Trust is central to integration

The report of the Casey Review will be seen by some Muslims as a bitter pill to swallow. But it is important to have an open and honest conversation about the issues it raises. We all need to step up and accept the challenge. The days of communities dealing with their own dirty linen in private are long gone. Having moral courage and leadership means facing up to truths, even when they may seem unpalatable. And now, more than ever before, Muslim activists and grassroots organisations need to take on these challenges.

But beyond this, integration has to be a conversation about everyone in our society, it has to heal divides and bring people together; it has to create a vision of what we aspire to, who we aspire to be and what binds a diverse nation of people together. Integration is not just about immigrants, or about minorities, not about ‘us and them’ but about everyone. And one of the key things we have missed from the conversation is the issue of trust, a vital ingredient to help us get along. This is not to say that everyone has to trust everyone else, but we can’t build a more integrated or cohesive society where there is a breakdown in trust…

(Read more at the Integration Hub)

Integration

In my view, there is a need for a binding, uniting national narrative. Every nation needs to tell its children a story of who they are and such foundational ‘myths’ are important in creating a sense of common belonging and citizenry, something vital to the integrity of modern nation states…

Read more…(At the Integration Hub)

Fear and Hope – the Legacy of 7/7

The ten years in the aftermath of the terror attacks in London appear to have been a long and winding journey for British Muslims. Prior to this we saw the events of 9/11 and since 7/7, the brutal murder of Lee Rigby shocked the nation. That sense of outrage and shock was repeated as we saw videos appearing of British citizens beheaded and more recently gunned down in Tunisia, not to mention the issue of people leaving this country to either fight alongside ISIL or reside there.

In recent polling by the think tank, British Future[1], most people (54%) think community relations have got worse, not better in the ten years since the 7/7 bombings. British Muslims agree, with 56% thinking that relations have worsened over the last ten years. The poll found that most of Britain (56%) agrees that British Muslims are opposed to the terrorist ideology behind the 7/7 bombings. But with such a small margin and three in ten (31%) saying they neither agree nor disagree, it is clear that there is an urgent need to do more to build trust between communities in Britain.

Having said that, the vast majority of people, of all faiths and none, want to find a way to ‘make it work’, for citizens of this country to get along better. We have seen this spirit in the many, diverse and creative initiatives that have sprung up post-7/7 to bring people together and to develop understanding, trust and peace.

This contrast between fear and hope is an important thread that runs through the last decade. We saw images of havoc on the public transport system, blood-soaked machetes, EDL protests and counter-protests, arson attacks, of hostile, puzzled and angry faces.  But we have also seen images of a resilient and defiant London, communities of all faiths walking to Woolwich to lay wreaths of flowers in memory of Lee Rigby, images of ordinary members of the Muslim community and Imams standing up to preachers of hate on the radio, TV and on social media, of faith leaders standing together time and time again, the abiding image of a mosque in York disarming EDL protesters with an invitation to join them for a very English cup of tea. More recently as one Tunisian gunned down Britons, we saw other Tunisians stand up to form a human shield to protect other tourists.

Some asked following the 7/7 bombings, “where is the Muslim condemnation of terrorism?” but the murder of Lee Rigby unified Muslims across Britain and brought out a collective voice on a scale, and at a pace, that we didn’t see before. The voice of Muslims on Twitter, Facebook and in the media again and again rejected the messages of doubt and hate that emanated from some quarters. I was national president of the Islamic Society of Britain at the time, and was inundated with messages of support from the public.

Which is why, while being open eyed about the challenges, in 20 years of voluntary work with Muslim communities across the country, I have never felt more confident of our place in this country.  My hope is that out of all the tragedies we are seeing, we will be able to look to a new horizon where Muslims in Britain define a positive story of life in Britain in tune with their faith.

One of the important tasks for the journey is to think long and hard about how British Muslims give living meaning to the values of Islam and how we read them afresh in modern times. How we live Islam in the context of modern Britain and without leaving behind the core principles of the faith, adapt our practice to a British setting, as every Muslim culture before us has done – in China, Bosnia, India, Turkey and so on.

Why does that matter? Because Muslims – as a diverse set of people who are defined by their culture as well as their faith – will find it difficult to address the chaos and uncertainty of the age unless they can somehow dive deep into the traditions of Islam and their proud roots in this country to find ways of giving those traditions and roots meaning in the context of Britain today. It is not by leaving their faith, but by living their faith in Britain, that they can bring hope for the future. This will require some confident and critical thinking in order to work out what the tradition actually says and how it speaks to our time. But has this process of contextual and critical thinking become more difficult now than before 7/7?

This is where I need to return to the contrast between fear and hope. For some Muslims have clearly felt that they are under the critical eye of society and that under such pressure it is difficult to be self-critical as well. The feeling of vulnerability and the focus on prejudice and ‘Islamophobia’ has for some become a rallying cry to a sense of disempowering victimhood. But others (including myself) have argued that this is too passive and risks stripping away our sense of agency and hope. When you have agency, and recognise that you have that agency, you can start to reclaim your destiny and also be confident enough to say that part of the change process will involve being self-critical. In fact the Qur’an asserts that, “God will not change the condition of a people until they begin changing themselves”[2]. i.e. that a consistent ethical outlook implies that not only must you challenge wrongdoing on the outside but also challenge wrongdoing inside when you find it.

Prejudice often leads to Muslims feeling a greater sense of estrangement from society, which in turn can fuel the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’, thus creating even greater alienation and potentially greater prejudice and discrimination. The above cycle needs to be broken at multiple points. A singular strategy is not enough. Identifying prejudice can only be a start, as important as it is – at the end of the day, Muslims face it, and know that it exists – but the real question is what works best to combat prejudice, to shift public opinion and to build greater trust? And here it is important to point out that far from resisting the self-critical questions and conversations it may be the very thing that helps to build trust as it shows a sign of humility, introspection and taking responsibility, rather than arrogance and denial.

Many different voices have called for some sort of Reformation within Islam. But it is not always clear what this actually means. One can assume that it implies that Islam should modernise and come to terms with the modern world, modern notions of equality, human rights, democracy, etc. Perhaps it is also often about a meeker, milder and cuddlier brand of Islam – but would we get the latter through a Reformation? In Europe it led to a tremendous amount of bloodshed and upheaval – the 30 years war for example – and a long-standing tension between Catholics and Protestants. Some of the more literalist and fundamentalist Christian views stem from the reformed end of the spectrum, albeit a pre-modern notion of reform. The parallel among Muslims would be Wahhabism and its similarity to a Cromwellian form of austere, puritan Protestantism.

The European Reformation had a particular cultural, political and religious history and context from which it emerged and some Muslims may often fear that this is a way of imposing a Eurocentric view on how Muslims should be, and how this may somehow pull Muslims too far away from their own tradition. Having said this, coming to terms with changes in the modern world just cannot be ignored. So how can we keep the baby while we throw out the bathwater? And ensure that change occurs on Islam’s own terms, and not by imposition from outside?

Reform is possible without ‘a Reformation’. Reform (islah) and renewal (tajdid) are essential underpinnings of Islamic thought – Islam’s own tools for rejuvenation, not external impositions – that are meant to be constant forces of change (taghyir). Islam also has intellectual tools such as ijtihad (creative thinking to deal with new challenges). These tools were designed to create a spirit of incremental reform. It is a well-known legal maxim in the Shariah that a fatwa can change with time and place. This is starkly demonstrated by the story of Imam Shafi‘i travelling from Iraq to Egypt and re-writing some of his teachings in the light of the new context. It is crucial to point out that fatwas are legal opinions, the application of jurisprudence, that build up a body of man made rules and regulations for human conduct. This body of teachings, and tradition that emerges from it, cannot claim divinity, even if it relies on what the followers of the faith may regard as divine revelation. The body of the tradition is thus fallible, contextual and open to argument and should be constantly replenished through new debates, discussions and ijtihad. Yet because there has been a lack of confidence in Muslim thought in recent centuries and the spirit of ijtihad has arguably been suppressed in the name of following a tradition that can assert a time-bound snapshot of a ‘Muslim identity’, many scholars will use ancient texts to pluck out fatwas for today leading to highly incongruous application, out of context, of viewpoints whose time may have come and gone.

In a post-Caliphate world that has experienced globalisation, urbanisation and international conventions and treaties, fatwas from even a decade ago can seem widely off the mark.

Having emphasised the need for reform, even before one gets to such issues where genuine reform may be necessary, there is much merit in exploring the depth and breadth of historical Muslim tradition. Debates such as female leadership of prayers, shortening the times of fasting during long days, consuming non-ritually slaughtered meat, what constitutes adequate sartorial covering, etc. are all debates that are often seen as controversial today in some circles, yet have a rich plurality of opinion within Muslim history. There is also selective application of ijtihad. A paper presented to a European council of scholars a few years ago on calculation of prayer times contained detailed scientific data on light levels, the different degrees of latitude and longitude and the effects these would have on the visibility of the sun. Alas, when the discussion turned to the banning of religious symbols in France, which was topical at the time, there were no papers on French history, secularism or identity. Instead the vacuum was mainly filled by polemical discussion. Similarly, if we look at the realm of Economics, the amount of ijtihadi energy that has been poured into the subject, from even conservative scholars, is remarkable. This has allowed Muslims in the modern day to take out insurance, mortgages, deal in the stock market, and even change the way zakat is administered. Yet raise the issue of gender equality, or why there is no categorical prohibition of domestic violence, and the issue becomes ‘complicated’.

Tradition is important, because people that have no sense of history cannot appreciate the future. But a pre-occupation with what has passed at the cost of neglect of the current, let alone the future, is not healthy. I like the analogy of driving a car – the rear view and wing mirrors tell you what you have left behind, and should be checked before a manoeuvre, but the windscreen, which is far bigger, is the main focus, looking ahead.

Ijtihad is thus essential and use of this intellectual tool needs to be consistently enhanced. Furthermore, our approach to religious texts is crucial. Muslims believe the Qur’an to be eternally relevant. And if a finite text is to have infinite relevance, it’s meaning has to be constantly unfolded, read and reread, in ways that are meaningful and relevant – which also necessitates a keen understanding of the context. Thus, what it means to be a Muslim needs to be subtly redefined for every age; it is not necessarily the case that history is the only receptacle of authenticity – authenticity is about following the spirit of Islam and this will have different expressions in changing contexts.

I would argue that such debates have at the same time become more difficult today and also more possible, indeed inevitable, as a result of the twists and turns that the British Muslim community has faced in the decade following 7/7. Some are now more defensive, erecting higher walls and entrenching. They have given up on the idea that Islam and ‘The West’ can be reconciled. The politics of modern Muslim identity have often meant that they have emphasised the status quo over change, for fear of being subverted by the ‘Other’ (often the ‘Western Other’). When religious and spiritual teachings become embroiled in perpetuating a defensive form of distinctiveness, they can often be usurped for communitarian ends. Yet others look to the challenges Muslims face and realise that they need to be confronted head on. They see how a new generation of children are exercised by contradictory teachings they are receiving, things that instinctively ‘don’t work’ in a British setting. Furthermore, they see in the challenges not only difficulties but also opportunities. For reform and contextualization of Islam are on-going existential pursuits, not ones to be instrumentalised for security or policy concerns. In contextualising Islam in Britain today, reformers see an opportunity to construct a new identity where Muslims can feel at home, rooted. They see a new future where people of different faiths and beliefs can work together to shape new ideas and dreams for a shared and inseparable future. Perhaps 7/7 and other events like it accelerated that realisation that the ‘us’ and ‘them’ is not one about two distinct camps of ‘Muslims’ and ‘non-Muslims’, but is more about the people that want to share the planet in peace and those who revel in conflict.

The years following 7/7 remind us of what needs to be done, but they reminds us too of how far we have come, as Muslims and as Britons and what real potentials there are for a body of contextual Islamic teachings to emerge. As Sunder Katwala of British Future has said, “…we still need to build more trust…Some non-Muslims want to know, ‘Do you really want to be one of us?’ Some Muslims are asking ‘are you really going to let us?’ the answer to both should be an emphatic yes.”

 

Dilwar Hussain is Chair of New Horizons in British Islam, a charity that works for reform in Muslim thought and practice, and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. This article was published in: 7th July London Bombings: A Decade of Reflections, Edited by Dr Serena Hussain, Professor Mike Hardy and Fiyaz Mughal, 2015. Centre for Trust Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University and Faith Matters. (http://www.coventry.ac.uk/Global/08%20New%20Research%20Section/A%20Decade%20of%20Reflections%20PDF.pdf)

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[1] Polling was carried out by Survation for British Future from 8-15 May 2015. 3,977 GB adults were surveyed online. The data was released on 2nd July 2015.
[2] Qur’an, 13:11.

Contextualizing Islam in Europe and North America: Challenges and Opportunities

The Working Group “Muslim Communities in Europe & North America: A Transatlantic Dialogue on Contextualized Religion” convened scholars, civil society actors, and community leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to discuss the nature and significance of key challenges in achieving a contextualized understanding of their religion that is suited to the unique circumstances, challenges, and opportunities that face religious minorities in contemporary Western societies….

Read more and download the report here (Brookings)

British Islam

When I was writing and speaking about Muslim identity in the 90s, the term ‘British Muslim’ (as distinct from ‘British Islam’ which was seen to go much further in engaging not just the believers, but also the religion with British culture) was challenging enough for many. It was heavily contested back then and few people embraced it with confidence. Its great to now see so many people use this term with ease and comfort. The notion of being British Muslims came after the idea of settlement began to take hold in a community that had arrived in the 50s and 60s, when the first generation initially held on to the ‘myth of return’. The shattering of this idea of return in the late 1980’s allowed for a new discourse of being rooted in Britain. And while the language of ‘British Islam’ was uncomfortable for some in the 90s, groups such as the Islamic Society of Britain started to confidently use the term over the last ten years or so.

But this was not the first time that Muslim rootedness was expressed on British soil. The presence of Muslims goes back centuries and one can see the development of communities in Liverpool, Woking, Cardiff, London and other cities that are over a 100 years old, as this photo from the archives of the Woking Mosque shows a gathering of the community in the early 1900s:

Woking

They may not have used the term, but in essence this was an expression of a very British Islam. So what does this term mean? Well first of all, technically speaking there is only one faith called ‘Islam’, it is a universal and global religion followed by over a billion people. But there always have been very different expressions and interpretations of this faith.

Islam, just as Judaism and Christianity, began in the Middle East and all three religions have spread over the world. Religion cannot be observed as an abstract set of values devoid of location and lived culture, it is really practiced through a cultural prism. So wherever Islam has spread it has grown in that place shaping, and being shaped by, the environment. Lived Islam has always existed as an interpreted phenomenon (rather than in its abstract, essential form).

China
Mosque in X’ian, China
Mali
Mosque in Djenné, Mali

This is not only in matters such as the design of mosques, Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 820) famously felt the need to re-write sections of his fiqh (jurisprudential / legal) works when he travelled from Iraq to Egypt. Thus a principle in fiqh states that the ‘fatwa changes depending on the time and place’. This time and space dimension has always been a part of our tradition, though perhaps less emphasised in the modern era with the rise of globalisation. We also have consideration for ‘urf (customs of people) in the legal process of some schools of jurisprudence. An extreme neglect of local customs, cultures and traditions (often due to a stream of foreign funding) can lead to a sterile and globalised ‘McDonalds’ version of Islam where beauty, originality, creativity and authenticity give way to a ‘fast-food’ brand of religion that is neither tasteful nor nourishing for the soul.

British Islam is thus shorthand for a naturalised, normalised and ‘embedded’ interpretation and expression of the values and principles of Islam that takes the local context into account in a serious way. This is an age-old venture, and those who speak for this stand on the shoulders of huge giants in both the depths of our tradition as well as in the modern era.

This ‘contextual’ way of thinking about Islam is thus not new, even if the language is. I like to think of the context at two distinct levels:

  • The Deep Context – the history and philosophy that lies behind any given society.
  • The Everyday Context – the lived culture, the things that make each country or nation subtly different from others.

Just as Muslims drew upon the heritage of Greek philosophers, they learnt from Byzantium, China, India and Persia and this thirst for knowledge made a Bedouin culture blossom into a world civilisation that gave humanity so much in mathematics, philosophy, science and other branches of knowledge. So much so, that as far as England the impact of Arabic numerals and words such as sugar, cotton, canon and alcohol (taken from Arabic) persist. So if we have in the past, why not now? Why not draw upon the European heritage of Descartes, Locke, Kant, or the more recent philosophers of our age? (Though to be honest, based on my visit to the seminaries of Qom, Iran the Shia tradition deals with this much better than Sunnis). It is only when we draw deeply from the intellectual heritage of our context that we can allow Islam to grow an indigenous presence and set roots. Unless we know the history of Europe, and feel it in our bones, we can never truly anchor ourselves. We may well know about Colonialism and neo-Colonialism, but we are no longer ‘over there’; from ‘here’ what do Magna Carta, the Reformation, Westphalia, the struggle for Universal Suffrage or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights say to us?

In trying to describe British Islam, it may be helpful to say what I envisage British Islam is not. It is not an Islam devoid of spiritual or religious content, for it goes without saying that spirituality forms the core of any religion, the beginning and the end. It should not be an Islam that is completely disconnected from the body of the ‘Muslim world’ as that undermines the idea of a community of faith, however much our emphasis and priority should be to build for a future in Britain. It is not a ‘government controlled Islam’, as the development of a wholesome citizen involves the ability to hold power accountable and in a secular society the boundary between state and religion should be respected. Nor is it just a liberal vision of Islam either (as much as that may be my personal inclination). Muslims could just as much draw upon Strauss or MacIntyre to influence a conservative tradition, as much as they draw upon Locke or Rawls for a more liberal one, for example.

This diversity leads me to some of the aspects that may feature positively in British Islam. Aside from the obvious and fundamental aspects of worship, charity, spirituality, family, etc., one would hope that it:

  • Would be pluralistic and inclusive as our fiqh tradition aspired to be (and indeed recognise that not everyone will agree with the notion of a British Islam).
  • Is also inclusive in engaging seriously with the fact of Muslims being less than 5% of the population of this country. How does this 5% relate to the 95% and how can it engage with them in meaningful terms with solidarity, love, companionship and service? Because if this is ‘our society’, then we are talking of ‘our people’, our ummah (as the Prophet described the diverse community of Medina).
  • Would value the autonomy and agency of the individual, on the one hand, and maintain the importance of a ‘community’ of believers, on the other. For ultimately we can only stand in front of God as individuals to account for our own choices but live our faith in communion with others in this life.
  • Would be at ease with the application of reason (aql) in order to establish a creative dialogue with an inherited legacy (naql). Whatever knowledge we possess can only be the result of processing by the human mind. As Imam Ali taught that the Qur’an does not speak, it has to be read.
  • Rejuvenates a Muslim discourse on ethics and moral philosophy, which has sadly been diminished by our emphasis on fiqh and law. Some of this could be claimed through a stronger emphasis on the objectives (maqasid) of the law.
  • Would aspire to defend the open society, where freedom is valued. Because freedom (and free will) is at the core of our creation as human beings and is a divine gift (Qur’an, 2:30). Without the freedom to do wrong, one can never truly choose to do right.
  • Would see the pursuit of fairness, justice (adl) and excellence (ihsan) as its over-arching approach and internalise the Human Rights paradigm as its own, such that every single one of God’s children can be treated with dignity and equality simply by virtue of being human, a fact that stands before any other aspect of our identity.
  • Would above all emphasise mercy, compassion and love as the core features of how one engages not only with the divine, but also with the whole of creation, such that our aspiration is always to be in a state of inner calm, peace and balance within ourselves and with the world around us.

I’m sure there could be many other features to British Islam. One would envisage that as British Islam develops, Muslim identity itself would evolve to a more confident state, where it is no longer necessary to describe ourselves as ‘Muslim’ citizens. Not that our faith should become unimportant, but that it no longer needs to be so abnormal as to be stated and explained. We don’t describe David Cameron as a ‘Christian’ Prime Minister; we simply know that he is Christian.

And finally one would hope that Muslims could one day see beyond their own needs, concerns and plight. We were not placed on this earth to merely look after ourselves. So, despite facing difficulties, even persecution and enmity, the task is to be of benefit to people around us; to bring peace to others, not hatred and anger and definitely not violence. The Qur’an declares, “…let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is closest to piety…” (5:8). The Prophet Muhammad also taught, “Shall I tell you of something that is better than fasting, prayer and charity? It is mending discord between people. Beware of hatred – it strips you of your religion.”

The process of adaptation described above has occurred throughout Muslim history wherever Islam has travelled to. It is only natural for a religion to acclimatise; otherwise it is destined to remain a foreign and exotic phenomenon. If we truly believe that Islam cannot be monopolised by East or West (as the analogy of the light of God is given in the Qur’an (24:35)) then we must allow it to now grow naturally in the soil of this green and pleasant land.

Radicalisation

As we can see from the recent events at home and abroad, one of the most debated security threats of our time finds its roots in a religious discourse, namely a violent and extreme vision of Islam (often called ‘Islamism’). The targeting of Christians and Shias, and the methods used, by ISIL goes beyond even the most gruesome and vilest of actions we have come to expect from Al-Qaida…

Read more (Theos Think Tank)

Islam in the European house: Towards an inter-religious social ethics

Islam im europäischen Haus: Wege zu einer interreligiösen Sozialethik

Islam in the European House

This book (in German), by Dr Hansjörg Schmid looks at the emerging ideas of 5 Muslim figures on religion, public life, the secular state and pluralism:

  • Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid
  • Dilwar Hussain
  • Fikret Karčić
  • Tariq Ramadan
  • Azzam Tamimi

Summary

The focus of this book is on the relationship between religion, secular state and pluralistic society. The comparison carried out in this book of contemporary Muslim positions with selected references to Christian social ethics brings to light striking similarities as well as distinctions. Just as Christian social ethics have emerged as a response to social changes, Muslims in Europe are also now working to reconcile tradition and contemporary challenges. The book suggests that a purely denominational Christian social ethics as developed in the 19th Century, due to social pluralism, has now comes up against its limits. Only an inter-religious social ethics will provide an alternative to the challenges presented to religous discourse in the public arena.  The book  identifies and develops a basic methodology of shared social and ethical areas of action for Christians and Muslims.

The book can be purchased here (can also view contents and introduction):

http://www.herder.de/buecher/details?k_tnr=32557

or on Amazon.de

  • Hardcover: 500 pages
  • Publisher: Verlag Herder; 1 edition (September 27, 2012)
  • Language: German
  • ISBN-10: 3,451,325,578
  • ISBN-13: 978-3451325571
  • Size and / or weight: 21.4 x 13.4 x 4 cm

Sticks and Stones

The issue of how to deal with ‘insults to Islam’ has become a recurring discussion in Muslim circles. Spurred on in recent years by cartoons depicting the Prophet, burning of the Qur’an, and that YouTube video; the latest disturbances have created a global uproar—demonstrations in tens of countries, over a dozen lives lost, embassies attacked, whole nations blamed for the actions of a fool. What’s going on?!

The love and passion that Muslims have for Muhammad is well known to themselves, and yet perhaps one of the most misunderstood things outside of Islamic circles. This is more than an ordinary pre-occupation with blasphemy—the Persian couplet hit the nail on the head when it said: “Take liberty with God if you wish, but be careful with Muhammad!”

Muslims may well perceive an insult to the Prophet as an injustice, but we need to ask serious questions when we react to such provocations and think what the actual priorities should be? After all, where is this energy when it comes to other cases of injustice, for example the ongoing conflicts in Syria or Bahrain? Can this energy be channelled in more productive ways? Why is it (nearly) always destructive?

A piece of advice from the Prophet himself may help us to set some sense of context and proportion: “Shall I tell you of something that is better than fasting, prayer and charity? It is mending discord between people. Beware of hatred—it strips you of your religion.”

Islam gives us many other more direct teachings of how we should react in the face of insult. When the Prophet was stoned and chased out of Taif his reaction was not to ask God for the destruction of the people, but to pray for their guidance. The Qur’an teaches us: “…and argue with them in ways that are better…” (16:125). It also reminds us that, “not equal are the good deed and the bad, repel [the bad] with good…” (41:34). As someone reminded me recently, if we repel evil with evil, then only evil can prevail.

The Qur’an also teaches us not to curse the deities of other religions in retaliation to their insults. The fact is, the icons of our faith—God, the Prophet, the Qur’an, etc. don’t need defending. If we are faithful, what could any human being do or say that would undermine our faith in them, or cause any actual hurt to them? Violent, inflamed defence does nothing but lend credibility to the accuser.

Over the last few weeks some Muslims have called for blasphemy laws to be introduced in various countries. However, it strikes me that the insult that Muslims often feel in such situations and the violent reactions demonstrated, stem from a deep sense of insecurity—perhaps related to a post-colonial history, disillusionment with the ethics of global politics today, estrangement from the spirituality of their own religious traditions, identity politics, etc. Blasphemy laws, or indeed any laws, will not resolve such deep problems.

Blasphemy laws were repealed from the UK in 2008 because they had become out-dated. The last imprisonment under those laws took place in the 1920s. Instead laws have been introduced to protect people (incitement to religious hatred, for example) and not religions. Balancing the right to free speech and the potential for causing offence are not easy. These are complex tensions that every society grapples with and there is always a need for some boundaries in the law to prevent exploitation and injustice especially of the weak and vulnerable. Ideas and beliefs do not need defending, but people do.

One would of course wish for, and expect, decorum and civility in public discourse. The challenge is how do you react when the criticisms against your beliefs are crude or are deemed offensive?

Human societies have now grown to value the importance of free speech and probing enquiry. It is also worth noting that much of the position that Muslims have carved out—religious freedom, anti-discrimination and equality—is built on the foundation of notions such as freedom and human rights.

While we continue to urge decorum, arguments are better aired, rather than pushed underground. People are afraid of Islam and Muslims. We need to face up to that. We will not defeat this fear nor deal with people’s prejudices and anxieties by merely asking for restrictions on what they can express. Instead we need more freedom for people to debate, discuss and bring out whatever anxieties they have. Only when we nurture a climate of open discussion (and yes, some of that will be bitter and difficult for us to hear) can we even stand a chance of dealing with the concerns that people have.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 98, November 2012)

Glad Tidings to Strangers

The Prophet Muhammad once stated, “Islam began as a stranger and will return as a stranger, so give glad tidings to the strangers!” Islam began in a desert, semi-nomadic climate where tribalism had a strong influence on people’s lives. One of the key aspects of the Prophet’s struggle was to work against this tribalism in which there was little room for strangers and foreigners.

Given this struggle of the Prophet, I have been a little concerned to see attitudes of “they are coming here and taking our jobs” developing amongst some Muslims whose family, as close as one generation ago, migrated and settled in this country.

One famous story shows how the Prophet Muhammad, early on in his life, stood up against injustice and xenophobia. When Muhammad was in his teens, a trader from Yemen came to Makkah and was wronged by one of the Makkans who bought goods from him and refused to pay the agreed price. In those days, people would be protected through their family or clan and, knowing that the trader had no such protection, the Makkan felt that he would get away with this. The trader went to the Ka’ba (almost like a village square) and pleaded for help. In response, a group of people met in the house of Abdullah ibn Jud’an. Those present at the meeting formed a pact to protect the innocent and downtrodden. Muhammad, along with his close friend Abu Bakr, was a party to this pledge. Later, in old age, he recalled the pledge, the Hilf al-Fudul (the Virtuous Pact), with fondness and said that he was still bound by the pact.

Islam is a religion based on equality of all people regardless of their differences. Muslims believe all human beings have originated from the same source—the blessed Prophet said, “You are all Adam’s offspring and Adam was made of clay.” The Qur’an says:

“O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely, the most honourable of you is the one who is most conscious of God. God is all-knowing, all-aware.” (49:13)

Difference and diversity are thus seen as positive characteristics of our lives, present by God’s Divine intent and not by accident. This is exemplified in the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, during which the faithful, whether rich or poor, king or peasant, all dress in the same simple clothes and worship side by side, equal before God.

Furthermore, the instruction to help those in need is repeated throughout the Qur’an and mentioned in many hadith. The vision of Islam is for a benevolent society where we try our best to look after each other and do what we can to make society better—if we cannot do that in monetary terms then even picking up some litter, or just being pleasant and greeting people with a smile is enough. Importantly, we should not just rely on the state to be the benevolent hand in society. Social justice is a concern for everyone. It is that spirit of concern and thought for others, based on human equality and dignity, in our everyday life, that is important. Similar teachings can be found in respect of the rights of neighbours, regardless of faith. “He is not a true Muslim, who eats his fill while his neighbour sleeps on an empty stomach,” said Muhammad.

British Muslims are lucky to live in a society where poverty and hardship are not as common as in other parts of the world; a society where the basic rights of human beings are valued. But the discourse on immigration and the rights of those who have sought asylum in this country is worrying, and not just amongst the wider public. Increasingly, the rights of the stranger, the foreigner and those who are ‘not like us’ are at risk due to the tempo of this public debate. Furthermore, as Muslims move up the socio-economic and class ladder, the temptation to kick the ladder away once one has climbed it must be avoided. Human rights groups, Churches and other faiths have provided some admirable leadership on such issues and needless to say Muslims—especially because they have recently experienced migration and settlement themselves—should do more to work for the rights of the stranger in our midst. Let us bring “glad tidings to the strangers.”

 

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 97, October 2012)