I was recently on the Big Questions, which was aired on Sunday 31 January. The debate topic: ‘Do we need a British Islam?’. It was an intense and heated debate and articulating points on a live show with serious time constraints has it challenges (add to that a passionate debate and everyone trying to get their points across) which meant it was difficult to clarify the points I was trying to make. At times the challenges became personal which didn’t make for the best of examples but, I imagine, made for good viewing. This was an opportunity to discuss important issues and for this reason I write further to clarify the thoughts I had saved for the show itself.
At the beginning of the show I expressed that the dominant interpretation of Islam at present in the UK was one that had lost its beauty and had become divorced from ethics. It was not as someone had misquoted me as saying “that the majority of British Muslims are unethical”. My point was that religious leaders and activists who dominate the intellectual discourse argue for an Islam that is often out of touch with the message of Islam. The articulation of a humanistic Islam is lost and drowned out by a small minority of self-proclaimed guardians of the faith, who dominate the Islamic discourse. This does not negate the fact that Muslims in West Yorkshire helped their fellow citizens in need and that Muslims have “fish and chips on Friday” but misses the point. I also raised the point about apostasy killing (killing someone for merely leaving the Islamic faith) as a way of demonstrating the basic incompatibility between certain aspects of Islam as interpreted by the four major Sunni schools of thought and British values as lived in the UK. In my experience Islamic preachers have openly spoken, especially on university campuses, that apostate killing is a mainstream position. A video of such an example can be found here.
To allow such irrationality to permeate the religion consequently allows for a mindset that can tolerate this and other evils and ultimately taints the religion of Islam. The denial of the problem of Puritanism and the desperate need for reform is driven by a deep sense of manufactured victimhood used to exploit uninformed Muslims. Claiming persecution, discrimination or profiling redirects and redistributes blame, obstructing the deep inner refection that is needed to address such issues. The Sufi mystics have an ancient tradition which stressed the importance of focusing on the self before even thinking about others. To be hard on the self and easy on others. A discipline ignored, the mystics warned, a person could drift into moral complacency and arrogance. This is also true of a community if the community is constantly in a type of “siege mentally” and does not engage in inner self-refection.
Bizarrely, one of the guests accused me of exacerbating extremism for bringing up such concerns. To deny that ugly acts are done in the name of Islam due to an extremist reading of Islam and to engage in blame fest (namely to blame the West) immunizes and desensitizes the community. It is important to challenge noxious edicts and doctrines that denigrate the Islamic faith. In turn, failing to identify the true problems and allowing for change allows the negative depictions of Islam pushed by the Islamic right to prosper and go unchallenged. Victim merchants stoking fires who hinder the introspection process are obstructing Islam’s reform and are unwittingly acting as the enemy within, not those who call for change.
There has been great positive comments and feedback by both Muslim and non Muslim following the show. Messages of warmth and solidarity. Comments included: “breath of fresh air” and “refreshing”. I also received:
“I greatly admire your resilience, especially at presenting logical arguments to people who are incapable of debating. I had given that up a long time ago, and have always felt apathetic in my apparent isolation of belief. I finally feel like I’m not alone…”.
Some Muslims felt the need to show their support in private for fear of receiving a backlash. One Muslim explained, “Just wanted to say I loved your arguments on the show: it gave me hope…I would love to address you publicly on your page but I’m exactly the peer prepressured subject that you’re trying to defend (plenty of crows circling my Facebook activity)”.
It seems there is a silent majority who cannot connect with the fossilized Islam that puritans preach. The small minority of Muslims at the end of the spectrum who have been indoctrinated by supremacist Islamist and Puritanical Wahhabi teachings are those that push back any discussion about reform. But those Muslims in the middle ground are receptive and welcome a more tolerant, pluralistic and ethical Islam, one that they can relate to. The single most important challenge to Islam is this puritan trend. Everyone talks about how many people are embracing Islam, but the true question is: how many are leaving?