Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Professor Abdullahi An-Na'im: Why is an Islamic State Untenable? Why the State should be Secular

Abdullahi An'Naim, Professor of Law at Emory University USA has written on the future of Islamic Law and the State. Here is an excerpt of his argument which I greatly admire...

"The idea of an Islamic State derives from the unique role that the Prophet Muhammad held in Medina, where the Prophet concurrently asserted political, military and religious leadership. But conflating religion and the state is untenable because only the Prophet was capable of holding all of that authority at once, and Muslims do not accept the possibility of another Prophet.

Furthermore, the idea of an Islamic state is not borne from Islamic culture. The idea stems from a European view where law is positive and the state is totalitarian entity that seeks to form society in the state's image. Historically, Islamic societies have differentiated between state and religious institutions, and permitting a state to force its view upon unwilling citizens violates the principles of Islam that teach individuals to live through personal choice and accept differences and disagreements with others.

Islamic societies have traditionally differentiated between state and religious institutions because religious and political authority are fundamentally different. Religious authority comes from personal, subjective judgments about a scholar's religious piety and knowledge. Political authority is determined on an objective basis as people assess a leader's ability to exercise coercive power and administrate effectively. Additionally, religious authority invokes divine power, which transcens human challenge, whereas political authority is supposed to represent the views of the population and is thus based upon human judgment which can be challenged by other human beings.

Also, the flexibility of Shari`a conflicts with the state's need for practicability and stability. As demonstrated below, Shari`a is subject to changing human interpretations, and if Shari`a is the entire basis for a state's law, then that law could be undermined by the potential for wholesale change. Further, Shari`a does not provide effective guidance for the state on practical issues like daily administration and international trade.

Practices of the Prophet Muhammad support the idea that a state needs skills that stand apart from religious authority. The Prophet repeatedly appointed a man as commander of the Muslim armies even though the Prophet was dissatisfied with the commander's religious piety.

Just like there is an inherent connectedness between religion and politics, there is interplay between religious and political authority. For example, a political leader may have a degree of religious authority. But the fundamental differences between religious and political authority mandate separating the two precepts.

Why the State should be Secular

The base of this discussion is Professor An-Na`im's belief that the state should be secular (i.e. neutral about religion) and not an enforcer of Shari`a.

First, the state should not commandeer Shari`a because Islam decrees that Muslims practice their religion through personal, voluntary conviction without the influence of state coercion. Additionally, the idea of a secular state is more consistent with Islamic history than the notion of an Islamic state that conflates religious and state institutions.

Second, state enforcement of Shari`a undermines the religious authority of Shari`a and leads to possibilities of hypocrisy (nifaq). For example, consider how some Islamic scholars assert that apostasy (heresy) is punishable by death although the Qur'an does not provide any legal punishment for apostasy. Thus, if a state enforced the views of those scholars, then some Muslims may be forced to contradict their own beliefs, violating their personal freedom of religion, and undermining the credibility and coherence of Islam itself.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Debating Radicalism: Extreme, Moderate and Progressive

Debating Radicalism by Professor John Holmwood, Head of Department – Sociology, University of Birmingham

John began his lecture with a context of the climate of fear that has been created by the British media. The Sun commented in the negative about the Archbishop of Canterbury calling for certain elements of the Sharia to be incorporated into the UK legal system. This was taken out of context and was presented as a statement of Islamisation of the United Kingdom. The next issue that was discussed was the terrorism act and the way in which it is a big issue on campus. John stated the position of the radical group Hizb-at-Tahrir, who have been banned from the UK because of their radical views on an Islamic State.

The lecture was based on a debate that John took part in. John was invited to a debate by the Hizb-at-Tahrir to talk about secularism and this was to happen in Birmingham. This was picked up by a blogger ‘Ministry of Truth’ who found that a Muslim was forwarding the advertisement for this. The blogger then deconstructed the views of Hizb-at-Tahrir which are fairly conservative (they are accused of being anti-Semitic and homophobic). There are some who would argue that folk should not engage with the Hizb-at-Tahrir or those from racist political parties such as the BNP. The question which John was posing was whether it was a good or bad thing that he took part in this debate. It seemed that the experience was a good one as there were some in the audience who were interested in the values of secularism. John found it rather odd that the participants were grateful for having him and asked if it would be alright for them to visit the university as if to say that the university space is not a public one.

I am left with some questions but before I do that let me personalise this issue. I can truly feel the tension that John has felt. I have often been accused by some, not by radical groups such as Hizb-at-Tahrir but by those organisations that are today accepted as ‘moderate’, of being too ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’. This I have become accustomed to and when I was researching Muslim philanthropy patterns in the UK it did get a tad dangerous when Imams were calling my office and saying I had been ‘sold to the Jews’ and was a ‘secret agent of the state of Israel’. But such sentiments are at the extreme end of the spectrum. The average Muslim would distance themselves from the very extreme views of Hizb-at-Tahrir but I go back to my earlier statement that in today’s world we have cleverly re-packaged and disguised our position. I don’t think there is that much difference on issues relating to anti-Semitism, homosexuality, position of women or the Islamic state between radical organisations and the so-called moderates. There is a fine line. I am in hope that these lines become more defined and distinguished. Maybe what is happening is that there is a shift from right (Hizb-at-Tahrir) to the centre (our so-called moderates) and this is all moving towards the progressives.

Police: Religion & Terror - The Lessons Scotland Needs to Wake Up To!

Superintendent Andy Pratt who is a superintendent officer in Blackburn came to talk to us about policing in England and Wales. Andy stated at the onset that England is very different from Scotland. The individual sections of the police force is split into different regions. This gives each police force freedom to decide on what issues are more important for that region. The area of Blackburn has a large community of Muslims of Pakistani/Indian origin. In light of the recent rise of Muslim terrorists the police force have had to try and figure out a way out of this. Andy stated that the force is more focused on provoking and pursuing the terrorists than preventing.

Andy told us of the time when Muslims on the day of Eid were driving around Blackburn and getting into accidents. This had in the past led to even death. This is also a worry in the south side of Glasgow on Eid day when guys feel the urge to race around in their cars with music blaring. So Andy had decided to send these boys home off the streets but found himself in the centre of a group of Muslims who started to throw cans of juice at him. This was a very worrying moment for him but all of a sudden he found a wall of Muslim boys surrounding him and telling others to stop hurting him. As a Christian, Andy chuckled at his local Church how Muslim angels had saved him!

I was greatly saddened when he said that Scotland seemed to be in denial that terrorist were breeding in Scotland and how wrong they were when the terrorists rammed cars full of explosives into Glasgow Airport. I am not going to say ‘I told you so’, or maybe I am, but I did mention to some senior officials in Glasgow that Scotland was, and still is, a great breeding ground for terrorists. And as Andy has mentioned the way forward is to focus on prevention than pursuing. What is Scotland doing to challenge and educate communities about the intricacies in which the Muslim communities are? Why is the Scottish government seeking figure heads to represent ‘peaceful Islam’? As our summer school director mentioned the other day, the real focus (and this is related to prevention) is to challenge and engage with those who have conservative and puritanical understanding and approaches to Islam. I have mentioned time and time again that the vast majority of people are able to disguise and package bigoted and prejudicial identity, this is a worry of mine. Andy was very brave to state that racism is an issue amongst the British.