Freedom in the Face of Resurgent Islam

Muslims are on the march in a global, mainstream revival. The West must not abandon its Judaeo-Christian principles, especially equality before the law, if it is to protect minorities from persecution

Features Islam The West
Diplomatic or naive? Baroness Warsi and David Cameron at the Faisal Mosque, Islamabad (Stefan Rosseau/PA)

As I have recently returned from a tough but rewarding visit to Iraq, my mind has turned quite naturally to the role of religion in that part of the world and particularly to what is happening to Islam there and, conversely, to how it is affecting the political and social situation in these countries.

We have so often heard the mantras of “violent extremism”, “Islamism” or even “Islamist terrorism” that we are in danger of not noticing that the common element in so much of the turmoil in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and West Africa is not extremism or terrorism as such but a resurgent Islam. This manifests itself in a variety of ways: Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Wahhabi and even Sufi. A recent negative example of it was the rioting over Koran burning in Afghanistan and elsewhere when a number of innocent lives were lost. While some forms of resurgent Islam can genuinely be progressively reformist — the names of Anwar Ibrahim and Chandra Muzaffar in Malaysia, Nahdat-Alc-Ulem in Indonesia and Asghar Ali Engineer in India come readily to mind — for the most part resurgent Islam is generally backward-looking. That is to say, it is looking back, not just with nostalgia but with political, social and economic programmes in mind, to the origins of the particular tradition to which it belongs. It is usually suspicious of religious plurality and is prepared to countenance the existence of other faiths in only the most restricted circumstances. Because of its missionary nature (which it shares with Islam), Christianity is often viewed with special concern.  As a rule, there is a generalised hostility to the West and to Israel which is sometimes expressed in terms of particular grievances, such as the West’s support for Israel, its armed intervention in various Muslim-majority countries, and its failure to secure justice for Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya (Bosnia and Kosovo are conveniently forgotten).

Significant movements within this resurgence, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere or the pietistic Tablighi Jamaat in South Asia, either claim to be non-violent by nature or at least claim to have renounced the use of force in the achievement of their aims. Their advocacy of a “pure” Islam, their aversion to any kind of constitutional equality for non-Muslims, their hostility to the West and to Israel and their antipathy towards other forms of Islam can, however, lead their followers to even more extreme forms of Islamism which do not eschew violence. For these reasons, extremist Islamism, even when it professes non-violence, cannot be viewed with complacency or approached with that naive engagement which has characterised some of the Establishment’s overtures towards it.

In the current situation, joining in the struggle for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere may enable some of these movements to further what can be a theocratic and pan-Islamic agenda. If their ultimate aim is the restoration of the Caliphate, the recovery of lands lost to Islam and the establishment of a single, worldwide Umma, we must ask: what is the commitment to democracy? Is it to achieve power democratically to fulfil aims which are essentially undemocratic? The acid test for a democratic society is whether a party or a movement is not only willing to take power to govern but whether it is also willing to relinquish it. In this matter, we must say that the jury is out on whether Islamist groups would be willing to give up power. If their success at the ballot box is seen as a “manifest victory” (fath mubin) of their faith, how will this be reconciled with a subsequent defeat at the same box? The world needs to know the answers to such questions.

On its own of course, democracy is not enough. It could turn out just to be a tyranny of propagandised and radicalised masses unless and until it is accompanied by the guarantee of liberty. Such a guarantee must extend to groups like women, non-Muslims and even Muslims who do not belong to the dominant version of Islam in a particular country. It must include not only the freedom to worship but of expression, belief, the ability to manifest one’s belief in daily living and the possibility of changing one’s belief without fear of legal sanction. In other words, the freedoms guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. Alongside liberty, we need the will to create and maintain an ordered society based on the rule of law and on equality for all before the law. Without such order, democracy will not mean much to minorities, women and other disadvantaged groups. Only a society based on the rule of law will be able to provide a strong civil society, a free press and an independent judiciary.

There are two false ideas from which we must guard ourselves. The first, prevalent among some diplomats and politicians, is that an improved economic situation will deal with extreme forms of Islamism. While it is true that an adverse economic situation affects the recruitment of the young to radical causes, we must not ignore the ideological bases of such movements. It can also be shown that these arise and flourish as much in oil-rich states as in poorer ones. We need to engage with ideologies themselves in terms of their relationship to Islam’s foundational texts, to history, to traditional forms of decision-making and governance and to the present beliefs and values of the international community of nations.

The second false idea, espoused by most Muslims and some Christian leaders involved in dialogue with Islam, is that a true Islamic state will, by its very nature, “protect” non-Muslims. I am sorry to have to say that history does not suggest that such will be the case. There have, undoubtedly, been periods of tolerance when Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and others have been able to contribute to the Islamic societies in which they have lived. The structured discrimination and injustice of the dhimma, however, has always prevented their full participation and has, indeed, led to periodic persecution and violence. We must be very careful about using terms like “protection” in this context as it can be seen as a translation of dhimma. Whatever the history, non-Muslims in the Islamic world today wish to be free citizens with equal rights under the law and not dhimmas.

It is, indeed, commendable that Western powers operated a “no-fly” zone against Saddam Hussein to protect the Marsh Arabs in the South and the Kurds in the North of Iraq from the dictator’s excesses. A similar situation has now occurred in Libya where the United Nations has authorised the steps necessary to protect people from attack by their own government. But why is the UN or the West unable to tackle the widespread and growing persecution of Christians? In the case of Iraq, why is there so much resistance to a declaration that Christians, Mandaeans, Yazidis and other minorities need to be protected and that, where necessary, their safety in certain zones will be guaranteed by the international community? This does not necessarily mean that they will be unable to live elsewhere in Iraq. They should be able to and the guarantee of safety for some areas may, in fact, create confidence about their future everywhere in the country as they will know they have a fall-back position. At the moment, the only option seems to be fleeing the country in large numbers. If the continued presence of these ancient communities is to be safeguarded the international community needs to act now.
In Pakistan, similarly, Christians, Ahmadiyya and other communities continue to suffer not only from prejudice and intolerance but from legal discrimination, enshrined in law based on sharia. The abuse of the so-called blasphemy law is an example of blatant intolerance of religious minorities. However, it is not only abuse but the law itself in terms of access to justice, employment, services, etc which discriminates against non-Muslims. Pakistan is the recipient of massive aid from Western countries. This is to assist with basic services and to prevent the spread of extremism. But why should it not be targeted, first and foremost, at those areas which are most susceptible to extremist influence? It should be used to remove the teaching of hate from textbooks in a variety of disciplines, to reform the educational system, particularly in the madrassas, to strengthen civil society and the role of women and non-Muslims within it and to foster inter-faith dialogue which leads to respect and harmony. Is there any reason why such aid cannot be linked with Pakistan’s performance, not only in how it deals with its minorities, but how it proposes to review and revise discriminatory legislation itself?
International intervention in Afghanistan has certainly changed the situation dramatically for women and girls, even if much remains still to be done. Alas, this is not so for Christians and other groups. Although the post-Taliban constitution incorporates the UN Declaration of Human Rights, this has not resulted in freedom of belief and expression in that country. The explanation usually given is that sharia will always “trump” any constitutional guarantees in these areas. This must be a matter of huge concern to the taxpayers in this and other countries who are shouldering a massive burden in the belief that they are promoting freedom in Afghanistan.
In Egypt, which has the largest population of Christians in the Middle East, it is very important that the gains made in the last century or so of equal citizenship are not eroded and the community is not returned to its ancient dhimma status. The gains of the revolution must include, in addition to democracy, the equality of all before the law, one law for all and the incorporation of fundamental freedoms within the constitution.
I have always thought that Western estimates of the number and importance of the Shia have not been accurate. This is partly because of the range of Shia sects, some of which resemble the Sunni to a remarkable extent, others appearing more or less outside the pale of Islam altogether. It is also because of the importance of the doctrine of taqiya, or of concealment of the faith because of the fear of persecution, that the number of Shia in a given situation is not appreciated until conditions are favourable to them. We now know that significant numbers of Shia are to be found not only in Iran and South Asia but in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Turkey. Many of the features of Shia resurgence resemble the Sunni, for example, their enthusiasm to enact and implement their form of sharia in its entirety. In other respects, Shia is different: much higher store is set by the virtues of martyrdom, for example. Their view of the positive value of suffering is quite unparalleled in Sunni Islam. This is linked to another core doctrine which is the concealment and the expected revealing of the True Imam or Mahdi. In the Shia resurgence these two characteristics are often seen together. The martyrdom of the faithful in fighting the infidel and seeking justice for believers hastens the parousia of the absent Imam. There is, therefore, both an implicit and, at least some of the time, an overt eschatological element to Shia resurgence. The significance of this is that things may be said or action undertaken which appear to outsiders as rash or foolhardy but which is designed to hasten the coming of the Imam, the vindication of believers and the establishing of justice here on earth.
We should not imagine that these resurgent forms of Islam or Islamism are present only in Muslim-majority countries. They are affecting, more and more, the lives of people and of nations in many other contexts, whether that is in India, with its Muslim minority as large as the population of some Muslim countries; the Philippines, where there is a long-running conflict with Islamist extremists in Mindanao; China, which worries about the infiltration of radical Islam from its west; or Russia and the situation on its southern flank. In the Western world too, these resurgent forms, prone to extremism and adoption of violence, are present and influential. Particularly in isolated and segregated communities of immigrant origin among the young who may be European or American-born, in universities and prisons, through the internet and on the margins of mosque-life (if not at its centre) and in madrassas, they are ubiquitous as a radicalising and alienating presence.
In such a situation, programmatic secularism, with its pale shadow of values derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, for which it cannot give an account, provides thin gruel for any attempts to check and reverse the trend to radicalisation. On the one hand, it is unable to provide a strong moral and spiritual framework which is needed in addressing a comprehensive social, political and economic ideology explicitly claiming to derive from a particular spiritual tradition. On the other, such secularism may itself, as Peter Hitchens has shown in his book The Rage Against God, be unable to resist moving towards totalitarianism in its disregard for conscience (especially of believers), its lack of commitment to the family and to the rights of parents to bring up their children without excessive state intervention, to freedom of belief and the right to manifest one’s beliefs in daily work and life.

Russia, India and China are having to deal with Islamism within their own borders but increasingly they will also have to engage with it as it affects their international trade and political relationships. As far as the West is concerned, whilst respecting a proper distinction between Church and State, it is hugely important for it to acknowledge that its value-system is derived from a Judaeo-Christian worldview. Belief in inherent human dignity or equality based on the common origin of all human beings or liberty as a fundamental right is not arbitrary enlightenment dogma in an irrational world but springs precisely from a cosmos continually being ordered, directed, renewed and redeemed by its Creator. It is not enough for us just to hold these values but, taking account of the challenge from aggressive secularism and radical Islam, to be able to give an account of their origin and importance. Politically correct secularism tends to collapse all of these fundamentals into one mega-value of non-discrimination and extends it beyond how persons are to be treated to equal regard for all kinds of attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles.
Because there is little in common to offer that is absolute, it has produced doctrines like that of multiculturalism which are content to settle for different religious and ethnic communities to lead their own lives, more or less separately from each other.  The business of the state is thus seen not as one of integrating diversity but as providing for separateness in the use of language, housing and education. Such secularism has a strong individualistic focus and concentrates on the safeguarding of individuals but is weak on the need also to uphold vital social institutions, such as the family. This can lead to the view that everyone who shares a fridge is family, ignoring the importance of what Brenda Almond has called the biological connections so important for nurture, self-awareness and the ability to establish balanced relationships.
At the very time that research is showing us the distinctive way in which children relate to fathers and mothers, there is a determined attempt not only to write marriage out of the picture but fathers as well. Moral relativism has also tended to water down the respect society owes to the person at the earliest stages of life, allowing the embryo to be manipulated, discarded and destroyed in the name of scientific research or a eugenicist view of what sort of children it is desirable to have with, no doubt, the gradual elimination of the disabled, those disposed to serious illness later in life or just the weak and the unpretty. At the other end of the lifespan, again, at the very time that pain caused by terminal disease can be managed (thanks to the Christian-based hospice movement), we are witnessing an obsessional campaign to make euthanasia and/or assisted suicide legal, even though the dangers of abuse, of the elderly and the ill feeling unwanted, and of the deterioration in palliative care provision are well known. 
In all of this, we are asked to accept an allegedly value-free system of education. On closer inspection, however, it is found not to be value-free at all but riddled with unexamined secularist assumptions about the world and ourselves which shapes pupils’ attitudes towards others, a sense of purpose in life and respect for the environment just as much as any religious worldview does. The acknowledgement of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as central to the survival of the West is not necessarily to privilege any particular church or ecclesiastical tradition.

If the challenge of radical ideology, secularist or Islamist, is to be met there must be a strong emphasis on integration not only in the practical sphere involving the use of a lingua franca, policies for mixed housing and schooling and social mobility. These are all very important but the integration must also take place around a common awareness of history and of a moral and spiritual tradition. Those who have come or will come here are to be welcomed to a society which acknowledges and makes its policy and legislative decisions on the basis of this tradition. Others should, of course, be welcome to make their specific contribution in the development of this tradition but it should be clear that there is no real or imagined tabula rasa from which we proceed to construct society in the image of a so-called progressive constructivism and its exponents. At the moment things are still topsyturvy: while it is thought desirable that Muslims and people of other faiths should be involved in policy-making at the highest levels, there is no commensurate involvement of Christians who can clearly articulate a vision for society and an awareness of the importance of its own traditions in this area of life. Such an awareness of a moral and spiritual tradition will lead to a strong affirmation of the natural family as a proper basis for society and the normative context for that social learning which is vital for the wider social interaction which we all need.  It will lead to public policies that support marriage not only through the tax system but in the generous provision for marriage preparation and for assistance in difficult times. The primacy of parents in the nurture and education of their children will be recognised and all apparatus of the state would be strictly ancillary to that. The authorities would not attempt to coerce or to seduce parents back into the workplace, if one of them wishes to give priority to the upbringing of children. Rather, such a role would be welcomed and supported.
Awareness of this tradition would lead also to a balancing of autonomy with interdependence. Personal freedom of expression, of belief, in the manifestation of belief and, in many other areas, is hugely important but the tradition also teaches us that we are relational beings and that even the development of personhood is inescapably relational. This means that the implications of our actions for our near and dear ones and for wider society will have to be taken into account. The decision to end one’s life, for example, is not just about the person involved but also family and friends and, more widely still, society itself and how it values human life. The termination of a pregnancy, similarly, cannot just be about a woman’s right to choose but must be balanced by a consideration for the unborn, for the woman’s partner and the view that society has for the value of human life. We have seen already that the leading values of our nation, derived from the Judaeo-Christian worldview, uphold the uniqueness of human persons, their dignity and freedom. This is not really “speciesism” but signals the special way in which humans are related to the rest of creation: they belong to it but can also alter it, for better or for worse. That is why a proper understanding of the mandate to stewardship in the Bible is so important today. Respect for the rest of creation is necessary not because the earth is a kind of goddess, as in pagan times, nor just for selfish reasons for our survival or that of our descendents, but because creation is itself oriented to purpose, direction and destiny.

Public law in the West has emerged mainly from Christianised Roman Law and the Canon Law of the Church. It has acquired, however, a proper autonomy from particular religious communities. On the one hand, therefore, there has emerged a strong tradition of the equality of all before the law and of one law for all. On the other, law has respected the consciences of believers, especially if these have been formed by a recognised spiritual and moral tradition.  This is seen, for instance, in the provision for conscientious objection in times of war and even in the Abortion Act of 1967 which exempts medical personnel from having to participate in procedures which lead to the termination of pregnancy. It is a worrying development, therefore, that recent equality and other legislation does not take account of this important principle, leading religious believers to conflict with the law and to their exclusion from important areas of employment, civic participation and public life.

Religious communities, and their members, should be free to practise their faith in public and in private without unnecessary hindrance.  This principle, however, cannot prevent access to the courts for anyone nor can it prevent any citizen from asking for police protection for the safeguarding of their freedom. Muslims, for instance, are free to observe the provisions of sharia if they wish to do so but this cannot curtail the liberty or the right to justice under the law of the land or to due protection of the citizen under the law for anyone, including, of course, Muslims.

Because the tradition of public law in this country has arisen from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as refracted by the Enlightenment, it would be a mistake to recognise aspects of sharia, which has arisen from quite different assumptions about equality in terms of public law in the West. It would mean introducing a principle of contradiction in the body of the law. This would be so even for the “softer” aspects of sharia, such as its family law. This latter does not recognise equality between men and women in terms of marriage, divorce, the custody of children, inheritance or in the laws of evidence. As can be imagined, this would create huge difficulties in maintaining the principle of equality of all before the law and of one law for all.

Traditionally, the ability to observe sharia and to enforce it has been a sine qua non, a minimum required for Muslims to continue living in a non-Muslim polity. Demands that sharia should be recognised in terms of public law stem from the perception that this is required for Muslims to be able to live in Western and non-Muslim societies. Whether the conditions for Muslims to live in non-Muslim societies are fulfilled is for Muslims to decide, in each particular case, but there should be no compromise on upholding the basic principles of public law as it has emerged and developed in the West.

Resurgent forms of Islam, leading to Islamist extremism, pose an international challenge which needs to be tackled in quite specific ways, depending on where it arises and its implications globally. Meanwhile, the domestic challenge must be met with a clear understanding and without compromise on the basic principles on which society is founded and which are needed for day to day decision-making. In the West, there is an urgent need for the renewal and the strengthening of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and its role in public life, if the challenges and dangers of extremist ideology are to be addressed effectively.