The seeming involvement of two UK Muslims in Tuesday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv is a deeply tragic and worrying development. The bombing, apparently carried out by Asif Mohammed Khan, 21, killed three Israeli civilians and wounded over fifty, including a waitress whose arm was blown off. It could have been much worse had it not been that the explosive belt worn by the second would be bomber, Omar Khan Sharif, 27, had failed to detonate.
After the earlier attempt by another British Muslim, Richard Reid, the so-called 'shoe bomber' to bring down a packed US airliner in December 2001, this has led to much speculation in the press about the Muslim community and whether it is providing a breeding ground for terrorists.
This punditry has been given additional fuel by the widely reported antics of tiny fringe groups, such as al-Muhajiroun, within the British Muslim community who never seem to lose an opportunity to gloat over the misfortunes of others. Their lunatic statements are a gift for the xenophobes of the British National Party. The media should resist indulging these fringe groups and giving them the publicity they so obviously crave. They are held in utter contempt by ordinary Muslims who are always left facing a racist backlash as a result of their wild and irresponsible rhetoric.
It has to be admitted, however, that many British Muslims are reluctant to speak out against these hotheads who are not above using intimidation and threats to silence others. They tolerate no opinion other than their own.
Islam categorically forbids the taking of innocent life. It does not matter whether someone is Muslim or Jewish, Iraqi or American, each human being�s life is regarded as equally precious. The Qur�an, the collected revelations of God to the Prophet Muhammad, promises the severest of penalties to murderers.
There are over 1000 mosques in the UK today. It is notable that fringe groups have been chased out of the vast majority of them and have to be satisfied with handing out their fliers outside the mosques after Friday prayers. Nowadays, these peddlers of hate have to organise their actual meetings in libraries and public halls because the Muslim community will not stand for their message of incitement to be broadcast in their places of worship.
They can also often be found haranguing people in town centres at the weekends. They should be clearly distinguished from mainstream Muslim groups who quietly set up their stalls with Islamic literature peacefully propagating their faith.
The total UK membership of al-Muhajiroun does not exceed one thousand people. When you compare this with the amount of media publicity they so effortlessly generate it is easy to understand the dismay of British Muslims.
It would be unfair to make generalised assumptions about a large and diverse British Muslim community that is 1.8 million strong, on the basis of the actions of a misguided few. Every year, dozens of Britons go abroad to fight as mercenaries in distant lands, effectively as hired killers. Just imagine if foreigners made lazy generalisations of all Britons based on the activities of these mercenaries.
The truth is, however, as the Prime Minister Tony Blair, himself has recognised, that the long-running conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is proving to be a key recruiting tool for radical groups.
Many people in the UK, Muslims and non-Muslims have immense sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been living under a heavy-handed Israeli military occupation for over thirty-five years now.
Just yesterday, Israeli troops, backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, smashed their way into the Shijaia neighbourhood outside Gaza city, killing eight Palestinians, including a two-year old toddler, Amir Ayyad. Amir had heard the commotion outside his house and had walked over to the window. By the time his father, Ahmed Ayyad, had rushed over to grab him, the young boy was dead. A bullet had pierced his skull.
Incidents like these are causing fury in the wider Muslim world and in the British Muslim community, which sees the Palestinian people facing the military might of an Israel that is itself backed by the mighty financial and military muscle of the United States.
The Prime Minister seems to understand this and the potential it has for harming relations between us and the Muslim world. Perhaps that is why, even on the eve of the war against Iraq, in the Azores, he was pushing the US President George W. Bush to use his influence to further peaceful negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Our own experience in Northern Ireland underlines the crucial need for progress to be made on the political front if a reduction in the level of violence is desired. Similarly, in Palestine, it is vital that talks produce visible results and lead to the ending of Israeli occupation if we are to see a decrease in the level of senseless violence.
So, while the deplorable actions of a minority few, on both sides Muslim and Jewish, may have captured the headlines of recent days, we must not allow them to succeed in crushing our hopes of a genuine peaceful settlement in the Middle East.
The depth of feeling which British Muslims have for their co-religionists in Palestine who are facing a slow genocide should not be underestimated. Organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain believe that this energy has to be channelled by constructively engaging British Muslims in our mainstream political process and seeking their involvement in our foreign policy on these kinds of issues. Then there will be no room for the peddlers of hate.
Mr Inayat Bunglawala,
The Muslim Council of Britain