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By Selma Cook

On a recent trip to London I decided to visit Hyde Park Corner. I had heard a lot about what goes on there and I was ready to find out for myself. I wanted to understand why there is so much tension between Muslim groups, and between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Speaking to Muslims from many walks of life, as well as men and women who work with the Muslim community, including the youth, I discovered that they all had one belief in common, namely, “We just have to find a way to get along.” I came to understand that this notion applied more to Muslims and non-Muslims than the deep-seated divisions that are isolating Islamic sects.
While one woman in the south of London is busy trying to organize her group of teenage Muslim girls, she complains about her own teenage son who has ‘gone off the rails.’ When asked about the reason for this, she said sadly, “The men aren’t as focused on the youth and they don’t make practical activities for them like the women are doing for the girls. They are usually too busy talking about who is and who is not inside the fold of Islam.”
I decided to talk to her son to find out what he thought about the state of the Muslims in the UK. This is what he said, “My parents taught me about Islam but there comes a time when young people decide whether or not they’ll put it all into practice.”
He added, “There isn’t a lot the Muslim community can do; at the end of the day it’s up to the youth to make up their minds how they’ll live their lives. These days children are more independent. I think it’s easier to be a Muslim in a Muslim country because here there is too much talk in the media about terrorists and some people do think violence is the answer and that we have to stand up and get them before they get you. I really don’t know what to make of it all.”
The confused state of this young man is shared by many others. A twenty-two-year-old convert to Islam commented that when he embraced Islam at the age of nineteen, people welcomed him at first but before long he realized that cultural groups want to stick together and being young, black and Muslim he was a minority three times over. He also found that one masjid would tell him not to go to a certain other masjid because they are ‘off the path’ while the other masjid would do the same. He and others like him have been forced to create what is now being called ‘Muslim gangs’ answering the need for a sense of solidarity; something that most masjids just pay lip service to. He commented that when he and his friends were moving down the street, going to the masjid to pray they felt empowered in a way they never felt when they used to engage in criminal activity. He added that people were afraid of them, but then he smiled and said, “There is no need to be afraid. We don’t want to hurt anyone; we just want to be part of it all.”  

With all this in mind I headed off to Hyde Park Corner with my friend, who ironically had accepted Islam at this very same place, fifteen years ago. It was a pleasant sunny afternoon and my friend and I strolled through the park between the people. No one insulted us; everyone we saw was both pleasant and friendly, or just ignored us. Being aware of the underlying tension I was reading about in the newspapers and hearing from people, the scene was surreal and I wondered what people were thinking. I was soon to find out.

Approaching the Corner I saw groups of people congregating around different speakers. Some were speaking quietly, meaningfully while others were shouting, blaming and targeting individuals with their claims. One man pointed to me threateningly (the only Muslim in the crowd) declaring, “Your heart is unclean my sister. Turn to Jesus!” I responded, “Only God knows my heart, and yours!” I walked away. Then I noticed a tall man with a long beard, wearing a kufi and galabeya and I realized he was the only Muslim speaking on behalf of Islam. I listened to his speech. He spoke gently but loud enough for everyone to hear. He spoke about the marvels of creation and the Day of Judgment. Many different people were listening to him intently, there were no jeers or rude remarks.  

There was an air of calmness about this place and I felt the urge to talk, to do something, anything to talk to these people. I found myself in a group of people thinking to myself, ‘this is it’. I hadn’t brought a box with me to stand on and not being especially tall, I stood as straight as I could and said in a loud voice, “I want to talk about Islam in the UK! What do the Muslims have to do to get along better with you all? What do you think we should do?” At the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure what the response would be, but I was anxious to find out.
Some people started to gather around. Maybe they didn’t hear what I said but I certainly looked different from the other speakers. I repeated my question and looked at individuals hoping for some interaction. One older lady came close and said, “Is there a problem with the Muslims? I didn’t know that. I have lots of Muslim friends.” I replied to her, “That’s great!” I smiled. A number of people nodded in approval.
Then one tall older-looking man approached looking quite gruff. He had a few of his people around him and they all looked stern. He said loudly so everyone could hear, “I’ll tell you what you can do to live harmoniously in this society! For starters get rid of that!” He took hold of my hijab. It was clear he wanted to intimidate me. Then he started talking about the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). I had told myself I would remain calm no matter what and that I would not be dragged into religious debate. Here was my first challenge.
I looked him straight in the eye, brushed his hand away and said out loud, “Do you see what he just did? Here I am calling for peace and harmony! Trying to look for ideas and how to make bridges and he is being aggressive with me!” Most of the people standing around, looked at this old man up and down, saying ‘tut, tut’ and shaking their heads.
Then I noticed a circle of men gathering around the crowd and they were all standing with their arms folded in front of them, looking calmly at me and what was happening. They didn’t say anything no matter what comments the people made but when I caught their eye they said quietly, “Salam alaikum sister.”
I ignored this old man and continued. A middle-aged woman approached and said, “The problem is what you people believe.” I answered, “But I’m not talking about doctrine and philosophy. I’m talking about live and let live. What we believe is not affecting your way of life. You walk down the street and so do we. Everyone is different but if we can respect each other we can get on with our lives.” A number of people were holding their Bibles in their hands and shooting questions about Muslim creed but I refused to engage in their debate. “I’m looking for accept and respect. Is that so hard?” The crowd increased and listened to the missionaries shouting out their complaints about Islam and what Muslims believe and I continued saying, “Hasn’t anyone got any answers to my questions? It seems that here today the Muslims are looking for peace and answers and no one else is stepping up.”
It wasn’t long til I realized what had happened and how potentially volatile that situation was. The brothers stayed where they were, quiet and calm, til the crowd dispersed. They were from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Some had beards, some not. But they were there for support. They were a presence; a strong presence. If they had been looking for violence, if they had wanted a fight or an argument, there were anyone of twenty comments that could have provoked them. Later I saw them mingling with the dispersing crowd, talking to the people – again calmly, gently and peacefully.
I started to wander around again and noticed two Muslim youth listening to a speaker. They looked about eighteen years old and were wearing kufis, jeans, expensive-looking trendy training shoes and galabeyas. I introduced myself and started to talk to them. They were immediately responsive.
“What’s it like being a Muslim in the UK these days?”
“It’s all right but sometimes the media makes programs that puts a lot of pressure on Muslims and makes non-Muslims scared of Islam.”
“Do you think some Muslims are being bad examples and that might be a reason why people think that way about Islam?”
“Yeah, there are some Muslims who believe it’s all right to be violent but they aren’t real Muslims, I mean you shouldn’t judge a religion by its followers, but by its teachings.”
“So you’re saying if Muslims follow Quran and Sunnah they’ll have mercy for mankind?”
They both agreed.
“Is the Muslim community doing enough for the youth?”
“There are people who are trying but it’s hard to find brothers who can relate to the youth. They lecture a lot but there’s not really a sense of brotherhood like there was in the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).”
“What kind of problems do you guys face?”
“We have no family. We’re both reverts and there is a lot of temptation like clubs and girls and most imams don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager today. There needs to be more sports and places for young Muslims to hang out.”
“So you need older people to interact with you?”
“Yeah, not just telling us what’s halal and haram..”

“So how do you cope?”
“Allah always helps us. He’s always there.” They both nodded. Their faces were kindly and they spoke sincerely. I wondered what people thought when they saw them walking down the street.
Then we were interrupted by the same Muslim who was giving a speech before earlier in the day. Clearly, he wanted to have his say. He interrupted the young men and immediately launched into a lecture of how the Muslim community is disunited because it isn’t determining the correct interpretation and understanding of Islam. He mentioned adherence to the Quran and Sunnah according to first two generations after the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). He said that if we do this we will eradicate inconsistencies that lead to confusion in the youth.
I asked him if he believed it was possible for Muslims and non-Muslims to live in harmony in the UK, and he replied that first we have to put our own house in order first by going back to basics and back to a principle which is required for all Muslims to implement. That we have to educate the Muslims and purify them from all aspects of distortion that leads to extremism and that after they rectify themselves they can go out to the world and interact.
“I asked him how long he thought that would take and what were the Muslims supposed to do in the meantime.” He didn’t answer.
When asked what older Muslims can do to look after the young Muslims, he said that older Muslims themselves have to be educated in Islam and get rid of any cultural or racist baggage and hopefully be the wise head that will guide the fire of the youth.
Then I asked the imam about the importance of love and mercy and the role of the masjid as being one of brotherhood. To this he answered that love and mercy between each other needs to be expressed in a balanced way and maybe because of ignorance, some Muslims tend to go overboard in their application of love and mercy and miss the opportunity to rectify bad behavior. He commented that if we follow the maxim that states ‘let us come together on what we agree’ that this is a dangerous path because the previous generations were ardent in rectifying their mistakes and didn’t ignore doing that for the sake of unity as what is happening today.
Finally I asked the young guys if they agreed with the imam. They smiled but said nothing.