British police officers investigating what they have depicted as a major terrorist plot by Islamic radicals became embroiled on Saturday in an unprecedented public dispute over whether Muslims in Britain should be depicted as victims.
The clash of views erupted as police officers continued interrogating 23 suspects alleged to have participated in a conspiracy to bomb trans-Atlantic airliners.
The discovery of the purported plot two weeks ago provoked an enormous security alert that brought pandemonium to British airports. Authorities said on Saturday that restrictions on cabin baggage and other security measures would continue for at least a week.
The police have given few details of the alleged conspiracy and have declined to confirm reports by the BBC that firearms, bomb-making equipment and what were termed "martyrdom videos" had been recovered in searches of homes and computer hard-drives.
In the past 11 days, police officers searching 14 locations have scooped up substantial amounts of potential evidence in East London, High Wycombe to the west of the capital and Birmingham.
The searches have been accompanied by broad debates over the question of why Britain, apparently alone among its European allies, seems to produce suicidal extremists such as those who killed 52 people on the London transport system on July 7 last year.
The debate has ranged over issues such as a sense of marginalization and complex questions of identity among Muslims, many of them descended from immigrants from Pakistan who came here in the 1960s.
Two high-ranking police officers of South Asian background have warned in recent days that Muslims feel a keen sense of discrimination against them.
Tarique Ghaffur, the assistant commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police force, who is Britain's highest-ranking officer of Asian descent, said Britain's ever tighter counterterrorism legislation had created a sense of indirect or unintended discrimination.
"The cumulative effect of Islamophobia, both internationally and nationally, linked to social exclusion, has created a generation of angry young people who are vulnerable to exploitation," he said.
In a speech on Aug. 7, before the newest terror alarm, he said anger among young Muslims in Britain represented a "growing challenge."
Another officer, Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei, one of Britain's most senior Muslim officers, said that if Britain introduced ethnic profiling of airline travelers, the result would be to create an offense of "traveling while Asian."
"That's unpalatable to everyone," he said last Monday.
"It is communities that defeat terrorism, and what we don't want to do is actually alienate the very communities who are going to help us catch terrorists," he continued.
But an officer of equal rank, Chief Superintendent Simon Humphrey, the head of an association representing senior police officers, told the conservative Daily Mail newspaper on Saturday: "Unfortunately, a small, extremely vocal and potentially very influential minority are trying to hijack the terrorism issue and turn it into a debate on racism."
He did not identify members of this minority by name.
"They are undermining the objectives of the organization and rank-and-file officers who are doing their utmost to police fairly," he said, objecting to the notion that race and religion should be brought into operational police matters.