Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Moderates vs Progressives in Scotland on 08/07/07

I published this opinion piece in the Sunday Times on 08/07/07

Islam’s Silent Majority is Happy in a Secular Scotland
By Amanullah De Sondy

The conspiracy theories have started already. After the car bomb attacks on Glasgow and London last week, I was shocked when many of my fellow-Muslims assured me the bombs were planted by agents of the British government. It was all staged, they insisted, to show Gordon Brown was a heavyweight Prime Minister, able to lead the country through a crisis.

Such collective delusion is nothing new. The internet is awash with kooks who claim Israel and/or the CIA were behind the Twin Towers attack and the 7/7 bombings in London that killed so many innocent people. But the people who spoke to me were anything but lone crackpots, they were mainstream members of our society.

Fortunately all of those “community leaders” who spoke out after last week’s attacks condemned the terrorists unequivocally and distanced themselves from it. But they are also defensive, I would argue too defensive. Their oft-repeated mantra that 'Islam condemns terror and is a peaceful religion,' lacks substance.

In the wake of the attack one leader wrote an article in which he said his thoughts immediately turned to the backlash against Muslims and fears for his family’s safety. Another suggests the problem was absolutely nothing to do with Muslims who were as baffled as anyone else. Condemnation and fear are expected in such a situation but why am I not hearing of solid solutions to the mess we find ourselves in?

We have grown used to these Muslim spokesman always presenting themselves and the ‘Muslim community’ as the victims, never the accused. Are we being bullied into accepting the loudest voices in order to be politically correct? The Runnymede Trust report of 1997 coined the new term 'Islamophobia' which has been a godsend to all those who continually wish to endorse a state of paranoia amongst Muslims and show hostility to any criticism or even open debate.

I would separate Muslim opinion into three categories. The extremists, who blow themselves up in the name of religion and have a romanticized vision of an Islamic Empire of Britain. Then come the moderates, who comprise the official spokesmen for mosques, and organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain, along with elder statesmen politicians.

Finally there are what I call progressive Muslims, or the silent majority, who do not wear their religion on their sleeve and who are open to discussion and debate about western dress, gender relations, social norms, and such aspects of Scottish life. This is not the place for me to condemn or condone any of the above but at least the progressives are open to the debate. They are so infused in Scottish society that such issues are part of their daily life, as is being a Muslim. I know of many within this category who are so fed being bullied into believing they are ‘bad Muslims’ that they take little to no interest in Islamic affairs. Their outlook is essentially secular, though many have a deep spirituality. We hear little from the progressives. Instead we leave the nominal “moderates” to speak for us. But often the moderates share a worldview, which is uncomfortably close to that of the extremists.

It is the same leaders who support separate Muslim schools that would isolate our young people and leave them more open to extremism. A faith based education may attempt to spoon-feed morality but it does not necessarily mean that it will be digested. The very nature of education demands inclusivity. The ‘moderates’ emerge from the woodwork whenever something controversial happens to Muslims. The pope’s speech at Ragensburg and the Danish cartoon controversy allowed them to speak for, and assert their authority over Muslims who may not share their views. Some of them share to some extent the desirability of restoring the caliphate, an Islamic state governed by Sharia law, a goal for which the extremists also say they fight. This is in line with prophetic traditions that state before the end of time Islam will prevail throughout the world. Naturally, they are upset by Salman Rushdie’s knighthood - how can they demand liberty and freedom for themselves, while denying it to a writer? Our moderate spokesman believe, as do the extremists, in a global brotherhood or umma, where Muslims share the same values, and have obligations towards each other. It relies on a romanticized medieval notion of what is 'Islamic'. This essentially conservative approach suggests that all Muslims are as one, that difference is unacceptable.

These people cling to out-dated interpretations of the Qur’an which have little relevance to the present day. To eradicate extremism we must revolutionise the way scripture is understood and practiced. This bold step will challenge the status quo of living Islam based on a historicized Shariah (Islamic Law). Wife beating, polygamous marriages, male superiority over females, are just a few examples of issues which are screaming for reformation in Islam.

What we really need is an Islamic reformation, similar to that experienced by the Christian church 500 years ago. The extremists and the so-called moderates are to an extent united in their opposition to such a development. Is this possibly their biggest fear? Those who argue for it are shunned as heretics. They are accused of being against the unity of Muslims. They suggest the break up of the Christian Church into many different denominations was damaging as opposed to delivering strength through diversity. They refuse to even acknowledge existing differences between Muslims: the Shi'as, the Sunnis, Ahmadiyas, Ismailis to name just a few. Sunni Islam in Britain seems to hijack centre stage even though the prophet Muhammad said ‘diversity is a blessing for my followers’.

There are many ways to be a Muslim and each geographical location brings with it its very own heritage. The vast majority of Muslims in Scotland are from the Indian subcontinent so it is important to explore the identity of a Pakistani. Pakistan was created through its struggles with India and established through the secular views of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a London educated barrister, who wanted Pakistan to be an Islamic state but one which was all inclusive and progressive. This outlook was short lived. Now we have a country battling in disarray between the secular liberal views of its founder and the theocratic views of those wishing to establish the ideal Islamic state. This is exactly the same confusion which is taking place within the Muslim communities in Scotland. They are confused about what exactly they are and where they are heading. Too many of Scotland’s first generation 'leaders' want to mould younger Muslims into their way of living Islam, and Islam that is well suited to their needs and the needs of Pakistanis who lived in Pakistan in the 1950s but little relevance to 21st century Scotland.

Hope lies with the progressive Muslims, proud Scots who are well integrated in education, business or industry. They are not obsessed with external showpieces of faith such as the veil for women or long beards for men. Their religion is just one aspect of their identity, it does not define them.

Next time a so called moderate spokesman steps before the television camera, ask yourself “who exactly does he represent?” The true partners in the fight against extremism are the silent majority in the Muslim communities. We must shift our attention to these individuals if we wish to secure a peaceful and progressive future.