Tag Archives: Al-Shabaab

Islamist Extremism.

Whether we like to admit it or not, at present Islamist extremism is the biggest extremist threat globally. Consequently, please bear in mind the following.

Although it is clear that an alarmingly large number of Muslims, especially young Muslims, appear drawn to extremist/Islamist/Salafist/ jihadist 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 Shia extremist 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 case of the peace-loving Yazidis of Syria and Iraq.

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

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”. 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 many quotes in the Qur’an that call for the murder of infidels and unbelievers, or that call for the death of Jews and Christians. It will end only when Muslims distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad such as the murder of opponents, or when they distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad that civilised people today think are questionable or, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.”

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

A Sunni friend recently said to me, “Until you in the West realise that the 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 speech. In other words, such Muslims must confront the shortcomings that exist in the very foundations on which the faith 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.

Aman (in Arabic, etc. the name means “security”), a North-East England-based organisation, 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 identified 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. God or gods) 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.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

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 (e.g., witness the requirements said to derive from Allah that shape the treatment of women, or those that relate to how non-Muslims must necessarily be discriminated against if they live in Muslim lands where sharia prevails). Anyone committed to, say, equality for all or just treatment for all people before the law will necessarily wish to amend these requirements to enhance human rights for groups suffering disadvantage and/or discrimination. However, if you subscribe to the idea that anything said to derive from Allah cannot be changed, you are condemning certain people to disadvantage, discrimination, injustice and a lot worse, potentially for all time. In this respect, therefore, Islam is antithetical to democracy. Democracy is NOT an ideal political system, perhaps especially as it manifests itself today in the UK, but it is superior to any political system predicated on laws and/or conventions based on religious principles.

Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film-maker, once said something very relevant in relation to all that we are discussing here (and I paraphrase): “I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it” (the same idea has been attributed to many wise people including Vaclav Havel – “Seek the company of those who search for truth, but run from those who find it ” – and Andre Gide – “Love those who seek the truth, but doubt those who find 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, did you hear 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 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.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

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If you have the time, some books and research that must be read!

I have just finished “The Bible Unearthed” by Finkelstein and Silberman, one of those excellent books confirming that much of the content of Jewish scripture is highly unreliable as history (see also “Testament: the Bible and History” by John Romer, which comes to the same conclusion, but extends the net to include Christian scripture). Finkelstein and Silberman draw on recent archaeological research in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon to confirm that many of the most famous stories in the Bible – the wanderings of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and David and Solomon’s empire – reflect the world of later authors rather than actual historical facts. The authors of the scripture took legend and oral history and moulded both to suit contemporary needs, thereby distorting what had happened in the past or, more alarmingly, inventing a past that never existed. The same scriptural authors also suggested that monotheism was a belief subscribed to by a majority of Jews for centuries earlier than was almost certainly the case. It now looks as if monotheism within the Jewish faith was “victorious” only in the last decades of the 8th century BCE and the first decades of the 7th century BCE.

Inevitably, knowing the above makes it impossible to sustain literalist or fundamentalist interpretations of Jewish or, indeed, Christian scripture. Scholarship, although not quite so thorough as that directed toward the Bible, also makes it impossible to sustain literalist or fundamentalist interpretations of the Qur’an, but too few Muslims are aware of such scholarship, with tragic consequences for millions of people, Muslim or otherwise, in many parts of the world.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Another book well worth reading is “Heretic: why islam needs a reformation now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But before summarising aspects of the book itself, I will explain a little about the author’s life. My thanks for some of what follows to Andrew Anthony who wrote an article about “Heretic” in “The Guardian” newspaper in April 2015.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born author and human rights campaigner. When living in tribal, patriarchal and oppressively religious Somalia, she suffered female genital mutilation before being singled out for an arranged marriage she did not want. She sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she quickly turned her back on Islam and became one of its most articulate and vehement critics. She had to have twenty-four hour police protection even before Theo Van Gogh, the film director and her artistic collaborator, was murdered in Amsterdam by a jihadist who promised to kill Hirsi Ali as well. Partly to live a more normal life, Hirsi Ali eventually left for the USA, but even in the States life has not always been easy. She is alternately accused of being a self-hating Islamophobe and an apologist for Western imperialism, accusations which mean she remains unpopular in progressive American circles. Her views about the violence and misogyny she sees as inherent in Islamic culture have led to some people denouncing her as an “enlightenment fundamentalist”. With a touch of wry humour, Hirsi Ali notes in “Heretic” that an honorary degree she was to receive from Brandeis University was withdrawn following a petition by faculty and students accusing her of “hate speech”. The campaign, she writes, saw “an authority on Queer/Feminist Narrative Theory siding with the openly homophobic Islamists”.

Now for the book itself. Hirsi Ali seeks to find common ground with the majority of Muslims who give expression to a religion characterised by being peaceful and spiritual rather than political. But a “reformation” is needed because the idea can no longer be sustained that the terrorism and extreme violence encountered in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Kenya have no religious justification in Islamic texts. She writes, “We delude ourselves that our deadliest foes are somehow not actuated by the ideology they openly affirm.” Hirsi Ali lists dozens of statements in the Qur’an that encourage devout Muslims to engage in violence against different groups of people, and she argues that, for as long as Muslims subscribe to the idea that the Qur’an is the literal word of God/Allah, jihadists and other extremists will justify their actions theologically. She says that “religious doctrines matter and are in need of reform”.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

But how likely is it that religious doctrines will be reformed? For example, her own book confirms that a majority of Pakistanis are in favour of the death penalty for apostasy and sharia law is gaining ground in many nation states with Muslim majorities. She sees some grounds for optimism in the protests that ushered in the Arab Spring, but, in many nation states where such protests took place, dictators or Islamists have seized power since. She also believes that Muslims in the West have a vital role to play in an Islamic reformation, but many young Muslims in the West are being radicalised and the voices of those who might sympathise with such a reformation are reluctant to speak out for fear of attracting death threats.

Although there are other ways that the umma, or global Muslim community, might be sub-divided, one aspect of the book I found quite helpful is how Hirsi Ali writes about Makkah Muslims (the large majority of Muslims who represent the more tolerant face of the religion as expressed during Muhammad’s time in Makkah), Medina Muslims (the jihadists and other extremists inspired by the more punitive revelations in the Qur’an that Muhammad is said to have received during his time in Medina) and Modifying Muslims (the reformers and dissidents who actively challenge religious dogma). She argues that Medina Muslims and Modifying Muslims are struggling to win the hearts and minds of the mass of largely passive Makkah Muslims.

While confident that Modifying Muslims will eventually prevail, she is unable to generate any convincing evidence that this will happen any time soon. And this is primarily so because, as she points out on more than one occasion, Islam is inherently resistant to reinterpretation. It is inherently resistant to reinterpretation because of the belief that the Qur’an is the final and perfect rendition of God’s/Allah’s word and therefore cannot be subjected to the sort of critical evaluation that scripture in other religions has experienced.

As indicated earlier, for some of the above I am grateful to Andrew Anthony for an article that appeared in the “The Guardian” newspaper in April 2015. Anthony concludes his article with the following insight, one with which I have a lot of sympathy:

It’s an unpleasant paradox that Islam’s best hope of reform might lie in its worst incarnation. In making a visible horror show of their crimes, groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, the Pakistan Taliban and Al-Shabaab have laid down a challenge to mainstream Islam for the soul of the religion. Simply denying that the groups are part of the faith is no longer a viable option.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

While writing this post, I came across some outstanding research on the internet about attitudes in the Islamic world published in 2012 and 2013 by the Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center findings relate to what Hirsi Ali has to say in her book in so far as they provide some reasons for optimism that reformation might be possible, but also many reasons to suppose that such a reformation, if it happens at all, will be a long time coming. The research document is entitled “The World’s Muslims: religion, politics and society”. Type this title into your search engine along with Pew Research Center and the document will be listed, no problem. Muslim attitudes in relation to issues such as sharia, apostasy, women’s rights, relations among Muslims and interfaith relations are subjected to perceptive analysis. You will come away from the research encouraged as well as discouraged.

To confirm just how far off we may be in relation to Islam benefiting from a reformation, consider the following information about apostasy found in “The World’s Muslims: religion, politics and society”. The taking of the life of those who abandon Islam is most widely supported in Egypt and Jordan where 86% and 82% of Muslims support the death penalty, but the figures are not much lower in Afghanistan (79%) or Pakistan (76%). These statistics alone beg the question, Just how many Muslims worldwide are susceptible to the jihadist agenda if so many Muslims in just four nation states support the death penalty for apostasy? And to return to the theme touched on at the start of the post, how can millions of Muslims still believe that the Qur’an is the final and perfect rendition of Allah’s word? Knowing only the official story of how the holy book came into human hands must inspire many doubts that the book is the final and perfect rendition of God’s/Allah’s word, but add to the doubts the ones that modern scholarship necessarily inspires and you end up with a book no more reliably God-given than the Torah or the Bible.

Jesus and the dyophysite and miaphysite churches (and the massacre of students at Garissa University College in Kenya).

It is the time of year when Christians around the world reflect on the life, the teaching, the execution and what they believe to be the resurrection of Jesus (the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated on what is now Easter Day, which in 2015 was the 5th April for Roman Catholics and Protestants, and the 12th April for the great majority of other Christians such as Orthodox Christians). For some such Christians it is also a time to reflect on whether Jesus, when alive at least, was wholly divine, wholly human or divine and human, and, if the latter, how the divine and the human existed within Jesus’ person. It may even be the case that some Christians reflect on what fraction or percentage of Jesus was divine and what fraction or percentage was human.

It always surprises me how little even educated Christians know about one of the most important fault-lines that exists in Christianity, the fault-line between the “dyophysite” and what we used to call the “monophysite” churches. In the interests of knowledge and understanding, forgive me for lifting most of what follows from another website of mine, “In Search of Unusual Destinations”.

Midyat, Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Midyat, Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

The monastery featured in the photo above belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as having one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

A brief word (my thanks to DelCogliano for most of what follows) about the attractive sutore (the plural of suturo) d’madbho, or sanctuary veils. Suturo d’madbho is a type of artwork encountered everywhere in Tur Abdin in south-east Turkey, the heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Every Tur Abdin church has at least one suturo that separates the altar from the congregation at certain times during the liturgy. The suturo is attached to a curtain rod so that it can be easily drawn back and forth when necessary. Most churches also have several other sutore hanging on a bare wall or covering an alcove or doorway. Sutore are examples of a Turkish craft skill particularly popular in Anatolia called basmacilik, which literally means “stamping”. The art of basmacilik involves taking wooden moulds carved into various figures and shapes, pressing them into paint, and then stamping the cloth with them. An alternative way of achieving the same outcome is to draw the outlines of the figures and the shapes on the cloth and then paint them by hand.

Most sutore are approximately two metres square. Each suturo has one or two large images in the centre of the cloth, typically of Mary, the last supper, the crucifixion or the resurrection. Almost without exception, in small circles at each of the four corners, are images of the four evangelists together with their symbols: John with an eagle, Matthew with a man, Mark with a lion and Luke with an ox. Other images include seraphim or angels. Figures on the sutore are usually surrounded by decorative floral arrangements or elaborate scrollwork. While some sutore are subdued in tone because of the use of shades of brown, many are bright and vibrant because they employ deep reds, blues, yellows and greens. Although most sutore in Tur Abdin are not very old, they appear to be based on designs from an earlier age.

It is very sad that the importance of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the history of early Christianity generally, and Christian monasticism in particular, is so poorly appreciated in most of the West. It is also sad that the distinction between “dyophysite” and “miaphysite” Christianity is so rarely acknowledged in classrooms, whether in schools or universities.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

P.S. I have read in recent times that some academics believe that Christianity is the religion currently suffering the most persecution globally, sometimes by people who are characterised as aggressive or militant secularists, but more frequently by people subscribing to religions other than Christianity itself. While I strongly suspect that people who follow, for example, Yazidism, Sikhism and/or Paganism will question that Christianity is the religion suffering the most persecution, a growing body of evidence confirms that it is increasingly dangerous to be Christian in many parts of the world (e.g. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, parts of Nigeria and even India). Add to this that persecution and massacre in the past have rendered some nation states, or parts of nation states, effectively Christian-free (e.g. most of the Arabian peninsula, large parts of North Africa, the sub-Saharan region and large parts of central Asia) and you realise why such concerns are expressed. Recent events in Kenya, where gunmen who were members of or in sympathy with Al-Shabaab (the brutal and bestial Somali Islamist group) murdered at least 150 people at Garissa University College, add to the evidence that to be Christian is to invite hatred of the most extreme nature imaginable (it is now clear that the great majority of the people murdered at Garissa University College were Christian and that the gunmen separated Christians from others so that non-Christians, most of whom were Muslim, could live).

I ask Muslims once again, whether friends of mine or not, to explain how it is that people who are quite clearly “inspired” by the Islamic faith can act in ways which suggest that fear, hatred, contempt for life, hostility toward diversity and disregard for individual and communal rights lie at the heart of their mindset. No longer will it do to allege that such people are not “good” or “true” Muslims; they justify their actions with quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith, and they dress and act in ways that are stereotypically Muslim. Moreover, there appear to be a worryingly large number of Muslims who engage in such acts, or support such acts from the safe distance of their homes in stable lands that are not predominantly Muslim.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Obviously, Christians all round the globe have condemned this latest atrocity by Muslim militants, but why have similar condemnations not derived from the Muslim world itself? And why is it that thoughtful, reflective, caring Muslims with commitments to interfaith dialogue, community cohesion and human rights (and millions of such Muslims exist) have not provided us with a narrative based on Islamic scripture which undermines the Islamist scriptural narrative of hatred for and the murder of the despised other, a narrative which also embraces the persecution of women, whether Muslim or otherwise, the destruction of anything deemed unIslamic and an alarming distrust of the benefits of education and free enquiry? Non-Muslims could quite easily generate such a narrative, but, if such a narrative derived from non-Muslims, it would be ignored with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders by the Islamists themselves. Such a narrative must be generated from within Islam itself if it is to have an impact on extremist Muslims, many of whom are alarmingly young. Sadly for all of humankind, burn, burn appeals to such Muslims far more than build, build.

Why is it that so many Muslims have a complete disregard for one of the most fundamental principles that most people sign up to, even though they often fall short of living up to it: do to others as I expect others to do to me? This principle, one that is inspired by notions of equality, justice, fairness, mutual respect and the celebration of diversity, makes perfect sense, but in sharia, the Islamic legal code, it is very rarely, if ever, given expression. Note how Muslims and non-Muslims must be accorded different rights, responsibilities and opportunities. Note how Muslim males and females must be accorded different rights, responsibilities and opportunities. And note how people of the book (people who have access to scripture said to derive from God) must be accorded more rights and opportunities than people who lack access to God-given scripture. Sharia is predicted on checks and balances designed to ensure that Muslim males enjoy rights and opportunities denied to everyone else. Discrimination of the most overt kind permeates sharia, so much so that one is reminded of the worst excesses of the medieval feudal system or the caste system in Hinduism. Moreover, in some interpretations of sharia, apostasy is punishable by death. Yet verse 256 of sura 2 in the Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” How can anyone make sense of this? No wonder sane and sensible people within the Muslim world say that sharia has no place in ethnically or culturally diverse nation states which seek to treat all their citizens equally, fairly and with dignity. In fact, some sane and sensible people in the Muslim world say that sharia has no place in predominantly or overwhelmingly Muslim nation states if such nation states seek to provide all their citizens with universal human rights and the benefits, material or otherwise, currently enjoyed by developed nation states in the so-called West.