The state Muslims are in

Aftab Malik
14 August 2005

British Muslims are at a decisive moment. Never has their sense of belonging been so critical. We Muslims must see ourselves as being interwoven into the fabric of British society if we stand any chance of stopping those who would tear it apart. But what must be done for this to happen?

The primary need is to measure the scale of the problem. It starts at the mosque, which for centuries has served as the nucleus for Islamic learning. Today, mosque imams deliver irrelevant Friday sermons in a language alien to an increasingly English-speaking audience. No wonder young British Muslims look elsewhere as they grapple with complex questions of modernity, identity, belonging and religion that the imams fail to comprehend.

Also in openDemocracy on British Muslims after 7/7:

Mohammed Sajid, “The gap between us”

Maruf Khwaja, “Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures”

“What happened? What changed? What now?” – a transcript of the 21 July meeting in London co-hosted by openDemocracy and Q-News

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

The challenge to a viable British-Muslim identity is compounded as political interests have come to dominate public discourse, thus marginalising ethical and moral debate. The cries of authoritarian amateurs and pamphleteers with little or no proper training in Islamic law and theology have drowned the quiet, true voices of Muslim scholars.

The post-9/11 world has boosted these demagogues among younger Muslims who see their reckless rallying-cries as boldness in resisting the Bush administration and the Blair government. In arrogating to themselves the right to define who is and is not a “real Muslim”, they flatten the complexities and nuances of Islamic scholarship into a simplistic, one-dimensional worldview – one with no need of beauty, diversity or colour.

These self-appointed scholars reduce Islam to a tribal doctrine defended by zealots assigned to protect an honour and integrity that is everywhere under attack. The wrath of this tribal Islam towards its enemies is indiscriminate; in this, it mirrors the intolerance of those fundamentalist Christians who also regard what is unfolding as a religious war, with each party claiming God on its side.

The dividing line

The pain and anger inherent throughout the Muslim world has spilled over to Muslims in the west, who increasingly see the “war on terror” as a war on Islam. Young Muslims feel both powerless and guilty over their inability to help fellow-Muslims against the encroachments of “Zionist forces” and “crusader Americans”. In face of an onslaught of conspiracy theories and jihadist videos, they are encouraged – even brainwashed – into complicity with the notion that Islam itself is under siege.

In many English cities – Birmingham, east London, Bradford – the intensity of Muslim anger is palpable. The “war on terror” has exacerbated rather than created Muslims’ radicalisation, for the single galvanising issue of Palestine predated 9/11.

This became clear at a December 2001 debate I attended when an individual raised the topic of suicide-bombing, saying he had difficulty in understanding why traditional Muslim scholars condemned the practice. This individual was none other than Asif Mohammed Hanif, who exploded a bomb in a Tel Aviv pub in April 2003, killing three people (as well as himself) and injuring fifty.

The descriptions of those who knew the young man from west London – a quiet, gentle individual who helped his family – are reminiscent of those attached to the 7 July London bombers. In Asif’s case, his concern over Palestine was manipulated with deadly effect, in the same way that anger over events in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been twisted to motivate the London bombers to their destructive ends.

When such extremism has emerged within Muslim ranks in the past, Muslim scholars were foremost in condemning it, and ejecting it from the mainstream of Islam. But this was only possible because these scholars engaged with current issues in the first place; if they do not, others will debate them and impose conclusions on Muslims’ behalf.

The truth of tradition

But Muslims defending their faith from extremists must be careful about the elite figures – often the very ones who justified the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq – who appear determined to initiate an “Islamic reformation” led by “reformers” and “modernisers” whom they appoint. The danger here is that a “reformed” or “modernised” Islam creates the same detachment and rootlessness from the faith that the preachers of hate exploit.

The demands for “Islamic reformation” miss a crucial point: the architects of destruction can wreak their havoc only because they have already reformed and reduced Islam to a narrow, bloody, twisted vision. Further pressure to reform will only fuel the radicals’ claims that the west really wants a new, “approved” version of Islam that meets the demands of the neo-conservatives and their associated think-tanks.

But the Islamic tradition and its values – mercy, compassion, peace, and the sanctity of all life – can and must speak for itself. Muslims therefore require a process of re-education rather than reformation, led from within and operating at all levels of the Muslim community.

This in turn requires a leadership rooted in traditional learning, underpinned by a moral and ethical outlook that rejects the zealotry and hatred that have formed a sub-culture of theological neurosis among young British Muslims.

If the sense of belonging is to be nurtured, the factor of leadership is key. Muslim leaders are needed who can reach out to estranged youths, many of whom – in the age of the “war on terror”, and even more after 7 July – see being British and Muslim as mutually exclusive.

There is an urgent need for more British-born imams who understand the complexities and challenges of “living Muslim” in Britain’s secular society. They must work together, determining one direction for the Muslim community. Sermons must focus on citizenship, the rights of others and social harmony – all drawing on sources in the Muslim faith and tradition. This is an Islam both real and traditional; it is the deepest hope of those young, lost figures who are otherwise prey to the lures of a violence and extremism that is as far from Islam as love is from hatred.

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