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THE MYTH OF MODERATE ISLAM - by Patrick Sookhdeo

THE MYTH OF MODERATE ISLAM

by Patrick Sookhdeo

The funeral of British suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer was held in absentia in his family's ancestral village called 477 GB in Sumandri district, near Lahore, Pakistan. Thousands of people attended, as they did again the following day when a qul ceremony was held for Tanweer. During qul the Qur'an is recited, earning merit which is passed on to the deceased to speed their journey to paradise. In Tanweer's case this was hardly necessary for being a shahid (martyr) he is deemed to have gone straight to paradise. The 22-year old from Leeds, whose bomb at Aldgate station killed seven people, was hailed by the crowd as "a hero of Islam".

Some in Britain cannot conceive that a suicide bomber could be a hero of Islam.

Since 7/7 many have made statements to attempt to explain what seems to them a contradiction in terms. Since the violence cannot be denied, their only course is to argue that the connection with Islam is invalid. Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Brian Paddick said that "Islam and terrorists are two words that do not go together." His boss the Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, asserted that there is nothing wrong with being a fundamentalist Muslim.

Many have argued in the same vein after every recent Islamic terrorist atrocity. But surely we should give enough respect to those who voluntarily lay down their lives to accept what they themselves say about their motives. If they say they do it in the name of Islam, we must believe them. Is it not the height of illiberalism and arrogance to deny them the right to define themselves and their actions in this way?

Those who say that we should not link Islam to terrorism because no one spoke of the IRA as "Catholic terrorists" are being illogical. The IRA never claimed to commit their acts of terrorism on behalf of the Catholic Church. Nationalism, not religion, was their driving force.

Some of the "condemnations" of 7/7 given by the British Muslim leadership have little value, hedged as they are with provisos and get-out clauses. What good is it to condemn suicide bombings in London and affirm them in the Middle East? What good is it to say that Islam condemns the killing of the innocent without clarifying how Islam defines "innocence"? We need to hear more comments like those of courageous Muslims who have called on their community to report radicals to the police.

Tony Blair was right in saying that this terrorism is not a new problem. It was there before the Iraq war, and it was there before 9/11. It is not confined to attacks on non-Muslim and Western targets. Right across the Muslim world, there is internal conflict, as for example in Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt, with Muslims destroying each other because of theological differences. Indeed the first sectarian conflict within Islam began in 632, as soon as Muhammad had died. By 657 there was a three-way split in the community; one of these three groups was eventually exterminated by another, and the two remaining are the Sunnis and Shi'as who are still fighting each other today.

On 8th July the London-based Muslim Weekly unblushingly published a lengthy opinion article by Abid Ullah Jan entitled "Islam, Faith and Power". The gist of the article is that Muslims should strive to gain political and military power over non-Muslims, that warfare is obligatory for all Muslims, and that the Islamic state, Islam and shari'a [Islamic law] should be established throughout the world. All is supported with quotations from the Qur'an. It concludes with a veiled threat to Britain. The bombings the previous day were a perfect illustration of what Jan was advocating, and the editor evidently felt no need to withdraw the article or to apologise for it. His newspaper is widely read and distributed across the UK.

What then is the theology behind the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism which Jan faithfully describes in the Muslim Weekly? Contemporary Islam can be what you make of it. By far the majority of Muslims today live out their lives without recourse to violence, for the Qur'an is like a pick-and-mix selection. If you want peace, you can find peaceable verses. If you want war, you can find bellicose verses. You can find verses which permit only defensive jihad, or you can find verses to justify offensive jihad.

You can even find texts which specifically command terrorism, the classic one being Q8:59-60 which urges Muslims to prepare themselves to fight non-Muslims: "Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies" (A.Yusuf Ali's translation). Pakistani Brigadier S.K. Malik's book "The Quranic Concept of War" is widely used by the military of various Muslim countries. In it Malik explains Qur'anic teaching on strategy: "In war our main objective is the opponent's heart or soul, our main weapon of offence against this objective is the strength of our own souls, and to launch such an attack, we have to keep terror away from our own hearts... Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent's heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision on the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose on him."

If you permit yourself a little judicious cutting, the range of choice in Qur'anic teaching is even wider. A verse one often hears quoted as part of the "Islam is peace" litany allegedly runs along the lines: "If you kill one soul it is as if you have killed all mankind." But the full and unexpurgated version of Q5:32 states: "If anyone slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people." The very next verse lists a selection of savage punishments for those who fight the Muslims and create "mischief" (or in some translations "corruption") in the land, punishments which include execution, crucifixion and amputation. What kind of "mischief in the land" could merit such a reaction? Could it be interpreted as secularism, democracy and other non-Islamic values in a land? Could the "murder" be the killing of Muslims in Iraq? Just as importantly, do the Muslims who keep quoting this verse realise what a deception they are imposing on their listeners?

It is probably true that in every faith, ordinary people will pick the parts they like best and practise those, while the scholars will work out an official version. In Islam the scholars had a particularly challenging task, given the mass of contradictory texts within the Qur'an. To meet this challenge they developed the rule of abrogation which states that wherever contradictions are found, the later-dated text abrogates the earlier one. To elucidate further the original intention of Muhammad, they referred to traditions (hadith) recording what he himself had said and done. Sadly for the rest of the world, both these methods led Islam away from peace and towards war. For the peaceable verses of the Qur'an are almost all earlier, dating from Muhammad's time in Mecca, while those which advocate war and violence are almost all later, dating from after his flight to Medina. Though "jihad" has a variety of meanings including a spiritual struggle against sin, Muhammad's own example shows clearly that he frequently interpreted jihad as literal warfare and himself ordered massacre, assassination and torture. From these sources the Islamic scholars developed a detailed theology dividing the world into two parts Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam, with Muslims required to change Dar al-Harb into Dar al-Islam either through warfare or by da'wa (mission).

So the mantra "Islam is peace" which we hear repeated in the media so often is almost 1400 years out of date. It was only for about thirteen years that Islam was peace and nothing but peace. From 622 onwards, it became increasingly aggressive, albeit with periods of peaceful co-existence particularly in colonial times, when the theology of war was not dominant. For today's radical Muslims - just as for the medieval jurists who developed classical Islam - it would be truer to say "Islam is war". One of the most radical Islamic groups in Britain, al-Ghurabaa, stated in the wake of the two London bombings, "Any Muslim that denies that terror is a part of Islam is kafir." A kafir is an unbeliever (i.e. a non-Muslim), a term of gross insult.

Many have expressed sympathy for young men whom they feel have been driven to kill themselves - and as many others as possible. Shahid Malik, MP for Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, has said that suicide bombers are motivated by "feelings of isolation and disaffection, the political anger at what they see as the double standards of the west in relation to international Muslim areas of conflict... and the hatred propagated by domestic extremists such as the BNP".

But we should consider why the bombers react so much more violently to these afflictions than other people do. As Agatha Christie's Poirot once explained and as Shakespeare's Iago demonstrated, the ideal way to murder is by using other people to do the killing. It is noticeable that the senior leaders of radical Islamic groups never themselves perform suicide missions. Rather they manipulate vulnerable and expendable youngsters to do so for them. One such leader is Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who inspires young Palestinians to become suicide bombers but shows no inclination to seek "martyrdom" himself, nor to send his sons on suicide missions. Incidentally, he has also issued a fatwa calling for the killing of British forces in Iraq. Ken Livingstone, who not surprisingly condemned the suicide bombings in the city of which he is mayor, rather more surprisingly went on to support an invitation to al-Qaradawi to attend a conference in Manchester.

While many individual Muslims choose to live their personal lives only by the (now abrogated) peaceable verses of the Qur'an, it is vain to deny the pro-war and pro-terrorism doctrines within their religion. Could it be that the young men who committed suicide were neither on the fringes of Muslim society in Britain, nor following an eccentric and extremist interpretation of their faith, but rather that they came from the very core of the Muslim community motivated by a mainstream interpretation of Islam?

In the days of the British empire, colonialism had a profound effect on Islam. On the one hand it cut Islam adrift from its classical roots by taking from Islam its political and military power. On the other hand Lugard's policy of indirect rule allowed the continued existence of Islam in terms of its social structure and the continued use of certain aspects of shari'a. In India this led to the development of communalism, which allowed Indian Muslims to form their own community and rule themselves by shari'a. This doubtless contributed to the creation of Pakistan in 1947, which came into being specifically to provide a homeland for the Muslims of the sub-continent. A process of Islamisation has led Pakistan to become an Islamic republic.

The same development can be seen in the British Muslim community, most of whom have their roots in the Indian sub-continent. Muslims who migrated to the UK came initially for economic reasons, seeking employment. But over the last fifty years their communities have evolved away from assimilation with the British majority towards the creation of separate and distinct communities, mimicking the communalism of the British Raj. As a Pakistani friend of mine who lives in London said recently, "The British gave us all we ever asked for; why should we complain?" British Muslims now have shari'a in areas of finance and mortgages; halal food in schools, hospitals and prisons; faith schools funded by the state; prayer rooms in every police station in London; and much more. This process has been assisted by the British government thought its philosophy of multiculturalism, which has allowed the Muslim community to consolidate and create a parallel society in the UK.

The Muslim community now inhabits principally the urban centres of England as well as some parts of Scotland and Wales. It forms a spine running down the centre of England from Bradford to London, with ribs extending east and west. It is said that within 10-15 years most cities in these areas will have Muslim-majority populations, and will be under local Islamic political control, with the Muslim community living under shari'a.

As early as 1980 M. Ali Kettani was advocating a policy with the aim of achieving such a result. Writing instructions for Muslims living as minorities in Western countries, Kettani urged them to live close together and form their own separate institutions. What happens after this stage depends on which of the two main religious traditions amongst Pakistani-background British Muslims gains the ascendancy. The Barelwi majority believe in a slow evolution, gradually consolidating their Muslim societies, and finally achieving an Islamic state. The Deobandi minority argue for a quicker process using politics and violence to achieve the same end result. Ultimately both believe in the end result of an Islamic state in Britain where Muslims will govern their own affairs and, as the finishing touch, everyone else's affairs as well. Islamism is now the dominant Islamic voice in contemporary Islam, and has become the seedbed of the radical movements. It is this that Sir Ian Blair has not grasped.

For some time now the British government has been quoting a figure of 1.6 million for the Muslim population. Muslims themselves claim around 3 million, and this is likely to be far nearer to the truth. The growth of the Muslim community comes from their high birth rate, primary immigration and asylum-seekers both official and unofficial. There are also conversions to Islam.

The violence which is endemic in Muslim societies such as Pakistan is increasingly present in Britain's Muslim community. Already we have violence by Pakistani Muslims against Kurdish Muslims, by Muslims against non-Muslims living amongst them (Caribbean people in the west Midlands, for example), a rapid growth in honour killings, and now suicide bombings. It is worth noting that many current conflicts around the world are not internal to the Muslim community, but external as Muslims, seek to gain territorial control, for example, in south Thailand, the southern Philippines, Kashmir, Chechnya, and Palestine. Is it possible that a conflict of this nature could occur in Britain?

Muslims must stop the self-deception which claims that Islam is 100% peace. They must with honesty recognise the violence that has existed in their history in the same way as Christians have had to do, for Christianity has had at times a very dark past Some Muslims have, with great courage, begun to do this. Mundir Badr Haloum, who lectures at a Syrian university, wrote last year in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir, "Ignominious terrorism exists, and one cannot but acknowledge its being Islamic."

Furthermore they must look at the reinterpretation of their texts, the Qur'an, hadith and shari'a, and the reformation of their faith. Mundir Badr Haloum has described this as "exorcising" the terrorism from Islam. Such reform - the changing of certain fairly central theological principles - would not be easy to achieve. For one thing, Muslims believe the text of the Qur'an is unchangeable because it exists eternally in heaven. For another, there is no recognised central head of Sunni Islam to make or endorse such decisions. But some Muslims have already made a start.

Mahmud Muhammad Taha argued for a distinction to be drawn between the Meccan and the Medinan sections of the Qur'an. He advocated a return to peaceable Meccan Islam which he argued is applicable for today, whereas the bellicose Medinan teachings should be consigned to history. For taking this position he was tried for apostasy, found guilty and executed by the Sudanese government in 1985. Another modernist reformer was the Pakistani Fazlur Rahman who advocated the "double movement" i.e. understanding Qur'anic verses in their context, their ratio legis, and then using the philosophy of the Qur'an to interpret that in a modern, social and moral sense. Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, an Egyptian professor who argued similarly that the Qur'an and hadith should be interpreted according to the context in which they originated, was charged with apostasy, found guilty in June 1995 and therefore ordered to separate from his wife.

The US-based Free Muslims Coalition, which was set up after 9/11 to promote a modern and secular version of Islam, has proposed the following:

1. A re-interpretation of Islam for the 21st century where terrorism is not justified under any circumstances 2. Separation of religion and state 3. Democracy as the best form of government 4. Secularism in all forms of political activity 5. Equality for women 6. Religion to be a personal relationship between the individual and his or her God, not to be forced on anyone

The tempting vision of an Islam reformed along such lines is unlikely to be achieved except by a long and painful process of small steps. What might these be and how can we make a start? One step would be, as urged by the Prince of Wales, that every Muslim should "condemn these atrocities [7/7 bombings] and root out those among them who preach and practise such hatred and bitterness". Universal condemnation of suicide bombers instead of acclamation as heroes would indeed be an excellent start.

Mansoor Ijaz has suggested a practical three-point action plan:

1. Forbid radical hate-filled preaching in British mosques. Deport imams who fail to comply. 2. Scrutinise British Islamic charities to identify those that fund terrorism. Prevent them from receiving more than 10% of their income from overseas. 3. Form community watch groups comprised of Muslim citizens to contribute useful information on fanatical Muslims to the authorities.

To this could be added Muslim acceptance of a secular society as being the basis for their religious existence, an oath of allegiance to the crown which will override their allegiance to their co-religionists overseas, and deliberate steps to move out of their ghetto-style existence both physically and psychologically.

For the government the time has come to accept Trevor Phillips' statement that multiculturalism is dead. We need to move on to re-discover and affirm a common British identity founded on the historical Judaeo-Christian heritage of our society. This would impact heavily on the future development of faith schools, which should now be stopped.

Given the fate of some earlier would-be reformers, perhaps King Abdullah of Jordan or a leader of his stature might have the best chance of initiating a process of modernist reform. The day before 7/7 a conference which he had convened of senior scholars from eight schools of Islamic jurisprudence amazingly issued a statement endorsing fatwas forbidding any Muslim from those eight schools to be declared an apostate. So reform is possible. The only problem with this particular action is that, whilst it protected Muslim leaders from being killed by dissident Muslims, it negated a very helpful fatwa which had been issued in March by the Spanish Islamic scholars declaring Osama bin Laden an apostate. Could not the King re-convene his conference and ask them to issue a fatwa banning violence against non-Muslims also? This would extend the self-preservation of the Muslim community to the whole non-Muslim world.

It will be a long, hard road for Islam to get its house in order so that it can coexist peacefully with the rest of society in the 21st century. But change must start now.

--Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is Director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. He is also an ordained priest in the Church of England.

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