LONDON — A Muslim conference for youths billed as an "anti-terror" summer camp opened Saturday in Britain, with the goal of teaching students how to rebuff extremists who try to recruit them at schools and in online chat rooms.
The three-day event hopes to equip hundreds of young British Muslims with arguments from the Qur’an on how to respond to people with radical beliefs, encounters some at the camp said happen regularly.
The issue of Islamist recruiting has made steady headlines in Britain after suspects in high-profile terrorism cases were reportedly radicalized while studying at elite U.K. universities or after listening to imams who preach holy war.
"We want to give youngsters a balanced view of Islam and to remove the misconception of what jihad actually is," organizer Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri told The Associated Press. "Extremists have confined the act of jihad to the act of militancy and violence. This is totally wrong according to Quranic commandments."
In March, the Pakistani scholar who now lives in Toronto issued a 600-page fatwa, or religious edict, against terrorist acts like suicide bombing.
Some 1,300 high school and university students are expected to study his fatwa and hear about moderate Islam at the camp at Warwick University in Coventry. Ul-Qadri said that in a series of lectures and debates, he would convince the students "why suicide bombing makes one a disbeliever, and why terrorists will go to hell fire."
Muslim conferences aimed at helping youths tackle extremism are not new — some U.S. organizations have even reached out to Muslim rappers and musicians in an effort to encourage youths to use music and other means as a form of protest rather than violence.
But the issue is particularly timely in Britain. Omar Sheikh, a British citizen who orchestrated the killing of journalist Daniel Pearl, was reportedly recruited while studying at the London School of Economics. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian accused of trying to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam last year, also was said to be radicalized while studying in London.
Many in Britain still reel from memories of the suicide bombing attack on London's transit system in July 2005, in which four homegrown terrorists — including two youths aged just 18 and 19 — killed themselves and dozens of other commuters.
Britain is home to some influential preachers of radical Islam, the most well-known of them being imprisoned Egyptian-born radical cleric Mustafa Kamal Mustafa, also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri. The one-eyed, hook-handed hard-liner used to be head of London's Finsbury Park Mosque, said to be a meeting point for extremists, and is accused of setting up a terrorist training camp in rural Oregon.
"For years hate speech was allowed to flourish in Britain so you had preachings from radical imams igniting the passions of youths and dividing the community," ul-Qadri said. "It's now time to repair this."
For many of the young Muslims attending the camp, joining a terrorist group to wage holy war jarred with their moderate believes. But they said extremists are outspoken at universities, and they lack the right arguments to counter radicals who approach them.
"I have had some experiences especially at university (with radicals)," said Tahseen Khalid, a 24-year-old university student in business and international politics.
"They haven't really worked on me ... I'm not confused. I believe terrorism is quite alien to the culture we were brought up in. I just want the information to help me argue the case in the strongest way," said Khalid, a Pakistani who was born and grew up in Britain.
Teacher Samra Adri, 33, said she also met with extremist groups while at university. She said young British Muslims often lack proper religious education and don't have a clear alternative viewpoint to militant rhetoric.
"You hear in the news everyday about Afghanistan, Pakistan, what America's doing ... many Muslims are obviously angry about the political situation in the world, but they don't understand exactly how a Muslim should react," said Adri, who lives in London.
A bigger problem is that the myriad Muslim organizations in Britain representing rival factions often contradict and attack each other's ideologies and political agendas. One of these groups, the Islamic Society of Britain, condemned the conference as a big public relations exercise and said it does not target the youths who are really vulnerable to radicalism.
Justin Gest, an academic on migration studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said the conference would at least expose young people to alternatives of what "good Islam" can be.
"If it changes one young Muslim's views about what is real Islam, that's a good thing," he said. "How many of their minds will change I don't know."