Most of Thursday and part of Friday morning prior to the latest Islamist attacks in Paris (13th November 2015), attacks which left 130 completely innocent people dead, I was in Molenbeek in Brussels. As the tragic events unfolded in Paris, I was in Lille. Most of the people of Lille were in an understandably sombre and reflective mood. Goodness knows how a majority of Parisians felt.
Whether we like it or not, Islamist extremism is the greatest single threat posed to people’s security nationally and internationally (as recent events in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia and over Sinai confirm, to name but a few places where such extremism has manifested itself in recent weeks). This said, the following needs to be kept in mind:
Although it is clear that an alarmingly large number of Muslims, especially young Muslims, are drawn to extremist/jihadist/Islamist/Salafist agendas, such Muslims still constitute a very small percentage of the whole Muslim population (which exceeds a billion people).
To the best of my knowledge, no UK Muslim who is Shia, Sufi, Ismaeli or Ahmadiyya has been implicated in any way with extremist agendas.
Almost every known or suspected Muslim extremist in the UK, and the vast majority globally, are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, among the Sunni Muslims who incline toward extremism, the vast majority are male, not female (and most Muslims who have fled from, say, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or the dozens of other extremist Sunni groups – there are some extremist Shia groups, but they are far fewer in number – are female. Most Muslim women know that such expressions of Islam are detrimental, not beneficial, to the interests of girls and women. As for non-Muslims, and Muslims who do not fully endorse the extremist narratives, death awaits most of them – or, possibly, sexual slavery if you are female and attractive. Look, for example, at the plight of the peace-loving Yazidis of Syria and Iraq).
Most of my Muslim friends come from within the Sunni tradition and, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them is an extremist, but many of them tell me that many Sunni Muslims incline toward extremism because of how they interpret the Qur’an (they interpret it literally) and how they seek guidance from the Sunnah (the example of Muhammad. The Sunnah helps shape the “ideal” lifestyle for Muslims, especially for male Muslims). Sunni friends tell me that Sunni Muslims are discouraged (sometimes with death threats) from doing what in most religious traditions is now deemed normal, right, proper and necessary: they are discouraged from critically evaluating/questioning the “truths”, traditions, routines and conventions that have evolved over time within the Muslim world view. In other words, many expressions of Sunni Islam have become resistant to long-needed critical evaluation, above all by Muslims themselves.
One of my best Muslim friends is of the opinion that “the problem of Islamic extremism” (his words) will never end “until Muslims themselves engage in the critical evaluation of scripture and tradition that so many other expressions of religious faith have benefited from since the Enlightenment”. I suspect that what he says makes a lot of sense.
An Alevi Muslim recently said to me in Turkey, “The sickness that has taken over the minds and the hearts and the souls of so many Sunni Muslims in recent years will not end if the West stops intervening in the Muslim world, or if Israel grants to the Palestinians a land of their own, or if in Muslim-majority nation states extremist Sunni groups are allowed to establish oppressive regimes based on the imposition of sharia (Muslim religious law). The sickness will end only when Muslims distance themselves from the hundreds of illiberal quotes in the Qur’an that call for the murder of infidels and unbelievers, or that call for the death of Jews and Christians; and it will end only when Muslims distance themselves from actions attributed to Muhammad, in all likelihood incorrectly, that involved the murder of opponents or actions civilised people today regard as highly questionable or, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.”
A Sunni friend recently said to me, “Until you in the West realise that these people (Muslim extremists) want to destroy your way of life, you will never confront the challenge with sufficient conviction. And Islam will never rid itself of the elephant in its midst until the vast majority of sensible, pragmatic and peace-loving Muslims worldwide unite to reveal that Islam need not be hostile to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs – and, even, that Islam need not be hostile to freedom of expression. In other words, such Muslims must confront the shortcomings that exist in the very foundations on which the religion is based, the Qur’an and the example of the prophet Muhammad.” These sound words are immense challenges to many ordinary and conventionally pious Muslims, but the fact that such words derive from someone within the global community of the Muslim faithful is not without importance. Nor is it without importance that the words derive from a Sunni Muslim.
Aman, an organisation based in North-East England, is notable in that it seeks to weed out extremism among ALL people, but among Muslims in particular, and to combat Islamophobia by, among other things, confirming that Islam is NOT hostile to the “British” values listed above. I am currently re-reading the Quran, albeit in translation, and the more I study it the more I think Aman’s greatest challenge lies in relation to confirming that Islam IS in sympathy with the “British” values. Allow me to take one such value as an example. My understanding of democracy is that the will of the people takes precedent over the will, real or imagined, of any thing (e.g. a god) or any individual or any group of people that does not constitute a majority. The will of the people is determined by a secret ballot and access to such a ballot must be on a regular basis. But Islam means “submission”, and submission to the will of Allah alone. What Allah requires of humankind must be conformed with. The Qur’an is replete with requirements said to derive from Allah and, because they are said to derive from Allah, humankind cannot change them even if it is self-evidently the case that the requirements are unjust and detrimental to the well-being of vast numbers of people.
Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film-maker, once said something very relevant in relation to all that we have discussed so far (and I paraphrase): “I love any person who seeks the truth, but live in fear of any person who thinks they have found it.” Perhaps what we need to fear most is people who believe they have found the “truth” because they invariably seek to impose the “truth” on everyone else. Does this desire to impose the “truth” confirm a commitment to democracy or individual liberty? Of course not. Moreover, have you heard the story about the Palestinian poet in Saudi Arabia who has been condemned to death for renouncing Islam? In other words, the poet is condemned to death for apostasy. Square this with sura 2 verse 256 of the Qur’an which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Is critical evaluation of the Qur’an required by Muslims? Yes, and it is required now. And I am sure some of you will join me in assisting our Muslim friends and neighbours with the task of such critical evaluation.
The Qur’an contains over a hundred verses that urge Muslims to engage in war with non-believers/infidels, etc. for the sake of Islamic rule. Some of the verses are quite graphic, with commands to chop off limbs and heads and kill non-believers, etc. wherever they hide. Muslims who do not join the fight are called “hypocrites” and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join in the massacres.
Unlike nearly all the Torah/Old Testament verses of violence, many verses of violence in the Qur’an are open-ended, meaning that they are not confined to the historical context that originally inspired them. They are part of the eternal, unchanging word and expectations of Allah.
The context of some of the violent passages is more ambiguous than might be expected of a so-called perfect book deriving from a god defined as compassionate and forgiving. Such ambiguity allows many Muslims the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the passages should be complied with or ignored.
Unfortunately, there are very few qur’anic verses about peace or tolerance and respect for diversity to abrogate or even balance out the many that call for non-believers, etc. to be fought and subdued until they accept humiliation, convert to Islam or are killed. Muhammad’s own martial legacy and that of his companions, along with the stress on obedience and the use of force and violence found in the Qur’an, have produced “a trail of blood and tears across world history”, to quote from just one study about this matter deriving from a Muslim source.
Based on the content of the Channel 4 documentary called “ISIS: the British Women Supporters Unveiled”, and reports deriving from Muslims and non-Muslims alike after attending meetings led by Muslims of a moderate or mainstream disposition, debate and discussion among Muslims at the present time generally takes one of two forms. Muslims of a moderate or mainstream disposition allege that those who engage in terror and/or the indiscriminate murder of innocent people are not “true” or “real” Muslims (they ARE Muslims, of course, but Muslims that moderate or mainstream Muslims would prefer to distance themselves from) and/or Islam is really a religion of peace and the terrorists do not understand their religion properly (Islam is not at heart a religion of peace, but a religion of submission to the will of a god called Allah, who in all probability does not exist, and the terrorists and those who back them know only too well a highly selective interpretation of what Islam requires of its followers). Alternatively, Muslim extremists engage in loose thinking of another kind that also cannot be sustained once a little critical evaluation is applied to the statements, statements which invariably relate to despised non-Muslims or equally despised fellow Muslims who are not part of their confessional group.
Thus, in the Channel 4 documentary a British Muslim woman, who was once a significant player in now-banned Al-Muhajiroun, describes how “filthy Jews” are responsible for the murder of Muslims/Palestinians, but she ignores (and no one listening to her corrects her) that far more Muslims/Palestinians have been murdered by Muslims than by Israelis and/or Jewish people (as for other examples of Muslims murdering Muslims on an almost inconceivable scale, look no further than Syria, where, in the last five years, the vast majority of the 200,000 Syrians who have lost their lives have lost their lives at the hands of Sunnis and Alawites, or look no further than Iraq where Sunnis and Shias have fought each other for over a decade in a brutal cycle of revenge killings. Some acts of revenge have claimed victims in their hundreds). The woman is also heard condemning the “Crusader armies” of the West that invade Muslim lands, although Muslims themselves often demand that the West intervenes with arms to stop one group of Muslims butchering another, or Western intervention is right and proper to safeguard non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) from genocide at the hands of their Muslim neighbours (the Yazidis had to be safeguarded from genocide by Sunni Muslims). Moreover, the “Crusader armies” of the West never demand of local Muslims or others that they convert to Christianity, but Muslims frequently demand that non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) convert to Islam if they want to avoid death.
None of the distasteful drivel that the woman above shared with her audience was questioned by those present, even though just about everything she said manifested a complete disregard for what any sensible or informed person knows to be the case. Moreover, she shared her sometimes racist diatribe as children and young people of impressionable age played and walked around. Nor did anyone in the audience point out the patently obvious when she began to celebrate the benefits of living in the Islamic State where sharia prevails: the great majority of people in any nation state that has its legal code shaped by sharia will encounter intolerable levels of disadvantage and discrimination. You don’t believe me? Think Saudi Arabia, think Qatar, think Iran, think Sudan, and think what it was like when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan. Now consider how dire things are – or in the case of Afghanistan under the Taliban, were – in each of the nation states just listed for girls and women, for non-Muslims and for Muslims who do not subscribe to the same beliefs and practices as the dominant confessional group in each nation state. Imperfect though they may sometimes be, legal codes predicated on humankind’s exercise of debate, discussion, informed argument, trial and error and choice through the ballot box will always be superior to legal codes predicated on statements attributed to a god who in all likelihood does not exist.