How can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?

This blog is predicated on the perception that interfaith dialogue, in the UK at least, very rarely engages with substantive issues in a way that requires those who participate to subject their beliefs to much-needed critical analysis. Below, however, is an example of interfaith dialogue that goes far beyond the norm and therefore provides us with an example of what might be deemed best practice in the field. My thanks to Chris Butterworth in Northumberland (the UK) for bringing this remarkable article to my attention, and thanks to humanists in London for setting up the occasion that made what follows possible. I have changed nothing but a few typographical errors in the original, thereby preserving all the wisdom, insights, comments, opinions and perceptions that make this encounter between humanists and Muslims so invaluable. What follows is a lesson to us all. We now have a benchmark against which to measure future interfaith initiatives.

The original article appeared in “Humanist Life” and was entitled “Common ground dialogue”.

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According to the 2011 census, one in eight Londoners identifies themselves as a Muslim. In November 2014, a group of us (humanists) decided it was time to move beyond the black-and-white “Isn’t Islam terrible” rhetoric and start talking with, and listening to, fellow Londoners who are Muslim. The aim was not to debate whether Islamic beliefs were right or wrong, but to respect the fact that most Muslims will continue to see their faith as an element of their identity. We wanted to get behind the media stereotypes and start to understand what real Muslims think, and where the real differences and common ground lie. Above all, we wanted to start seeing Muslim Londoners as fellow human beings, and not as “the other”.  So we invited four Muslims to a dialogue at Conway Hall on 25th November 2014, a dialogue chaired by Alom Shaha, author of “The Young Atheist’s Handbook” and an ex-Muslim with a Bangladeshi background.

Our guests were Mamadou Bocoum – Public Relations Officer for the Sharia Council; Huda Jawad – Advisor at the Centre for Academic Shia Studies and Research Coordinator for Solace Women’s Aid; Sara Khan – Co-Founder and Director of the human rights charity Inspire, and Yasmin Rehman – from the Centre for Secular Space and a researcher into polygamy and the law. 140 people turned up – mainly humanists but also a number of Muslims. The feedback afterwards was overwhelmingly positive. As one of the attendees said, this was “a chance for humanists to hear a range of views from intelligent and non-stereotypical, politically-engaged Muslims, without anyone demanding that they justify their religious belief”. We see this as a valuable first step in mutual understanding.

Muslim identity, racism, victimhood.

Yasmin’s parents came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up in a small mining town in North East England meant facing routine racism and the threat of violence. On the day of her father’s funeral, someone posted a note through their door saying, “That’s one less Paki to worry about.” Then there was the Rushdie Affair, the point at which it felt that the government started to consider Muslims as a group that needed special attention. That was powerfully reinforced by the 11th September (9/11) and 7th July (7/7) terror attacks in New York and London respectively. Unfortunately, even now when dealing with officials, Yasmin reports that “you get a seat if you say the right thing”. Faith leaders were only too happy to respond by providing a strengthened faith identity. From being a Punjabi Muslim with more in common culturally with Hindu and Christian Punjabis than Muslims from other parts of the world, Yasmin found her Muslim identity promoted to the top of the list and, with it, increased pressure on her generation to practice their faith and adopt its outward signs. Racism then morphed into anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. Yasmin’s son, then aged eighteen, was brutally assaulted on a London bus in the wake of the 7/7 attacks and has moved to the Far East. She fears he will never return to the UK.

Huda was a child in a Sunni area of Saddam’s Iraq. She was taught to conceal her Shia identity in order to protect her family from persecution. When she came to the UK, she did not even identify herself primarily as a Muslim, and the Islam she heard about in school RE lessons seemed unrecognisable. But things changed after the Rushdie Affair “when the question became, ‘Are you British or are you Muslim?’” Thus began a personal journey to explore her faith and its key texts.

Alom grew up in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s where racial prejudice was considered normal and unremarkable. He saw 9/11 as the turning point when his generation began to be pigeon-holed as Muslim and racism evolved into anti-Muslim prejudice. In his experience as an ex-Muslim, sometimes people use their atheism to mask covert racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. And, too often, terrorist is equated with Muslim.

But the Muslim communities themselves also had to take some responsibility for the current “us and them” position. Firstly, in Sara’s view, they have been let down by poor leadership, which has made them vulnerable to pressure from extremists. Frequently she had seen leaders unwilling to counter extremist on-line narratives, simply claiming “there’s no problem. It’s all to do with British foreign policy”. Inadequate leadership was particularly serious when failing to confront issues of gender inequality. When the police or representatives of the local authorities approached mosques to discuss issues such as violence against women, they were often told there was no issue and they found it impossible to talk directly to Muslim women. Mosques became “gatekeepers, not gateways”.

Secondly, in Yasmin’s view, a sense of victimhood pervaded Muslim households, especially on the back of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Satellite TV channels were filled with reports of Sunni victimhood from Chechnya and other places across the world. Yet, when she tried to challenge this sense of victimhood, she found herself accused of Islamophobia.

The speakers felt that the media provided an extremely misleading picture of British Muslims, which then formed the basis for opinions of the wider population, which added to a Muslim bunker mentality. The result, in Mamadou’s view, was that Islam was being hijacked by the hardliners. Sara quoted the example of the BBC giving Anjem Choudary the key 8.10am interview slot on Radio 4’s “Today” programme after the Lee Rigby murder, despite his extreme views being detested by most British Muslims.

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The rise of ISIS and of extremism in the UK.

All the speakers were horrified by ISIS and what Sara referred to as their “takfiri” form of Salafist/jihadist Islam, in which anyone who does not share their extreme dogma is considered not a true Muslim and is therefore dispensable – a “school of thought alien to most Muslims”. Sara pointed out that the Islamic state, as defined by ISIS, was a modern idea. She saw it as part of the wider challenge of reconciling Islam with modernity.

Extremist ideas generally, and ISIS in particular, posed a serious challenge to Muslim parents in the UK. Young British Muslims who were already feeling alienated and angry were easy prey for jihadist propaganda. But the underlying causes of radicalisation are complex. Sara explained that the government’s “Prevent” strategy had evolved considerably in recent years, and there was now a wealth of academic research about extremism. The research shows no single cause or route to extremism, and no correlation between extremism on the one hand and poverty or lack of education on the other.

It was true that British Sikh and Hindu communities, which had also suffered from racism, did not incline toward extremism to the same degree as the Muslim communities, though Huda pointed out that every religion had the capacity for extremism and violence. She gave the example of Buddhist monks who persecuted Muslims in Burma. A number of factors had affected the position of Muslims in the UK. Foreign policy was one. But it was also significant that, unlike some migrant communities, most British Muslims had their origins in relatively poor rural areas in the Indian sub-continent. Children of first generation immigrants often came from homes where they were told not to question their parents’ views and authority, while at school they were being taught that questioning and enquiry were a good thing. At the same time, in addition to the influence on them of extremists in social media, Sara pointed to the millions of pounds that have been spent by Saudi Arabia on pushing Wahhabism, a hardline variety of Islam with a bigoted view of those who do not share it, and which takes no account of cultural background.

The pressure toward hardline thinking was therefore significant. And, as Huda said, ISIS were especially good at media management and recruitment, while at the same time in Britain “my sons are being told they are the enemy and potential terrorists. How do I prevent them from walking into the arms of ISIS?”

Extremism affected both Muslims and non-Muslims: a Pakistani police colleague of Yasmin’s had been killed by a suicide bomber when he shook his hand in a mosque. In Belgium, a Shia mullah had been killed by Sunni extremists, and in the Edgware Road in London, a mob of Anjem Choudary followers had attacked a man simply for being a Shia. Meanwhile, the Far Right was exploiting ISIS and other Islamist extremists to fuel anti-Muslim hatred. Huda felt the pressure acutely: “This is home. But I’m increasingly feeling there will be a time when I need to find the bags that I’ve packed, but I don’t know where I’m going. I’m not Muslim enough, not secular enough, not Shia enough. How many more headlines do I need to read in the Daily Mail before it’s time to go?”

Yasmin felt that women could play a vital role in combating the extremist trend, citing the example of Northern Ireland where women from both sides of the sectarian divide had lost children in the conflict but came together to work for peace.

There was agreement that it was better for Anjem Choudary and other hardliners’ activities to be visible rather than driven underground, but disagreement over whether there was any benefit in attempting dialogue with such people.

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We have a problem with the text.

Mamadou knows the Qu’ran intimately – he memorised the whole book when he was fourteen and can quote chapter and verse. But he thinks “we have a problem with the text”. In his view the main issue is people taking verses out of context and interpreting them literally. He agreed with the Christian theologian who said, “Any text without context is a pretext”, and pointed out that, if he were following the Qu’ran literally, “I would not be sitting here” because humanists are not Muslims and there is a verse in the Qur’an which says non-Muslims are enemies.

But the Qu’ran itself asks readers to contemplate and think for themselves about its meaning so that “the understanding of the text is greater than the divinity of the text”. Mamadou called for Muslims to be brave enough to question the meaning of the text and to understand and apply Kant’s approach to hermeneutics in order to move beyond literalism.

Sara and Huda shared this interpretive thinking: “The text will be as moral as the reader”, as Sara said. Like Mamadou, Huda saw the text as “all about enquiry”, with verses requiring Muslims to reflect, ponder and understand too often overlooked in favour of simple dos and don’ts. It concerned her that many Muslims forget the blossoming of science and philosophy which took place in Muslim Spain, an empire which lasted for three centuries where rational enquiry was valued. In Mamadou’s view, Muslims could learn from humanists to “put human beings at the centre of what we do. I have a human being in front of me, not God,” he conceded.

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Multiple Islams.

On the panel were three Sunnis – if we include Yasmin, who preferred not to discuss the details of her beliefs – and one Shia Muslim.

Huda explained the split between Sunni and Shia (the latter literally “the followers of Ali”) as originally a political disagreement about the leadership of Islam after Mohammed’s death, with the Sunnis backing the leader chosen by all Muhammad’s followers, and the Shia believing that leadership should devolve on Muhammad’s descendants, starting with Ali, his cousin and son-in-law. Despite agreement about the basic tenets of Islam and the centrality of the Qur’an, over time religious, cultural and political differences of such significance have emerged that the Sunni and Shia schism is one of the main factors shaping wars in the Middle East. Conservative Sunni clerics do not consider Shias true Muslims. Huda sees ISIS as “an unholy alliance” between jihadis and Baathists formally loyal to Saddam Hussein who consider Shias “the number one enemy”, thereby echoing Saddam’s view that they are “worse than Jews, worse than flies”.

Huda saw massive diversity within British Islam. She regarded her faith as a framework for people to find their own path. Her mother was a science teacher and her family includes converts and secularists. Her personal view was that “Islam is all about rationality – we are told to forget tradition”. Unlike Yasmin and Sara, Huda wears a hijab, not because it is a religious requirement but because she has worn it for so long it is part of her personal identity.

Mamadou was born and brought up in Senegal. Among his identities was Sunni Islam with an African flavour, which he continues to foster. Arriving in the UK he found an alien “chicken tikka masala Islam” in which the culture and practices of rural villages of the Indian sub-continent dominated. He argued for the development of a British “fish and chips Islam” reflecting both the diversity of the Muslim communities and British values and culture.

Feminism and women’s rights.

Sara identifies herself as a Muslim feminist, a term that some atheists and Muslims tell her is an oxymoron. For her, “My faith… has given me a notion of equality, freedom of belief”, and it was her reading of the Qur’an that inspired her to fight for justice regardless of the personal cost which has included abuse and death threats. Attacks and threats have come from jihadists and, ironically, jihadists’ most virulent critics. For example, Rod Liddle referred to her in the “The Spectator” as a “pseudo-apologist for the jihadis” because she challenged media generalisations about British Muslims.

In her view, many Muslims do not know their own history. Islam promoted women’s rights in 7th century Arabia. She recommended that Muslims should study “Islamic Humanism” by Lenn Goodman. Unfortunately, the faith has been largely developed by men opposed to gender equality. Ultra-conservatives are trying to extend this thinking, for instance, by introducing gender segregation into British universities and denouncing those who oppose them as “non-Muslims”, thereby echoing ISIS. Globally, extremist Muslims are targeting Muslim feminists, as in the case of a Libyan feminist who was recently murdered.

But that was not the only source of opposition to progress. As Huda said, moderate Muslim feminists in the West find themselves in a triple bind: they have the general challenges associated with being Muslim in the West; their co-religionists use “feminist” as a form of insult; and their co-feminists attack them either for being too religious or not religious enough. Sara has even been accused by white, non-Muslim feminists of being an Islamophobe.

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LGBT rights.

A member of the audience referred to a Gallup poll of five hundred British Muslims in which no respondents had considered homosexuality acceptable and asked, “How can gay people live freely alongside Muslims, for example, in East London?”

Huda’s view was that “God is the only judge” about what is right and wrong in relation to sexuality. But she was not surprised by the data because people will tend to answer this question the way they think is required of them. In fact, Muslims in her community talk about the issue in private all the time, but consider it taboo to discuss publicly.

Huda said there was no question that the current view across Islam is unfavourable toward homosexuality. A particular reason for resistance to change was that, for a community that feels under siege, the traditional teaching is seen as a bastion against the West.

Mamadou compared the development of Christianity and Judaism with Islam, which he saw as still a relatively young religion that needed time to reform. But things may be slowly shifting. There is an organisation called Imaan set up to support LGBT Muslim people – it held a conference earlier this year (2014). TellMAMA, which monitors anti-Muslim attacks in the UK, had recently recruited Peter Tatchell to its board. Shereen El Feki’s book “Sex and the Citadel” addressed the reality of gay life in Arab society, and the Safra Project supports Muslim LBT women. Mamadou had worked with a gay mullah in Washington.

On the other hand, the Safra Project had received threats for campaigning against forced marriage and the liberal Muslim Institute had come under attack for a recent discussion about gay rights.

Yasmin singled out the East London Mosque, which she said had been taken over by Islamists who were strongly homophobic. Sara demanded zero tolerance of homophobia, pointing out that Muslims cannot complain about Islamophobia without at the same time challenging homophobia.

Freedom of speech.

In response to a question about threats of violence directed by Islamists at people deemed to be insulting Islam, Huda said that those who issue such threats must always be condemned, provided it was done even-handedly. “God and the Prophet can take care of themselves”, and she thought most Muslims don’t take violent offence to challenges. But she wondered whether sometimes the target is not so much faith but a particular community. For example, she wondered what the headlines would have looked like if Harold Shipman had been Muslim rather than Jewish.

Faith schools.

There was a clear difference in view among the speakers on faith schools. They did not all support Alom’s call to back the British Humanist Association’s position opposing faith schools as sectarian, divisive and, in a majority of cases, openly discriminatory.

Huda said she did not send her children to a faith school, but understood the need for a safe space where parents could ensure children know enough about their religious and cultural backgrounds to defend themselves against ISIS propaganda. Mamadou thought that some faith schools were “doing a wonderful job” and they should not be closed down. But support for them also meant being ready to criticise them when they got it wrong.

Yasmin had herself attended a convent and considered separating children on the basis of faith a form of apartheid. She had been disturbed to come across a junior school where young girls were wearing hijabs. She felt strongly that the state should not fund faith schools, which only increased division on the basis of religion and class, and she wanted to see world religions taught as an academic subject with less “eurocentricity”.

Sara had two daughters at a local community school. She had no confidence in what a Muslim faith school or a madrassa would teach them and preferred to do “religious education” herself. She recognised that there are some good faith schools and felt parental choice should be respected, but good governance was essential.

Sharia and apostasy.

Although Mamadou is the Public Relations Officer for The Sharia Council, there were only a couple of references to sharia during the meeting. The first reference derived from Yasmin, who pointed out that there is not just one sharia law: there are “four distinct schools within Sunni Islam alone”. She was “really troubled by government support for sharia councils for dispute resolution”, and wanted “all women to have equal access before the law”. She wondered why it was that only in the past twenty years have British Muslim women who want a divorce been expected to go to a sharia court. Did this mean that all the previous divorces were invalid? Huda later pointed out that there are five schools of sharia law, four Sunni schools plus one Shia.

Surprisingly, the issue of apostasy did not come up in the questions, although the speakers’ rejection of qu’ranic literalism suggested what their views might be.

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Were the speakers representative of the wider Muslim community?

A questioner cited opinion polls suggesting the speakers’ liberal views were not representative of the general Muslim population in the UK.

Yasmin was critical of much of the polling data, which she did not recognise on the basis of the many people she knew. It was often unclear who actually got to fill in the questionnaire. Sara pointed out that over 80% of British Muslims were very patriotic, and even the extremists seemed to prefer the benefits and freedoms of living in the West.

Messages to humanists.

During the discussion there were a few points directed at the humanists hosting the event.

  • Sara: “We value your support and assistance in combating extremism.”
  • Huda: “It’s better to ask and enquire than hold back for fear of causing offence.”
  • Mamadou: “It’s important to avoid the arrogance of exclusiveness – what I believe is right, what others believe is wrong.” He called for the non-religious to be “modest enough to accept the religious person”.
  • Huda: “When I’m reaching out to humanists and secularists, I do so in the hope that they will accept me without trying to demonise my religious beliefs or identity or ignore me because I’m not rich enough or educated enough.”

I for one would like to think that these misconceptions about humanists were greatly clarified by the event.

All four speakers welcomed the opportunity for the dialogue and wanted to see it continued.

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