Tag Archives: Pakistan

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.

Muslim sectarian divisions inhibit purposeful interfaith dialogue.

The article below appeared in “The Guardian” newspaper on 18th April (2016). It is impossible to feel other than a mixture of sadness and shock (perhaps even contempt) because of the failure of the Glasgow Central Mosque and the Muslim Council of Scotland to send representatives to the launch of the anti-extremism campaign organised following the brutal and senseless murder of Asad Shah. Equally, it is impossible to draw any conclusion other than that many people associated with the Glasgow Central Mosque and the Muslim Council of Scotland have sympathy for the Muslim male who murdered Asad Shah and contempt for the anti-extremism campaign that the murder has triggered.

To more fully appreciate the implications of the content of the article below, please examine the posts on this blog entitled “Asad Shah is murdered for ‘disrespecting’ Islam”, “Islamist Extremism and its links with the Deobandis”, “Islamist Extremism” and “Challenging stereotypes of a warlike/extremist/intolerant Islam: the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community”.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Ahmadi Muslims in Scotland have launched an anti-extremism campaign following the death of the Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah, despite the failure of other prominent Muslims to attend the event.

Representatives of the Glasgow Central Mosque and the Muslim Council of Scotland were invited to attend the launch alongside other faith groups, but “The Guardian” understands that both sent their apologies at the last minute.

Shah, who lived in the multicultural Shawlands area of Glasgow, was fatally stabbed outside his newsagents on 24th March.

Shah was an Ahmadi, a member of a minority sect of Islam that faces persecution and violence in countries such as Pakistan and is treated with open hostility by many orthodox Muslims in the UK because it differs from their belief that Muhammad is the final prophet sent to guide humankind.

The man charged with Shah’s murder is also a Muslim and recently released a statement through his lawyer saying the killing was justified because Shah had “disrespected” Islam.

As part of the United Against Extremism campaign, posters sponsored by the Ahmadi community will be displayed on buses in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee for two weeks.

The event’s organiser, Ahmed Owusu-Konadu, said, “We are undertaking this campaign as part of our stand on the rejection of all forms of extremism and as a message of solidarity with all who have been its victims, including Asad Shah and others in Paris, Turkey, Brussels, Pakistan and Nigeria.”

Abdul Abid, president of the Ahmadiyya community in Scotland, admitted he was disappointed that other Muslim leaders had not attended the launch. Representatives of Glasgow’s Sikh and Jewish communities and the Church of Scotland’s inter-faith group were all present, alongside local politicians, representatives of Police Scotland and Glasgow’s lord provost.

Independent of the murder investigation, Police Scotland is investigating alleged links between the head of religious events at Glasgow Central Mosque and a banned sectarian group in Pakistan. A recent BBC investigation claimed that Sabir Ali was president of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a militant political party that has accepted responsibility for deadly sectarian attacks against Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, and was banned by the Home Office in 2001.

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

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

Following Shah’s death, Aamer Anwar, one of Scotland’s most outspoken Muslim reformers, helped to broker a unique event where representatives of Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi and Pakistani Christian communities shared a platform for the first time and vowed to stand shoulder to shoulder against extremism.

At the time Anwar said, “A very small minority of the community may think it’s OK to meddle in the cesspit of violent extremist politics in Pakistan, but we are united in saying that we do not want to import sectarian violence that has caused so much division and so much bloodshed to our community or to our streets.”

He has since received death threats himself, which are under investigation by the police.

Sorry: no prizes for knowing from whom death threats against Aamer Anwar derive.

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

Homosexuality in Pakistan.

Not so long ago, BBC3 broadcast a documentary about a gay UK citizen of Pakistani origin who wanted to find out for himself what life was like for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people in Pakistan. His findings were extremely depressing and suggest that any nation state which predicates some or all of its legal code on religious understandings of what is lawful and unlawful will have a very detrimental effect on groups who do not conform with heterosexual expectations.

Here, in summary, are his findings.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Pakistan is a nation state where the vast majority of the population – about 95% – allege that they have a faith commitment, and, of those who subscribe to a faith, the religion the vast majority adhere to – about 90% of the country’s population – is Islam (very few Hindus, Sikhs or Christians remain in Pakistan, and those who subscribe to other religions are even smaller in number or non-existent).

Homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan and, when people were surveyed about matters to do with sexuality in 2013, only 2% of the population said that homosexuality was acceptable.

Because gay men can be stoned to death, great secrecy surrounds where parties for gay men take place, usually in night clubs or other venues that are used only once so that it is difficult for the authorities to predict where the next party will be held. When such parties take place, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people join in with gays.

One gay Pakistani is heard to say, “No one speaks up for us.”

Broadly speaking, Muslim leaders in Pakistan see homosexuality as a disease. An imam interviewed by the UK gay of Pakistani origin admits that “fanatics” exist who will murder homosexuals. The imam added, “If you are homosexual and value your life, it is best that you leave Pakistan.”

Because homosexuality is regarded as a disease, imams recommend “medicine” that will “cure” gays of their affection for fellow males (the UK gay of Pakistani origin took a course of “medicine” recommended by an imam, but it did not “cure” him of being homosexual).

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

It is not unusual for young males, irrespective of their sexuality, to be kidnapped, beaten and raped by Pakistani men, none of whom consider themselves gay. Associated with this widespread problem of extreme sexual abuse (some of it being child sexual abuse), millions of straight men have sex with other straight men (their own age or younger) because, in the strictly segregated conditions that prevail in Pakistani public life, women are not “available” for sex. Additionally, male on male sex is a widespread phenomenon partly because female prostitutes are too expensive for Pakistani labourers and semi-skilled employees. Pakistani males won’t concede that any of the above qualifies as homosexual activity, but…

One of the most shocking parts of the documentary involved the story of a boy, aged fifteen, who was found with his gay lover of more mature age. The boy was sodomised by a mob with sticks and his life saved only due to the intervention of a brave bystander.

Doctors sympathetic to the plight of Pakistan’s GLBT community fear to be identified.

Oddly, convictions for homosexuality are rare in Pakistan even though activities that most people would deem to be homosexual take place with remarkable regularity: “Provided the illegality is hidden, it takes place.”

At one point during the documentary, a devout Muslim male is heard saying, “God does not love those who have names like Jews or Christians.” Another is heard saying, “God does not love Christians or Jews. He loves Muslims.”

It is reported that perhaps a million transgender women live in Pakistan. A gay couple who wanted to marry are told to leave Pakistan because their presence could “provoke a violent backlash”.

Islam is hostile toward homosexuality because it is alleged that Allah is against it. Consequently, fatwas are issued in Pakistan condemning homosexuality and those who engage in homosexual activities.

Every day of their lives in Pakistan, gays live in fear of rape or death by physical assault.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

An article dating from 2013 from the “BBC News Magazine” reveals the following:

Pakistan is not the kind of place that most people would associate with gay liberation. However, some say the country is a great place to be gay, so much so that the port city of Karachi is described as “a gay man’s paradise”.

Underground parties, group sex at shrines and “marriages of convenience” to members of the opposite sex are just some of the surprises that gay Pakistan has to offer. Under its veneer of strict social conformity, the country is bustling with same-sex activity…

Invitation-only parties are a rare opportunity for gay men to be open about their sexuality. Pakistani society is fiercely patriarchal. Pakistanis are expected to marry a member of the opposite sex and the vast majority do.

“The result is a culture of dishonesty and double lives,” says researcher Qasim Iqbal. “Gay men make every effort to stop any investment in a same-sex relationship because they know that one day they will have to get married to a woman,” he says. “After getting married they will treat their wives well, but they will continue to have sex with other men.”

Sex between men occurs in some very public places including, surprisingly, Karachi’s busiest shrine. Families go to the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine to honour the holy man buried there and to ask for Allah’s blessings, but it is also Karachi’s biggest cruising ground…

Most Pakistanis view homosexuality as sinful. The vast majority of mullahs or imams interpret the qur’anic story of Lot as a clear indication that Allah condemns homosexual men. Some scholars go even further and recommend sharia-based punishment for “men who have sex with men”.

“In Pakistan, men are discouraged from having girlfriends so their first sexual experiences will often be with male friends or cousins. This is often seen as a part of growing up and it can be overlooked by families – it’s the idea that ‘boys will be boys’,” Iqbal says. “Sex between men will be overlooked as long as no one feels that tradition or religion are being challenged. At the end of it all, everyone gets married to a member of the opposite sex and nothing is spoken about.”

Technically, homosexual acts are illegal in Pakistan. The British introduced laws criminalising what is described as sex “against the order of nature” during the colonial era. Sharia-based laws dating from the 1980s lay down punishments for same-sex sexual activity. In practice, though, these laws are rarely enforced, and the issue tends to be dealt with inside the family.

“There was an instance where two boys were caught having sex in a field,” says Iqbal. “The family tried to bribe the police with money because they didn’t want the story going public. When the police wouldn’t back down, the family asked for one detail to be changed – they wanted their son to be presented as the active sexual partner. For them, their son being passive would be even more shameful.”

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

The above may put too “positive” a gloss on the situation in Pakistan, although it exposes in a very convincing manner how double standards lead to a situation characterised by hypocrisy and sexual repression that must involve in some way the vast majority of Pakistani citizens (it would also be interesting to establish the extent to which this ludicrous attitude toward homosexuality is associated with terrible crimes against humanity such as forced marriage and honour-based violence). Let these three pieces of evidence stand as a corrective to some of the content in the “BBC News Magazine” article:

A Kahuta-based Pakistani mullah or imam stated on 31st December 2007 that every homosexual person should be killed. He favoured beheading or stoning as the most suitable punishment.

Several incidents of pederasty by mullahs or imams toward young boys at religious schools (madrasahs) have been reported. It is difficult for the victims to get justice in these situations because the public does not want to believe that a mullah or imam could engage in pederasty. Moreover, the victims, young boys who are forced to be the receptive partner in anal intercourse, are often perceived as being gay and are thus subject to social hostility and even legal sanctions.

In 2005, a man named Liaquat Ali, aged forty-two, from the Khyber region bordering Afghanistan, married a fellow tribesman, Markeen, aged sixteen, with the usual pomp and ceremony associated with tribal weddings. Upon hearing of the man’s religious infidelity, a tribal council told the pair to leave the area or face death.