Tag Archives: sharia

“What do Muslims really believe?”

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

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

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

Luton

Luton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luton

Luton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luton

Luton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elazig, Turkey

Elazig, Turkey

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

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

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

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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

However, some of the violent passages are more ambiguous than might be expected of a so-called perfect book deriving from a god defined as compassionate and forgiving. Such ambiguity allows many Muslims the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the passages will be obeyed or ignored.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Unfortunately, there are very few qur’anic verses about peace or respect and tolerance for diversity to abrogate or balance out the many verses that call for non-believers, etc. to be fought and subdued until they accept humiliation, convert to Islam or are killed (even Muslims struggle to identify more than about twenty such verses. Moreover, most such verses relate to peace existing where Islam prevails as the sole or dominant religion rather than to, say, unconditional tolerance and respect for people subscribing to “other” religions and beliefs no matter where such people live). Muhammad’s own martial legacy and that of his companions, combined with the emphasis in the Qur’an on obedience and the use of force and violence, have produced “a trail of blood and tears across world history”, to quote from just one study about this matter deriving from a Muslim source.

Based on the content of the recent (November 2015) Channel 4 documentary entitled “ISIS: the British women supporters unveiled”, and reports deriving from Muslims and non-Muslims alike after attending meetings led by Muslims of a moderate disposition, debate and discussion among Muslims at the present time generally takes one of two forms. On the one hand, Muslims of a moderate/peaceful disposition allege that those who engage in terror and/or the indiscriminate murder of innocent people are not “true” or “real” Muslims (they ARE “true” or “real” Muslims, of course, but Muslims that most Muslims would prefer to distance themselves from) and/or that Islam is really a religion of peace and the terrorists do not understand their religion properly (Islam is NOT at heart a religion of peace, but a religion of submission to the will of a god called Allah, who in all probability does not exist, and the terrorists and those who back them know only too well a highly selective interpretation of what Islamic scripture requires of its followers). Alternatively, Muslim extremists engage in loose thinking of another kind that also cannot be sustained once a little critical evaluation is applied to the statements, statements which invariably relate to despised non-Muslims or equally despised fellow Muslims who are not part of their confessional group.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Thus, in the documentary identified above, a British Muslim woman, who was once a significant player in now-banned Al-Muhajiroun, describes how “filthy Jews” are responsible for the murder of Muslims/ Palestinians while ignoring that far more Muslims/Palestinians have been murdered by Muslims than by Israelis and/or Jewish people (and no one in her audience corrects her. As for other examples of Muslims murdering Muslims on an almost inconceivable scale, look no further than Syria, where, in the last five years, the vast majority of the 250,000 Syrians who have lost their lives have done so at the hands of Sunnis and Alawites, or look no further than Iraq where Sunnis and Shias have fought each other for over a decade in a brutal cycle of revenge killing. Some examples of revenge killing have claimed victims in their hundreds). The woman is also heard condemning the “Crusader armies” of the West that “invade” Muslim lands although Muslims themselves often demand that the West intervenes to stop one group of Muslims butchering another, or Western intervention is right and proper to safeguard non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) from genocide at the hands of their Muslim neighbours (the Yazidis had to be safeguarded from genocide by Sunni Muslims). Moreover, the “Crusader armies” of the West never demand of local Muslims or others that they convert to Christianity, but Muslims frequently demand that non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) convert to Islam if they want to avoid death.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

None of the distasteful drivel that the woman above shared with her audience was questioned by those present, even though just about everything she said manifested a complete disregard for what any sensible or informed person knows to be the case. Moreover, she shared her sometimes racist diatribe while children and young people of impressionable age played and walked around. Nor did anyone in the audience point out the patently obvious when she began to celebrate the benefits of living in the Islamic State where sharia prevails: the great majority of people in any nation state that has its legal code shaped by sharia will encounter intolerable levels of disadvantage and discrimination. You don’t believe me? Think Saudi Arabia, think Qatar, think Iran, think Sudan, and think what life was like when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan. Now consider how dire things are – or, in the case of Afghanistan under the Taliban, were – in each of the nation states just listed for girls and women, for non-Muslims and for Muslims who do not subscribe to the same beliefs and practices as the dominant confessional group. Imperfect though they may sometimes be, legal codes predicated on humankind’s exercise of open-ended discussion, informed debate, trial and error and choice through the ballot box will always be superior to legal codes predicated on statements attributed to a god who in all likelihood does not exist.

Islamist Extremism.

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

Although it is clear that an alarmingly large number of Muslims, especially young Muslims, appear drawn to extremist/Islamist/Salafist/ jihadist agendas, such Muslims still constitute a very small percentage of the whole Muslim population (which exceeds a billion people).

To the best of my knowledge, no UK Muslim who is Shia, Sufi, Ismaeli or Ahmadiyya has been implicated in any way with extremist agendas.

Almost every known or suspected Muslim extremist in the UK, and the vast majority globally, are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, among the Sunni Muslims who incline toward extremism, the vast majority are male, not female  – and most Muslims who have fled from, say, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or the dozens of other extremist Sunni groups – there are some Shia extremist groups, but they are far fewer in number – are female. Most Muslim women know that such expressions of Islam are detrimental, not beneficial, to the interests of girls and women. As for non-Muslims, and Muslims who do not fully endorse the extremist narratives, death awaits most of them  – or, possibly, sexual slavery if you are female and attractive. Look, for example, at the case of the peace-loving Yazidis of Syria and Iraq.

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Most of my Muslim friends come from within the Sunni tradition and, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them is an extremist, but many of them tell me that many Sunni Muslims incline toward extremism because of how they interpret the Qur’an (they interpret it literally) and how they seek guidance from the Sunnah (the example of Muhammad. The Sunnah helps shape the “ideal” lifestyle for Muslims, especially for male Muslims). Sunni friends tell me that Sunni Muslims are discouraged (sometimes with death threats) from doing what in most religious traditions is now deemed normal, right, proper and necessary: they are discouraged from critically evaluating/questioning the “truths”, traditions, routines and conventions that have evolved over time within the Muslim world view. In other words, many expressions of Sunni Islam have become resistant to long-needed critical evaluation, above all by Muslims themselves.

One of my best Muslim friends is of the opinion that “the problem of Islamic extremism” (his words) will never end “until Muslims themselves engage in the critical evaluation of scripture and tradition that so many other expressions of religious faith have benefited from since the Enlightenment”. What he says makes a lot of sense.

An Alevi Muslim recently said to me in Turkey, “The sickness that has taken over the minds and the hearts and the souls of so many Sunni Muslims in recent years will not end if the West stops intervening in the Muslim world, or if Israel grants to the Palestinians a land of their own, or if in Muslim-majority nation states extremist Sunni groups are allowed to establish oppressive regimes based on the imposition of sharia (Muslim religious law). The sickness will end only when Muslims distance themselves from the many quotes in the Qur’an that call for the murder of infidels and unbelievers, or that call for the death of Jews and Christians. It will end only when Muslims distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad such as the murder of opponents, or when they distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad that civilised people today think are questionable or, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.”

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

A Sunni friend recently said to me, “Until you in the West realise that the extremists want to destroy your way of life, you will never confront the challenge with sufficient conviction. And Islam will never rid itself of the elephant in its midst until the vast majority of sensible, pragmatic and peace-loving Muslims worldwide unite to reveal that Islam need not be hostile to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs – and, even, that Islam need not be hostile to freedom of speech. In other words, such Muslims must confront the shortcomings that exist in the very foundations on which the faith is based, the Qur’an and the example of the prophet Muhammad.” These sound words are immense challenges to many ordinary and conventionally pious Muslims, but the fact that such words derive from someone within the global community of the Muslim faithful is not without importance.

Aman (in Arabic, etc. the name means “security”), a North-East England-based organisation, is notable in that it seeks to weed out extremism among ALL people, but among Muslims in particular, and to combat Islamophobia by, among other things, confirming that Islam is NOT hostile to the “British” values identified above. I am currently re-reading the Quran, albeit in translation, and the more I study it the more I think Aman’s greatest challenge lies in relation to confirming that Islam IS in sympathy with the “British” values.

Allow me to take one such value as an example. My understanding of democracy is that the will of the people takes precedent over the will, real or imagined, of any thing (e.g. God or gods) or any individual or any group of people that does not constitute a majority. The will of the people is determined by a secret ballot and access to such a ballot must be on a regular basis.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

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

Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film-maker, once said something very relevant in relation to all that we are discussing here (and I paraphrase): “I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it” (the same idea has been attributed to many wise people including Vaclav Havel – “Seek the company of those who search for truth, but run from those who find it ” – and Andre Gide – “Love those who seek the truth, but doubt those who find it”). Perhaps what we need to fear most is people who believe they have found the “truth” because they invariably seek to impose the “truth” on everyone else. Does this desire to impose the “truth” confirm a commitment to democracy or individual liberty? Of course not.

Moreover, did you hear the story about the Palestinian poet in Saudi Arabia who has been condemned to death for renouncing Islam? In other words, the poet is condemned to death for apostasy. Square this with sura 2 verse 256 of the Qur’an which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Is critical evaluation of the Qur’an required by Muslims? Yes, and now. And I am sure some of you will join me in assisting our Muslim friends and neighbours with the task of such critical evaluation.

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

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

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 is like for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) 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 his homosexuality).

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 LGBT 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.

Reflections on the latest Islamist attacks on Paris, November 2015.

Most of Thursday and part of Friday morning prior to the latest Islamist attacks in Paris (13th November 2015), attacks which left 130 completely innocent people dead, I was in Molenbeek in Brussels. As the tragic events unfolded in Paris, I was in Lille. Most of the people of Lille were in an understandably sombre and reflective mood. Goodness knows how a majority of Parisians felt.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Whether we like it or not, Islamist extremism is the greatest single threat posed to people’s security nationally and internationally (as recent events in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Mali, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia and over Sinai confirm, to name but a few places where such extremism has manifested itself in recent weeks). This said, the following needs to be kept in mind:

Although it is clear that an alarmingly large number of Muslims, especially young Muslims, are drawn to extremist/jihadist/Islamist/Salafist agendas, such Muslims still constitute a very small percentage of the whole Muslim population (which exceeds a billion people).

To the best of my knowledge, no UK Muslim who is Shia, Sufi, Ismaeli or Ahmadiyya has been implicated in any way with extremist agendas.

Almost every known or suspected Muslim extremist in the UK, and the vast majority globally, are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, among the Sunni Muslims who incline toward extremism, the vast majority are male, not female (and most Muslims who have fled from, say, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or the dozens of other extremist Sunni groups – there are some extremist Shia groups, but they are far fewer in number – are female. Most Muslim women know that such expressions of Islam are detrimental, not beneficial, to the interests of girls and women. As for non-Muslims, and Muslims who do not fully endorse the extremist narratives, death awaits most of them – or, possibly, sexual slavery if you are female and attractive. Look, for example, at the plight of the peace-loving Yazidis of Syria and Iraq).

Most of my Muslim friends come from within the Sunni tradition and, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them is an extremist, but many of them tell me that many Sunni Muslims incline toward extremism because of how they interpret the Qur’an (they interpret it literally) and how they seek guidance from the Sunnah (the example of Muhammad. The Sunnah helps shape the “ideal” lifestyle for Muslims, especially for male Muslims). Sunni friends tell me that Sunni Muslims are discouraged (sometimes with death threats) from doing what in most religious traditions is now deemed normal, right, proper and necessary: they are discouraged from critically evaluating/questioning the “truths”, traditions, routines and conventions that have evolved over time within the Muslim world view. In other words, many expressions of Sunni Islam have become resistant to long-needed critical evaluation, above all by Muslims themselves.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

One of my best Muslim friends is of the opinion that “the problem of Islamic extremism” (his words) will never end “until Muslims themselves engage in the critical evaluation of scripture and tradition that so many other expressions of religious faith have benefited from since the Enlightenment”. I suspect that what he says makes a lot of sense.

An Alevi Muslim recently said to me in Turkey, “The sickness that has taken over the minds and the hearts and the souls of so many Sunni Muslims in recent years will not end if the West stops intervening in the Muslim world, or if Israel grants to the Palestinians a land of their own, or if in Muslim-majority nation states extremist Sunni groups are allowed to establish oppressive regimes based on the imposition of sharia (Muslim religious law). The sickness will end only when Muslims distance themselves from the hundreds of illiberal quotes in the Qur’an that call for the murder of infidels and unbelievers, or that call for the death of Jews and Christians; and it will end only when Muslims distance themselves from actions attributed to Muhammad, in all likelihood incorrectly, that involved the murder of opponents or actions civilised people today regard as highly questionable or, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.”

A Sunni friend recently said to me, “Until you in the West realise that these people (Muslim extremists) want to destroy your way of life, you will never confront the challenge with sufficient conviction. And Islam will never rid itself of the elephant in its midst until the vast majority of sensible, pragmatic and peace-loving Muslims worldwide unite to reveal that Islam need not be hostile to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs – and, even, that Islam need not be hostile to freedom of expression. In other words, such Muslims must confront the shortcomings that exist in the very foundations on which the religion is based, the Qur’an and the example of the prophet Muhammad.” These sound words are immense challenges to many ordinary and conventionally pious Muslims, but the fact that such words derive from someone within the global community of the Muslim faithful is not without importance. Nor is it without importance that the words derive from a Sunni Muslim.

Aman, an organisation based in North-East England, is notable in that it seeks to weed out extremism among ALL people, but among Muslims in particular, and to combat Islamophobia by, among other things, confirming that Islam is NOT hostile to the “British” values listed above. I am currently re-reading the Quran, albeit in translation, and the more I study it the more I think Aman’s greatest challenge lies in relation to confirming that Islam IS in sympathy with the “British” values. Allow me to take one such value as an example. My understanding of democracy is that the will of the people takes precedent over the will, real or imagined, of any thing (e.g. a god) or any individual or any group of people that does not constitute a majority. The will of the people is determined by a secret ballot and access to such a ballot must be on a regular basis. But Islam means “submission”, and submission to the will of Allah alone. What Allah requires of humankind must be conformed with. The Qur’an is replete with requirements said to derive from Allah and, because they are said to derive from Allah, humankind cannot change them even if it is self-evidently the case that the requirements are unjust and detrimental to the well-being of vast numbers of people.

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Diyarbakir, Turkey

Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film-maker, once said something very relevant in relation to all that we have discussed so far (and I paraphrase): “I love any person who seeks the truth, but live in fear of any person who thinks they have found it.” Perhaps what we need to fear most is people who believe they have found the “truth” because they invariably seek to impose the “truth” on everyone else. Does this desire to impose the “truth” confirm a commitment to democracy or individual liberty? Of course not. Moreover, have you heard the story about the Palestinian poet in Saudi Arabia who has been condemned to death for renouncing Islam?  In other words, the poet is condemned to death for apostasy. Square this with sura 2 verse 256 of the Qur’an which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Is critical evaluation of the Qur’an required by Muslims? Yes, and it is required now. And I am sure some of you will join me in assisting our Muslim friends and neighbours with the task of such critical evaluation.

The Qur’an contains over a hundred verses that urge Muslims to engage in war with non-believers/infidels, etc. for the sake of Islamic rule. Some of the verses are quite graphic, with commands to chop off limbs and heads and kill non-believers, etc. wherever they hide. Muslims who do not join the fight are called “hypocrites” and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join in the massacres.

Unlike nearly all the Torah/Old Testament verses of violence, many verses of violence in the Qur’an are open-ended, meaning that they are not confined to the historical context that originally inspired them. They are part of the eternal, unchanging word and expectations of Allah.

The context of some of the violent passages is more ambiguous than might be expected of a so-called perfect book deriving from a god defined as compassionate and forgiving. Such ambiguity allows many Muslims the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the passages should be complied with or ignored.

Unfortunately, there are very few qur’anic verses about peace or tolerance and respect for diversity to abrogate or even balance out the many that call for non-believers, etc. to be fought and subdued until they accept humiliation, convert to Islam or are killed. Muhammad’s own martial legacy  and that of his companions, along with the stress on obedience and the use of force and violence found in the Qur’an, have produced “a trail of blood and tears across world history”, to quote from just one study about this matter deriving from a Muslim source.

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

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

Based on the content of the Channel 4 documentary called “ISIS: the British Women Supporters Unveiled”, and reports deriving from Muslims and non-Muslims alike after attending meetings led by Muslims of a moderate or mainstream disposition, debate and discussion among Muslims at the present time generally takes one of two forms. Muslims of a moderate or mainstream disposition allege that those who engage in terror and/or the indiscriminate murder of innocent people are not “true” or “real” Muslims (they ARE Muslims, of course, but Muslims that moderate or mainstream Muslims would prefer to distance themselves from) and/or Islam is really a religion of peace and the terrorists do not understand their religion properly (Islam is not at heart a religion of peace, but a religion of submission to the will of a god called Allah, who in all probability does not exist, and the terrorists and those who back them know only too well a highly selective interpretation of what Islam requires of its followers). Alternatively, Muslim extremists engage in loose thinking of another kind that also cannot be sustained once a little critical evaluation is applied to the statements, statements which invariably relate to despised non-Muslims or equally despised fellow Muslims who are not part of their confessional group.

Thus, in the Channel 4 documentary a British Muslim woman, who was once a significant player in now-banned Al-Muhajiroun, describes how “filthy Jews” are responsible for the murder of Muslims/Palestinians, but she ignores (and no one listening to her corrects her) that far more Muslims/Palestinians have been murdered by Muslims than by Israelis and/or Jewish people (as for other examples of Muslims murdering Muslims on an almost inconceivable scale, look no further than Syria, where, in the last five years, the vast majority of the 200,000 Syrians who have lost their lives have lost their lives at the hands of Sunnis and Alawites, or look no further than Iraq where Sunnis and Shias have fought each other for over a decade in a brutal cycle of revenge killings. Some acts of revenge have claimed victims in their hundreds). The woman is also heard condemning the “Crusader armies” of the West that invade Muslim lands, although Muslims themselves often demand that the West intervenes with arms to stop one group of Muslims butchering another, or Western intervention is right and proper to safeguard non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) from genocide at the hands of their Muslim neighbours (the Yazidis had to be safeguarded from genocide by Sunni Muslims). Moreover, the “Crusader armies” of the West never demand of local Muslims or others that they convert to Christianity, but Muslims frequently demand that non-Muslims (e.g. the Yazidis) convert to Islam if they want to avoid death.

None of the distasteful drivel that the woman above shared with her audience was questioned by those present, even though just about everything she said manifested a complete disregard for what any sensible or informed person knows to be the case. Moreover, she shared her sometimes racist diatribe as children and young people of impressionable age played and walked around. Nor did anyone in the audience point out the patently obvious when she began to celebrate the benefits of living in the Islamic State where sharia prevails: the great majority of people in any nation state that has its legal code shaped by sharia will encounter intolerable levels of disadvantage and discrimination. You don’t believe me? Think Saudi Arabia, think Qatar, think Iran, think Sudan, and think what it was like when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan. Now consider how dire things are – or in the case of Afghanistan under the Taliban, were – in each of the nation states just listed for girls and women, for non-Muslims and for Muslims who do not subscribe to the same beliefs and practices as the dominant confessional group in each nation state. Imperfect though they may sometimes be, legal codes predicated on humankind’s exercise of debate, discussion, informed argument, trial and error and choice through the ballot box will always be superior to legal codes predicated on statements attributed to a god who in all likelihood does not exist.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Islam and the consumption of alcohol.

In a rare instance of the dictatorial and brutally oppressive regime in Saudi Arabia manifesting some compassion and common sense, a British grandfather called Karl Andree (no relation, I promise) has been released from prison without having to suffer 350 lashes for making wine in a nation state where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden. That thousands of Saudi Muslims (the great majority of whom are male) consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) when living or holidaying outside Saudi Arabia is another matter altogether, of course, but that they do consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) suggests hypocrisy, at the very least.

The case of Karl Andree inevitably raises the question, “What does the Qur’an actually say about alcohol consumption?” Mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims insist that the Qur’an forbids the consumption of alcohol, and this assumption about the Qur’an underscores the punitive line that many nation states with Muslim majorities take in relation to the manufacture and consumption of intoxicating drinks. It will surprise no one that what the Qur’an says is far more interesting and sophisticated than this, thereby confirming once again that Muslims have a very shaky grasp of what the Qur’an actually says.

Below is one of the best analyses of the (most) relevant qur’anic verses that I have found in recent times. I have slightly edited it, but only in the most cosmetic manner to ensure it is accessible to a literate audience, or to emphasise a point that the original fails to do.

Spain.

Spain.

Does Islam really define alcohol as haram, or forbidden? Let us examine the evidence in the Qur’an and keep the Hadith out of the equation (this is sensible, given that the content of the Qur’an always takes precedent over the content of the Hadith).

Things identified as haram (forbidden or prohibited) in the Qur’an usually begin with the expression “forbidden for/unto you”. Sometimes the Qur’an warns that those who ignore such injunctions will suffer in hell or hellfire. Consequently, in relation to the injunction not to consume pig meat, the Quran says, “Forbidden unto you are carrion and blood and swine flesh (5:3),” and in relation to the injunction not to murder the Qur’an says, “Whosoever slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is hell (or hellfire) forever (4:93).” I assume the phrase “a believer of set purpose” refers to Muslims alone.

There are five qur’anic verses (I have found a sixth and refer to it later) that deal directly or indirectly with alcohol. Selected in the order in which they appear in the Qur’an, the first verse probably contains the most interesting ideas, but it will be addressed at the end of the commentary.

The second verse (4:43) advises Muslims not to engage in prayer when they are under the influence of alcohol. The verse says, “O you who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when you are drunken, till you know that which you utter.” The expression “forbidden for/unto you” is not found anywhere in or near the verse; nor is the threat of hell or hellfire. You are told merely to avoid prayer when intoxicated because, when intoxicated, you may not know what you are saying. 

Lithuania.

Lithuania.

The third verse (5:90) defines alcohol as “an infamy of Satan’s handiwork” and indicates to the believer that, to succeed in life, it is advisable to stay away from it. The verse says, “O you who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it (? them?) aside in order that you may succeed.”

Again, the verse does not say that alcohol is forbidden or that those who consume it will endure hell or hellfire. More to the point, the advice to “leave it aside” is provided to ensure nothing more ambitious than success in this life. In other words, the Qur’an suggests that a thing such as career success will be impaired or impeded because of the consumption of “strong drink (I interpret “strong drink” to mean wines or spirits)”. This, of course, is something most people would agree with (scripture so often deals with the obvious and fails to tell us anything we did not already know). But the verse can hardly be quoted as evidence that alcohol is haram, that it is forbidden, that it will lead to hell or hellfire, or that it should never be consumed (I sense here a warning that regular and excessive consumption of “strong drink” will impair or impede success, but the occasional glass of whisky or rum will do little or no harm). Moreover, what of weak drink, or drink with low alcohol content such as most beers? Consumption of such drink would appear to be acceptable, if the verse is interpreted simply as it is written.  

The fourth verse (5:93) relates to food and drink in general and assures believers that they should not to be too concerned about what they consume provided they do “good works”. The verse says, “There shall be no sin unto those who believe and do good works for what they may have consumed in the past. So be mindful of your duty and do good works; and again: be mindful of your duty, and believe; and once again: be mindful of your duty, and do right. Allah loveth the good.” Yet again, the suggestion that alcohol is forbidden, or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, does not exist. More to the point, those who do “good works” can consume whatever they wish (carrion, blood and pig meat excepted, I would imagine) without being regarded as sinful.

Romania.

Romania.

Because the fifth verse (16:67) says that alcohol provides “good nourishment” or “wholesome drink”, it is difficult to interpret alcohol in any way other than being beneficial. Yusuf Ali translates the verse as, “And from the fruit of the palm and the grapes, you get out wholesome drink and food: behold, in this also is a sign for those who are wise.” Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall translates the verse as, “And of the fruits of the date palm and grapes, whence you derive strong drink and good nourishment. Lo! Therein is indeed a portent for people who have sense.” I suspect that this verse must have been a major inspiration for Omar Khayyam’s eternally popular “Rubaiyat”.  

Now we come to the verse (2:219) that we skipped at the beginning. Here, Allah speaks to Muhammad and says, “They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say: In both is great abuse and usefulness for humankind; but the abusive side of them is greater than their usefulness.” In this verse the Qur’an acknowledges (the very obvious point) that alcohol has detrimental as well as beneficial characteristics, but that the detrimental outweigh the beneficial, which is something that most people would immediately agree with. Nonetheless, yet again there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it.            

There have been occasions when Muslims have translated the above to read, “In both is great sin and usefulness for humankind”, but “abuse” and “usefulness” are intended as opposites and “sin” is not a word that comes to mind as the opposite to “usefulness”. Pickthall falls into this trap when he renders this part of the verse as, “In both is great sin and utility for men; but the sin of them is greater than their usefulness.”  

Conclusion? Although the Qur’an recognises that alcohol in general, and “strong drink” in particular, can have detrimental effects on those who consume it, there is nothing that conclusively says it is haram or that it will result in those who consume it suffering forever in hell or hellfire. Moreover, if people have consumed alcohol in the past but engage in “good works”, the consumption of alcohol is not regarded as sinful. We also have the problem that weak drink with low alcohol content such as most beers does not seem to cause as much anxiety as “strong drink” with high alcohol content. Such ambiguity may help to explain why so many mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims (and probably a majority of other Muslims) consume alcohol at home and abroad. But such scriptural ambiguity makes it utterly ridiculous that a nation state such as Saudi Arabia should co-opt the Qur’an as justification for outlawing the consumption of alcohol. Because the Qur’an is as confused as most people today about the consumption of alcohol, decisions about the legal framework as it applies to alcohol should be shaped by scientific and medical knowledge alone, and not by the ambiguous and contradictory ramblings ascribed to a god called Allah.

Spain.

Spain.

Prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol have more to do with traditions that have emerged within Islam than injunctions deriving from the Qur’an, and more to do with people who acquire leadership roles in Muslim societies misleading Muslims less well-educated than they are about the content of the Qur’an. However, given that every Muslim is urged to engage regularly with the content of the Qur’an, one is compelled to ask, Why have millions of ordinary Muslims not questioned the traditions that have grown up around the issue of alcohol consumption? And why do millions of ordinary Muslims not celebrate more enthusiastically one of the world’s most famous pieces of literature, Omar Khayyam”s “Rubaiyat”, which, among other things, explores the pleasures associated with responsible consumption of alcohol?

P.S. There is one additional qur’anic verse that relates to the matter. 5:91 says, “Satan seeketh only to cast among you enmity and hatred by means of strong drink and games of chance, and to turn you from remembrance of Allah and from worship. Will you then have done?” As always, there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, and, as always, the problem seems to lie with “strong drink” alone. Moreover, there is a lot of evidence that many Muslims have extreme levels of “enmity and hatred”, not least for fellow Muslims, even without “strong drink” or “games of chance” contributing to both. Note how Muslims engaged in war with fellow Muslims has caused the death of 200,000 Syrians, the displacement from their homes of millions of other Syrians, and the destruction of substantial areas of almost every major and many minor Syrian population centre. Muslim “enmity and hatred” for fellow Muslims in Syria has destroyed vast swathes of what was once perhaps the Middle East’s most interesting and beautiful nation state. As for the uncounted millions who have been murdered past and present because of the ludicrous division between Sunni and Shia Muslims, one can only ask, How is it that Muslims can allege that Islam is, at its heart, a religion of peace? A substantial body of evidence past and present suggests that Islam is more akin to a religion of war and conflict, and, without question, a religion that discriminates against and persecutes people who differ from the Muslim group that dominates power. In other words, it is a religion inspired more by the lesser than the greater jihad.

Poland.

Poland.

But I stray from the main thrust of the post, which is to establish why Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Clearly, the prohibition is not predicated on the content of the Qur’an. Instead, the prohibition is predicated on particular Hadith (statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his closest companions, but statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his companions long after their death, which makes them of doubtful reliability) and, more specifically, particular Sunnah (practices attributed to Muhammad, again, invariably long after his death, said to have found favour among his closest companions). The Hadith and the Sunnah are therefore at best attempts by mere human beings who lived long ago to give expression to what they believed Allah required of them. But we are constantly told by Muslims that everything Allah requires of humankind is to be found in the Qur’an. We are also told by informed Muslims that the Hadith and the Sunnah can never be more than mere interpretations of what Allah wants. Such interpretations can never usurp the primacy of the Qur’an itself.

In Islam, the prohibition on the consumption of alcohol is at best nothing more than a tradition associated with Muhammad and his closest companions. Allah does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol can be harmful, of that there is no question, but under certain circumstances the Qur’an indicates that its consumption is acceptable and beneficial.

My thanks to some of the many Muslims who have written about this matter in an informed and informative manner. I have found their discussions invaluable while completing the post.

An insight into life in the Islamic State.

A recent programme in the Channel 4 documentary series called “Dispatches” examined the work of a Yazidi lawyer in Iraq who, with the help of other Yazidis, liberates Yazidi girls and women from slavery in the Islamic State. The programme provided a large audience with an insight into just how dreadful conditions are for girls and women in what may well be the most oppressive regime in the world. Below, I summarise some of the information shared with the Channel Four audience. Some of the testimony of those enslaved by the Islamic State is harrowing in the extreme.

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

And they abused, tortured and slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

It is estimated that some four million girls and women live under Islamic State rule. The Islamic State is the most brutal regime for women to live under anywhere in the world.

The Islamic State has the strictest dress code for girls and women anywhere on the planet. Girls from the age of eight or nine and all women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe and must not allow even their eyes to be seen. They have to wear two loose-fitting black gowns to completely disguise their body shape, gloves to cover their hands and three veils to ensure that their eyes are invisible to others (inevitably, the veils make it very difficult for girls and women to walk around with ease). If their eyes can be seen, girls and women can be tortured and/or lashed. If perfume is worn or a girl or woman raises her voice, arrest will follow.

Girls and women can leave their home only if accompanied by a close male relative. Non-Muslim girls and women are bought and sold in slave markets and can be sexually exploited by the males that buy them.

Foreign women who have travelled to the Islamic State to offer their support are often recruited into an armed police force that walks around enforcing the strict regulations so detrimental to all females’ needs and aspirations. Such foreign women have the right to punish those who fail to comply with the laws, laws which are crude interpretations of sharia.

Yazidi women are often locked up in improvised prisons. One Yazidi woman who managed to escape from the Islamic State said:

In the prison where I was held there were thirty-five girls and three women, the oldest being me, twenty-one years old. Men would arrive and rape and sexually assault us. One man wanted to rape a girl aged nine. I was angry and tried to stop him, but he said, “It’s okay in our religion to take a nine-year-old girl. We can marry a nine-year-old girl.” 

In 2014, about 3,000 Yazidi girls and women were captured by Islamic State militants while trying to hide in the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq and taken to the heartland of the Islamic State as slaves. It is now known that some of the girls and women killed themselves to avoid being raped or sold in the slave markets. A survivor of sexual exploitation in the Islamic State said that girls and women who took their own lives were fed to the dogs.

Someone in the documentary said that a barrier like a wall was being built around the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar (where in May 2015 it is alleged that about five hundred Yazidis were executed by Islamic State militants) to stop people fleeing from Islamic State rule.

A woman aged eighteen described her ordeal at the hands of Islamic State militants in the following way:

He dipped his toe in honey and forced it into my mouth. Once, six guards came into the room. They raped me through the night until the morning. They raped me not gently but fast, with force, without care. Then I was given to twelve men. All twelve of them, they did everything to me. I’m still in pain. I can’t sleep. I wake at three in the morning still smelling them. Their smell makes me brush my teeth more than ten times a day to get rid of their taste. It (the taste) will stay with me forever.

Many Yazidi women are forced to convert to Islam or face death. 

A girl aged about six was interviewed about what she remembered about life when she was in the Islamic State. She said: 

It was all black.        

An elderly Yazidi woman explained how she and other Yazidi women had to give blood to injured Islamic State militants in hospital.

Women accused of adultery are stoned to death. However, qur’anic requirements that proof of adultery must exist before stoning can begin are not adhered to: a mere accusation is sufficient to initiate the stoning. In one particularly harrowing sequence of film, a father is seen berating his daughter because she is believed to have engaged in adultery. He is then shown throwing a large stone at her, thereby contributing to her death.

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

And they abused, tortured and slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

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

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

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

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

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

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

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

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

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

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

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

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

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

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

Midyat, Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Midyat, Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

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

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

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

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

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

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

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

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

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

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

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

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

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

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

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

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

London

London

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

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

Muslim identity, racism, victimhood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

London

London

The rise of ISIS and of extremism in the UK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London

London

We have a problem with the text.

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

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

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

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Multiple Islams.

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

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

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

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

Feminism and women’s rights.

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

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

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

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LGBT rights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of speech.

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

Faith schools.

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

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

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

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

Sharia and apostasy.

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

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

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Were the speakers representative of the wider Muslim community?

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

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

Messages to humanists.

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

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

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

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