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Email from a Muslim Student

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It always delights me when ex-students and ex-tutees keep in touch after they have moved on to university (or wherever). One of those I’m most delighted by ongoing contact with is Yasmeen. She is bright, stunningly attractive and has a truly wicked sense of humour. She is also a Muslim of Pakistani heritage.

Despite the fact we touched upon terrorism in our discussions for the World Sociology and Crime & Deviance topics, Yasmeen never let on to having any particularly strong political or religious views. Her father did, though. In an ‘Asian’ accent so strong I struggled to understand it at times, he described the Taliban as “very bad men”. He hated what they were doing to his country of birth.

So I was intrigued by an email from Yasmeen the other day in which she wrote:-

“Islam has a lot to offer in terms of spreading knowledge, living peacefully among others and just encouraging individuals to be good people and do the right thing.

“I know things are really fragile now with Muslims, I’m sure you’re well aware of all that’s been happening in the news about Charlie Hebdo, the Sydney Siege, Peshawar Massacre (among other things) – it’s really unfortunate that there’s a few individuals out there that do horrible things and say it’s in the name of Islam – it’s not. That’s not what we promote. It’s even stated in the Qur’an – I’m roughly paraphrasing here – that ‘if you take a life, it is as if you’ve slain the whole of humanity’. That is how much we value life and respect it. I’m not saying I’m not annoyed by the drawings of the Prophet (pbuh) and such; but, if you’re a Muslim and you see this, it’s all about tolerance – you can’t go shooting people. If their faith really was as strong as they say it is, then they should be able to tolerate it. People change through love and mutual respect, not brutality and murder.

“These extremists out there are just plain psychopaths. That’s how I see it – they’re not Muslims. They just want to watch the world burn.”

Wow!

There is so much in Yasmeen’s paragraphs that echo my previous post, The Meanings of Charlie Hebdo… for Islam and the West, and provide a basis for some additional thoughts.

More Muslims need to say these kinds of things
It’s all well and good the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), as reported by The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour, huffing and puffing that the open letter the other week from communities secretary Eric Pickles and communities minister Lord Ahmad was unfair in singling out the Muslim community as having a particular responsibility to stop radicalisation.

The unfortunate fact is that atrocities are being committed in the name of Islam; and, as former chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs is reported by Wintour to have said, the Muslim community has not done enough to ensure the teaching in its schools and mosques emphasises the need to integrate with British society. “Radicalised imams have in the past been preaching a message of hate.”

(To be fair to Sachs, he thinks Pickles & Ahmad are pushing too much responsibility on to British Muslims when extreme Islamism is a global phenomenon.)

More Muslims need to say what Yasmeen says about the extremists. What Malek Merabet, brother of the murdered Paris policeman (#‎JeSuisAhmed), said after the Charlie Hebdo killings: “My brother was a Muslim, and he was killed by people who pretend to be Muslims. They are terrorists – that’s it.”

‘Ordinary’ Msulims need to say these kind of things to each other…and to non-Muslims. Muslim leaders and Muslim influencers need to say it on public platforms and particularly to the media.

Important steps have been made in leading Muslims repudiating the kind of ‘Islam’ ISIS and al-Qaeda promote. For example, as The Observer’s Daniel Boffey (2014) reports, last September a coalition of imams and organisations representing British Muslims wrote to David Cameron urging him, other politicians and the media not to use the term ‘Islamic State’.

They wrote: “We do not believe the terror group responsible should be given the credence and standing they seek by styling themselves Islamic State. It is neither Islamic, nor is it a state. The group has no standing with faithful Muslims, nor among the international community of nations. It clearly will never accept the obligations that any legitimate state has, including the responsibility to protect citizens and uphold human rights. So we believe the media, civic society and governments should refuse to legitimise these ludicrous caliphate fantasies by accepting or propagating this name. We propose that ‘UnIslamic State’ (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternative name to describe this group and its agenda – and we will begin to call it that. We believe that it would send a powerful message in Britain and around the world if you would join us, as our prime minister, in leading a national debate to seek a suitable alternative way to refer to this group and further challenge its legitimacy and influence. This could be especially powerful because everybody at home and abroad can see that you are being asked to do so by British Muslims themselves who want to be clear about why this group is so vehemently rejected. We are sure that most British Muslims would agree that ‘UnIslamic State’ is a considerably more fitting label for this poisonous group – and hope that our fellow citizens will join us in that. We know that this would be one small, symbolic step and that we must all work together to build the inclusion and integration in British society that would repel these poisonous ideas.”

Tellingly perhaps, the authors of the letter, including Sughra Ahmed, president of the Islamic Society of Britain, Mohammed Abbasi from the Association of British Muslims and Amjad Malik QC, president of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, then had no hesitation in saying they need to do more to dissuade their young men from being misled into taking part in the group’s ‘hatred and poison’. “We shall take every opportunity to continue to say clearly and loudly ‘not in our name’ and ‘not for our faith’.” An acceptance of responsibility that the MCB seems to be equivocal about.

To put it bluntly, Muslims need to do more. Whether it’s fair or not, whether it’s burdensome or not, this is a game of memes. Who can get their ideas out there and dominating, infecting minds. Everyone who cares about Islam needs to be part of the meme that says Islam is a religion of peace and terrorists are not Muslims. Everyone time a tabloid rants about ‘Islamic terrorism’, the terrorists are winning the game of memes. Every time a non-Muslim refers to Muslims as ‘terrorists’, the terrorists are winning the game of memes. Every time a Muslim is searched by a police officer or airport security officer in an instance when a non-Muslim wouldn’t have been searched, both the Muslim and the officer have lost in the game of memes.

As Yasmeen says, they “want to watch the world burn”. (That or a worldwide caliphate of their psychotic version of Sharia.) Every time Muslims and non-Muslims turn on each other, the world burns a little. The extremists win.

More of the white majority need to see that the vast majority of Muslims are totally opposed to the ‘jihadists’
Ever since I wrote Why is the West ignoring a Leading Moderate Muslim? back in 2010, it has concerned me that Western politicians and Western media pay so little attention to the growing numbers of Muslim leaders denouncing terrorism.

It has been put to me that, as there is no authority hierarchy in Islam – like the Pope in Catholic Christianity or the Chief Rabbi in Orthodox Judaism – there is no clear route to disseminate authoritatively a healthy understanding of Islam. It is indeed the case that there is no authority hierarchy in Islam…but there are any number of Muslim scholars and clerics who are inclined to help Muslims live peacefully and piously in the West and who are opposed to extremist Islamism. The lack of hierarchy in Islam means that they jockey for influence in a way Christian and Jewish clerics don’t need to. Thus, many of them would welcome a helping hand from politicians and media. The beauty of this is that, if the Pope or the Chief Rabbi are uncooperative and/or difficult to work with, the route to influence is pretty much blocked. If one prominent Muslim cleric is uncooperative and/or difficult to work with, there are plenty more who would be only too glad to take his place. Thus, there are multiple routes to disseminate positive and healthy versions of Islam.

So why aren’t the politicians courting leading clerics and scholars? Every time there’s a major moral issue to be debated – let alone every time ISIS commits another atrocity! – why aren’t leading Muslim thinkers amongst the contributors to Newsnight and the Today programme?

I have wondered at times – see Will the West seize the Opportunity the Peshawar Massacre may offer…? – whether the likes of David Edwards & David Cromwell (2006) are right in their assertions it suits the Capitalist elites for the media to create and sustain moral panics about Islamic terrorism. Such moral panics distract from other major issues such as 5% of the West’s population owning 90% of its wealth which, for obvious reasons, the elites do not want the public to dwell upon.

There is, of course, little hard evidence that such manipulations are deliberatively contrived…but, nonetheless, if it doesn’t suit those who control politics and the media to have extremist Islamists as the folk devils to terrify the citizens of the West, why aren’t they doing more to show ordinary Muslims as contributing positively to society and working to enable Muslim influencers to discredit the extrremists as ‘un-Islamic’?

Cameron-Obama Jan 15 Reuters

David Cameron and Barack Obama talking ‘Islamic State’ at the White House, January 2015 – copyright © Reuters

As for David Cameron…did he take heed of the request not to call ISIS ‘Islamic State’? Hardly! He has used the term repeatedly since. Only on 16 January in a joint press conference with Barack Obama, he referred to Anglo-American measures against ‘Islamic State’ (BBC News, 2015b)

Talk about undermining your would-be allies!

If the prime minister takes the lead, is it any wonder many white secular or Christian British confuse Islam with terrorism…?

One more round lost in the game of memes!

Does Islam have anything positive to offer Western civilisation?
When the Western media isn’t perpetuating the radical extremist image of Islam, it’s all too often portraying it as a primitive, regressive and repressive religion. Especially where women are concerned. Women forced into unwanted marriages, women forced into burkhas, and periodic horror stories of female genital mutilation, etc, etc.

Such narratives usually fail to differentiate between culture and religion. Nowhere does the Qur’an require women to cover up to the degree of wearing a burkha. It simply instructs women “to be modest and display of their adornment only that which is apparent…” (Surah 24:31) What is ‘modest’ and what is ‘apparent’ are both descriptors which are open to interpretation. Thus a woman wearing a burkha is a response (usually) to the demands of patriarchal culture, not scriptural requirement.

In fact, it could be argued that women (as wives) are portrayed by the Qur’an as a blessing to men, described for example as a (protective) ‘garment’ (Surah 2:187) or a ‘tilth’ (place of cultivation) (Surah 2:223)

Given the reputation Islam all too often has in the West as discriminating against women, I find this comment of Yasmeen’s especially interesting: “Islam has a lot to offer in terms of spreading knowledge, living peacefully among others and just encouraging individuals to be good people and do the right thing.”

I will never forget, Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck, at the time of the HemsMESH project, commenting on the lack of BLUE influence in British society and pointing his finger at the Christian churches which, as a generalisation, he accused of failing to espouse strict moral codes for living and watering down their dogmas in futile attempts to appeal to more people to reverse declining congregations. Effectively Beck accused them of going GREEN.

So could a greater influence of Islam in British society give the BLUE vMEME a boost?

While few Britons, including many Muslims, would want to live under the kind of strict Sharia law the extremists desire, a great many people (Muslim and non-Muslim) would like to see greater respect for the law, more severe punishments for serious criminals, more restrictions on access to pornography, less corruption in public office, greater compassion for the truly poor, etc, etc. Religious Jews and Christians would support such measures – as would a number of those who were not religious at all.

If this is the kind of thing Yasmeen means by Islam “encouraging individuals to be good people and do the right thing”, then there can be little argument that that is a good thing for society.

However, Yasmeen’s take on Islam also shows the influence of the GREEN vMEME when she talks about valuing life, respect for others and even tolerance of those who offend you – a far cry from the primitive, regressive and repressive religion so often portrayed in the tabloids.

In fact, when you consider last September’s coalition of imams and Islamic influencers pleading with Cameron to drop the term ‘Islamic State’ and Cameron insisting on still using it, it rather makes the imams and influencers look progressive and Cameron the primitive regressive!

As the Asian Muslim population grows in this and other western European countries, politicians will be obliged to court their vote by offering at least some degree of such measures. In any case, Muslims will put forward politicians from their own communities for election – as indeed is already happening.

The rise of Islamic-influenced political and cultural thinking will undoubtedly bring problems as well as benefits, as I’ve discussed elsewhere – eg: Islamification: Europe’s Challenge and What will Islam do for Homosexuals?

What’s critical is that West accepts the inevitability of Islamic influence and avoids the British National Party/English Defence League-style traps of King Canute-like frustrated resistance. Rather, the aim should be to integrate Muslims into the political and cultural future in ways which gives BLUE enough to satisfy all but the real extreme Islamists – who will never be satisfied short of a caliphate – without unduly sacrificing the valid freedoms GREEN has won over the past half-century.

That will be a tricky path to negotiate and will require true visionary 2nd Tier thinking.

Balancing freedom of expression with the right not to be offended gratuitously
Galvanised by the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris and centred on the lampooning cartoons that magazine published of the prophet Muhammad, the debate over freedom of expression including the right to offend is a key issue that probably symbolises the difficulties to be negotiated as much as any other.

I discussed in some detail what I call ‘GREEN’s freedom of speech fallacy’ in The Meaning of Charlie Hebdo…for Islam and the West’…so I won’t labour the points here other than to say one viewpoint will say freedom of expression should have no boundaries – no limitations – while another will say people have a right not to have their cherished beliefs trashed publicly by others purely for the sake of entertainment and profit.

There is a role for sarcasm and humour in undermining the credibility of autocratic regimes, as Peter L Berger (1963) notes. As one wag pointed out to me, once the psychopaths of ISIS have established their caliphate, they will have to make the law stricter and stricter so they can carry on executing people. If everyone obeys the existing law, they will have no one to kill; so there is an imperative to interpret Sharia ever more rigidly and pedantically. (“Hey, your dog disrespected Allah by barking at a human. As the dog’s owner, you are responsible so you have to be punished.” Or even: “Hey, you’ve disrespected Allah by letting your beard grow unevenly.”) So, provided the psychopaths can be contained geographically, eventually they will end up executing themselves. Job done!

(This kind of black humour is reflected in real life as last month the New York Post’s Yaron Steinbuch reported that ISIS has instituted harsh punishments for smoking because it is ‘disobeying God’.)

However, making mockery of something held as dearly important by millions of ordinary law-abiding citizens is dubious in the extreme….

As the West has experienced time and time again since the hippie cultural revolutions of the 1960s, GREEN removing BLUE’s restrictions so the ‘human spirit’ can be ‘liberated’ all too frequently results in RED indulging itself, often at great cost. Epidemics of drug abuse, sexually-transmitted diseases and unwanted teenage pregnancies, along with the collapse of marriage as a lifetime institution, are just some of the more notable costs the Western world has paid for the untrammelled freedoms the 1960s ushered in.

Don Beck is right: we do need some BLUE thinking along with our GREEN freedoms and RED indulgences. To use a somewhat hackneyed soundbite: with rights come responsibilities. If a black person has the right not to be offended by people using the term ‘nigger’, Muslims have the right not to be offended gratuitously by offensive depictions of their prophet. A magazine wouldn’t get away unscathed with an offensive depiction of Jesus in ‘Bible-belt USA’; so one shouldn’t be able to do it in Paris where there is a sizeable Muslim population. Obviously, though, recourse should be through the law, not a murderous assault….which means the law – civil law, rather than criminal? – has to be changed. As a society, if we want our religious groups to be integrated, then they have to be respected and able to carry out their practices (as long as they don’t do harm others).

A young Muslim person…
In so many ways Yasmeen is a thoroughly-modern young woman. Career minded and incredibly determined, her ORANGE is driving her with ambition. Her RED shows itself in her humour and the way she dresses – Western-style and no hint of a hijab. Yet her PURPLE shows both in her cultural affiliation and in the deep sense of belonging she has with her father and her desire to care for him as he gets older and she becomes more and more successful. Yasmeen acknowledges there’s an element of (BLUE) duty: “in Pakistani culture looking after your parents in old age is pretty much a must”. But clearly it’s more driven by PURPLE: “…it’s also a personal thing to me because they gave me all their love and raised me – there is no way I can repay them for spending their lives on mine. So the least I can do is care for them when the time comes.”

That, to me, is a pretty positive, balanced and healthy outlook on life. If Yasmeen is a representation of what a young Muslim person can be in this country, then I, for one, welcome it. The version of Islam she represents does have a lot to offer this country and Muslims and non-Muslims alike have a vested interest in ensuring that this is the Islam that dominates culturally – not the twisted and poisonous ideology the extremists propound and the Western media all too readily disseminates.

A personal anecdote to conclude….

A couple of years ago Caroline and I were taken to the airport by a Pakistani-heritage Muslim taxi driver who looked like The Sun’s stereotypical image of an Islamist extremist: short hair and long beard, dressed in full salwar kameez. Among the pleasantries, this very sociable man revealed that he was hungry because he was fasting for Ramadan. We enquired further and he gave us a sort of mini-talk on the true nature of jihad. According to him, it is not the waging war of religious conquest purported by the likes of ISIS and replicated in the tabloids. Rather it is a someone’s personal struggle to be discipline himself or herself, to submit to God’s will and to be true to your faith, including sacrifice and charity.

This man spoke with such devotion to his faith it reminded me of the Catholic monks of the Hospitaller Order of St John of God with whom I had done some consultancy work in the late 1990s. The same (or similar) intense love of God manifested in a desire to do good for others.

We were impressed.

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  1. Keith E Rice says

    From this BBC/ComRes poll http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-31293196, it would appear the VAST MAJORITY of British Muslims share the views expressed by Yasmeen.

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