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Nationalism, Religion or Politics - Islam & the West
Take not life which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law - Al-Anaam (Holy Qur'an) 6:151

22 July   |   2005   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Ever since the bomb attacks against four soft targets in London on 7 July 2005, the media has been discussing the link between those attacks and Islam, as well as the degree of pervasiveness of religious radicalism within the younger generations of Muslims in the UK. The fact that the suicide bombers were British has fuelled inevitably this discussion, with some of the louder headlines questioning their loyalty to their country of birth or adoption.

To manage this public debate about Islamic terrorism, jihad or even Wahhabi fundamentalism, public officials from the British Government and the Muslim community in Britain have been voicing their fierce opposition to the attacks and suggesting initiatives to stem the growth of radicalism. PM Tony Blair met twenty-five Muslim community leaders last Tuesday and challenged them to face down those extremists who argue the case for violent attacks on 'infidels' in the UK. He also consulted them on the government proposals for tackling in Parliament the rise of Islamic extremism, particularly amongst young Muslims, through a raft of anti-terror legislation. As a result of this 'summit' (as dubbed by the media), a task force or "network" would be set up by Muslim community leaders, with government backing, that would seek to dissuade young Muslims from turning to extremism.

Earlier in the week, 500 British Muslim leaders and scholars had issued a religious decree criticising the 7 th July blasts. The fatwa , or formal legal opinion, issued by the British Muslim Forum (BMF) expressed condolences to the families of the victims of those atrocities and wished the injured a speedy recovery. The decree stated that 'Islam condemns the use of violence, and the destruction of innocent lives and suicide bombings are vehemently prohibited'. Gul Mohammad, BMF secretary-general, quoted the Qur'an in averring that [] 'Whoever kills a human being ... then it is as though he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a human life, it is as though he had saved all mankind'. He added that 'the murder of one soul in Islam is tantamount to the murder of the whole of humanity, and that he who shows no respect for human life is an enemy of humanity'.

So where does this flurry of concern place us all today in what many people assert is a pluralist and multi-cultural London? Does faith enter the equation? Is it justified to establish moral equivalence between the bombs on the buses and trains of London and what is happening politically in other parts of the world? Is it correct, to claim that Islam is antithetical to the West, or conversely that the West has become again the implacable foe of Islam?

Let me start off with a clear statement that the atrocities we witnessed on 7/7 in London violate essential Islamic principles. The Qur'an prohibits aggressive warfare, permits war only in self-defence and affirms that peace, reconciliation and forgiveness remain the faithful Islamic values. Like the Bible, the Qur'an has its share of aggressive texts. It is quite true that jurisprudence within Islam (particularly in the Sunni tradition) has been immobilised for some eight centuries now and it therefore needs to be addressed by Muslim scholars, imams and practitioners. But the main thrust of Islam still points toward kindliness and compassion. One only needs to refer to the powerful Amman Message published in Jordan in November 2004 during the holy month of Ramadan to realise that the core of Islam in its essence is neither belligerent nor bellicose.

However, the fact that a religion is not aggressive per se does not necessarily mean that its adherents are not aggressive too - particularly when some of them provide their own exegesis of religion or try to justify their nihilistic and death-inviting actions by misshaping the mantle of religion - as those Muslims did a few days ago.  

Across the West, particularly more so in some EU countries, I believe that Islamic fundamentalism is often a primary form of nationalism in religious disguise. Indeed, fundamentalism is more about a search for social identity and national self-definition than religion. It encapsulates either a desire by its protagonists to return to the roots of their anterior culture or a rejection of the normative values of the moment. Even those "experts" who dramatise Islam on television or radio by referring to those suicide bombers and terrorists as jihadists are still missing the point since jihad in Islam is not a "holy war" but rather a "struggle" or "effort" that is exercised by every single Muslim man or woman in all wakes and aspects of life from morning till evening every day.

Having established those elemental parameters, let me return to the carnage that was inflicted upon London earlier this month.   Here again, I believe that the government and community leaders should focus on two distinct but inter-related problems that drove those British Asian Muslim men to court certain death. On the one hand, there is a dangerously large minority of young Muslims in Britain who have not been able to integrate into Western society and who are caught between their original familial / societal cultures and the society in which they live today. Those young Muslims, perhaps well-educated and well-heeled but often unemployed and lacking a clear purpose or compass, feel increasingly alienated, frustrated or angry and become radicalised through the fiery brand of Islam. They then choose - obscenely, obtusely - death as an egress for ventilating those pent-up negative feelings. But hand-in-hand with those primeval feelings are also other push factors that are indisputably political in nature. They are Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and all other conflicts from Chechnya to Nigeria in which they perceive that the Muslim concept of umma (one nation) is being challenged and probably demeaned by a non-Muslim West.

Whether we agree or not with those political perceptions or causal links, it is intellectually unjustifiable and politically disingenuous to dismiss them as being misconstrued or wrong. After all, the findings from a briefing paper entitled Security, Terrorism and the UK published by Chatham House (part of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London) and the Economic & Social Research Council argue in toto that the UK is at particular risk because it is the closest ally of the US and has supported the deployment of British troops in the military campaigns against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. It further adds that the main stumbling block in hampering counter terrorism initiatives at home is that the UK is 'riding as a pillion passenger with the United States in the war against terror'.

One would have hoped that Muslim community leaders in the UK would be able to deal sagaciously with those radical tendencies. However, the fact is that Muslim sheikhs or imams in mosques, madrassas or even community centres across the UK and the world are largely out of touch with those younger generations. They do not understand their grievances; they do not know how to talk to these young men and women; they do not know how to address the core problems or ask why many Muslims invoke Islam as a rationale for their dastardly deeds And therein, I believe, lies the two-fold crux of the problem that is assailing our cities these days.

What is urgently required at this critical stage is to explore ways of engaging with those disaffected and disenfranchised young people not solely to try and persuade them to abandon their ways but equally importantly to show them that their anger and frustration could be harnessed through democratic and peaceful means of protest and action within existing systems (that still remain more available here than in many Muslim societies) rather than through terror and violence. After all, engaging with someone is not the same as agreeing with her or him.

Having lived in the Middle East for many years, and participated in numerous multi-faith fora, I refuse to condemn Islam as a religion, or associate those wanton perversions with it. What is happening today is not so much a clash of civilisations as a war of ideas. To preach at those young Muslims who are enraged at British policies, or who feel left out by a post-ideological and irreligious reality that surrounds them, is redundant since it would achieve no purpose. True, what happened in London over a fortnight ago is totally unjustifiable, though not necessarily unexplainable, and it is the duty of Government as well as Muslim religious and community leaders to spend less time denying its roots, and more time in tackling it. It is important to find ways in order to reach out to those people - either through their peers or through state-subsidised training courses and elective councils (to name but two methods). This would empower them to educate those young Muslim militants and thereby discover faith-centred ways to defuse the anger that becomes misdirected, ill judged, vengeful and destructive.

Otherwise, meeting with the Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers, issuing fatwas and decrees against terror and violence, or appearing on television to deny - defensively - that there is an issue within religions or policies are not optimal ways at convincing those so-called 'fringe groups' to acknowledge the error of their ways. Once we all accept that there is a problem outside the frame of our own references, and once we admit that talking to the hierarchy will not necessarily address all those radical offshoots, we might stand a chance to dissipate the shadow of deathly violence hanging, like the sword of Damocles, over our heads at every corner.

But we would also be wise to tread judiciously the dividing line between our civil liberties and human rights on the one hand and our need for security on the other. Otherwise, we might end up ex post facto institutionalising the very violence we are combating today - and that is not the religious way, and should certainly not be our way.

We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another - Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2005   |   22 July


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