Byline: NATALIE CLARKE
THREE Muslim women wearing the traditional burqa and niqab were walking along a Birmingham street this week when they were approached by a photographer. They had been confronted by the enemy - an outsider - and their response was instant and instinctive.
One covered her eyes with her hand, while another fixed a defiant stare at the camera. The third's response was the most striking of all. She lifted her hand and gave that most British of gestures - the V sign.
This yobbish image - made even more shocking by the seeming reticence of the veils - captured absolutely the growing polarisation between some sections of Britain's Muslim community and the mainstream. It was taken after police raided a series of addresses in the city on Wednesday morning in connection with an alleged plot to kidnap and behead a British soldier.
Feelings are running high in Birmingham's Sparkbrook district, where the raids were carried out. There is feverish talk among many that the arrests are part of a government 'plot' against Muslims.
On the streets of Sparkbrook yesterday, angry young Muslims denounced British culture and said we would be all better off living under Sharia law.
'What are your Western values?' said one young man in traditional Islamic dress. 'Your youngsters get drunk and fight outside the bars in the city centre.
Even the women do it.' 'I don't want to live a Western lifestyle,' added a woman whose face was covered by a veil. 'I would like to live by Sharia law.
That is my choice.' Sharia is the body of Islamic law, derived from the Koran and refined over the centuries by Islamic scholars.
It deals with many aspects of life, including politics, religious worship, banking, sexuality, marriage and divorce, penal punishments and social issues.
Could we really become a nation that stones adulterers to death, chops the hands off thieves and beheads murderers? Surely not, most of us would say.
Yet earlier this week, a survey revealed that nearly four in ten young British Muslims aged 18-24 would prefer to live under Sharia law than British law. The study, commissioned by the Rightwing think-tank Policy Exchange, identified significant support for wearing the veil in public, Islamic schools and even punishment by death for Muslims who convert to another religion.
Most worryingly, 13 per cent of young Muslims said they 'admired' organisations such as Al Qaeda which are prepared to 'fight the West'.
I have spent the past week speaking to young British Muslims in London and Birmingham and it becomes clear while speaking to young people that a significant minority feel a growing sense of alienation from mainstream British society - which in turn leads to a rejection of British cultural values - because of what they say is the persecution and murder of Muslims in Iraq.
Sharia law, those young British Muslims argue, is a way of life which embraces a superior moral code to that of modern Britain.
Wearing the veil is not a sign of subservience but that a woman has 'self-respect'. There is a growing repugnance at British society, the binge drinking, the promiscuity, the perceived 'decadence'.
And, crucially, Tony Blair's decision to take us to war in Iraq.
One stallholder selling electrical goods at Whitechapel market in London's East End says the impression young Muslims have is that a Muslim life is not held in the same value as a Western one.
'After 9/11 there was an hysterical outpouring of grief for those who died, but when Bush and Blair invaded Iraq and thousands of Muslims died, it didn't seem to matter.' A few stalls away, another man selling groceries summed up the feeling in one succinct sentence. 'There is a sense of them and us now.'
The lines are drawn. And while few presently have the appetite actually to do anything to turn Britain into an Islamic state living under Sharia law, momentum is growing. …