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, 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”. 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)
 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.
 Qur’an, 13:11.