Islam.

A man who runs a youth center in a London neighborhood with a large Muslim population said the message of extremism preys on many kids who see no way out of their ethnic ghettos. Those youth, he said, have always had vices -- street crime, drugs, car thefts.

"But then now you've got another threat," Hanif Qadir told me.

"The new threat is radicalism. It's a cause. Every young man wants a cause."

We knew much of the Islamic world feels like this, but we were surprised at the extent of these feelings in Britain. (Audio slide show: Preying on young British Muslims)

The UK was rocked by the attacks of July 7, 2005 and the attempted attacks that failed two weeks later. Since then, Britons have many questions about the role of the Muslim community here.

In our investigation, we found shocking evidence of the bigotry, intolerance and hatred preached by some Muslim fundamentalists in the UK. We met men like Anjem Choudary of the now-banned Al-Mahajiroon extremist group, who denounces democracy and predicts Britain will be ruled by Sharia, Islamic law.

He publicly distances himself from suicide bombings here in the UK, mindful of Britain's tough new anti-terrorism laws, yet we filmed him openly condoning violent Jihad abroad.

"I happen to be in an ideological and political war," Choudary said. "My brothers in al Qaeda and other Mujahedeen are involved in a military campaign." (Watch a call for Islamic law in Britain Video)

And this week, a report in the London Sunday Times says Choudary has been using a false name on a password-protected Web site to incite Muslims to go to Somalia to wage holy war.

Some mosques in Britain, while publicly agreeing to cross-cultural tolerance, in fact sometimes host preachers from both Britain and abroad who rail with hatred against "kafirs" (infidels), against homosexuals, against democracy and even against women.

This hate-speech and the attempt by extremists to recruit young disaffected Muslims on London's deprived streets and even on university campuses is beginning to motivate the "other voices of Islam" to try to seize back their religion, which they say has been hijacked. (Watch moderate Muslims fight back Video)

Extremists and radicals are very adept at playing the media's game. Even though they are a minority, a small number of them can gather on a corner, hold a protest or demonstration and get a massive amount of media attention and air time. That's because today's mostly tabloid media culture in the UK has sensationalized the "Muslim issue" and focuses only on the extremists, rarely finding the facts, context and texture beneath the surface.

We found a deep sense of Islamophobia on the rise here in Britain and across Europe. The European Monitoring Center, which tracks religious and ethnic bias, says Muslims regularly face abuse, threats, attacks and misunderstanding.

And as we discovered talking to a cross section of Muslims around Britain, many of Europe's 13 million Muslims said that since 9/11 they have been made to feel like terrorists. More than ever they feel like second-class citizens in their own countries.

There are incredibly brave Muslims who've been forced to become unofficial activists for tolerance and integration. In Walthamstow -- where two dozen young Muslim men were arrested last summer for allegedly plotting to blow up U.S.-bound planes with liquid explosives -- Qadir, the youth worker, has reached out to teenagers.

His youth center now tries to lead the disaffected and alienated along a different path, urging them to watch out for extremist preachers in their mosques and arranging pool tournaments with the beat cops as one way to forge a closer community bond.

In Birmingham, home to Britain's second-largest Muslim community, a Muslim artist nicknamed "Aerosol Arabic" is trying to be a role model to students and the angry young people in his community. Along with a priest he is doing cross-cultural art projects that build a sense of acceptance and togetherness.

While some Muslim women in the UK are feeling the intense pressure of a chorus of ministerial calls to remove their niqabs, a veil that covers most of the face, we meet one Muslim woman, a comedian, who is trying to promote tolerance through a unique brand of comedy-club humor.

As a small band of Muslim extremists try to promote their agenda at a campus debate at prestigious Trinity College, we traveled to Ireland to hear mainstream Muslims try to win back the public podium. One young Muslim calls the violence and intolerance some extremists promote a mental illness, not an ideology.

While Britain's Scotland Yard and MI5 intelligence service regularly warn of Islamist cells plotting violence -- some 30 potential plots have been identified -- some Muslim preachers, activists and ordinary people are beginning to see that they have to take the responsibility of seizing back their religion from the small band of extremists who have hijacked it.

Increasingly we found mainstream Muslims are realizing that they can no longer be quiet, but they have to stand up to have any hope of winning back the debate from the extremists who dominate it now.

The question is whether they can form a critical mass of voices to finally drown out the growing ranks of extremists.


Anjem Choudary, an Islamic activist, says he is in an ideological and political war.



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