Are We Losing The War For The Soul Of Islam?
As the proportion of Muslims rises in Britain and across the West, extremists are increasingly dominant. What is to be done?
I have been studying and thinking about Islam for almost half my life. I got a slight head start on much of the rest of the world thanks to a Sufi Muslim friend. From her I learned, in those pre-9/11 days, about the horrors of the Wahhabis and the Salafis, the Deobandis and the Khomeinists. And I heard about one thing in particular which I have since observed: how moderate movements in Islam have repeatedly lost out to the hardliners and how some of the most enlightened people you might meet can be trampled over by the most barbaric. It was a timely lesson. In the struggle for an enlightened form of Islam one can find many Muslim allies. But their organised history is one of repeated failure.
If the discussion about the future of Islam once used to be confined to an exotic theology, it no longer is. The future of Islam and the future of the West are now inextricably linked. If disentangling them was ever possible it is almost certainly not now. What happens to Islam will affect what happens to Europe.
Before travelling over some of the possible paths it is worth remembering one key fact — as Bernard Lewis among others has said — there are essentially three Islams. There is the Islam of the Koran, Hadith and life of Muhammad. Then there is the extrapolation of this into the system of law known as sharia. And then there is a third Islam — Muslims themselves, what they do and how they live.
Even the briefest period spent studying the first two Islams should lead anyone — especially anyone brought up in another religion, let alone none at all — to worry. The traditions and the foundations on which the religion of Islam is built are deeply troubling — filled with imprecations to violence, oppression and conquest. Sharia, built upon these foundations, is a system of rules which would make any modern citizen shudder. It is very hard to see how this system of laws can be reformed in a way that remains true to their sources without going so far away from them as to cause the centrality of those sources to crumble. These are serious and profound negatives, to which I will return. But they are balanced by one very significant positive which must always be borne in mind: what Muslims actually do.
Anybody living in a Western society who troubles over Islams One and Two may find Islam Three to be slightly baffling at first. Later they should find it a considerable relief, because although an undoubtedly large number of people exist who would wish to follow the violent and supremacist demands of Islams One and Two, a far larger proportion —indeed, as is often but necessarily said, the vast majority — do no such thing. They do not chop people’s heads off or “slay the infidels wherever they find them”. They just get on with their lives like the rest of us. They are parents and children, doctors and neighbours, chiropodists and friends. They are people who live with the inheritance of Islam One and Two lingering to various extents in the background of their everyday lives, and upon the memory of this tradition they build their family lives, weeks, calendars and some or a lot of their moral outlook. In other words, Islam Three is all around us. It is also Islam’s — and our — only hope.
But it cannot be ignored that it has only come about because of Islams One and Two. It has not found a formal, or theologically permissible way in which to float free from its roots even though certain individuals may have accomplished that in practice. It is in the disconnect between Islams One and Two and Islam Three that the future of Islam as a whole will be decided.
If Islam Three breaks away from the first two Islams, the problems of Islamic integration into the West can plausibly be solved. But the moorings are tough to break away from. They have a gravitational pull which will probably always exist and remain strong. Added to that, loath though most people are to admit the fact, in Britain and certainly around the rest of the world today, the nice neighbour, chiropodist or friend does not have control of their religion. They are not the ones with the power. That is in the hands of the worse people. An additional problem of discussing Islam at all comes from the fact that when people speak about Islams One and Two people’s minds tend to wander inevitably to Islam Three. When they hear troubling talk about “what Muslims believe”, or “what the Koran says”, they think: “That can’t possibly be. I know Mr X or young Mr Y.”
One reason for this is that the higher up the ladder of authority people go the more they must adhere to the principles in Islam One and Two, the closer they must be to the heart of the problem and the less wiggle-room they have to get on with their lives. This looks likely to remain a very significant problem. And it is an arm-lock which Islam’s founder appears to have considered well.
In a surprisingly frank interview on Egyptian television earlier this year the leading Muslim Brotherhood cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi made an extraordinary admission. Defending the laws of apostasy (by which Muslims can be killed if they leave the religion), Qaradawi said: “If they [Muslims] had got rid of the punishment for apostasy, Islam would not exist today.” He is almost certainly right. The higher up someone goes and the more visible they are, the more any heresy can be noticed and punished, which is the reason the most extreme keep floating to the top. The less extreme, let alone the outright anti-extreme, tend sensibly to keep their heads down.
In the West today, more so than in the rest of the world, there is a large number of people identified as Muslims who are probably not believers of any serious kind. Yet even when there is no fear of immediate punishment there remains the pull and tug of the tradition. I know, because I have met and spoken with many of them. Even the most liberal can be defensive when they feel, for instance, that Islam is “under attack”. Those who are able to exit entirely are very few indeed. For these people, leaving Islam is not like rebelling against the Christianity of your parents. True, there is a growing number of semi-prominent figures in Britain and Western Europe who now identify themselves as “ex-Muslims”, but few have escaped at least some threat of death for their actions. Most that I know of who have managed to make the leap have done so because they have a circle of people around them who are also non-believers, of all backgrounds. I can think of few if any openly non-believing Muslims, let alone ex-Muslims who are critical of the faith who live in predominantly Muslim areas. Muslims who have converted to Christianity in the UK have often had to move from their homes. The pressure of crowds is very great. The pressure of crowds exerting what they believe to be divine will is greatest of all. These problems of the pull of Islam even within fairly secular surroundings is a problem Britain and Europe have now inherited.
And although there will be those for whom a return to the sources will be like returning to a deep well of Islamic thought, the nature of that well and the nature of those sources will continue to present a problem which may well be insuperable. It cannot be stressed often enough that when Christians go back to the roots of their faith they find a man who was —even if you do not believe him to be God — an extraordinary, peaceable and moral teacher. When Muslims go back to the source of their faith they too find a moral teacher, but one with other points on his CV too. The history of Christianity may certainly have been been bloody and difficult. But how much bloodier and more difficult would it have been if Jesus had ordered his followers (even if only on occasion) to slay and enslave their enemies rather than implore them — in that extraordinary if not always achievable teaching — to turn the other cheek? Christianity has had a terrible legacy of anti-Semitism. But how much worse would it have been had Jesus not been a Jew himself and anti-Semitic pogroms not been a wicked extrapolation of scripture but rather an emulation of the behaviour of Christianity’s founder?
Over the last decade I have observed some of the repercussions of all this with my own eyes. I have travelled across the Muslim world, from North Africa to the Middle East and Far East. I have seen Muslim countries and peoples in peace and war. I have seen rockets fall and seen their effects, witnessed terror close up and spoken to its victims. I have also seen an uncomfortable number of friends and allies — Muslim and non-Muslim — targeted for speaking critically about Islam and its problems. Friends have had assassins come to their doors and I have looked into the faces of a number of extremists and terrorists myself.
I have also travelled across Europe, and must admit that it can be terrifying to see the way in which the unsolved problems which Islam brings with it are dangerously simmering. Every European country is now experiencing this in the same ways. From the streets of Scandinavia to the outskirts of Paris, the northern cities of England to the East End of London, we have a set of societies in our midst about which even the use of the word “integration” must be regarded as some cosmic joke. In all of these countries Muslim communities — generally through no fault of their own — have grown up alongside the rest of the society. What has been created are not multicultural societies but parallel societies. Every country faces similar challenges and all are going through similar debates. Yet none seems able or willing to deal directly with any but the secondary and tertiary issues of the problem. They encourage Muslim leaders to “condemn” extremism but do little to tackle it. They praise “moderates” when they should be insisting on Muslim progressives. Lacking the resolve to change this, we all cling to an unfounded hope that the absorption of tens of millions of Muslims into Europe will change nothing very significantly.
I used to say that the future of this continent would be decided over whether Islam Europeanised or Europe Islamised. There were Muslim leaders back then — like Britain’s Zaki Badawi — who preached just such a new form of Islam. Ten years on, the scorecard is far more mixed. Today, it seems to me that this will be a process of constantly winning and losing rather than outright victory or loss. But one thing is for sure: on current trends it will not just be the past but the future which will be a foreign country. They will, most certainly, do things differently there.
In the entire discussion on the meeting, absorption or integration of Islam in Britain several fundamental facts have to be accepted. The first is the undeniable importance of migration. Britain had no significant Muslim presence until the latter part of the last century. There was a negligible Muslim presence in Britain until postwar immigration brought waves of migration predominantly from the Indian subcontinent, and Islam played no important role in our history. By the 2001 census, there were around 1.5 million Muslims in England and Wales. By the 2011 census, that number was 2.7 million. Over a single decade the Muslim population had doubled — and that is not including the hundreds of thousands of people who are here illegally. If anyone in power had wanted to alter the vast increase in Muslim immigration during the post-9/11 period, to work on absorbing the people who were already here before welcoming in any more, they could have done so. But they did not and no politician looks set to do so in the near future. Even now it is deemed politically impossible to discuss such matters. And so — incapable of making a value judgment to limit Muslim immigration at the very moment that Muslim integration was becoming such an issue — we will be stuck with the reality of the growth of our Muslim population.
Today Britain’s Muslim community is growing ten times faster than the rest of the population. Half of British Muslims are under the age of 25. And among young people under 25, one in ten are now Muslim. Conversions of Britons to Islam are also at an unprecedented high. In the decade since 9/11 more than 100,000 British people converted to Islam. Three-quarters of these were women. These facts — along with the fact that for the first time a minority of young Britons now identify themselves as Christian — means that if current trends continue, in the next 20 years or so there will be more Muslims in Britain than Christians. Some demographic studies suggest that on current trends Britain could have a Muslim majority by the middle of this century.
Of course trends do not always continue. It is possible that there will be a resurgence of Christianity, or a swift increase in atheism and/or secularism among Muslims. Or it is possible that something wholly unforeseen will occur. But while conceding the variables it is important not to ignore current likelihoods. An increased number of Muslims will inevitably lead to increased influence of Islam in the country, with all the things that come in its wake.
Second, we must accept that there is no reason why the process of integrating these people will be any more straightforward in the future than it has been up until now. Across Western Europe official government responses even to public concern over immigration as a whole — let alone some immigrations in particular — have been to condemn such concern as “racist”. In the last couple of years the leaders of all three main political parties have conceded that it is not racist to have concerns about immigration. But they neither know what to do about the next step, nor can get beyond generalities about the need for “debate” or the sending around — as during this past summer — of occasional dog-whistles to pretend something is being done while the issue truly remains unaddressed.
The result is a public “debate” which not only avoids the main issues but skirts even the secondary issues, when it does anything at all. For instance, the public are able to discuss the issue of the veil or the burka on a regular basis. This has been the proxy debate about Islam in most European countries for at least a decade. In September, Britain went through another such round. An 800-pupil state-funded girls’ school in Blackburn turned out to have on its list of demands of students not only the wearing of the headscarf in school but the wearing of it at all times outside school. The school is the first of a network of 12 Muslim free schools to open under the Education Secretary’s new schools scheme. Others such schools are due to open in East London and Hackney. Meanwhile at another new free school in Derby it recently transpired that even non-Muslim staff were required to wear headscarves. The school has subsequently been closed and then reopened with slightly altered rules.
At the same time that this was going on, the row re-erupted over whether female doctors in the NHS should be allowed to wear full face-coverings. And then there was another entry in the perennial discussion over whether a full face covering (the niqab or burka) should be allowed to be worn in court. For several days the nation’s attention was focused on Blackfriars Crown Court in south London where a 22-year-old Muslim woman — on trial for allegedly intimidating a witness — insisted on her right not to have to reveal her face in a court in which there were men. All the main party leaders publicly wrung their hands. Rights were weighed up. The campaign group Liberty weighed in on the side of the defendant’s right not to show her face in court. The judge in the case was eventually applauded for his tough and rigorous stance in demanding that the woman remove her full face-covering while giving evidence, but allowing her to retain it while listening to the evidence of others. This was applauded on all sides as a notable victory for British common sense.
For comparatively old hands it is easy to be cynical. One Muslim friend who was telephoned by a national newspaper to comment on the recent round of face-covering stories told them to dig out what he’d told them last time round and churn it out again. In Britain the way in which such “controversial” issues are tackled is always the same. There is a blockage of common sense or assertion of values. This looks like being temporarily relieved as some politician or public figure says something apparently “controversial”, after which — the pressure valve having been briefly released — everything dies down again. All the time the underlying stories continue unaddressed.
Last year Mohammed was the second most popular name for newborn boys in England and Wales. In the country as a whole it was narrowly beaten to the top spot by Harry (which received a boost from the popular prince and a member of the pop group One Direction). But the figures also show that Mohammed is now easily the most popular name for baby boys in many areas of the country, including London and the West Midlands.
Every time this story comes up it gets the same silence or consensual brush-off if anyone tries to draw anything from it. “Of course, it’s only that high because the variations of spelling are all included in the same entry,” we are told. Or, “Muslims tend to call their male children Mohammed whereas other religions have more variety or names.” It would be more honest just to say, “Move along please, nothing to see here.” And perhaps there is nothing whatsoever to worry about. Perhaps all those Mohammeds will become fully-fledged modern Brits. Or maybe they will not. But to think that there is not going to be a struggle for them, or to assume that the struggle can only go one way — and that way is forward — is to make a fatal mistake. It is also to ignore Islamic history.
One thing that must strike anyone in their study of Islam is how repeatedly the religion’s extremists win out. You can go back a thousand years and study the moment when the Asharite were triumphed over the Mutazilites, when the “men of the sword” beat the “men of the pen”. Or you can marvel at Persian society in the early 20th century and at the daring of a scholar like Ali Dashti. And then you can wonder at the fact that he should end up dying in the torture prisons of Khomeini in the ninth decade of his life. Or you can take even the most cursory glance at recent history and consider the direction of Islam’s trajectory in Muslim-majority countries around the world today.
If anybody was in any doubt that Islamic history can replay itself they should have had their doubts alleviated by the “Arab Spring”. And while it was perfectly understandable that many of those watching events from the liberal West should have greeted the wobbling or overthrow of vicious dictators with enthusiasm (there was little reason to love Zine el Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak, let alone Colonel Gaddafi or Assad junior), in the lack of awareness of what would come next lay a wilful blindness.
It should have been obvious — we should have known — that when strongmen totter in Muslim-majority countries it is not inevitable that the Islamists will come to power, but the odds are at least high that they will. It is not a coincidence but par for an Islamic course that those with the most straightforward and hardline views are not only in a position to take charge when things free up, but in the best position of all. In part because they are the most organised and most committed, they also have the advantage that they are able to lay out an interpretation of their faith which, while sometimes becoming too hardline for the majority when imposed too quickly, has a theological authenticity which believing Muslims find very hard to refute. The extremists may have a bad interpretation of Islam, they may have a wrong interpretation of Islam, but for very many people it is also a perfectly plausible interpretation of Islam. We do not acknowledge this because we do not want to.
In February 2011 America’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was asked about the Muslim Brotherhood at a House Intelligence Committee hearing. He declared the Brotherhood to be a “largely secular” organisation with “no overarching agenda”. Whatever his title, Mr Clapper is clearly a man of no curiosity or intelligence. Since its founding in 1928 the agenda of the Brotherhood has been absolutely clear. It desires to impose sharia and restore the caliphate. They may not be selling-points which are unique to the Brotherhood but anybody commenting on the Brotherhood’s ideology should recognise these aspirations as being at the very top of its agenda. Mr Clapper did not need to reach for the history books.
He could have considered the statement of the organisation’s current Deputy Guide, Khairat al-Shater: “The mission is clear: restoring Islam and its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God: the Islamisation of life, empowering of God’s religion; establishing the Nahda of the Ummah on the basis of Islam.” Or he might have listened to Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt who said at a rally in the Nile Delta in 2010: “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them, for Zionists, for Jews.” He went on to explain that the country’s children “must feed on hatred. Hatred must continue . . . The hatred must go on for God and as a form of worshipping him.” If Mr Clapper happened to have heard all such sayings of Morsi but somehow failed to believe them, then he also ignored the Brotherhood’s offshoot in Gaza — Hamas — which teaches exactly such hatred in its schools. If US officials, among others, thought that Morsi and co in Egypt were just talking the talk, they had ignored the entirely bloody attempt at instituting the same ideology which had gone on next door for years.
In Tunisia — whose Brotherhood leaders Britain harboured in exile for years — one of the most progressive Muslim countries in the world has found progress to be little bar to the regressive Islamists. It is not the progressives who now run the country. As in Egypt, so in Libya. All those Libyans who came out onto the streets to thank Nato for overthrowing Gaddafi may keep the kindest thoughts in their hearts. But their country is not ruled by such people. Libya today is a lawless place where Islamists run the show and the country’s vast oil reserves can barely be pumped. And that was meant to be the success story.
As politicians in the West began to realise that the only force still capable of kicking out the Islamists were not the much-vaunted minority “moderates” but the army, one Western commentator observed to me: ‘Basically, when it comes to Islam we are all pessimists now.’
It is true. Or it should be, because for all the great hopes and aspirations which the Arab Spring unleashed, its midwinter season has reminded anyone with a sense of history that we have been here before. For all the peaceable Muslims in the region and around the world, the Islamic authorities and their sources are not on their side. They never have been, in any significant number, and perhaps never will be. Any sensible domestic as well as foreign policy would factor in this grim reality. Instead we run from it.
At home, as much as abroad, we console ourselves with occasional attempts to break through this gloom. There was one attempt before the summer when the former extremist and now anti-extremist Shiraz Maher (also a contributor to this magazine) pointed out in the Jewish Chronicle: “A new face of British Islam is rising.” What is more, he informed his audience, “It needs your help.” Putting aside whether there is anything that a British Jew can do to help Islam to reform, Maher was able to name only one “new leader” in the British Islam he was heralding. The example he gave was Usama Hasan — formerly an ultra-conservative who fought in Afghanistan as a youth. I know Usama, admire and like him. He has become a learned, thoughtful and deeply humane presence among the small niche of people who want to see a progressive British Islam emerge. And, crucially, he provides serious scholarly authority. But what Maher failed to tell his readers in the JC is that this great hope he presented to them has one other striking thing about him: he cannot preach in a mosque.
Indeed, he was chased out of his mosque under the threat of death. Two years ago, after he had spent 25 years at the same mosque in Leyton, east London, the other worshippers rose up over his views on evolution and the wearing of the veil. Hasan is a Cambridge-educated scientist. If anybody could build a bridge over which the almost wholesale official creationism of the Muslim community might travel, it would be him. He tried, tentatively, and can no longer do so from the inside. Maher wrote that Hasan “is now challenging the extremists he once led”. Possibly. But he is not doing so from the pulpit. I regret to say this, but it is the same with almost all of the reforming voices I know of in Britain. As a society we constantly let this problem become ingrained. In October the terrorist group al-Shabaab listed a number of British citizens, mainly Muslim leaders, who it said should be targeted by Muslims because of their “moderation”. All but one of those listed have repeatedly acted as apologists for, or been connected to, extremists and spent far more of their efforts on “defending Islam” than they have on reforming it. Yet the BBC and every other media outlet talked of these people as “prominent Muslim moderates”, thus embedding “pseudo-moderates” as the best hope we have. It is through ignorance like this that we shore up more problems for our future.
If Islam is not going to reform, what will the rest of us do? In September there was concern after a poll carried out by Comres for BBC Radio 1 revealed that around 27 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds questioned said that they did not trust Muslims. Putting this into proportion, of the thousand young people surveyed, 16 per cent said they did not trust Hindus or Sikhs, 15 per cent said they did not trust Jews, 13 per cent mistrusted Buddhists and 12 per cent did not trust Christians. Nevertheless it was, of course, the Muslim figure that was seized upon by the commentariat. Few, if any, dared to consider what lay behind it.
One reason might have been that the poll was carried out in June of this year, just after the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby on the streets of south London. But the reaction to the survey was what it always is: “How can we educate young British people not to fear Islam? How can we re-educate them?”
The beginning of an answer is simple: make sure Islam is something from which there is nothing to fear. Tell Muslim leaders not just to “condemn” acts of violence but to stop them. Tell them that the era of ifs and buts about the extremists must end. Tell them to put the concerns of the state foremost in the minds of young Muslims, to have a picture of the Queen and say a prayer for the royal family in mosques as it is said in synagogues every Saturday. Tell them to teach their young that if they feel an urge to get involved in a struggle, they can join up for one the best armies in the world — the British army. In particular, tell them to create swiftly and purposefully a type of British or Western Islam which not only is not in the hands of fanatics, but cannot be reclaimed by them. Lock the fanatical scholarship out as strongly as historically it has been able to be locked in. I say all this with a sense of hopelessness. There has been no sign, in a dozen years, that any Western country is willing to do anything like this.
It is possible, in the years ahead, that Islam will become something it has not been in 1,400 years. But it is unlikely. If Islam continues its backward direction or even if the current grip of the Islamic conservatives remains, Muslims in the West are going to continue to feel an increasing and deeply painful pull on their identities. In that situation Europe could go in a number of directions. Setting aside alarmist predictions of civil strife, it seems far more likely to me that what we will see developing in our societies will be people leading neighbouring but parallel existences and inhabiting increasingly different cultures under the roof of a splintered country. Those who wish to live strictly religious lives will probably always be able to find a community. And if the rest of us are endlessly told that we must accept the differences that migration has brought, we will have to make a simple calibration. Yes, it will be true that we will have access to a greater variety of food, languages and cultures than we had half a century ago. And we will have to get used to the downside that there will be more forced marriage, female genital mutilation and beheading than there used to be. My suspicion, not to be too flippant, is that a lot of people, especially those in positions of power, have already made their peace with that deal. There is no plausible reason, if they have not, why so much attention is paid to muffling those voices who raise criticisms of Islam and so much help given to those often highly regressive figures who carry water for the fundamentalists.
Britain will continue to have certain types of problem. The glimpses of school life in Blackburn and Birmingham are one type. There may be tinkering, and lone voices speaking out against such developments, but there will be no significant force from inside or outside Islam persuading Muslims that the path of segregation and separation denoted by the veil is wrong. Our politics will inevitably follow the same sectarian lines. Already there are stories — I know of two cases, from different political parties — where Jewish candidates have not been chosen to contest certain parliamentary seats because the proportion of local Muslims is too high. With one in ten young Britons being Muslim, there is already a change in the pressures on politicians. What will it be like when it is two in ten? Will some of our closest political alliances survive?
The best we may be able to hope for is the right to pursue the type of British lives that our ancestors lived. You can see this, in rural and other communities in Britain where the concerns of the global battle for Islam, even when they are in a nearby town, appear to be thousands of miles away. There will, of course, be those who can do nothing about this — born into poorer backgrounds and unable to pick or choose who their neighbours are. These people will continue to live on the faultlines of the problem. As the recent history of the English Defence League may have shown, any non-Muslim, grassroots yet non-racist resistance to Islamic extremism may well be impossible. Perhaps such people will accept that fact and accept their lot. Perhaps they will not.
In any case, it certainly appears to have become the view of the British governing class that, if there is a problem within or from Islam it is beyond the control or influence of the political class, let alone any single here-today gone-tomorrow politician. The pretence is now so strong that it is assumed that Islam is like all other religions, that suspicion of Islam is as dangerous as suspicion of any other religion. In short, they have tried to treat Islam like any other faith. And the problem is that it is not. Not just because Islam behaves in significantly different ways from other faiths, but because at the very point that it is swiftly growing in our own countries its global direction of travel is consistently regressive. Perhaps it always will be.
As I said at the outset, in the battle for the soul of Islam the extremists tend to win. There may be nothing we can do to stop this. And while the moderates and progressives will still deserve our good wishes and help where we can give it — and we should certainly wish them luck — we must also accept at least the possibility that they might lose. There was a time when this loss would just have been a loss within Islam. At one stage I hoped that the West might insulate itself from the repercussions of this loss. But I now think that hope was wild-eyed in its optimism. If Islam falls over the cliff it will do so in our embrace. Too late to disentangle ourselves, if it falls backwards here, it is now inconceivable that we will not all go over the cliff together.