Tag Archives: Islamists

Ban? What ban? The European Court of Justice and religious artefacts, etc.

Here are some comments about an important ruling recently made by the European Court of Justice:

The ruling by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) that employers with justifiable rules on “dress neutrality” can ban workers from wearing any political, philosophical or religious symbols at work is deeply disturbing.

The ECJ ruling is deeply worrying for Sikhs living in mainland Europe because they are already vulnerable to widespread discrimination at work.

The Church of England has attacked the ruling. It has condemned the ruling on the grounds that the judgement would allow employers to ban workers from wearing crucifixes. The Church said the “decision would prevent Christians from exercising their religious freedom”. Islamic groups have also condemned the decision and consider that “the decision would legitimise attacks on Muslims”. The Jewish community would also be unhappy as it could forbid Jews from wearing a yamulka in public (a yamulka is especially popular with Orthodox Jewish men).

Sikh organisations will find it difficult to reverse the ruling on their own. Chances of success will be greater if we worked closely with Christians and Jews. I have nothing against Muslims, but the ruling against the wearing of Islamic headscarves could be because of fear of Islamists. However, forcing everyone to “dress neutrally” because you are alarmed by one minority group is plainly wrong.

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Elazig, Turkey

I have sympathy with some aspects of the above, but I also think that a lot of the above is based on sloppy thinking, as is a lot of other comment that the ruling has so far provoked. What follows is not by any means the final word on the ruling (for one thing, I do not agree with everything said), but it engages in a more considered, inclusive and challenging manner with the ruling’s implications than most comment has so far managed.

Yes: the only way to fight the ruling (which many firms/organisations will NOT invoke, of course, because of their respect for/commitment to individual/human/religious, etc. rights) with hope of success is to unite across religious/sectarian divides. Ideally, therefore, Muslims SHOULD be embraced to fight the potential “ban” – if only to get across the message to Muslims that it’s just as wrong that Muslims deny to non-Muslims the right to wear religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. in overwhelmingly Muslim lands, as it is that all religious people might be banned from wearing religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. in allegedly secular/ predominantly secular nation states. To make an obvious point: if banning the hijab, the niqab or the burka is wrong, then it is equally wrong for Muslims to ban turbans, crucifixes, kippahs/yamulkas, Stars of David, etc.

The point that follows is too important to ignore: at present around the globe, nation states in which religion overtly or covertly shapes all/most aspects of life, the political included, are more likely to ban the wearing of religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. than overwhelmingly secular nation states (and such bans are most likely to occur in overwhelmingly Muslim nation states). Moreover, in India under the Hindu BJP, it is more dangerous for non-Hindus to wear religious artefacts, etc. than before the BJP rose to power – but, thankfully, the situation in India is not nearly as bad (yet?) as in neighbouring Pakistan or Bangladesh where even minority Muslims, let alone Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, are murdered by members of the Sunni Muslim majority because of what they wear, do or believe as a consequence of their religious affiliation. The point I make is this: as a general rule, it’s religious people and not secularists who find other people’s religious artefacts, etc. unacceptable, and unacceptable to such a degree that a common outcome is the murder of those who display such artefacts, etc.   

But we have to be careful here. Will it be possible to distinguish between what most people of sound mind regard as acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts/ symbols/items of clothing, etc. (which surely include the chador, the hijab, the turban and the kara), and things such as the niqab and the burka, which, for all sorts of reasons whether persuasive or not, cause concern to vast numbers of people (and which have more of a cultural than a religious basis, and which women are often compelled to wear by males so that males can deny women the same opportunities as men)? 

Two positive things about the Sikh 5Ks and Christian crucifixes are that they are recognised by the vast majority of people of sound mind to be acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc., and they are worn by men AND women without distinction!!!! 

What I am getting at is this: when are religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. indicators of gender inequality and markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed? Perhaps it is the indicators of gender inequality and the markers of weakness/disenfranchisement/oppression that bans ought to/should/must apply. After all, we do not question that oppressive/regressive practices such as forced marriage, FGM, honour-based violence and slavery, the latter sometimes for sexual exploitation, are wrong, and wrong in each and every instance. 

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Shrine, Hindu-run business, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

But there is another question that needs addressing: is the right to wear religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. so much more important than, say, 15 million people living as slaves in India, or 20 million people facing famine in 6/7 African and Middle Eastern countries, or the continued existence of the caste system in the Hindu world, or the destruction of large regions/whole countries by militant/extremist Islamists (with the latter leading to perhaps 20 million additional refugees than would otherwise be the case)? Add to this the harm that commitment to religion is causing in so many other parts of the globe and you have to wonder whether human beings can assess the problems that confront them with any sense of perspective and/or proportion. Last, of what consequence is the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. compared with the problems of climate change and uncontrolled population growth, the latter on a planet with rapidly depleting natural resources? People of faith get very upset about a possible threat to the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. when they should be devoting far more attention to other matters, not least climate change and uncontrolled population growth. People of faith have done nothing of real/lasting substance to combat either of these long-standing global problems. Furthermore, Roman Catholicism and Islam are themselves major CAUSES of uncontrolled population growth (and thus of climate change) because of their increasingly eccentric views about human fertility/women’s rights and responsibilities.

I would gladly impose a ban on the wearing of all religious artefacts, etc. in exchange for ending forever slavery in India, or overcoming the threat of famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East, or consigning to history the Hindu caste system, or liberating the world from militant/extremist Islam. Moreover, I am confident that the vast majority of religious people of sound mind would agree with me – if only because the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than ending the brutal obscenities of slavery, famine, the caste system and Islamic militancy/extremism. Put another way, the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than providing fellow human beings with the liberty and the life chances that I take for granted on a daily basis.

As a good Buddhist friend said in relation to the controversy, “So much unnecessary fuss is made about religious symbols when that is all that they really are, symbols. Would any person of sane mind, religious or otherwise, argue that a symbol should be put before the life or the liberty of a fellow human being? If such a person exists, then they have not understood what religion (or life itself, perhaps) is truly about: spiritual growth, knowledge and understanding, ethical conduct, compassion and forgiveness, and the provision here and now of enhanced opportunity for everyone.”     

But back to the ECJ “ban”: it must be remembered that it applies equally to political and philosophical as well as religious artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. If we condemn the “ban” on religious artefacts, etc., it is illogical not to also condemn the “ban” on political and philosophical symbols, etc. This confronts us with a challenge of considerable gravity. If we insist that it’s okay to wear religious symbols, then it must be equally okay to wear symbols such as the Nazi swastika. How many Jewish people will support the right to display the Nazi swastika in exchange for the right to wear the kippah/yamulka? I’m not Jewish, but even I cannot bring myself to support the right to display the Nazi swastika.  

The ECJ “ban” may yet inspire some sensible/considered/thoughtful/beneficial outcomes – but at present people are still primarily concerned with their narrow sectarian/confessional worries instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Which brings me to my penultimate point: perhaps we have got ourselves into the current mess about religious artefacts, etc. only because we never in our own minds had a clear understanding about which were acceptable/non-controversial and which were unacceptable/controversial. Outcome? In a sometimes misguided attempt to “respect” cultural diversity, even when cultural diversity results in enforced segregation, gender inequality and the denial of rights and opportunities to the weakest within many communities, whether such communities are minority or otherwise, we conceded ground to the militants, the extremists and those who seek to sustain regressive practices. As usual, it is mostly men who are the militants, the extremists and those who seek to sustain regressive practices – and their first victims are the women and children in their own communities.

My view in relation to the controversy? There ARE some religious artefacts, etc. (and some political and philosophical symbols) that most definitely do NOT deserve to be banned, but others that SHOULD be banned (as should some political and philosophical symbols). But if it is impossible for society as a whole to agree on what to ban, I would happily ban the lot because the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. is of far less importance than many other matters humankind urgently needs to engage with. Compare the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. with climate change, uncontrolled population growth, slavery, famine, the Hindu caste system and/or Islamic militancy/extremism, and you have the difference between an issue largely devoid of significance and issues of inescapable global consequence. As my Buddhist friend suggests, religious symbols are just that, symbols. What is the point worrying about mere symbols when confronted with the consequences of climate change, uncontrolled population growth, slavery, famine, the Hindu caste system and/or Islamic militancy/extremism?

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Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The above provoked the following seven thoughtful responses from people with and without faith commitments:

One. Much has been made of the fact that the ECJ ruling has been welcomed by far right political groups in parts of Europe, but much less attention has been given to the support it has secured from organisations such as the UK’s British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, organisations whose commitments to liberalism, inclusivity and cultural pluralism are impossible to dispute. That the ruling has secured support from such diverse interest groups who rarely agree on anything confirms in my mind that the ruling is far more subtle/nuanced/complex/even-handed than many allow. Moreover, I welcome the ruling because it will at last provoke some serious thought about matters of considerable concern in pluralist societies, societies that have to balance respect for cultural diversity with ensuring that none of their citizens suffer disadvantage, discrimination and/or the denial of basic human rights. Needless to say, where respect for cultural diversity results in people suffering disadvantage, discrimination and/or the denial of basic human rights, the aspects of cultural diversity that lead to such intolerable circumstances must be challenged, and challenged as a prelude to, in many cases, outlawing them altogether. We could therefore do a lot worse than agree about the religious artefacts, etc. that are indicators of gender inequality and the markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed and decide what to do about them. My instinctive reaction to such religious artefacts, etc. is that they SHOULD be banned.

Two. I agree with a lot of what is said above, but offer a few words of warning or caution. Even if broad agreement is reached about the religious artefacts, etc. that are contemptible/indicators of gender inequality/markers of the weak/disenfranchised/ oppressed and thereafter it is decided to ban them, will the ban be the thin end of the wedge leading to a ban on all religious artefacts, etc.? Personally, I think the problem is not insurmountable – but “thus far and no further” guarantees will have to be considered to ensure that, for example, gender inclusive/non-controversial artefacts, etc. are never considered worthy of a ban.

Three. For me, the key issue is that you cannot say bans on religious symbols are wrong while saying that bans on political and philosophical symbols are right. If bans on religious symbols are wrong, it is equally wrong to ban political and philosophical symbols.

Four. Self-evidently, many religious, political and philosophical artefacts/symbols/items of clothing, etc. ARE uncontroversial, but others are less so.

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Montilla, Spain

Five. Since we already have in the UK laws that forbid things such as the incitement of murder and racial hatred, I imagine that some political, etc. symbols are already banned. Perhaps we simply need to look again at our laws to first identify what we regard as just as bad as the incitement of murder and racial hatred (e.g. homophobia, slavery, denying girls and women the same rights and opportunities as boys and men, denying people with disabilities/special needs/learning difficulties the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, etc.) and then consider outlawing everything that contributes to/sustains such disadvantage and discrimination, religious, political and/or philosophical symbols included.

Six. Many religious symbols are not only indicators of gender inequality and/or the markers of weakness/disenfranchisement/oppression; they are a way of exaggerating differences between people when humankind needs to emphasise all that unites rather than divides it. Note also that the merits (or otherwise) of a specific religious symbol are very definitely in the eye of the beholder. I observe above that crucifixes (and, by implication, Christian crosses more generally) are thought to qualify as acceptable/non-controversial religious artefacts, etc. But consider this:

“In truth, countless Jews of our world will never be able to distinguish the cross from the swastika, nor ought they be expected to do so. It was after the Holocaust that a Jewish woman, catching sight of a huge cross displayed in New York City each year at Christmastime, said to her walking companion, Father Edward H. Flannery, ‘That cross makes me shudder. It is like an evil presence.’ It was in and through the Endlosung (the final solution of the question of the Jews) that the symbol of the cross became ultimately corrupted by devilishness. When asked by two bishops in 1933 what he was going to do about the Jews, Adolf Hitler replied that he would do to them exactly what the Christian church had been advocating and practicing for almost two thousand years” (Roy and Alice Eckhardt, “Long Night’s Journey into Day: life and faith after the Holocaust”, Wayne State University Press, 1982, pp. 99-100).

Thus, one person’s treasured religious artefact is another person’s reminder of discrimination, persecution and mass murder/genocide. In responding sensibly to the ECJ ruling, this must not be forgotten.

Seven. As an anarchist with marked libertarian inclinations, I am reluctant to ever advocate banning anything – but I note with considerable interest that for the last two to three thousand years people of faith have engaged in banning things with a frequency that even authoritarian/totalitarian political regimes have rarely emulated (such bans are usually predicated on frankly ludicrous ideas associated with “heresy”). Nonetheless, I see exactly what is meant in relation to a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable religious artefacts, etc. However, perhaps the thing to do is not to ban unacceptable religious artefacts, etc., but engage in a process of education/discussion/debate to “prove” that they are unacceptable. Once the process has been completed, people will dispense with the unacceptable artefacts, etc. in precisely the same way that no people of sane mind (to use a phrase from above) today tolerate slavery, famine, the caste system, the denial of equal rights and opportunities for particular groups or individuals, and/or the torture or murder of suspected witches. In other words, through a process of education/discussion/debate we become what we purport to be, a civilised society.

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Diyarbakir, Turkey

P.S. The above was uploaded to the blog not long after a terrorist incident in Westminster in London that resulted in the death of four innocent people, one a police officer on duty outside the Houses of Parliament (the terrorist was shot dead by the police), and not long after a similar terrorist incident in Antwerp in Belgium that might easily have resulted in far more fatalities than in London. But none of the people who wrote to express concern about how the ECJ ruling might somehow compromise the right to wear religious artefacts, etc. thought the latest terrorist incidents in London and Antwerp worthy of comment. Clearly, many people struggle to distinguish between what is truly important and what is far less important.

P.P.S. It is time to draw this post to a conclusion, partly because it has generated more interest (e.g. see the comments) than any other post on the blog. Thus, my thanks to people of different faiths and none (e.g. a Roman Catholic, two Muslims, a Buddhist, three Sikhs, a Druid, an atheist and an anarchist), whether male or female (in one way or another, almost as many females as males have contributed to the post). But my greatest thanks go to Rawda Kemal, a Syrian woman who arrived in Darlington a few years ago. Rawda self-declares as a Shafi Sunni Muslim. Many of the insights in the long contribution above (the one beginning, “Yes: the only way to fight the ruling…”) are hers (the contribution is a joint effort written by Rawda and one other person). Rawda is likely to contribute to the blog again in the not-too-distant future.

P.P.P.S. A fifth innocent person, a young Romanian woman on holiday with her boyfriend, has died (6.4.17) as a consequence of the terrorist incident in Westminster. To date (7.4.17), no individual anywhere in the EU has been banned from wearing religious artefacts, etc. in the workplace because of the ECJ ruling.                               

“It’s not Islam that’s the problem; it’s Sunni Islam.” Discuss.

It is a very sobering time of the year. In France and many other nation states, thousands of people have gathered to remember the anniversary of the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 innocent men, women and children last November (2015). In Iraq, Islamic State suicide bombers are slowing the advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces into Mosul. Also in Iraq, a mass grave has been found near Mosul containing the bodies of about a hundred people, children included, murdered by the Islamic State. And in Baluchistan in Pakistan, a suicide bomber said to have links with the Islamic State has killed at least fifty people at a Sufi shrine. What did the perpetrators of these acts, criminal or otherwise, have in common? They were Sunni Muslims.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Iraqi government armed forces, Iraqi Shia militia and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, backed by American airstrikes, have for about three weeks been moving in on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, where it is estimated that 1.5 million civilians remain, most, presumably, against their will. Yesterday we learned that Syrian Kurdish armed groups have started an assault on the Islamic State “capital” of Raqqa with American, French and British air support.

Despite the involvement in recent years of some non-Muslim nation states in the wars that engulf Iraq and Syria, most of the death and destruction in both nation states are directly attributable to the failure of Sunni and Shia Muslims to live in peace with one another (although people such as Christians and Yazidis, who have nothing to do with the Sunni and Shia struggle for supremacy/survival, have themselves been targeted for expulsion, murder and/or genocide, more often than not by Sunni Muslims). Yemen is also a nation state where war, death and destruction are directly attributable to Sunni and Shia rivalry, and in Pakistan such rivalry leads to the loss of innocent life on a regular basis, with Shia Muslims the most frequent victims. Tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims remain high, but at present rarely result in deaths, in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Turkey (in Turkey, the Muslims most often considered Shia are the Alevis and the Bektashis). Sunni and Shia tensions cannot be blamed for the conflicts/wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia or Sudan, or for the communal tensions that exist, and the bloody violence that occasionally erupts, in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali or Bangladesh, but in the nation states just listed Muslims are largely responsible for all the death and destruction (in these cases, Sunni rather than Shia Muslims are usually the guilty party, with their victims being Christians, Animists, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs and/or self-confessed atheists or humanists). This is not to say that wars, death and destruction are the responsibility of Muslims alone (note, for example, how non-Muslims such as Christians are destroying South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and how Russia and Ukraine are at war over eastern Ukraine) or that Muslims are not sometimes the innocent victims of death and destruction deriving from non-Muslims (note, for example, the persecution of Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmur), but globally Muslims are the cause of more wars, death and destruction than any other group of people that can be identified because of their religion or belief. However, I have yet to list the nation states where worries about Islamist extremism and radicalisation remain a real threat, or where Islamist groups with violent agendas remain in place and occasionally engage in acts of terrorism. Such nation states include Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Tunisia, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, France and the UK.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

I mention all this to give what follows a context: there are worrying signs that Indonesia and, even more obviously, Bangladesh are subject to changes that will lead inevitably to more hardline and intolerant attitudes toward minority groups. Indonesia, the nation state with the largest Muslim population on the planet, first. Note the following:

One, Archipelago Islam or Islam Nusantara, traditionally noted for its moderation, tolerance of diversity and protection of minority rights, has been under threat ever since the Bali bombings of 2002.

Two, a higher proportion of males and females, some of the latter from a very young age, wear overtly Muslim dress than they did in the past.

Three, once-popular transvestite beauty contests are now rarely if ever held.

Four, some Muslim groups apply pressure on the government to legislate about issues of morality that have in the past been matters of personal conscience.

Five, hardline Hizb-ut-Tahrir has had a presence in the country for some years and its influence is growing.

Six, polls suggest growing numbers of Muslims want a caliphate in Indonesia and the imposition of sharia law.

Seven, the government is considering legislation to ban alcohol, gambling and prostitution.

Eight, in recent years, members of religious minorities have suffered assault by their Muslim neighbours, and the government has backed the demolition of churches, mandirs and temples.

Last, Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Purnama, is currently under attack from Muslims because he told voters they should not allow themselves to be fooled by the common interpretation of a qur’anic verse instructing them not to vote for non-Muslim leaders such as himself (Purnama, an ethnic Chinese, is Christian). For being so “outspoken”, Purnama may face blasphemy charges.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

I will now spotlight Bangladesh.

One, Islamists have murdered, often openly in the streets of large urban centres, an educationalist who was assumed by his assailants to be secular/humanist even though he never said in public that he was, Hindus, Christians, a Buddhist monk, members of the gay community and openly secular/humanist bloggers.

Two, rather than the government protecting secularists/humanists and confirming their right to express their opinions, it has urged such people not to “attack” Islam or cause offence to conventionally pious Muslims, and to respect the sentiments of the Muslim majority.

Three, in July this year, 22 people, most of whom were non-Muslim foreigners, died when a bomb exploded in a bakery or cafe in a prosperous part of Dhaka.

Four, extremist groups said by group members themselves to have links with Al-Qaeda and/or the Islamic State have grown in number and popularity in recent years.

Five, Bangladesh is experiencing a process called Arabisation, which, among other things, has led to Persian-origin words and phrases being replaced by Arabic words and phrases, and women dressing in ways more resonant of the Arab Middle East than the Indian sub-continent.

Six, in recent decades, Bangladesh has witnessed the opening of a growing number of madrasas, or religious schools, funded by Saudi Arabia and, inevitably, the madrasas reflect the oppressive and intolerant version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

Last, in recent weeks, more than a hundred Hindu homes and seventeen mandirs have been looted and vandalised by groups of Muslim men, simply because of an unproven allegation that a Hindu youth shared a Facebook post that some said denigrated the Masjid al-Haram, Islam’s holiest site in Makkah because it encloses the Ka’aba.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Bangladesh has in the past been celebrated as a Muslim-majority nation state in which respect for diversity and a live-and-let-live attitude prevail. This is clearly no longer the case, just as it is no longer the case in Indonesia. But one is inevitably compelled to ask the following: If conditions are so dire for non-Muslims in Indonesia and Bangladesh, how much worse are they for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia or Pakistan, or in those parts of Nigeria, Syria or Iraq terrorised by groups such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State?

Turkey is sometimes held up as an example of how government by an Islamist party need not pose a threat to democracy or to the individual or collective rights of members of minority groups, but I know from first-hand experience that the reality is not as many people wish to believe. Consider the following.

First, all Turkey’s Christian, Yazidi and Jewish communities are substantially smaller than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, discriminatory legislation, Muslim antipathy for non-Muslims, pogroms, massacres and genocide all playing their part in such declines in population.

Second, the AKP government’s determination to enhance the influence of orthodox Sunni Islam, an agenda supported by influential Naqshbandi Sufis who are probably the least Sufi-like Sufis on the planet, means that Alevi, Shia and most Sufi Muslims feel that, as in the past, the state no longer respects the rights of all Turkey’s citizens.

Third, because the AKP monopolises power in Ankara, billions of Turkish liras have been spent on the construction of Sunni mosques; Sunni Islam is taught in many/all the nation’s schools; non-Sunni manifestations of Islam and/or Alevism are excluded from the classroom; and only in recent years has some money been channelled to the Alevis so they can build themselves cemevis for social, cultural and/or religious purposes.

Fourth, the recent failed coup has been used by the government as an excuse to purge the armed forces, the judiciary, the civil service, the school system and the universities of individuals whose loyalty toward the AKP and its Islamist programme is questionable, and to close down newspapers, publishing houses and TV and radio stations deemed unreliable allies of the existing regime.

Last, in recent years the AKP has sounded increasingly like a party that subscribes to Turkish nationalism, albeit not in the ludicrously triumphalist and murderous form subscribed to by some groups on the far right, but this has inevitably done much to alienate even further those small Greek, Armenian, Georgian and Arab communities that remain in the republic, and the 20 million Kurds who once again feel as if their rights and lives are under threat from the state because of the president’s misguided decision to resume the war against the PKK.

In other words, for millions of citizens of the Turkish Republic who are not Sunni Muslims, Naqshbandis and/or ethnic Turks, life stinks. And life stinks because the political scene is dominated by the Islamist AKP, which has scant regard for anyone who is not Turkish and/or in sympathy with increasingly inflexible and intolerant Sunni Islam.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool. The mosque belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community

P.S. I recently attended a National Interfaith Week event at St. Nicholas Church of England Cathedral in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where, in a welcome departure from convention, speakers from the Ahmadiyya rather than the Sunni Muslim community were given an opportunity to reflect on the themes of peace, justice and reconciliation. Formalities over, everyone chatted around a spread of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I learned that the two Ahmadiyya Muslims present were husband and wife, and that they had fled from the Punjab in Pakistan earlier in the year because of death threats directed toward them by their Sunni Muslim neighbours. The husband had taught for thirty years in a college near Lahore; his wife had engaged in many charitable endeavours to help disadvantaged Pakistani citizens, no matter their religion or belief. The couple were still delighting in the fact that in the UK, as a general rule at least, people with different religions and beliefs, in this case Christians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and atheists, meet, mix and mingle as equals and as friends.

Because Ahmadiyya Muslims had been given the chance to represent the Muslim community at the event in the cathedral, no one attended from the region’s large Sunni community.

“What do Muslims really believe?”

Recently, Channel 4, a TV station in the UK, commissioned a survey into what British Muslims think about many different issues and Trevor Phillips shared the results with a large TV audience in a documentary (“What do Muslims really believe?”) one night in mid-April (2016).

People have been right to point out that the survey has many real or potential problems. Only just over 1,000 Muslims (1,081) were interviewed. ICM, the company that conducted the survey, had failed to accurately predict the outcome of the 2015 UK general election, so would its findings about British Muslims be reliable? We do not know whether Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya Muslims were represented in the sample (and, if they were, whether in numbers reflecting their presence in the UK), or whether most or all respondents were Sunni. Moreover, we do not know whether comparable results would have been generated if a similar survey had been undertaken among just over 1,000 followers of, say, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism and/or Mormonism (mind you, had a faith group such as one just listed been surveyed, markedly different results WOULD have been generated. As it is, followers of such faith groups do not pose the same terrorist or security threats to the UK or other nation states as Muslims in considerable numbers currently do, so a survey into what they think about different issues is not of such urgency).

Despite the real or potential problems identified above, the survey findings cannot be ignored because many of them are confirmed by pronouncements and actions deriving from Muslims themselves, both in the UK and, more obviously, elsewhere. But what the survey clearly fails to do is to differentiate between Muslims who incline toward a literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture and often lack an appreciation of the early history of Islam based on reliable evidence (most such Muslims are Sunni), and Muslims who interpret their scripture in other ways (e.g. metaphorically, selectively and/or with due regard for what is deemed morally acceptable today rather than in Saudi Arabia approximately fourteen centuries ago) and often evaluate the early history of Islam in the light of contemporary scholarship, whether such scholarship is Muslim or non-Muslim.

Luton

Luton

Let’s begin with what might be deemed some good news: the great majority of British Muslims feel very strongly or fairly strongly that they “belong” to Britain, and the great majority of British Muslims feel that, when in contact with service providers, in most instances they will be “treated the same as” members of other religious groups. These findings seem to suggest that most British Muslims feel integrated and that most people providing services to British citizens treat everyone equally/fairly.

I will now turn to some of the more controversial/contested findings in the survey. After each of the following statements, the percentage for Muslim respondents precedes the figure for non-Muslims. Where only one figure exists, the figure applies to Muslims alone:

I visit a non-Muslim home once a year (21%).

I never visit a non-Muslim home (21%).

As far as is possible, I want to lead a life separate from the non-Muslim community (17%).

I would prefer to send my child/children to a school with strong Muslim values (45%).

It is acceptable for Muslim men to have more than one wife (31%, 9%).

Women should always obey their husbands (39%, 5%).

Stoning is an acceptable punishment for adultery (5%).

Homosexuality should be legal (18%, 73%).

Homosexuality should be illegal (52%, 10%).

Jewish people have too much power in the UK (35%, 9%).

I sympathise with violence against those who mock the Prophet Muhammad (18%).

No one has the right to show a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (78%).

No one has the right to make fun of the Prophet Muhammad (87%).

I sympathise with the creation of a caliphate (7%).

In parts of the UK, I would like sharia to prevail rather than laws determined by Parliament (23%).

I have sympathy for people engaging in terrorism such as suicide bombing (4%, 1%).

If the statistics above reflect realities within the UK’s Muslim community (Channel 4 assumes that almost 3 million Muslims live in the UK), they throw some doubt on just how successfully Muslims have integrated in British society, and they throw into question how much sympathy they have for freedom of speech, gender equality and equality of opportunity irrespective of sexuality. They also suggest that anti-Semitism is more widespread among Muslims than among non-Muslims and that violence against those who challenge cherished aspects of Muslim identity is sometimes justified. Much is made of the “fact” that about 100,000 to 120,000 British Muslims appear to be in sympathy with people who engage in terrorism such as suicide bombing, but the survey also appears to suggest that 600,000 non-Muslims have similar sympathies! My instinctive reaction to the figures generated by this aspect of the survey is that they do not reflect reality – but many of the other figures do reflect reality, and some of the other figures are a far more accurate/reliable gauge of levels of support for extremism and/or terrorism among the UK’s Muslims.

Luton

Luton

Of interest is some of the information shared in the documentary that did not relate directly to the survey results themselves. For example, it would appear that no fewer than 85 sharia courts/councils already operate in the UK and that, in the way they function, they deny women equal rights with men (this is necessarily the case because sharia courts/councils function in a way that values more highly testimony deriving from men than from women).

Some statistics suggest that young Muslims may have more enlightened attitudes than elderly Muslims. For example, while 28% of Muslims aged 18 to 24 say homosexuality should be legal, only 2% of Muslims over 65 agree.

One worrying statistic is that only a third of Muslims would report to the police someone whom they knew might be involved in supporting terror in Syria or elsewhere. But it would appear that the non-Muslim population has a similar attitude toward people whom they knew might be involved in terror, which suggests all people are reluctant to inform on people they know, no matter the real or potential seriousness of their actions.

The documentary suggests that the more Muslims hanker after a separate existence within British society, the more likely it is that they will incline toward extremism and violence. There also appears to be a correlation between sympathy for extremism and violence and a lack of social belonging, a desire not to integrate, a desire for a fundamentalist Muslim lifestyle and a desire to impose sharia. Sympathy for extremism and violence also seems to correlate with a greater inclination toward illiberal views in relation to issues such as gender equality and gay rights.

Trevor Phillips offered few solutions to the problems the survey seems to reveal, but he said that some government policies were beneficial (e.g. challenging Muslim women’s isolation within mainstream society by ensuring they can speak English). He also said that it was necessary for the UK to “reassert the liberal values that have served us well for so long” and to “challenge the laissez-faire attitude of live and let live”, which has allowed de facto segregation and extremism to thrive within some Muslim communities. He briefly made a case for “active integration” rather than “live and let live”, which would require of those with the power and the influence to do so to intervene where de facto segregation or extremism prosper or are likely to prosper. Phillips suggested stopping “the number of schools segregated on the basis of religion and/or ethnicity from growing further” and of applying to institutions such as schools “comply or explain codes” that have proved successful in the EU to reform corporate behaviour.

An example of how “comply or explain codes” might work in relation to schools would be as follows. It could be required of schools to never admit more than 50% of children from a single religion or ethnic group (although how this would work in some overwhelmingly monocultural areas is not clear). If a school admitted more than 50% of children from a single religion or ethnic group, senior managers would have to explain why the situation had arisen and, if the explanation was unsatisfactory, the school would be compelled to conform with the more inclusive arrangement that the requirement sought to establish. Of course, quotas of this nature could also be applied to matters such as staff recruitment (e.g. to ensure there is a balance between men and women, to ensure that teachers of all faiths and none work together), or to ensure that the governing body reflects diversity in wider society.

It was not something that was dwelt on during the documentary itself, but, when the survey is taken as a whole, there is a strong suggestion that a significant number of British Muslims (25%? 33%?) are not in sympathy with the so-called fundamental “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of (secular) law and/or “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. Of course, British citizens who subscribe to worldviews, religious or otherwise, other than Islam are also not in sympathy with some/all of the values just listed, but we can say with confidence in numbers far fewer than is the case among British Muslims (this is confirmed in Kenan Malik’s article below).

I realise the survey is far from perfect and much more research is necessary to ascertain just how accurate the statistics are, but to some degree it confirms many of the worries that already exist about the UK’s Muslim community today. This said, I take comfort from the large number of Muslims who oppose stoning for adultery and the establishment of a caliphate. I also suspect that the survey does not do justice to the more progressive attitudes that prevail among most Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya Muslims as opposed to the less progressive attitudes that prevail among a majority of Sunni Muslims. It is the failure to account of the sectarian divisions among the UK’s Muslims that most worries me about the otherwise highly worthwhile exercise undertaken by Channel 4. Rather this degree of (relatively reliable) hard evidence than none at all.

Luton

Luton

Here is a (predictable) reaction to the documentary in “The Spectator”, politically a right-wing British magazine:

I think the general British public have known for some time what Phillips’s documentary professed to find surprising: that large numbers of Muslims don’t want to integrate, that their views aren’t remotely enlightened and that more than a few of them sympathise with terrorism. It’s only the establishment elite that has ever pretended otherwise.

“Everyone who has pinned their hopes on the rise of reforming and liberal British Muslim voices are in for a disappointment,” said Phillips. “These voices are nowhere near as numerous as they need to be to make an impact.”

Take those 85 sharia councils currently violating one of the most basic principles of English justice, equality before the law. Yes, we can cosily delude ourselves that they just deal with civil issues – marriage mainly – that can safely be regulated by religion. But can they? A Zurich professor called Elham Manea, herself a Muslim, has attended these councils and found them promoting a version of Islam as extreme as that practised in her native Yemen or by the Taliban, where women were treated as “minors in perpetual need of male guardianship”. How exactly does this accord with the legislation and practice of a country where men and women are supposed to have guaranteed equality?

Our solution up until now has been a kind of national cognitive dissonance – one where we all agree to pretend that Muslims are sweet, smiley and integrated, like lovely Nadiya from “Great British Bake Off”, and that her fellow Lutonians – the 7/7 suicide bombers – have, as the weasel phrase has it, “nothing to do with Islam”.

It’s not easy, though, and getting harder – as we saw on this week’s “The Island with Bear Grylls” (Channel 4, Mondays). I don’t doubt the producers were overjoyed when they managed to recruit their first Muslim castaway, Bradford body-builder Rizwan Shabir. But any hopes of a male Nadiya vanished this week when he quit, pleading an inability to cope with “living with women who are half-naked”.

I’ll leave the last word on this yawning cultural chasm to Noshaba Hussain, middle-aged former headmistress of Springfield Primary, one of the Trojan Horse schools in Birmingham. A nine-year-old pupil had asked why she wasn’t wearing a headscarf, declaring, “Only slags don’t cover their heads.” “This attitude is not acceptable in state schools in Britain,” observed Ms. Hussain.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

A far more insightful reaction derives from Kenan Malik’s website called “Pandaemonium” (I have made a few cosmetic changes to the text for reasons of clarity):

This is not the first poll to have shown the social conservatism of British Muslims. Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, for instance, conducted a series of surveys with YouGov on religion, politics and social and personal morality, the results of which were published in 2013… The poll showed that religious believers were more liberal on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and assisted dying than is usually recognised in public debates. The key exception, however, were Muslims, whom the poll found to be more socially conservative than most other religious groups.

But that was not the whole story of the poll. It also found that Muslims were more polarised on many social issues than other groups. For example, on abortion 20% of Muslims wanted to ban abortion altogether, a much higher figure than the general population, and higher than any other religious group.  At the same time, 12% of Muslims wanted to increase the time limit, twice the figure in the general population and higher than in any other religious group.  The ICM poll also shows some evidence of such polarisation, on a range of issues.

Given this polarisation, there is a possible methodological issue with the ICM poll. It polled Muslims only in areas where they made up more than 20% of the local population. According to the statistician Martin Boon, this covered 51.4% of the British Muslim population. Those who live in areas of high concentrations of Muslims could well be more socially and religiously conservative than Muslims who live in predominantly non-Muslim areas, and possibly less integrated. That said, the findings of this poll are not that different from previous ones.

The ICM poll is, as one might imagine, complex in what it reveals, and far more so than the headlines suggest.

On certain social issues – particularly homosexuality – there is considerable illberalism. Just 18% of Muslims think that homosexuality should be legal (compared to 73% of the general population), while 52% disagree. 28% would be happy to have gay teachers, while 48% would not (the figures for the general public are 75% and 14% respectively).

A large proportion of Muslims believe many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 35% thought “Jewish people have too much power in Britain”, 39% that they have too much power over the media and 44% that they have too much power in the business world (the figures for those that disagreed are 20%, 17% and 14% respectively). But when asked about what they thought of Jews personally, the picture changes dramatically. Respondents had to rate their feelings toward Jews on a scale from 0 to 100. The mean scores for Muslims and for the general population were similar (57.1 and 63.7). The mean score for Muslims’ feelings toward Jews (57.1) is little different to the mean score for the feelings of the general population toward Muslims (55.2). If we look at the proportion of the two samples that rated Jews between 0 and 50 (that is, rated them more negatively than positively), it is lower for Muslims than for the general population (39% to 52%). By that score, there appears to be more antipathy toward Jews within the general population than among Muslims.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Muslims do not appear to see Britain as a nation in thrall to Islamophobia. 73% thought that religious harassment of Muslims was not a problem. 82% had not faced harassment in the past two years and, of the 17% who had faced harassment, more than three-quarters reported it as verbal abuse. More Muslims (40%) think anti-Muslim prejudice has grown in the last five years than think it has decreased (14%). But the comparable figures for the general public are 61% and 7% respectively. Muslims, in other words, actually seem less concerned about the growth of anti-Muslim prejudice than the public at large.

7% of Muslims supported the idea of a caliphate and 3% supported the Islamic State (2% of the general population supported a caliphate and 1% backed the Islamic State). Far fewer Muslims could “understand why a British Muslim like Mohammed Emwazi would be attracted to radicalism” than members of the general public (13% compared to 27%).

“The Daily Express”, under the headline “Astonishing two in three British Muslims would not give terror tip-offs”, “The Times” and many other newspapers in Britain and abroad noted that only one in three Muslims would report to the police someone close who might be getting involved in terrorism. But what the reports failed to note was that a lower proportion of the public at large (30%) would contact the police given the same circumstances.  This is, in other words, not a Muslim problem, but a general reluctance among people to shop friends to the police, however heinous their potential crime.

What is difficult to argue from the figures is, as Trevor Phillips claims, that the social conservatism of Muslims is linked to a lack of integration. When asked, “How strongly do you feel you belong to Britain?”, 86% of Muslims said they belonged to Britain compared to 83% of the general population. A higher proportion of the general population (17%) than Muslims (11%) felt little attachment to Britain.

Respondents were asked how much integration they desired. 49% of Muslims said they would like “to fully integrate with non-Muslims in all aspects of life”, 29% wanted “to integrate on most things, but there should be separation in some areas, such as Islamic schooling and laws”, 12% chose “to integrate on some things, but I would prefer to lead a separate Islamic life as far as possible”, and 1% wanted a “fully separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to sharia law and government”. The figures reveal a desire for a degree of separation among half the Muslim population, but not a “nation within a nation”, as Phillips claims.

What the poll seems to show, as previous ones have, is a deep well of social conservatism, a more polarised community than one might imagine and a considerable attachment to Britain and to British identity. It shows issues that need confronting, but not necessarily as the headlines present them.

British Muslims seem more socially conservative than Muslims in some other Western countries. An Ifop poll of French Muslims and a Pew poll of US Muslims, for instance, both show more liberal views.

The Ifop poll found that 68% of observant Muslim women in France never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. 81% accept that women should have equal rights in divorce, 44% have no problem with the issue of co-habitation, 38% support the right to abortion and 31% approve of sex before marriage. The one issue on which French Muslims are deeply conservative is homosexuality: 77% of practising Muslims disapprove.

According to the Pew poll, US Muslims are much more liberal about homosexuality than co-religionists in Europe – 39% think homosexuality acceptable.

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

Over the past 25 years, people of most faiths in Britain have become more liberal on issues such as homosexuality and women’s rights. British Muslims, on the other hand, seem to have become more conservative on such social issues. I don’t have any proper data on this, but I speak largely from personal experience.

As I have observed many times, the views of today’s British Muslims are different from those of previous generations. The first generation of Muslims to this country were religious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or a niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally, when the “Friday feeling” took them. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.

The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. Religious organisations were barely visible. The organisations that bound together Asian communities were primarily secular, often political: the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and westernised than the first generation is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its difference.

The differences between attitudes among British, French and US Muslims may be the consequence of a number of factors. One such factor may be the difference in countries of origin and social status of migrants. British Muslims came largely from south Asia. French Muslims came primarily from North Africa and, unlike British Muslims, were largely secular. Even today, the majority of French Muslims do not describe themselves as practising Muslims. American Muslims tend to be more middle class than those in Britain or France.

A second difference is in social policy, in particular the development of multicultural policies in Britain that have helped create a more fragmented society. The  differences in Muslim attitudes in the different countries are likely to have been created by  a combination of these two, and possibly other, factors.

Much of the debate around the poll, and Phillips’ own commentary, has confused three issues: social conservatism, lack of integration and jihadism.

We should be rightly concerned with the degree of illiberal social attitudes within Muslim communities, especially as it was very different just a generation ago. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s what happens in a plural society.” We should combat illiberal attitudes, from whichever group, and support those struggling for a progressive future, including within Muslim communities. Too often liberals betray such progressives in the name of tolerance or pluralism. But holding illiberal views is not necessarily the same as failing to integrate – and this poll does not reveal a link between the two. 

We should also be concerned with the more fragmented nature of British society today, with people inhabiting their own identity silos, and with the lack of social contact between different groups (some evidence for this is provided in the poll). We should be concerned, too, with the growth of sectarianism within Muslim communities. There is a good argument to be made that silo-building has helped create the well of social conservatism within Muslim communities, and has encouraged sectarianism. The problem is not so much a lack of integration as the view, promulgated by many politicians and policy-makers, that it is through identity groups that such integration should take place. We need to challenge the social and multicultural policies that have, over the past three decades, helped entrench identity politics and encourage silo-building.

Also, there is the problem of jihadism, and of a section of Muslims being drawn toward Islamist views. As I have noted before, most studies show that Muslims are rarely drawn to jihadist groups because they already hold extremist religious views; rather, it is their involvement in jihadism that leads them to accept religious extremism as a justification for their acts.  As the former CIA operation officer, now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments, Marc Sageman, has put it, “At the time they joined, jihadi terrorists were not very religious. They only became religious once they joined the jihad.” This is why we need to rethink our ideas about radicalisation and how to combat it.

Illiberalism, lack of integration and jihadism are all urgent issues that need tackling. But we will not tackle any of them by drawing facile links between them.

Elazig, Turkey

Elazig, Turkey

Enough already. The Channel 4 survey into Muslim attitudes, although it has its problems, will prove worthwhile if commentary as perceptive as this by Kenan Malik is an outcome. But, as I have said on many occasions before, if problems of illiberalism, segregation and jihadism within the Muslim community are to be tackled constructively, there is only so much that the non-Muslim community can do. Solutions to the problems just listed lie ultimately with Muslims themselves, although non-Muslims with good intentions must lend their support to Muslims who seek to resolve such problems for the benefit of everyone.

Asad Shah is murdered for “disrespecting” Islam.

Below is the statement released by Tanveer Ahmed, of Toller in Bradford, explaining why he murdered Asad Shah in Glasgow on 24th March 2016 (I have left the punctuation, etc. errors as they appear in the original). In effect, the statement says that Asad Shah was murdered for “disrespecting” Islam:

This all happened for one reason and no other issues and no other intentions. Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. Mr. Shah claimed to be a prophet.

When 1,400 years ago the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him has clearly said that: “I am the final messenger of Allah there is no more prophets or messengers from God Allah after me.” It is mentioned in the Qur’an that there is no doubt in this book no one has the right to disrespect the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him and no one has the right to disrespect the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him.

If I had not done this others would and there would have been more killing and violence in the world.

I wish to make it clear that the incident was nothing at all to do with Christianity or any other religious beliefs even although I am a follower of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. I also love and respect Jesus Christ.

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

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

As we now know, Asad Shah was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. His “crime”, other than being a member of the Ahmadiyya community? Just before Easter, he offered Easter greetings “to my beloved Christian nation”. But what follows appears to be the more significant “crime”: the Ahmadiyya community faces persecution (most recently in Pakistan and Indonesia) and is treated with open hostility by many orthodox Muslims because its members do not subscribe to the orthodox Muslim belief that Muhammad is the final prophet (orthodox Islam teaches that Muhammad is “the seal of the prophets”).

By the way: I have not found anything said or written by Asad Shah to suggest that he “claimed to be a prophet”.

The thrust of this post is as follows: Tanveer Ahmed is not only a person whose actions are terrible, inexplicable and contemptible; he is someone who appears to possess very little reliable knowledge about Muhammad, the birth of Islam or early Islamic history. His knowledge of Muhammad, the birth of Islam and early Islamic history is predicated on wishful thinking conceived long after the events the wishful thinking purports to describe and/or explain. Many other Muslims – perhaps a majority of Muslims – suffer under the burden of similar wishful thinking, but, to their credit, they do not murder others because of it.

The idea that Muhammad is the final prophet is based only on words attributed to him and contained in books of scripture assembled long after he died (the Qur’an and the Hadith). Despite the idea having such unreliable foundations, it necessarily calls into question (from an orthodox Muslim perspective) the legitimacy of every expression of religion dating from after Muhammad’s death in 632CE (e.g. Sikhism, Mormonism and dozens of manifestations of Christianity and Islam predicated on the teachings of inspirational figures all too easily confused for prophets). I therefore wonder if Tanveer Ahmed also wants to kill all the world’s Sikhs, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to name but a “few” people who, for perfectly sound reasons similar to those Tanveer Ahmed no doubt attributes to the Ahmadis, cannot subscribe to the idea that Muhammad is “the seal of the prophets”. But more to the point, around the globe, how many Tanveer Ahmeds are there in mainstream Muslim communities (and in mainstream Sunni communities in particular)? And what are leaders in mainstream Muslim communities (and in Sunni communities in particular) doing to provide reliable and convincing evidence that Islam need not be a religion in which such prejudice, ignorance and unthinking conformity to aspects of religious faith encourage the Tanveer Ahmeds of the Muslim world to engage in the murder of innocent people?

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

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

In relation to the latter, leaders in mainstream Muslim communities are very reluctant to provide such evidence – but, to some degree, they cannot be blamed for this. Why? Because anyone within mainstream Muslim communities seeking to offer alternatives to the oppressive and/or violent narratives that lead directly to the persecution/expulsion/murder/genocide of non-Muslims and so-called “heretical” Muslims are immediately threatened with violent retaliation, death included (the names applied to such oppressive and/or violent narratives are many and include Islamist, Salafist, jihadist, Wahhabi and militant Deobandi. The proliferation of such names reflects how pervasive the narratives are within the Muslim umma and how widely they are endorsed). Moreover, as the murder of Asad Shah, the murder of other Ahmadis, the murder in the last two years of a large number of Yazidis and the level of support in Pakistan and elsewhere for Mumtaz Qadri confirm (Mumtaz Qadri was recently executed in Pakistan after murdering the governor of Punjab over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Thousands – millions? – of Sunni Muslims want Mumtaz Qadri recognised as a “martyr in the cause of Islam”), large numbers of mainstream Muslims (millions, without question) condone the spilling of innocent blood if they believe that Islam, Muhammad and/or Allah are being in any way “disrespected” (the vast majority of Muslims accuse the Yazidis of worshipping the devil. Although it is utter nonsense to suggest that the Yazidis worship the devil, the accusation is enough to qualify as “disrespecting” Allah and/or Islam). This is exceedingly worrying, not least because violent Muslim reaction inspired by anything thought to be “disrespecting” Islam, Muhammad and/or Allah stifles legitimate debate about the merits of Islam, the life of Muhammad and/or whether Allah exists or not (and, even if we assume that Allah exists, the fear of violent Muslim reaction stifles legitimate debate about what sort of god Allah appears to be).

Extremist Islam will never be defeated by military might alone. Nor will extremist Islam be defeated by non-Muslims such as myself flagging the innumerable ways in which Islam is predicated on myths about Muhammad, the origins of Islam and early Islamic history that are no longer sustainable, given the state of contemporary Muslim and non-Muslim scholarly knowledge and understanding. Extremist Islam will be defeated only when the vast majority of Muslims openly acknowledge that Islam is predicated on such unsustainable myths. Only then will Muslims in sufficient number be in a position to critically evaluate their foundational tenets of faith, their scripture and their early history in the same beneficial way in which the vast majority of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs, to name but the most obvious people of faith around the globe, evaluate theirs, with respect for the evidence deriving from detached, objective and unbiased scholarly knowledge and understanding.

I have lost count of the number of times in recent years that it has been alleged, primarily by Muslims themselves, that Muslims who incline toward extremism, violent or otherwise, are poorly educated about their religion and/or that they do not understand that Islam is a religion of peace which respects diversity of opinion and is underscored by compassion and forgiveness. This being the case, I urge Muslims with the power and the resources to do so to embark on a systematic global programme of education designed to ensure that all Muslims acquire the detached, objective and unbiased knowledge and understanding about Islam that is long overdue. Such an education will necessarily require critical engagement with the unsustainable myths about Muhammad, the origins of Islam and early Islamic history, myths that provide justification for the extremism that has blighted contemporary Islam for far too long. In the process, the vast majority of Muslims will then have the opportunity, just as the Ahmadi, the Alevi and most Sufi Muslims already do, to critically evaluate their scripture and early history in a detached, objective and unbiased manner. Such critical evaluation will allow the vast majority of Muslims to align themselves with passages in the Qur’an and the Hadith that are morally commendable (and/or that are relevant to the world as it currently exists) and to dissociate themselves from passages that are morally unacceptable (and/or that are irrelevant to the world as it currently exists). In other words, the vast majority of Muslims will be in a position to build an Islamic worldview predicted on all that is best about Muslim scripture rather than have to accept uncritically those passages that anyone of sound mind must regard as intolerable, especially in the contemporary era when, correctly, due emphasis is paid to concepts such as equality, inclusion, mutual respect for diversity of opinion and treating others as you would expect others to treat you.

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

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

There is no doubt that the study of Muslim scripture and early Islamic history allow people to conclude that Islam can be a religion of peace that respects diversity of opinion and is underscored by compassion and forgiveness, but such a reading has to be highly selective (but don’t forget: the extremists engage in a highly selective reading of the scripture and early Islamic history to establish the conditions in which girls, women, homosexuals, people with disabilities, non-Muslims and Muslim “heretics” suffer disadvantage, discrimination, persecution, enslavement and/or murder, the latter sometimes on a genocidal scale). Moreover, morally uplifting and life-affirming manifestations of Islam are today most likely to be encountered (as in the past) among groups such as the Ahmadis, the Alevis and many Sufi groups; sadly, mainstream Sunni and Shia groups are (as in the past) far less likely, through their actions rather than their words alone, to give expression to peace, compassion, forgiveness and mutual respect for people who subscribe to religions and beliefs that differ from theirs. If Muslims receive an education about their religion rather than mere indoctrination, the latter being so often the case at present, the admirable manifestations of the faith most evident today among the Ahmadis, the Alevis and most Sufi Muslims will also be evident among a majority of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims, thereby rendering extremism, violent or otherwise, far less common a phenomenon.

In other words, it is through such a process of education that Islam can experience the sort of transformation that it missed out on when religions such as Judaism and Christianity were confronted with the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment presented Jews and Christians with many challenges to their most cherished beliefs, but it did not lead to the demise of either religion; the Enlightenment merely convinced Jews and Christians that they had to adapt their beliefs (and, to some extent, their practices) to contemporary knowledge and understanding predicated on developments in science, philosophy, medicine, politics, the arts and changes in social structures brought about by, among other things, the mechanisation of agriculture and accelerating industrialisation. In other words, Judaism and Christianity had to adapt to modern realities, realities which included people who agitated in growing numbers for greater liberty, equality and the power to shape their own circumstances. Mainstream Islam, whether Sunni or Shia, also needs to adapt to modern realities. In so doing, it must respond constructively and sympathetically to the wishes of ordinary Muslims for greater liberty, equality and the power to shape their own destiny, whether individually or collectively.

But where would this leave the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Muslim extremists, violent or otherwise, most of whom subscribe to the idea that a perfect society existed when Muhammad led the slowly growing Muslim community in what is now Saudi Arabia (for many extremists, the desire to recreate the embryonic Muslim society led by Muhammad provides their motivation)? It would leave the extremists far more isolated and powerless within the umma than is presently the case, not least because their idea that there was once a perfect Muslim society ruled by Muhammad will be exposed as untrue. The idea will be exposed as untrue because the detached, objective and unbiased education about Islam that is required throughout the Muslim world will confirm that such a golden age is wholly fictitious, something confirmed by careful study of the content of the Qur’an itself, no less.

By the way, can you imagine the extremists sacrificing all the “goodies” that contemporary life provides, the sacrifice of such “goodies” being a necessary pre-requisite if that mythical golden age is to be created on our fragile and overcrowded planet? Muslim extremists seem to have an insatiable appetite for deadly modern weapons, the internet, easily accessible pornography, expensive mobile phones, violent interactive video games and carbonated drinks full of sugar, to list only a few things not available when Muhammad was alive. Muslim extremists are inspired by a golden age that never existed, but, if they ever created that golden age, they would hate it almost as much as everyone else on the planet.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

P.S. I am not suggesting that the only thing required to solve the problem of Islamic extremism is that all Muslims acquire an education about Islam. For example, Western nation states must conduct their foreign policies with more regard for legitimate Muslim concerns; more must be done to alleviate Muslim disadvantage and discrimination when Muslims in predominantly non-Muslim nation states suffer higher levels of unemployment, poverty, exclusion and prejudice than other groups in society; Muslim leaders and gatekeepers must do more to respect, value and empower Muslim girls, women, young adult males, gays and lesbians and people with disabilities; and the world of Islam must minimise rather than exaggerate the sectarian divisions that exist within the umma, such sectarian divisions having at the present time far more deadly consequences than in any other religion on the planet.

This said, it is inaccurate/fictitious knowledge that Muslims have about Islam and its early history which allow extremist narratives to prosper. Furthermore, I would argue that, if all Muslims understood their religion with greater respect for the facts as currently understood, immense benefits would result in relation to the issues just listed. Muslims would realise that the West often intervenes in Muslim nation states at the request of Muslims to improve conditions for Muslims. Problems associated with unemployment, poverty, exclusion and prejudice would reduce when most non-Muslims realise that Islam is an enlightened religion, and when the vast majority of Muslims subscribe to respect, tolerance, equality and inclusion for everyone, no matter their background or circumstances. The empowerment of marginalised Muslims within their own communities would grant Muslims a louder and more unified voice when negotiating for their rights. And the reduction and eventual eradication of sectarian tensions within the umma would make war in predominantly Muslim nation states (and murders such as that of Asad Shah anywhere) far less likely to occur.

Am I therefore suggesting that if Muslims acquire an education about Islam many of the problems Muslims currently face can be resolved, whether such problems are self-inflicted or imposed from without? Yes, most definitely. And a growing number of Muslims globally are openly expressing the need for such an education sooner rather than later.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Islamist Extremism and its links with the Deobandis.

The BBC has uncovered worrying links between Muslim extremists and mainstream Deobandi mosques in the UK. What follows are two articles from the BBC website that have been compressed into one. I have engaged in cosmetic surgery for reasons of clarity of expression, etc.

A BBC investigation has found that Sabir Ali, head of religious events at Glasgow Central Mosque, was president of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP). SSP is a political party now proscribed by the Home Office. Links to the group have also been made to Hafiz Abdul Hamid from the Polwarth Mosque in Edinburgh.

Glasgow Central Mosque said it would not remove Ali from his role until the links were proved. But it said it condemned terrorism of any kind. It is understood Ali denies the allegations. Hamid declined to comment.

The BBC has obtained evidence that both men continued to be involved with SSP after it was banned in the UK in 2001. It is not clear whether the two men are still involved.

SSP is a militant anti-Shia political party formed in Pakistan in the 1980s. The group and its armed off-shoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), have accepted responsibility for deadly sectarian attacks against Shia Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan. SSP has links to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and was banned by the Home Office in 2001, and in Pakistan one year later.

An official UK government document describes the group’s purpose: “The aim of both SSP and LeJ is to transform Pakistan by violent means into a Sunni state under the total control of sharia law. Another objective is to have all Shia declared kafirs (non-believers) and to participate in the destruction of other religions, notably Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism.”

The BBC has obtained copies of the group’s in-house magazine, Khalifat-e-Rashida, spanning the years both before and after its proscription. They show that both the men in Scotland used their mosques to hold events in SSP’s honour and further its teachings. And they show that, in the case of Polwarth Mosque in Edinburgh, financial support was provided to the group after it was banned. Donations from abroad are believed to be a key funding source for SSP.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Sabir Ali, also known as Chaudhry Sabir Ali, is a member of the executive committee at Glasgow Central Mosque – Scotland’s largest mosque – where Sunni Muslims of Pakistani origin are the largest group. He has held the position of Ishat-e-Islam, or leader of religious events, for a number of years, making him a key link between the imams and the mosque community. Documents obtained by the BBC list him as “President of SSP Scotland”.

In October 2003, after SSP was banned, an article in Khalifat-e-Rashida describes a memorial service at Glasgow Central Mosque for the former leader and co-founder of SSP, Azam Tariq, who had been assassinated in Pakistan that same month. At the meeting, the magazine says, Sabir Ali told those attending that Azam Tariq had “won the hearts of the Muslim world” and that “the enemies of Islam killed him” before vowing to continue his mission. That same year in July, SSP’s armed off-shoot, LeJ, admitted responsibility for an attack at a mosque which killed 50 Shia Muslims.

One month before the meeting, an article in the magazine carries an advert to commemorate the sister of Sabir Ali after her death in Pakistan. Sabir Ali is described as the “convenor of Ishat-e-Islam” at Glasgow Central Mosque.

According to the magazine, before his death in 2003, Azam Tariq had been hosted by Sabir Ali in Glasgow on a number of occasions, as had another SSP leader, Zia ur Rehman Farooqi.

Lawyer Aamer Anwar has called for reform at Glasgow Central Mosque. “These are very serious allegations,” he told the BBC. “There needs to be an investigation and the individuals concerned are entitled to due process. But the attitude almost seems to be that you can have a cut-off line, that if it’s in Pakistan it doesn’t really concern us over here, but it does. Even worse than that, is the impact on the community to be tagged with an organisation that regularly engages in murder and terrorism in Pakistan.”

A member of the mosque community, who did not wish to be named, told the BBC: “We have to do something. This is all unacceptable. This is un-Islamic – this is not the Islam I know, that I’ve been brought up with.”

It is understood Sabir Ali denies the allegations. In a statement, Glasgow Central Mosque said: “Islam is a faith of peace and we openly reject and condemn terrorism and extreme views of any kind. Glasgow is a proud beacon of how Muslim communities can engage with the wider society and the Central Mosque will continue to take a lead in promoting integration.”

Glasgow Central Mosque has recently been the subject of controversy. Last week the BBC and “The Herald” newspaper revealed that the lead imam at Glasgow Central Mosque, Habib ur Rehman, had praised Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed last month in Pakistan after murdering the governor of Punjab over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Imam Habib ur Rehman said his words had been taken out of context and that he was voicing his opposition to the death penalty.

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) is currently investigating the financial situation at the mosque after seven members of its executive committee resigned amid claims they had been threatened and intimidated by more conservative figures at the mosque. These claims were denied by those who were accused.

Anwar said: “There is no point preaching religious tolerance, talking about unity of the communities, condemning terrorist attacks, and then to be found that, privately, you are involved in supporting or showering praise on individuals who actually commit atrocities. Where extremism is exposed, we have to unequivocally condemn it.”

Hafiz Abdul Hamid is the founder and leader of Idara Taleem-ul-Qur’an Mosque in Edinburgh, often referred to as Polwarth Mosque. The documents obtained by the BBC list him as the leader of SSP in the UK in 2004.

In 1999, there was an attempt at the Court of Session in Edinburgh by other figures at the mosque to remove Hamid from his post. The judge found that he was the UK president of SSP, but that, as the organisation was legal in this country at the time, he could not remove him from the charity which runs the mosque.

The BBC can reveal that Hamid, who claims to have memorised the Qur’an, continued in his role and continued with his ties to SSP past the date that it was banned. In January 2004, he gave an interview to Khalifat-e-Rashida in which he says: “The party work should continue in all circumstances. However, we should try to get SSP restored so that the religious work can continue with the same zeal and fervour. This party will work for the political dominance of Islam.” His mosque also paid for a series of adverts in the magazine after the group was banned, and a November 2003 edition details a phone call in the mosque in which Azam Tariq’s brother Alam thanks the mosque for its financial support.

Hamid did not respond to numerous requests from the BBC for comment.

Ruined Armenian church, Eski Palu, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, Eski Palu, Turkey

SSP is part of the Deobandi movement, which espouses an orthodox interpretation of Islam and whose followers include the Taliban. Since its formation, the group has waged a campaign of sectarian violence in Pakistan attacking Muslims whom it considers to be heretics as well as non-Muslim religious minorities.

In 2013, SSP’s armed wing, LeJ, named after one of the organisation’s founders, claimed responsibility for a bombing targeting Shia Muslims in the Pakistani city of Quetta, which killed 100 people. The group is said to have killed hundreds of Shias in the country, mainly in the province of Punjab, where at the weekend a bombing attack on Christians celebrating Easter killed more than 70 people, including children. Christians have also been targeted by SSP in Punjab.

Masood Azhar, today the head of one of Pakistan’s most violent militant groups, was once the VIP guest of Britain’s leading Islamic scholars. Innes Bowen asks: “Why?”

When Azhar, one of the world’s most important jihadist leaders, landed at Heathrow airport on 6th August 1993, a group of Islamic scholars from Britain’s largest mosque network was there to welcome him. Within a few hours of his arrival, he was giving the Friday sermon at Madina Mosque in Clapton, east London. His speech on the duty of jihad apparently moved some of the congregation to tears. Next stop – according to a report of the jihadist leader’s own magazine – was a reception with a group of Islamic scholars where there was a long discussion on “jihad, its need, training and other related issues”.

Today, Azhar is wanted by the Indian authorities following an attack on the Pathankot military base in January this year. In 1993 he was chief organiser of the Pakistani jihadist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

A BBC investigation has uncovered the details of his tour in an archive of militant group magazines published in Urdu. The contents provide an astounding insight into the way in which hardcore jihadist ideology was promoted in some mainstream UK mosques in the early 1990s – and involved some of Britain’s most senior Islamic scholars. Azhar’s tour lasted a month and consisted of over 40 speeches.

According to an account of the visit, after a series of speeches at east London mosques, Azhar headed north. Zakariya Mosque in Dewsbury, Madina Masjid in Batley, Jamia Masjid in Blackburn and Jamia Masjid in Burnley were among the venues for his jihadi sermons in his first 10 days in Britain. Such was Azhar’s popularity in those northern towns that wherever he went he accumulated more scholars as part of his entourage.

The most surprising engagement of the tour was the speech Azhar gave at what is arguably Britain’s most important Islamic institution, a boarding school and seminary in Lancashire known as Darul Uloom Bury. It is also home to Britain’s most important Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Motala.

According to the report of the trip, Azhar addressed the students and teachers, telling them that a substantial proportion of the Qur’an had been devoted to “killing for the sake of Allah” and that a substantial volume of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad were on the issue of jihad.

By the time Azhar arrived at Darul Uloom Bury there could have been little doubt about his agenda. A few days earlier, several scholars from the seminary had attended the inauguration ceremony for the Jamia Islamia Mosque in Plaistow where Azhar spoke on “the divine promise of victory to those engaged in jihad”.

Recordings from the trip, uncovered by the BBC, give a flavour of the message at some of the venues. “The youth should prepare for jihad without any delay. They should get jihadist training from wherever they can. We are also ready to offer our services,” Azhar told one audience in a speech entitled “From jihad to jannat (paradise)”.

Ruined Armenian church, Eski Palu, Turkey

Ruined Greek church near Sebinkarahisar, Turkey

The story of Azhar’s trip to Britain does not fit the narrative promoted by Muslim community leaders and security experts alike. According to them, the spread of jihadist ideology in Britain had nothing to do with the UK’s mainly South Asian mosques. The source of all the trouble, they say, was a bunch of Arab Islamist exiles – the likes of Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammad. These Wahhabi preachers, who operated on the fringes of Muslim communities, certainly played an important role in radicalising elements of Britain’s Muslim youth. But it was Azhar, a Pakistani cleric, who was the first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist militancy in Britain – and it was through South Asian mosques belonging to the Deobandi movement that he did it.

The Deobandis control more than 40% of British mosques and provide most of the UK-based training for Islamic scholars. They trace their roots back to a Sunni Islamic seminary founded in Deoband in 19th century India. Today it is a diverse movement – the original seminary in India has issued a fatwa against terrorism – but some Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan have propagated jihadist ideology.

Among the congregations of many of Britain’s Deobandi mosques, knowledge of Azhar’s 1993 fundraising and recruitment tour is something of an open secret. But talking publicly about such events is not the Deobandi done thing. So, to the wider world, the details have remained a mystery – until now.

Azhar was 25 years-old when he was given the red carpet treatment by some of Britain’s Deobandis. His cause was the disputed territory of Kashmir. Azhar and other mujahideen leaders recast what had been a Pakistani-Indian nationalist struggle into a jihad of Muslims versus Hindus. In 1993, Al-Qaeda was yet to declare war on the citizens of the United States and its allies, but after it did, Azhar’s group became an affiliate.

The consequences of the British Deobandi link with Azhar became more obvious in December 1999. An Indian Airlines plane was hijacked and grounded at Kandahar in Afghanistan. The passengers were held hostage pending the release from an Indian prison of Azhar and two of his jihadist associates – one of whom was a 26 year-old student from London, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Saeed Sheikh had been jailed for kidnapping Western hostages in India. After the three men were released, Azhar founded his own militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Saeed Sheikh went on to be involved in the 2002 kidnap and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

One of the first recruits to Azhar’s new militant group was Mohammed Bilal from Birmingham. Bilal blew himself up outside an army barracks in Srinagar, killing six soldiers and three students in December 2000.

Ruined Greek church near Sebinkarahisar, Turkey

Ruined Greek church near Sebinkarahisar, Turkey

But there was another serious consequence of the Azhar connection – the training camp facilities and logistical support he provided to British Muslims willing to carry out attacks in the UK. Several UK-based plots including 7/7, 21/7 and the attempt in 2006 to smuggle liquid bomb-making substances onto transatlantic airlines are now thought to have been directed by Rashid Rauf, a man from Birmingham who married into Azhar’s family in Pakistan.

The views of Britain’s Deobandi congregations toward Azhar after his alliance with Al-Qaeda are not revealed in the archive of jihadist publications seen by the BBC. Did British support for him evaporate or just go underground?

One man with a rare combination of inside knowledge and a willingness to talk is Aimen Dean, a former member of Al-Qaeda. He was recruited by Britain’s intelligence services in 1998 after he started to have doubts about Osama bin Laden’s agenda. Dean maintained his links with Al-Qaeda in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan while working undercover for MI5 in Britain for eight years.

“Pre-9/11, there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan to the hilt,” Dean says. The Taliban, like Azhar, regard themselves as Deobandis.

Dean preached in many Deobandi mosques in the UK. “Even after 9/11, there were many mosques still stubborn in their support for the Taliban,” he says, “because of the Deobandi solidarity.” Dean did not make open calls for jihad from the pulpit. He would instead give a talk on an innocuous topic such as Islamic history. Through his speaking engagements, Dean came into contact with jihadist sympathisers who would invite him to gatherings in private homes.

Among the top-ranking Deobandis in Britain, one name appears in the publications of several different militant groups. The jihadist archive reveals that Manchester-based scholar Dr. Khalid Mehmood’s connections with Azhar pre-dated the 1993 UK tour. At the 1991 gathering in Pakistan of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Mehmood was among the speakers. He says he was there to discuss theological issues and in no way condoned acts of terrorism and violence.

As with other British Deobandi scholars, references to Mehmood disappeared from the pages of Azhar’s magazines well before 9/11. However, his name appears in the magazine of SSP, the militant group responsible for killing Shia Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan.

According to one report, when SSP’s leader Azam Tariq visited the UK in 1995, Mehmood spoke at the same events as him on a tour of Scotland. Mehmood says that he did not attend these events in their entirety and therefore could not know what was said by other speakers, Azam Tariq included.

The preface to the first volume of a pro-SSP history, published in 2000, is attributed to Mehmood. He says that his name has been used falsely. Despite the fact that SSP was banned in the UK in 2001, Mehmood addressed a conference in South Africa in December 2013 at which the head of SSP, Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, also spoke. Mehmood says he has always been involved with a public exchange of ideas, which inevitably means sharing a platform with those with whom one disagrees.

Mehmood’s name appears in the publications and conference programmes of Aalami Majlise Tahaffuze Khatme Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a sectarian group that campaigns against Islam’s minority Ahmadiyya sect. The literature published on the Pakistani website of AMTKN states that Ahmadis who refuse to convert to mainstream Sunni Islam are wajib al-qatl, which means deserving to die. AMTKN is a legal organisation in the UK, registered with the Charity Commission.

There appear to be connections between Azhar, SSP and AMTKN. The late leader of SSP, Azam Tariq, was a close associate of Azhar. Furthermore, some of those mentioned in the publications of SSP also appear to have been associated with AMTKN. A senior Deobandi scholar based in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Hafiz Makki, appears in the records of all three movements.

Britain’s most important Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Motala, was, according to the groups’ own publications, involved in both the forerunner to AMTKN and in SSP before it was banned.

What, though, does Motala now make of these groups and of Azhar’s jihadist message? In a handwritten note in Urdu, he said he had always hated such activities and had published his thoughts on the matter in a book: “During the last several decades, I have neither uttered Masood Azhar’s name in my speeches, even by mistake, nor mentioned his group, nor talked about any nihilistic terrorist action.”

Indeed, the ethos at his seminary in Bury appears to be far removed from the jihadist sermons of Azhar. An unannounced Ofsted inspection in January 2016 found that pupils had a deep understanding of “fundamental British values such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths”. It is a moderate approach which is in evidence elsewhere in Deobandi circles. At a fundraiser in London for a new Islamic seminary, a popular young preacher educated at Bury spoke respectfully of other faiths. A part-time academy for children run by young Deobandi graduates in London makes a point of adopting a non-sectarian approach and attracts non-Muslim children.

But the influence of Pakistan’s far right, religio-political movements is still deeply embedded in large parts of the Deobandi network in Britain. There are many moderates among the faithful, but they often have little institutional power. The struggle to gain influence seems to be particularly difficult outside London.

Ruined Armenian church, Mazgirt, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, Mazgirt, Turkey

When the BBC recently revealed that a senior member of the management committee of  Glasgow Central Mosque had been an office bearer in SSP, he was not required by the mosque management to resign.

One member of the Glasgow Central Mosque told us that, appalled as he was by the revelations, he was worried that speaking publicly would put him and his family in danger. His fears were prompted by the resignations that followed intimidation of a new, moderate management committee elected by the congregation. In the Midlands, one practising Deobandi Muslim told me he had been threatened with excommunication and violence for raising concerns about, among other issues, the propagation of sectarian hatred. A niqab-wearing Deobandi woman told a similar story about her attempts to encourage more positive attitudes to other faiths. These religious conservatives, being visibly Muslim, face prejudice from a non-Muslim population concerned about terrorists. But they pay a price for opposing the extremism in their midst. In all three cases, the word “mafia” was used to describe those who had sought to intimidate them.

“Everyone who is working for a just, decent society should contribute in any way they can to tackle these issues,” says one. “It might have been politically incorrect to take on the mosques, but these things should be exposed.”

The Qur’an: the uncorrupted word of God/Allah (one)?

The last month (March 2016) has not been a good time for people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who believe that Islam is a force for good in the world. Islamist/jihadist extremists have murdered over thirty people in Brussels; the Taliban in Pakistan (or a group that has broken away from the Taliban in Pakistan) has claimed responsibility for murdering over seventy people in Lahore, many of whom were Christian women and children gathered in a park to celebrate Easter; the civil war continues in Syria with most deaths and most destruction of buildings, etc. the direct responsibility of Muslims supporting or opposing the Assad regime; Islamic State militants have been driven from Palmyra (where, in the ancient city, they destroyed two temples, some arches and a few unusual tombs, and where, in the museum, they trashed hundreds of important artefacts of great age including unique examples of elaborately carved stone), but not before they rounded up many local people whom they forced to relocate to territory still under Islamic State control; Asad Shah, a Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow, has been stabbed to death by a fellow Muslim (during the attack, Shah may have been stamped on the head by his killer), in all likelihood because he posted on social media a message that in part read, “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation”; protests have taken place in Pakistan following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who shot and killed the Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, in 2011 because Taseer advocated reform of Pakistan’s contemptible blasphemy laws (Qadri is regarded by Pakistan’s “conservative Muslims” as someone who rightfully “defended the honour of Islam”); and female genital mutilation, honour-based violence and forced marriage are more likely to occur in Muslim communities than any other communities globally.

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

Because many of the crimes, practices and/or dispositions of mind above are directly or indirectly attributable to passages contained in the Qur’an, a book which mainstream Muslims are encouraged to regard as the uncorrupted word of God/Allah that humankind must conform with at all times and in all circumstances (Muslims must conform with its content because, for Sunni Muslims at least, the Qur’an IS the uncorrupted word of God/Allah), it is right to subject to scrutiny the claim that the Qur’an IS the uncorrupted word of God/Allah. As you can imagine, the claim has inspired debate among Muslims and non-Muslims for a long time, despite the risks involved when subjecting to scrutiny such a fundamental tenet of mainstream (Sunni?) Islam (many Muslims and non-Muslims who have questioned whether the Qur’an is the uncorrupted word of God/Allah have suffered everything from vilification on social media to murder at the hands of extremist Muslims), but, perhaps for the first time ever, the slow accumulation of reliable evidence allows everyone, no matter their background, to approach the question in a more informed and dispassionate manner.

In the first of three posts about the matter, I present what might be called the official/ mainstream view in relation to the question. Below, in an article easily accessed on the internet (I have made a few cosmetic amendments to enhance clarity of expression, etc.), Dr. Mohammad Shafi explains how the Qur’an was revealed and compiled. As the article unfolds, I urge everyone to consider whether it is possible for mere humans, the prophet Muhammad included, to have conveyed to others precisely what God/Allah is alleged to have said to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-two or twenty-three years. Put another way, given the large number of people involved in agreeing the content of the Qur’an that Muslims use today, and given the length of time between the first revelation and when the world of official/mainstream (Sunni?) Islam alleges authenticated copies of the Qur’an were issued to the rapidly growing Muslim community, how is it possible for the Qur’an to be the uncorrupted word of God/Allah?

A word of advice: every so often in the article you will find brackets. Within some of the brackets are my insertions where a comment/reflection/warning about what Dr. Shafi writes cannot go unacknowledged. Respect for objectivity/critical detachment necessitates such interventions.

Near Hizan, Turkey

Near Hizan, Turkey

The Qur’an – how it was revealed and compiled. Dr. Mohammad Shafi.

“Qur’an” means “reading” or “recitation”. However, the word has specifically come to mean the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an is the foundational book of Muslims and, in fact, of the Arabic language (!?!). Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the complete and authentic record of the original revelations, claimed by the Prophet to be the literal word of God, and was organised in its current form by the direct instructions of the Prophet himself (below, there are indications that the latter is not the case). They believe that no one has the authority to alter the Qur’an since every word in the Qur’an is the literal word of God.

Over the ages the Qur’an has been translated into dozens of languages, but only the Arabic text is considered the authentic Qur’an. There is complete agreement on a single text of this Arabic Qur’an by Muslims of all schools of law, of all theological and philosophical leanings, and of all ethnicities and nationalities (?!? Such “complete agreement” among Muslims does NOT exist). Notwithstanding a few detractors, the majority of non-Muslim scholars also agree that the current Qur’an is a faithful record of what the Prophet claimed to be the revelations to him from God, as they existed at the time of the Prophet’s death (?!? This claim, if ever reliable, is no longer sustainable, as later posts devoted to the matter will confirm).

The Qur’an is also memorised by hundreds of thousands of people and read by Muslims on all occasions; it is, perhaps, read by more people on a constant basis than any other book in human history. The Qur’an, therefore, continues to be a book as well as a recitation. The two traditions reinforce each other and assure the protection of the integrity of the Qur’an and the failure of all attempts at altering or corrupting it.

The Qur’an is organised in 114 chapters called Surahs which contain 6237 Ayahs (verses or signs) of various lengths. More than three-fourths (86 out of 114) of the Surahs were revealed during the 13 years of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah; the remaining 28 were revealed during the entire 10 years of his life in Madinah. The Surahs are foundational divisions. For the convenience of reading the book in a month, it is divided into 30 equal parts (each called a Juz), and, for reading it in a week, it is divided into 7 equal parts (each called a Manzil). It is said that the Makkah Surahs primary deal with the basics of the belief system and the Madinah Surahs are about the practice of faith. This, at best, is an oversimplification.

This may be a good place to dispel some common misconceptions about the arrangement of the Qur’an. It is often said that the order of the Qur’an is roughly in decreasing order of the size of the Surahs (except the first). It is true that most of the longest Surahs are at the beginning and most of the shortest are at the end. The longest Surah is the second one and has 286 Ayahs, and the shortest (103, 108 and 110) are toward the end and have 3 Ayahs each. But, beyond this general observation, one can easily demonstrate a lack of order by size of the Surahs. After the 5th Surah, the order by size breaks down. For example, the 6th Surah (with 165 Ayahs) is shorter, and not longer, than the 7th (with 206 Ayahs); the 8th (with 75 Ayahs) is shorter than the 9th (with 149 Ayahs); and the 15th (with 99 Ayahs) is shorter than the 16th (with 148 Ayahs). The reverse can be shown at the end of the Book. Surah 95 (with 8 Ayahs) is shorter, not longer, than Surah 96 (with 19 Ayahs) and Surah 103 (with 3 Ayahs) is shorter than Surah 104 (with 9 Ayahs).

It is also often stated that the Surahs are arranged in a reverse chronological order of the revelation. If this were true, Surah 9 would be Surah 1 or 2, and all the beginning Surahs would be from Madinah and all those at the end would be from Makkah. But this is not the case. Seven of the first 20 Surahs are from the Makkah period and three of the last 20 Surahs (98, 99 and 110) are from the Madinah period.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

In contrast with the above-mentioned speculations, Muslims believe that the arrangement of the Qur’an was determined by the Prophet himself, under guidance from God. They see in this arrangement a coherence that is suitable for all people and for all times to come.

The Qur’an deals with Divine nature, God’s intervention in history and spiritual lessons learned from observation of nature, from life and from history. It deals with major themes which are often illustrated with bits of relevant stories of previous prophets and of bygone cultures, kingdoms and empires. All of these themes are interwoven throughout the Qur’an, although, naturally, some Surahs deal more with matters of faith and others with matters related to living a good life. There is emphasis on regular prescribed prayers, on constant supplications, on deep self-evaluation, on regular fasting, on pilgrimage to the holy sites related to the origins of the worship of one God, on specific rules related to equity in inheritance (?!?), on constant charity, and on social justice for all irrespective of social status (?!?). Specifics and details of much of these are left to the Prophet to develop and demonstrate by practice. Beyond that, the Qur’an does not dwell much on matters of ritual per se or on laws and procedures.

The emphasis of the Qur’an can be seen from the names it uses for itself. Some of these names are: Al-Huda (The Guidance), Al-Dhikr (The Reminder), Al-Furqan (The Criterion – for judging right from wrong), Al-Shifa (The Healing), Al-Mau`iza (The Admonition), Al-Rahmah (The Mercy), Al-Nur (The Light), Al-Haqq (The Truth) and Al-Burhaan (The Clear Argument). It does not call itself a book of law, of science or of procedural prescriptions. Only about 500 to 600 Ayahs are related to rules and regulations and less than 100 of these can be directly implemented through legislation. One needs the extensive Hadith literature and elaborate legal processes to derive legal rules and get them to a level where implementation issues can be discussed.

The first revelation came to Mohammad when he was 40 years old and was on one of his customary retreats in the cave of Hira in the hills outside Makkah. It was one of the odd nights during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan. According to the reports recorded in the authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, an angelic presence appeared before the perplexed Mohammad and said to him, “Iqra (“read” or “recite”. The word has an ambiguous meaning).” Mohammad replied that he could not recite or did not know what to recite. After the instructions to read or recite were repeated two more times, Mohammad reported that the angelic presence held him and squeezed him so tightly that he felt that his breath was leaving his body. The angelic presence then instructed him to recite with him the words that are now recorded as the first 5 Ayahs of the 96th Surah, Al-Qalam, (The Pen):

Read (or recite) in the name of your Lord who created (and continues to create); created humankind from a clot of congealed blood. Read and your Lord is The Most Generous; who taught by the pen; taught humankind what it did not know.

These are the first words of the revelation that take Mohammad from an unassuming but generous and trusted member of his city to become Mohammad the Messenger of God, Al-Rasool Allah. A man with no worldly ambitions, and unknown for eloquence and speech, becomes the most eloquent and persistent critic of his society. He becomes a passionate advocate for reform based on the worship of one God and insisting on dignity, equality and justice for the slaves, the poor and the female (!?! It is ironic that Muhammad should be seen as “a persistent critic of his society” and “a passionate advocate for reform… insisting on dignity, equality and justice for the slaves, the poor and the female” because, today, Islam is often used by Muslims to stifle criticism and to ensure that slaves, the poor and women are denied dignity, equality and justice).

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

The experience of this first revelation shakes Mohammad and stuns him. He hurries to his wife Khadijah and asks her to cover him with a blanket. When he recovers his composure, he relates to her the story of his experience. He is concerned that he may be hallucinating or loosing his mind. She assures him that he is a very balanced person and that his experience must have some supernatural explanation. She suggests that they go to visit one her old relatives known for knowledge of previous scriptures. Her relative, Waraqa ibn Naufal, tells Mohammad that his experience resembles that of Moses and the other prophets. He suggests that Mohammad has been chosen as a messenger by God. He warns Mohammad that the people will oppose him as they opposed the prophets before him.

An interval of several months passes after the above revelation. The Prophet is wrapped up in a blanket, feeling despondent and afraid of having been removed by God from his mission. This is when the revelation of Ayahs 1 through 7 of the 74th Surah Al-Moddaththir, (The One Wrapped), occurs:

O you wrapped up (in your cloak), arise and deliver the warning. And proclaim the glory of your Lord. And purify and cleanse your garments. And shun all idolatry and filth. And do no favours, expecting gain in return. And for the sake of your Lord, be patient and constant.

Further revelations come over the remaining 13 years of the Prophet’s life in Makkah and 10 years in Madinah. By the time of his death, the revelations comprised of 114 Surahs. The last of these is Al-Taubah, now numbered the 9th. But the last words of the revelation are said to be in the third Ayah of Surah 5, Al-Ma’idah:

Today I have completed for you your religion, fulfilled upon you My favours, and approved for you Al-Islam as your religion.

The revelations were recorded contemporaneously by one of the scribes appointed by the Prophet for this purpose. After every revelation, the Prophet would come out to the public (unless he was already outside) and recite to the people the new verses. He would also instruct one of the scribes to write it down. According to authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, he would tell them where the new revelation was to be positioned in relation to previous revelations. The scribes would write on whatever material was available at the moment. Thus the writing medium ranged from a stone, the leaf of a palm tree, the shoulder bone of a camel, the membrane on the inside of a deerskin, a parchment or a papyrus. These writings were stored in a corner of the Prophet’s room and later, perhaps, in a separate room or office near the Prophet’s room.

It should be mentioned that while Al-Qur’an means “the recitation”, it also calls itself “The Book”. The root word for book, k-t-b, occurs in the Qur’an more than 300 times. The word and concept of Surah is also in the Qur’an, and so is the word Ayah.

The Makkans, being a merchant society, had a large pool of those who could read and write. There were as many as 11 scribes during the early part of the Madinah period also. The most prominent of these was an elderly gentleman, named Ubayy ibn Ka`b. The Prophet was then introduced to an energetic teenager named Zayd ibn Thabit. Zayd was eager to learn and was placed directly under the Prophet’s supervision. After he had accomplished his initial assignments in record time, the Prophet made him in charge of the qur’anic record. Zayd became the principal scribe, organiser and keeper of the record.

Hundreds of people memorised the Qur’an and many wrote down what they had learned. But keeping up with the new revelations and the changing arrangement of the Ayahs in the Surahs was not possible except for a few. To keep up, hundreds of people (no doubt all male) regularly reviewed the Qur’an they knew. Many did this under the Prophet’s own guidance. Others did it under the supervision of teachers designated by the Prophet. Those from remote areas, who had visited only once or occasionally, may not have kept up. Some, who wrote what they had learned, may not have inserted the new revelations in the manner prescribed by the Prophet (an interesting and enlightening paragraph).

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The Prophet was meticulous about the integrity of the Qur’an. He constantly recited, in public, the Surahs as they were arranged at the time. It is reported that angel Gabriel reviewed the entire Qur’an with the Prophet once a year during the month of Ramadan. This review was done twice during the last year of the Prophet’s life. And Zayd maintained the records faithfully, kept them properly indexed and made sure they were complete according to the Prophet’s instructions (is there reliable evidence to support this very important claim?).

At the time of the Prophet’s death, Zayd had a complete record of all the revelations except the last two Ayahs of Surah 9, the Al-Taubah. The Prophet used to indicate the completion of a Surah by instructing that the sentence, “(I begin) In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” be written at its beginning. This wording at the beginning of each Surah became both a separator from other Surahs and an indication that the Surah was now complete. This formulation is missing from the 9th Surah, indicating that no one wanted to add anything to the Qur’an that the Prophet had himself not ordered, even if it seemed logical to do so.

After the Prophet’s death, the community chose Abu Bakr as its temporal chief, the Khalifah of the Messenger, the Caliph. About a year later, a large number of those known as authoritative memorisers were killed in a battle (this “fact” is an important one). According to authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, Umar ibn al-Khattab (who became the second Caliph) was alarmed by this and concerned that the next generation may not have enough teachers of the Qur’an. He therefore approached Abu Bakr and suggested that a formal compilation of the Qur’an be prepared on materials that would be convenient to store, maintain and use as a reference. According to the Hadith literature, Abu Bakr was reluctant to do something the Prophet himself had not undertaken. After a few days, however, he “became inclined” to the idea and asked Zayd to undertake the task. Zayd said he also hesitated, but, after contemplation, also “became inclined” and agreed to undertake the work. A committee was formed to do the job. The committee compiled a collection by checking and double-checking each Ayah of the existing record of the Qur’an with the memories of each member of the committee as well as of other prominent experts (did this process lead to amendments to the existing “record of the Qur’an”? Sadly, we are not told. It is highly likely that it did, of course). This copy was housed with Hafsa, one of the Prophet’s wives (Hafsa was a daughter of Umar ibn al-Khattab).

By the time of the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, the Muslim population had spread over vast areas outside the core Arab regions and many people of other cultures were entering Islam. About 15 years after the first compilation, therefore, it was suggested that authenticated copies of the Qur’an be made available to major population centres in those areas. Zayd again was instructed to undertake the task. He again formed a committee. Instead of just making copies of the existing text, it was decided to seek corroboration of each Ayah in the earlier compilation with at least two other written records in the private copies in the possession of known reputable individuals (did this task lead to further amendments to the qur’anic text? It is highly likely that it did, of course). It is reported that this comparison was successful for all Ayahs except one. For this Ayah, only one comparison could be found. But it was in the hands of a person who was considered so reliable by the Prophet himself that his lone testimony was accepted by the Prophet in a case requiring two witnesses. It is reported that 7 copies of the collection were prepared and authenticated. One of these copies was given to the Caliph himself. One became the reference copy for the people of Madinah, one was sent to Makkah, one was sent to Kufah and one was sent to Damascus (where the other copies went is not revealed/known).

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

We should mention that the committee, while doing its work, confirmed the general observation that all private copies were incomplete, some were out of sequence, some were in tribal dialects other than the standard Quraish dialect and many had marginal notes inserted by the owners (which suggests that many compromises had to be made when deciding on the content of the officially endorsed Qur’an. In many respects, therefore, the content of the officially endorsed text must have been very different to how Muhammad intended it to be). The committee members expressed concern that as time passes the context of these deficiencies will be lost. These partial copies may get into public circulation after the death of the owners of these records and become a source of schisms and create confusion. They therefore recommended that all such copies be destroyed. The Caliph issued orders to this effect, but did not put in place any mechanisms for enforcing the orders. There is sufficient evidence that some people kept their copies and some were used by mischief-makers to create controversies that did not succeed (this would seem to confirm that alternative versions of the Qur’an survived production and circulation of the officially endorsed copy of the text. This is something that will be examined in more detail in a future post devoted to the origins of the Qur’an).

The authentic copies of the Qur’an are known as the Uthmani text. This text, however, did not have the short vowels that are even today left out of Arabic text used by those who know the language. In the absence of the short vowels, however, those not well versed in the language can make serious mistakes. These vowels were, therefore, inserted about 60 years later under instructions of the governor of Kufa, Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf (in other words, the Qur’an was amended yet again, on this occasion to clarify the vowels that should be used to render the text more accessible/less ambiguous).

A footnote regarding required qualifications for interpreting the Qur’an.

The Qur’an, being considered the literal word of God (by Sunni Muslims, at least), is taken very seriously by Muslims. It is not enough to just study the Arabic language to interpret the Qur’an. Muslims have agreed (?!?) over the centuries that one must be well-versed in the following before one is considered qualified to offer a credible opinion. You must have:

Mastery of classical Arabic (the Arabic of the Quraish at the time of the Prophet).
Mastery of the entire book (“The Qur’an explains the Qur’an”).
A thorough knowledge of Hadith literature (the Prophet’s interpretation is binding and those around him understood it better than the later generations).
A deep knowledge of the life of the
Prophet and of the first community (no interpretation is valid that ignores the original context).
A commanding knowledge of the exegetical notes and writings of the early Muslim scholars and of the traditions of the early Muslim communities.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

P.S. Above is a lengthy article explaining in very precise detail what Muslims are encouraged to believe about how the Qur’an came into existence. The content of the article can be interpreted as the official/mainstream (Sunni?) Muslim understanding of how (and why) we possess the Qur’an today. It goes without saying: even with all the “evidence” above, anyone assessing it objectively is forced to conclude the following. First, whatever one may believe about the angel Gabriel’s role in transmitting the revelations from God/Allah to Muhammad, the Qur’an as it currently exists is the product of many interventions by Muslims (all of whom were male?) over an extended period of time. Second, such Muslims relied on texts deriving from many sources to work out (guess?) what were and were not genuine/accurate revelations deriving from God/Allah. Third, such Muslims relied on texts of the Qur’an that often differed one from the other, and on evidence from Muhammad’s close companions and, later, people who had never met him, to work out (guess?) the order that the prophet wanted the revelations arranged. Fourth, common sense therefore dictates that, in situations such as the ones just identified in which human error is so easy to imagine, it is impossible to conclude that the Qur’an as it currently exists is, in every respect, precisely how Muhammad intended it to be just before he died. Last, given the official/mainstream (Sunni?) Muslim explanation for how the Qur’an came into existence, common sense also dictates that there are therefore no convincing reasons to believe that the Qur’an is the perfect and uncorrupted word of God/Allah.

P.P.S. I apologise for repeating some ideas immediately above, but what follows is of considerable importance. Given how Muslims (Sunni Muslims, at least) insist the Qur’an came into existence, one has to ask, “How is it possible to sustain the idea that the Qur’an is the perfect word of God devoid of additions, amendments or deletions undertaken by humankind?” Also, just as the official/mainstream Muslim view of how the Qur’an came into being confirms how unlikely it is that copies of the Qur’an which exist today are exactly as Muhammad intended them to be at the time he died (how can they possibly be inerrant, therefore?), the footnote above suggests that almost no one today has the knowledge, understanding and/or skills to engage with the Qur’an and fully understand it. Put another way, almost no one today is in a position to interpret the Qur’an accurately. Perhaps for this reason above all others, the Qur’an should therefore be regarded simply as a book of literature offering us interesting insights into how society functioned in the Arabian Peninsula just over 1400 years ago. Perhaps even better, especially given the harm it does when people interpret it badly, the Qur’an should be ignored altogether, other than by scholars and/or those who can engage with scripture with the unbiased, critical detachment it necessarily requires.

Of course, at no time soon will the Qur’an be regarded in the ways recommended above; it will continue to be used and abused by Muslims to shape their understanding of what it means to be devout and to determine what it means to lead a distinctively Muslim lifestyle. This therefore means that much work must be undertaken by Muslims to separate from within the Qur’an those aspects of the text that are morally admirable and those aspects of the text that encourage morally repellent behaviour. In reality, of course, a lot of this work has already been completed by Muslims around the world (one need look no further than the work of some “liberal/modernist” Sunni and Shia scholars and many Sufi, Ahmadiyya and Alevi Muslims), but a majority of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims appear reluctant to engage constructively with the enlightening and enlightened ideas that derive from such people within the global Umma.

P.P.P.S. It has now been revealed that Asad Shah was an Ahmadiyya Muslim. His murder therefore has a sectarian dimension to it.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Islamist Extremism: does the problem lie with the Qur’an or with Muslim ignorance about reality itself?

Muslim and non-Muslim scholars agree that the Qur’an contains over 100 verses that urge Muslims to engage in war with non-believers/infidels, etc. for the sake of Islamic rule, or that examine what those who engage in such war (the lesser jihad, the violent jihad against real or imagined enemies) can expect once dead (however, some Muslim scholars insist that over 160 qur’anic verses relate to jihad alone, but the verses address the greater as well as the lesser jihad, the former relating to the perfection of the individual through the suppression of immoral thoughts and actions and the cultivation of moral thoughts and actions). 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 war are called “hypocrites” and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not assist with the massacres.

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Unlike nearly all the Torah/Old Testament verses about violence, many verses about violence in the Qur’an are open-ended, which means that their relevance is not confined to the time that gave them birth. They are part of the eternal, unchanging word and expectation of Allah.

However, some of the violent passages are 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 will be obeyed or ignored.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Unfortunately, there are very few qur’anic verses about peace or respect and tolerance for diversity to abrogate or balance out the many verses that call for non-believers, etc. to be fought and subdued until they accept humiliation, convert to Islam or are killed (even Muslims struggle to identify more than about 20 such verses. Moreover, most such verses relate to peace existing where Islam prevails as the sole or dominant religion rather than to, say, unconditional tolerance and respect for people subscribing to “other” religions and beliefs no matter where such people live). Muhammad’s own martial legacy and that of his companions, combined with the emphasis in the Qur’an on obedience and the use of force and violence, 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 recent (November 2015) Channel 4 documentary entitled “ISIS: the British women supporters unveiled”, and reports deriving from Muslims and non-Muslims alike after attending meetings led by Muslims of a moderate disposition, debate and discussion among Muslims at the present time generally takes one of two forms. On the one hand, Muslims of a moderate/peaceful disposition allege that those who engage in terror and/or the indiscriminate murder of innocent people are not “true” or “real” Muslims (they ARE “true” or “real” Muslims, of course, but Muslims that most Muslims would prefer to distance themselves from) and/or that 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 Islamic scripture 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 his/her confessional group.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Thus, in the documentary identified above, 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 while ignoring that far more Muslims/Palestinians have been murdered by Muslims than by Israelis and/or Jewish people (and no one in her audience corrects her. 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 250,000 Syrians who have lost their lives have done so 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 killing that frequently claim victims in their hundreds). The woman is also heard condemning the “crusader armies” of the West that “invade” Muslim lands when Muslims themselves often demand that the West intervenes to stop one group of Muslims butchering another, or when intervention by the West is necessary to safeguard non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) from genocide at the hands of Muslims (the Yazidis had to be safeguarded from Sunni Muslims with genocidal intent). Moreover, while the “crusader armies” of the West never demand of local Muslims or others that they convert to Christianity, Muslims frequently demand that non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) convert to Islam if they want to avoid death.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

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 while 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 law 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 life 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. Imperfect though they may sometimes be, legal codes predicated on humankind’s exercise of open-ended discussion, informed debate, 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.