We just want to get on with our studies

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Three of the four suicide bombers who attacked London on July 7 were from Leeds. So what has the mood been like among the city's Muslim youth in the run-up to the new term? Elaine Williams finds out

It's the back end of the summer holidays, seven weeks after the London bombings and two days before GCSE results are due. The men and boys pouring out from prayers at the Leeds Islamic Centre are in no hurry to rush away.

They stand around talking and laughing in the August sunshine.

A group of lads gathers, some in jeans, trainers and sports tops; others in traditional Islamic loose tunics, pants and embroidered caps. They are relaxed, full of smiles, and seem far removed from the turmoil that has beset this Muslim community since the July 7 bombings in which 56 people died. Three of the four suicide bombers were from Leeds.

The young men discuss their hopes and fears about their return to school.

They emerge from prayers, as they do two or three times a day during the summer holidays, as devout Muslims, but their chief concerns are nothing to do with religion or the state of the nation. These 16-year-olds are all awaiting GCSE results and are exercised about getting on with the next stage of their education and moving away from the turbulence of the summer.

One of them, Umar, knew Hasib Hussain, who killed himself and 13 other passengers on a central London bus. Umar met him on a work experience placement and played football with him. He finds it impossible to believe that Hussain was a fundamentalist. "He was totally westernised; he never went to the mosque, he wasn't interested in politics. He just wanted to have a good time."

Some of the group, pupils of Allerton Grange high school in Moortown, Leeds, will move into the school's sixth form this term. Others, pupils at Roundhay school technology college, will switch to Thomas Danby college to take GNVQs in ICT. But they have no fears about any anti-Muslim backlash at the start of the new term. Unlike their parents. Umar's father, for instance, has told him not to carry his books in a rucksack and not to wear bulky clothing. "But I'm not really worried about anything," says Umar.

"Everybody gets on with each other at my school. I have lots of white friends, as well as black and Asian, and it's a supportive place. If there are any problems there are always learning mentors and tutors to turn to, but I am sure there isn't going to be trouble."

Mohammed, like Umar a pupil at Allerton Grange, says that over the summer he's grown used to people looking at him with suspicion, especially when he wears traditional garb. He shrugs his shoulders. "I'm not really bothered.

I'm proud of my dress and I don't really mind if people look at me. Over time it will stop."

None of the boys feels their aspirations will be damaged by any backlash from the summer's tragedies, although their families are anxious their sons may become a target for organisations such as the British National Party, which is active in parts of Leeds. They have been shaken too by the recent killing of the black Liverpudlian, 18-year-old Anthony Walker.

Razaq Raj, an elder at the Islamic Centre and senior lecturer in strategic management at Leeds Metropolitan University, joins the group. He's concerned that if fears about Islamic radicalism persist - especially around the recruitment activity of extremist organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir or al-Muhajiroun - then Muslim youngsters may be denied places at universities. He's positive about and proud of race relations in Leeds, but says that older students are wary of the possible fall-out from negative publicity. These younger boys seem largely unmoved by any such fears, seeing them as "worst-case scenarios".

Mohammed's main concern is to do well enough in his GCSEs to move on to a higher level GNVQ in business studies and go to university. "I want to set up a business here," he says. "I don't know what in just yet, but I want to do well."

Ziyad, too, is aiming for As and Bs in GCSEs to enable him to study ICT at a level that will take him on to higher education.

Umar, who hopes to study forensic science at Leeds University, is keen to respond to Tony Blair's plea to Muslims to join public services and help foster a greater understanding of Islam. He wants to become a forensic expert for the police "and I also want people to know that Islam is about peace and respect for human beings".

He says he's become a "little depressed" over the summer that "everything bad that happens in the world seems to be blamed on Muslims" and feels that anything that fosters a greater understanding of Islam is for the good; particularly more contact between mosques and schools. "I think if the Imam was to go into schools and talk in assemblies about Islam that would be so helpful to everybody," says Umar. "People think Islam is all about extremism, which is not the case; it is about people living together and working together in day-to-day life."

He says that most Muslim boys of his age, far from being radicalised over issues such as Britain's involvement in Iraq, are much more interested in playing and watching football and cricket. The difficulties for young Muslims, he believes, arise when they do not attend the mosque and are not supported by their families to pray, but have to take on cultural trappings. "If they don't go to the mosque and they don't understand the teachings of Islam, then they become much more open to extremists."

These boys say it's time to move on. "We've had enough of these troubles over the last few weeks," says Mohammed. "We just want to get on with our studies, with the future."

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