'Extremists brainwash just like paedophiles do' warns Leeds Islam faith leader
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9/11, London Underground in 2005, Westminster Bridge in 2017, Manchester Arena, Finsbury Park in June to name just some recent terror atrocities that have targeted, killed and injured every day people going about their business.
A meeting with Qari Asim, the Imam at the Makkah Mosque on Thornville Road, as the final segment in the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Faith in Leeds series comes just days after two people were killed in London in the most recent terror attack.
We meet in his plush, serviced office overlooking the railway station and city centre where he works as a commercial property lawyer.
While speaking about him being the only Imam in the country to have a full-time corporate job, conversation inevitably turns to how such acts cause deep repercussions for communities just trying to find their own way.
He said: “I am not dismissive of the fact that times like last Friday fuel fear as well as hatred, and that far right extremism and Islamist extremism are two sides of the same coin. We always condemn terror and extremism.
“We are working with young people to ensure that they are not preyed upon by extremists. They brainwash online, just like paedophiles do. People say why don’t they just stop it but that person does not share [what they are being told] with anybody.
“We are trying to build a resolve in young people to be able to counter the argument that an extremist may pose to them. We are trying to develop a strong, religious identity where they are proud of being a Muslim and proud of being British.”
It is pertinent as more than 50 per cent of the Muslim population is under 25 with a diverse background within itself. Some could be from Somalia, Syria, Pakistan or even converts to the faith. It adds to the diverse community that Leeds has, and the Muslim population have enjoyed, but even in Leeds, Mr Asim says tensions bubble under the surface and he questions how best to address that.
He says: “Overall, Leeds being a dynamic, compassionate city has been very welcoming of minority communities but 30 to 40 years ago there was more racism. Ethnicity was a bone of contention.
“There is a fear of Muslims but fear is on both sides. Young girls wearing headscarves, mothers of teenagers are worried they are going to be abused. I find people will not sit next to me. That is not the sign of a healthy society and I am not saying that Leeds has become hate-filled but you can see the manifestation.
“How can we tackle that rather than say there is a huge problem and that one side needs to do more than the other?”
He asks is it the minority community that needs to integrate – or be a two way street?
There are many local initiatives that his community and mosque gets involved with, including the Big Sleep Out tomorrow night in aid of homeless charities. Mr Asim also calls for more education of religions and faiths in schools from an early age to understand both Islamic and Christian cultures.
And it is happening, he adds, as the Muslim community takes the opportunity around Christmas to spend time with their own families, enjoy a feast together and give gifts. It is very much being brought about by school children learning and talking about Christmas with the English children.
Ramadan is the nearest equivalent in the Muslim calendar and falls in the ninth month of the Islamic year. It is a month marked by prayer, fasting, giving in commemoration of the revelation of what would become the Koran.
On a day to day basis at the Makkah Mosque, which opened in 2003, there are five set times a day for prayer which are determined by the sun. In summer morning prayer could be at 3am and night prayer at 11pm.Each day there is a feast, reading clubs and creches.
As Imam since 2005, Mr Asim leads the prayers, takes on education of young Muslims in the basics of Islam and conducts weddings and funerals – all the while holding down a full time job as a lawyer. He is the only Muslim faith leader in the country who has a full-time job in the corporate world.
He said: “I always wanted to be an Imam but thought it would be in my 40s or 50s, later in life. But the opportunity came along and I took it as a challenge to see whether I could do both. It is very unusual and you probably won’t find a vicar or a rabbi who is a full-time lawyer.
“People might say it is a contradiction in terms – how can you be a spiritual leader doing something in a corporate world, but I see it very differently.
“If somebody wants to build a new office, block of flats, develop, I help them with problem solving, intellectual stimulation.
“As Imam, people approach me for counselling on matrimonial issues to domestic violence to career advice. It is the same thing. I am exhausted all day but I go to sleep with the thought that if I have been able to make a small difference to someone’s life, I have achieved something that day.”
Role of faith
And that, he says, is more than half of what the Islam faith is about despite ongoing debates about whether faith, Islamic and others, is relevant.
He said: “Islam is fulfilling obligations to God but that is only half of the religion, the other is how we understand people.
“The added challenge for Muslim faith leaders is the political and social debate about whether Muslims can integrate in society. Faith is not flavour of the month and we start with the understanding that it has nothing to offer.
“Faith is not something that is only relevant to the 18th century. Think of Marxism, socialism, capitalism. 21st century faith will be very relevant, it has a huge role. Faith is about values and compassion with less hatred and division.”