Islam in the UK – a clash of value systems?

The British Muslim 5pillarsuk.com site published the following article by Harith Armstrong (12 Oct 2015):

Why Prevent and the Quilliam Foundation are counter-productive

The UK government’s Prevent strategy is an anti-terrorist strategy, published in 2011. The Quilliam Foundation is an anti-extremism think tank, set up by Maajid Nawaz, himself a reformed radical Islamist.

In its essence the article calls into question the basis and acitivities of both Prevent and Quilliam Foundation, somewhat justifiably at least in the former case. But it also makes some errors of its own, which bring to light the underlying reasons for Islamic extremism – a clash of value systems.

My thoughts…

This country and the rest of Europe are based in modern times on the concept of a secular state, rule of law (not personal interpretations of religious scriptures by old men), with faith understood as a personal issue. Documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are what unites people in the West. So that’s our starting point for society here: tolerance, individual responsibility, basic rights of freedom of thought and expression, equality of rights of all (regardless of their innate qualities – race, gender, sexuality etc) within the limits of secular law. (How well anyone in the current British government, and therefore efforts such as Prevent, understand any of this is another matter entirely).

When someone from a Western society studies Islam, what they see is a controlling political and legal ideology, built into a religious belief system. Yet it is very clear that in its literal reading it only makes sense historically (for example, the notion of women as property was normal in 650AD Arabia). But no reasonable person in the modern world could possibly support the kinds of attitudes and punishments prescribed by the Qur’an and Hadith, because they are a way of thinking from prior to the revolutions in moral, rational and scientific thinking that have occurred since.

The world of today hardly resembles the tribal warfare and violence of Muhammed’s time and place. And yet the canonical documents of Islam define themselves as ‘uncreated’ and eternal, while rational interpretation such as espoused by the historical Muʿtazila school of Islamic theology in the 10th century seems to have disappeared.

It’s not hard to see that problems are going to occur between people and societies holding these two worldviews. Any person or group espousing an Islamic legal system in a modern Western society simply has no hope of anyone accepting such ideas – we’ve moved beyond any such thinking.

The article poses the following questions:

  • Does it really matter if a Muslim believes in the penal codes of their religion?
  • Are the vast majority of conservative Muslims seeking to apply this here in the UK? No.
  • Does them holding these views lead to more being radicalized? No.
  • Are they supporting the methodology with which ISIS or Al Qaeda apply shariah? No.

I assume the answer to the first is also ‘No’. Most people from a Western country would answer ‘yes’. Just read the Wikipedia page for ‘Apostasy’, and one can find the results of recent (last 5-10 years) surveys in which a significant proportion of Muslim respondents in both UK and majority Muslim countries like Pakistan agree on execution for the ‘crime’ of apostasy. The last time when ‘crimes’ of thought like apostasy and blasphemy were treated as real crimes in the Western world was around the late 1700s, when it was realised that a person’s own thoughts on a matter could not possibly constitute a crime of the same kind as murder or theft; today we see the punishments meted out for apostasy and blasphemy in the past as horrific and terrible crimes from an unenlightened age.

I suspect a lot of people in the UK would think that the answers to the 3rd and 4th questions are more likely to be ‘yes’ than ‘no’.

It’s pretty clear that Islam understood in a literalist form is problematic in that it appears to give licence to adherents to set up theocratic political regimes and commit horrific crimes as jihadi martyrs – this includes not just Daesh, but Saudi Arabia, Iran and a number of other major countries. The current plight of Raif Badawi and Iran’s prisoners of conscience can’t just be ignored – it’s a direct consequence of this kind of thinking.

So given all this, where are British Muslims today? It’s difficult to say, but my reading of the overall situation is that there is a serious difficulty created by the dynamic of every Muslim being treated by others (including some other Muslims) as if they are hardline adherents of Islam, when in fact many of them are ‘Muslim’ in the way just as many Christians are ‘Catholic’ or ‘Anglican’ – in other words, not very. They just try to be decent people and get on with their lives. But no-one points the finger at Christians and accuses them of wanting a theocracy, or wanting to stone adulterers or commit terrorist acts (as would have been possible many centuries ago) – in the West, we got over this kind of thinking and realised that societies can’t progress with it 250 years ago. No-one thinks like this anymore, other than our own religious extremists and throwbacks.

However I think Muslims here may be in a more difficult position. Islam is assumed to define the Muslim person’s culture and identity far more than Christian faith defines the culture or identity of a nominally Catholic or Protestant person. If people make reasonable critiques of Islam, Muslims feel offended, and that they have to defend it, whereas criticism of Catholicism is likely to be greeted with agreement or disinterest. On any panel show, any vaguely middle-eastern looking person is somehow assumed to be a staunch defender of a single Muslim point of view, and I suspect British Muslims on these shows do feel pressured to act as such a defender, even though their own opinions may be quite different.

A very real problem is that Muslims are also the victims of outright racist diatribes and other ignorant nonsense from mindless bigots and even some journalists and politicians, people who wouldn’t know an Arab from a Persian or a Turk. I have sympathies here with Muslims, because this kind of attack is wearing on the victims and shouldn’t have to be tolerated. And yet, when these bigots look on the internet and find a published survey stating that a significant proportion of young UK born Muslims do believe in executions for apostasy and blasphemy, it just makes it easier for them. If such surveys give an inaccurate picture of British Muslims, then British Muslims should do something about it – publish some larger surveys for example.

The ongoing misuse and misunderstanding of the now useless word ‘Islamophobia’ only exacerbates all of this, about which I have previously commented.

There is another problem that the article mentions. It asks the question of what ‘British values’ are understood to be, and then says:

 What ideas like “individual liberty” actually mean in practice is subject to debate. The UK government’s intervention in both Iraq and Afghanistan were carried out in the name of liberty and democracy at the expense of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives

Well, the UK government did do these things, not the people of the UK. Firstly, going to war in some foreign land is not seen by anybody as part of the definition of ‘liberty’ in the sense of the Enlightenment or UDHR. Secondly, the vast majority of the UK populace was against the war in Iraq, as were a majority of most other European countries, also Australia, Canada, Brazil and others. Afghanistan was perceived more equivocally due to direct implication in 9/11, and a debate can be had about that.

But the article can’t really claim, as it does, that people in the UK generally think that the underpinning ideals of Western secular democracy include being able to invade foreign countries (no matter how hideous the crimes of their regimes) – these invasions are recognised to be political acts often of unrepresentative elites that have in fact over-ridden democracy, and in the case of the 2nd Iraq war, are understood by everyone except possibly Tony Blair to have been illegal.

Anger at the foreign policy of Western ‘alliance’ countries isn’t limited to Muslims either, I guarantee that a very large proportion of British society is just as angry. And having been anti the Iraq war is a defining position for candidates in the US 2016 presidential campaign as we speak.

In any case, foreign policy isn’t an excuse to duck the real questions here, which go back to the incompatibilities of secular democracy/human rights versus Qur’anic religious orthodoxy.

The problem with UK/Western foreign policy isn’t that UK citizens think it represents their rights of liberty (they don’t), it’s that it engenders wars and terrorism in which some parties are Muslims who use violence on unarmed civilians (another value we don’t believe in in the West – and probably a majority of Muslims don’t either), and do so under a religious banner rather than a national flag.

Indeed, it is not clear if the author of the article really understands what is meant by ‘liberty’, going by the following passage:

Coming back to the definition of extremism published by the government in the Prevent Strategy – there is a strong emphasis on “individual liberty” – and we can safely assume tolerance of homosexuality is most definitely part of this. Countless studies and polls suggest that the vast majority of British Muslims perceive it as unnatural – and if given the opportunity would not allow narratives which promote this gender preference to permeate.

This would violate our traditional understanding of individual liberty which advocates the “do no harm” principle meaning we are free to act in the way we see fit so long as we cause no harm to others. For most Muslims, homosexuality is perceived as something that does cause harm (in the spiritual sense) in that it’s displeasing to God. So if we take this definition of extremism proposed by the government to its logical conclusion, most British Muslims are in fact holding an extremist view.

Here he tries to equate homosexuality to some kind of arrogated liberty (clearly it’s an innate quality), then equates ‘liberty’ to the principle ‘do no harm’, and then redefines the term ‘harm’ in a theological way that no-one in a secular democracy (no matter how religious they may personally be) would use. It’s hard to know where to start with this – every link in the chain of reasoning is broken, for reasons too obvious to state here, but the logical result is the same as if we said that ‘being red-headed is an insult to god, so we should not tolerate red-headed people’.

So what to do about all this?

As I said above, I suspect not many take Prevent too seriously because it is founded on a superficial understanding even of Western values, let alone Muslim thinking. It has certainly not had a positive impact. The author and others are right to take issue with it, particularly the growing list of stupidities committed in its name.

But as far as I can see, Quilliam Foundation is a more credible organisation – I understand it is against extremism in general, not just its overt terrorist expression. The author clearly has a lot of problems with Maajid Nawaz, including that he associates with Sam Harris, for which reason he thinks no radicalising Muslim would take Nawaz seriously. But that’s to misunderstand the real problem in my view.

The real problem – the underlying cause of terrorism and what we consider to be extreme or unacceptable views in the West – is quite simply the incompatibilities of the modern Western worldview and the Islamic worldview – the West jettisoned all ideas of apostasy, blasphemy, and other such theocratic ideas, and replaced them with universal human rights and tolerance as ideals for a civilised society. Christians and mainstream Christian churches came to terms with this, and reformulated their thinking in terms of faith rather than social control. They’re still dragging the chain on treating homosexuals as having full human rights, but they are getting there.

When Maajid Nawaz gets together with Sam Harris, it is these values they are really talking about.

This conversion to Enlightenment values hasn’t yet taken place across the board within Islam, even if some Muslims might agree with such values (including some major Islamic scholars such as Hussein-Ali Montazeri of Iran) – Islamic religious orthodoxy doesn’t. And yet this is what the West is about – these humanist values of tolerance, equality and liberty of thought and speech. How can Muslims feel truly at home here if they are suspected of sympathising with or holding outright the orthodox views on apostasy, blasphemy, jihad, martyrdom, and various attitudes to women in society? I think they need to be more active on spelling out what they really think.

Terrorism is just the most extreme outcome of this clash of value systems.

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