As was inevitable, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has motivated, once again, a series of questions that attempt to resolve questions on Islam in Europe. There have been, and will continue to be, dissections of Islamic theology and law, as well as those who ascribe to Islam, however nominally, asserting that their unlearned tripe should be standard theology. In the attempt to garner support from politicians and a misinformed and subsequently alarmed section of society they swiftly denounce those who they fail to interest with their drivel as misguided and term their religious leaders non-violent extremists (NVE) – a wonderful term cooked up by government on the back of the ‘conveyor belt’ theory of radicalisation pushed by the Centre for Social Cohesion and Quilliam Foundation. The irony might be that whilst these self-identified thinkers and spokespersons distance themselves from the aforementioned thinktanks, they inherently seem to agree with both their theories and objectives.
Beyond some of the ignorance and naivety exhibited by ‘Muslim’ participants on yesterday’s Panorama program, the irony of such participation is that many criticisms leveled against so-called extremist preachers go very much for the participants as well. Take for example Adam Deen who has been involved in a number of debates against atheists as a Muslim apologist – if what makes Dr. Haitham al-Haddad an extremist is his desire for all people in the world to accept monotheism and the call of Muhammad, surely Mr. Deen, despite his shambolic performance to seem as moderate as he could, should also be at the top of that list? To include Sara Khan in any discussion on Islam is an insult to anyone who desires some insight, the Archbishop or Chief Rabbi would offer us far more. Disconcertingly Manwar Ali would rather invite them given his belief that to distinguish between the faithful and others is the first step on the pathway to tyranny and murder. In fact, not one of the participants struck me (or others I have spoken to) as godly or devout where we might be convinced that salvation and favour with God lies in their approach. In actuality we probably have more chance at such favour with the good bishops at the Church of England.
As usual, there was the appeal to the beliefs of the majority; the reason for this consistent appeal to majoritarianism by all sides is because this seems to be the basis for arguing what mainstream Islam is. Personally, I hold the entire thing to be a sham, the diversity amongst western Muslims means to hold ‘mainstreamism’ in anything theological questionable, and those who argue from experience ought to take a trip out of their goldfish bowls. Even where a general issue might be agreed on (such as qisas), its specific manifestation and parameters are far from consensus amongst the masses, to the extent that these specific matters effectively determine the conceptualisation of the initial general phenomenon.
Is there a battle for British Islam? Indeed there is, and it is being fought most vehemently by both ends of the religious spectrum. On one side we have secular liberals (quite like those in France and Egypt) who not only show discomfort to anything overtly religious, their disdain tends to trickle into politics where they support the use of law to ban what they deem extremist. Amongst them are secular sufis and those that previously had an affiliation to political Muslim groups but later turned against them – they have been foremost in asserting the magnitude of Islamic theology’s ‘Britishness’. On the other side we have those groups who reject any form of British Islam, usually because it’s associated with the first lot, and to counter it they articulate the primacy of the sharia often disregarding where they are and what century they’re in. Amongst this band are some groups that ascribe to Salafism, Deobandism, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and others. They overlook the fact that they live in some of the most cosmopolitan (non-Muslim) cities in the world, and that the relatively new religious narratives that were formed in the Arabian deserts or as reactions to colonialism might work but only in those specific contexts. In a pitiable attempt to legitimise these non-transferrable attitudes, they engender anti-western rhetoric and cherry-pick the words of the Most High assuming that the mere quoting of random bits of scripture suffices for a legitimate way of thinking. To deflect any criticism of their woeful articulations or reasoning, they put down subsequent antipathy to a lack of belief, heresy, or simply the expected hostility of non-Muslims. Having observed this field of play enduring for over a decade, it might be safe to assume nobody shall be winning the battle any time soon.
But what for those British Muslims in the middle – those who desire godliness, moral rectitude, and a relationship with the Most High as well as the right to both exhibit a commitment to revelation and acknowledge the primacy of God’s commands, and would like their thinkers and scholars to do so in a way that is meaningful, brings about public acquiescence (instead of hostility), reflects orthodoxy (which I will discuss at a later stage) and sounds intelligent on the basis of some shared cultural capital with the rest of society?
Many of these people feel no need to accept that the west is a great place that allows Muslims to practice their faith simply because they are westerners and part of that struggle for freedom of belief. They simply couldn’t care less about the Hebdo attack, not because of anti-western sentiment (which would inherently be anti-self sentiment) but because both France and Isis/AQAP have little to do with them. Perceptively they see through the veneer of disingenuous claims to freedom of speech, not because they don’t accept it – in fact they are even more passionate in their support than most, but because the actions of outlets like Hebdo which sacked Maurice Sinet for comments linking prejudice about Jews and social success but then wages a racist war on the North African immigrant community – from their culture to their beliefs, and the behavior of a country that frequently bans the expression of sections of society, such as France’s interior minister Manuel Valls attempts to ban a website that document police violence against citizens; French authorities banning an advertisement by the anti-Islamophobia group CCiF that called for religious tolerance and portrays a message of inclusivity; the government banning protests against Israeli action in Palestine, female religious clothing and the Christmas nativity scene, indicates that rather than the ‘us vs them’ narrative being the sole prerogative of NVEs (as John Ware suggests), the French government supported by other political leaders from Europe (those who have themselves in some form spoken rather negatively about their Muslim populations) have been foremost in perpetuating the Islam vs the west narrative, the ‘our values’ (as if this side of the world holds monopoly over the desire for freedom) against ‘theirs’.
The bias is blinding, for all the moments of silence held over the illegitimate assault on Hebdo’s office, not one moment has been held for the millions of humans killed for their principles across the globe, and by this I don’t mean Muslims but others, such as the Iraqi victims of Isis terror, the Chinese Christians brutalised by the communist regime, or the freedom seeking political groups of South America. In fact the actions of these political leaders tells us one thing, they are as insular and duplicitous as the extremist Islamist factions they abhor – their hatred must not be misconstrued with some righteous intent for something as noble as freedom but simply their contempt for the ‘other’, their desire for confrontation and conflict (calls for war have already been made), and their self-interests.
For the group who consider themselves in the middle, of those who are committedly Muslims, I assert that the way forward must be a modern stream of conservative Islam arising out of the ongoing currents in the west; it is the formation of a culturally western Islam rooted in a conservative and scriptural tradition. The basic purpose of practicing faith with such cognisance is not to concede to robustly secular narratives on religion or those in compliance with neo-conservative demands, and neither is it an attempt to prove moderation in faith to others, or, antagonistically assert the primacy of scripture and Islamic law, but the profound belief that Allah the Most High desires from us godliness and upright conduct as stipulated in his final address, and that His expectations reflect the context of being westerners and living in the western world.
Thus the entire purpose of faith is not to prove our commitment to ethnic traditions, to the cultural practices of any region, or an irrational belonging to a group of people who share tradition or colour, but a commitment to God and what is godly. And this is to simultaneously consider how that commitment might profoundly and constructively manifest in the dominant cultural setting. Thus the enterprise of an intelligent religiousity is one that reflects the complexities of realising Abrahamic monotheism and its corollaries in western modernity, in a way that takes a nuanced approach to dealing with contemporary issues and advocates refined ways in which to advance principled and cultured manifestations of Islam.
For those in the middle it is time we galvanise and take charge in progressing conceptualisations of British Islam, supporting our thinkers and scholars in the same way it seems everyone else around us has, where we work in order to progress a favourable and positive future where deen, imaan and taqwa may blossom, for our salvation and that of future generations.