Saturday, 9 August 2008
Islam on Campus and Progressive Islam in Scotland
The Centre for Social Cohesion produced a report titled ‘Islam on Campus – a Survey of UK Student Opinion’ by John Thorne and Hannah Stuart. The Herald newspaper ran a story the other week titled ‘Divisive study of Muslim attitudes comes under fire’. Alison McCallum reported how Islamic Societies leaders in Scotland were not pleased with this report, which they said was not a true picture.
I have just finished reading the full report and wanted to comment on some of the issues the report highlights. I found this piece of research generally very well laid out and reject the accusation by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies that there is some form of ‘agenda’ by the authors. Let’s not fall into our siege mentality here and just accept criticism! Let’s unpack some of the findings. The researchers found that a lot of Islamic Societies on campus were based in some form of prayer room and in these prayer rooms they found many books which had particular ‘Islamic brotherhood’ leanings. This is not really a surprise to me as I was myself the president of the Islamic Society at Stirling University where we had many books by leading authors of a very political Islamic nature. This in turn creates a political atmosphere as opposed to a spiritual one. A lot of the folk who are involved in Islamic Societies are fairly political in their activities. The report highlighted some tension between more right wing Muslim students on campus and the more Sufi in nature. It seemed that they would remove each other’s books from the library just to get at each other. From my experience Islamic Societies in Scotland have little to no leaning towards Sufism and it would be fair to say that they are more Wahabbist in outlook.
The Shar’ia and its interpretation were also questions which students were vocal about. There was some reluctance by students to support the re-interpretation of the Shar’ia. This is also no surprise because there is so little understood about what the Shar’is is! There is widespread understanding that Shar’ia is just right and wrong ordained by God! On the issue of the caliphate it seemed that this was also a split issue with some in favour and some not. Again, lack of objective understanding on the issue. However, the question which hit the Scottish Herald newspaper headlines was the issue of ‘killing for the sake of Islam’ where 32% said it was justified to kill to ‘preserve and promote the religion and if the religion was under attack’. This is rather worrying and must be condemned by Islamic Societies throughout the country. I’m not convinced that students would actually want this to happen physically but a lot of the time, because of the lack of understanding of the issue, Muslims will make statements which they have never researched. For example, at the end of most Friday prayers the Imam will make a series of prayers to different people and one of them is to help the Jihad of the Mujahadeen. What exactly does this mean? I know why I find this shocking but does the average Muslim in the Mosque sit up and ponder the prayer they are making?
I should recall my own shocking story when I received an email on the University of Glasgow student email list serve from some holier than holy Muslim student who was using terminology such as ‘Kafir’ in order to secure his own conservative interpretation of Islam whilst writing about Muslim-non-Muslim relations. Now the term is most often used in a derogative sense towards non-Muslims. I found this unacceptable in this email and asked for a retraction by the President of Glasgow University Islamic Society. This never happened but was told these were the author’s own opinion. So why was this being sent from and on behalf of the Islamic Society? I found this rather strange and I was never given a reason for this.
On the question of apostasy 50% of students would not support their Muslim friend to convert to another faith. The Qur’an is very clear on the issue of coercion, the sooner we realise this the better. There were also some questions on the Shi’a and Sunni divide and how students perceived the other. There seemed to be a lack of understanding about what Sufism was amongst students. There also seemed to be a general intolerance towards homosexuals, especially amongst Muslim male students. It was also believed that the Hijab is an integral component of the Islamic faith. I guess this is no surprise as we are still so engrossed in the Hijab issue, it has become the be all of what Islam and Muslims stand for, at times. We must realise that there is more to a Muslim women than what she puts on her head.
There was a positive response on the issue of equality amongst men and women. However, researchers found that there was still a separation of men and women in lectures on some campuses such as Queen Mary. A long time ago I was the Scottish Executive to the Federation of Student Islamic Societies but I gave up on this one because I felt that it was not moving further forward. The final nail was hammered when the council of Student Islamic Societies failed to elect a much worthier female student to the post of President just because she was a woman! They elected a male candidate who was nowhere near of the same calibre. I also find it rather shocking in this day and age that there are ‘Sisters’ Sections’ in Islamic Society heirarcy which basically sets the females aside from the brothers ruling the roost! If there was an acceptance of total equality then females would be able to become Presidents of Islamic Societies on campus. I think the Muslim commentator, Ziauddin Sardar sums FOSIS up pretty well in the report, “Most members of FOSIS ... [were] … strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. These organisations preached a simple message: Islam Good; Secularism Bad.”
The report also highlights something very important that representative bodies are not always representative! Take heed Scottish government and policy makers in Scotland. “Islamic societies nationwide are at least nominally affiliated, via FOSIS, to the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a registered charity and umbrella group which claims over 400 affiliates and describes itself as the largest Muslim organisation in the UK. Since its 1997 founding, the MCB has sought to position itself as the main voice of British Muslims. Yet, according to a 2006 Dispatches poll, ‘What Muslims want’, for Channel 4, less than 4% think that the MCB represents British Muslims. In addition, many of the group’s leaders and founders such as Khurshid Ahmad were formerly affiliated with Islamist parties in Pakistan such as Jamaat-e-Islami.”
The report also found that students had little understanding about Judaism and Zionism. There seemed to be a close affinity to organizations such as Friend of Al-Aqsa, “Founded in 1997, Friends of Al-Aqsa’s stated goals include “defending the human rights of Palestinians and protecting the sacred al-Aqsa Sanctuary in Jerusalem.” Ismail Patel, the current leader of Friends of Al-Aqsa, has said that the group aims “to raise awareness of the Palestinians’ sufferings and dispel the notion that Hamas is barbaric, and that it cannot be dealt with.” As a specialist in the history of medieval Jerusalem, I have often felt totally uncomfortable with such organizations which have a clearly political message to promote as opposed to one rooted in Islamic understandings of peace and tolerance, something which Jews, Muslims and Christians have all exhibited in the Holy Land in the past.
In conclusion, this report has presented a fairly coherent picture of what is happening on campus. I disagree with the way The Herald picked the most controversial finding and plastered a headline, how else did they expect Muslim students to react? Was this just to sell their newspaper? If this report is to promote change how has this whole situation helped to do that? By headlining it in this way have we made this report accessible to Muslim students to pick up, read and seek change? No, I think we have alienated all sides in this argument and no one seems to want to accept the face of reality. This goes back to what I wrote about a few days ago about criticizing the current situation Islam and Muslims find themselves in. Change and progress can only occur if there is a sincere acceptance of the reality in which we find ourselves. I have no qualms about stating my opposition to the type of Islamic understanding that is bred on campus but promoting their siege mentality and crying Islamophobia is not going to help anyone.
This leads me on to my final rant. The progressive voices of Muslims on campus have little to do with Islamic Societies because they are often shunned for not following the pack. However, the moderates have began a clever crusade of using the word progressive in order to fool the wider community into believing that they are the real progressives. I have found this very disturbing of late. Maybe I should be gloating that they might have been reading my blog and the word is catching on but then maybe that’s wishful thinking. I am sceptical that the word ‘progressive’ is not being used to its ultimate potential in the spirit of Islamic liberty and progress but is being abused to further a political agenda. Once again, would the real progressives wake up!