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World On the front line of a culture clash in Portsmouth, England

Worshipers leave the Portsmouth Jami Mosque after afternoon prayers in Portsmouth, England January 16, 2015. Although the city is part of a new campaign to integrate Muslims into mainstream society, six worshippers left England to fight in Syria, fuelling support for right-wing politicians and leading to disenfranchisement among youngMuslims.

Jim Ross/The Globe and Mail

The black cannon facing out to sea – now surrounded by trendy pubs, and fired only at noon – is a reminder of the front-line role this city played in wars of the past. For centuries, Portsmouth was one of the main bases of the British Navy; it was a key launching pad for the D-Day invasion.

Today this gritty port is on the front line of a new clash: the effort to integrate British and European Muslims into an increasingly hostile mainstream. It's a struggle that has Muslim leaders across the continent growing worried, as the rise of far-right politicians has accelerated in the days since Islamist extremists attacked a satirical newspaper, shot a policewoman and took hostages in a kosher grocery in Paris, in a rampage that left 17 people dead.

In cities like Portsmouth, where xenophobic sentiment was already rising as locals sought someone to blame for an economy that faded with the shipbuilding industry, it's the UK Independence Party that's gaining ground. The party won its first-ever seats on Portsmouth city council in elections last year, capturing six of 40 districts, and UKIP now has the city on a short list of places where it believes it can win seats in national elections this May.

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UKIP's initial rise in Portsmouth came on the heels of news that six local men – all of them born and raised in the city – travelled together in 2013 to join the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State. Four of the young men have since been killed in the fighting in Syria, and another was arrested upon his return to Britain. But many questions remain about how a city with just 7,000 Muslims, and three mosques, produced so many people bent on violent jihad.

Part of the answer may lie in the same problem that the story of the six men has also helped fester: a growing culture clash in this city of just over 200,000 people.

Stephen Hastings, one of the six UKIP members who won seats on Portsmouth city council last year, said Portsmouth was a "pretty tolerant city." But he said many were worried about the development of "ghetto-like" Muslim communities that lived apart from mainstream England.

"When you walk past them and they're wrapped up in masks and they're rabbiting away in something you don't understand, you feel as though you're not a part of this," Mr. Hastings said in an interview. He said his first reaction to the bloody attacks in Paris was "this is going to come here, or somewhere in this country, soon."

It's not just Portsmouth where UKIP is on the rise. Party leader Nigel Farage was widely criticized when he said in the aftermath of the Paris attacks that there was a "fifth column" living in Europe without being committed to the values of the countries they live in. But a poll released Sunday showed a three-point rise in UKIP's support since the attacks, to a new high of 20 per cent – a strong third place behind the mainstream Conservative and Labour parties – just four months before Britain goes to the polls.

The friction in Portsmouth has been epitomized by a stalled effort to establish the city's first Sunni Muslim faith school. The Madani Academy was supposed to open last fall, but the plan appears to have been put off indefinitely amid far-right protests and bureaucratic troubles.

The local Muslim community raised almost $550,000 to buy a disused social-housing block in the city centre, not far from the brick Victorian row house where Charles Dickens was born.

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But the proposed site quickly became a focal point for English Defence League (EDL) demonstrations (which were countered by rival, larger "anti-fascist" gatherings), and a pig's head was left on a spike of a fence erected around the school. A planned start of classes in September was delayed when the official schools regulator declared the building was not yet fit for use, and the project now appears to have been abandoned. The building's windows were boarded up, and the surrounding grounds were unkempt and covered in litter, this week.

"There is, unfortunately, right through England, almost a siege mentality, us versus them," said Zuber Hatia, a Muslim community activist in Portsmouth who personally knew two of the youths who travelled to Syria. All six men – who were between 19 and 31 years old and dubbed themselves the "Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys" – attended the city's main Jama Mosque before they left to join Islamic State.

"People feel disenfranchised, particularly the youth. In most cases, they haven't known anything other than Britain as their home. They've grown up here, been to school and all of that. And yet, time and time again, certain elements keep pointing out to them that 'you're not really from here.'"

Mr. Hatia said the atmosphere in the city worsened dramatically after the case of the six Portsmouth-born jihadis became public last year, and he expects it to worsen again in wake of the Paris violence. The far-right EDL, though just a few dozen in number, have staged several rallies outside the Jama Mosque during Friday prayers, chanting "you're not English" and shouting that "terrorists" were being trained being inside.

Mosque attendees say anti-Muslim racism – and sometimes violence – is common in the city, though they insist it's the work of a small group of xenophobic radicals.

"There is no problem between Muslims in general and Christians in general in this city. There is a problem between small groups of people who are trying to cause trouble," said Sumel Chowdhry, a 35-year-old taxi driver sporting a faint scar under his right eye after what he says was a racist attack on Christmas Day.

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The Bangladeshi community in Portsmouth is concentrated on a few buildings around the Jama Mosque. Beside the mosque there's a travel agency specializing in hajj trips to Mecca. Next to that is the office of the Bangladesh Welfare Association, where members say they're as confused and worried as anyone by the fact the city has produced such a relatively large number of fighters for the Islamic State.

"Those people who had gone to Syria, they were radicalized by means of the Internet. I wouldn't like to say they were radicalized by certain things that happened in Portsmouth," said Syed Haq, chairman of the Bangladesh Welfare Association. "But everyone is concerned, everyone is devastated."

Abdul Jalil, the head of the Jama Mosque, refused to be interviewed for this article. But the community has obviously been rattled by its association with the six "Britani Brigade" jihadis. One pamphlet pinned to a bulletin board inside the main door of the mosque warns that "travelling to Syria is extremely dangerous." Another targets parents: "As a parent, to have a son or daughter in Syria [means] you don't have a life anymore," it reads in bold print.

It's a variation on a message the mosque has been struggling to broadcast since it opened in 2007. "Peace is better," reads a Koranic mosaic over its main door. But two nearby signs warning that the premises are protected by CCTV cameras hint at how difficult peace can be to achieve.

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