A Luton man has described how he believes the events of 9/11 “massively” changed both him – leading him to practise Islam – and his home town.
As a consultant in equalities and diversity at Luton Council in September 2001, Sultan Mahmood dealt with many press inquiries about how the terror attacks in New York City had affected the town.
For two weeks he spoke to reporters from all over the world and was astonished about the views the press were expressing about Islam.
“Some of the views that were coming from the press actually really made me afraid,” he said.
Having worked on equality and diversity issues for a number of years, he was used to talking about cultural issues, and religion was a part of that, but he realised he was not the expert he thought he was.
“Most non-practising Muslims do think they are experts in the religion but it’s only when you start studying it that you realise you actually know nothing,” he said.
“Dealing with the press on an international level woke me up to what the view of Muslims was around the world and it was a lot worse than I thought. That’s what gave me the push to become a practising Muslim.
“I don’t know whether it would have happened or not [without 9/11] because we believe as Muslims that everything is decreed.
“However, 9/11 gave me the opportunity to do self-assessment on myself and I went on a journey where I started to learn more about the religion and through that process I slowly started to practise the religion.”
Born and brought up in the UK, Mr Mahmood, 41, said he also saw a change in the town where he had lived from the age of seven.
In 2001, nearly 15% of Luton residents were Muslim, compared to 3% nationally, but there were times when he felt like a stranger.
“After that event I’d be walking down the street and see people looking at me and I’d think: ‘Do they think of me as a Muslim or do they think of me as a Lutonian?'”
When his beard and clothes made him outwardly visible as a practising Muslim, he said he was twice called “bin Laden”.
“I was in a state of shock because I had grown up in Luton, my jaw dropped down to my feet.
“That brought home the reality of the situation for me, that people view Muslims as different and strange and also link them with certain acts of terrorism.”
Mr Mahmood said there was also a re-emergence of non-Muslim far-right groups, which he said had been fairly quiet for a number of years, as well as the appearance of Muslim extremists.
Integration hopes”When I came to Luton at seven, I remember telling my brother I thought it was strange there were a lot of Nottingham Forest supporters around here.
“He just smiled at me and said, ‘my boy, NF is not Nottingham Forest’.
“The late 80s saw them go quiet and I think that what happened in 2001 brought them to the fore again but in a different guise.
“I think that people think they can justify their discrimination of Muslims because of that event.
“It also saw the rise of right-wing Islamic groups who think because they feel they are oppressed it gives them the right to air their views, which we don’t agree with.”
Mr Mahmood, who now works as a freelance equality and diversity training consultant, believes that for there to be successful integration in the future, communities need to understand and accept each other for who they are.
“What’s scary for me is the way the press portray Muslims on a daily basis and how the average non-Muslim person on the street has a skewed image of Islam.
“When you actually speak to them they are quite surprised at what we believe in a positive way.
“I think communities sitting down and discussing things will help to make them more integrated and I’m a strong believer that this will happen in Luton quicker than we think.”
In a statement Luton Borough Council disputed aspects of Mr Mahmood’s role at the council following the 9/11 attack.
A spokeswoman confirmed he was employed by the council’s community development service but said “he did not speak to reporters from all over the world for two weeks”.
“He was consulted, along with a series of other council employees working in this area in line with usual council procedures when responding to any media enquiry,” she said.