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Islam - muligheder for reformer:

Terrorism, Islam, Reform:
        Thinking the Unthinkable

Maruf Khwaja, 28. juli 2005

The atrocity of 7 July in London is the latest manifestation of a rooted culture of ignorance and intolerance in the Muslim world. Only reform can save Islam from itself, says Maruf Khwaja.

For most British citizens, life has returned to a wary normality after the London bomb outrage of 7 July and its abortive repeat two weeks later. But the aftermath of the most devastating man-made catastrophe in Britain since 1945 (after Lockerbie in 1988, and leaving aside the question of whether disasters like Aberfan in 1967 qualify as such) will linger for a long time. The wounds are deep and may never fully heal.

Life will never be the same for those touched by the disaster: the maimed, those with psychological scars, the bereaved. The trauma will be with them forever.

British Muslims and non-Muslims alike agonize over the question raised by the “homegrown” attackers of 7 July in particular: why did a group of apparently normal, well-adjusted young men, born and brought up in Britain, products of an education that imparts (if nothing else) liberal values, commit such a horrendous crime?

One answer is that the liberal values were cancelled by the illiberal, indeed fanatical values the bombers acquired elsewhere. But was there nothing in the “Britishness” of their lives that they felt worth preserving? British Muslims, nourished by the salt of this land, must ask themselves these questions. Islam places a man’s duty to his loved ones on the same plane as his duty to Allah. Why was that Islamic duty so easily erased for these fanatics?

Some discussion has focused on the most likely source of the bombers’ fanaticism – the book and traditions of Islam itself. The Qur’an figures prominently, both among those who claim justification on the bombers’ behalf and those who link their lethal inspirations to its injunctions. But both Muslim and non-Muslim commentators have also pointed out that such acts of terrorism are not sanctioned, either through the Qur’an or the hadith (the recorded traditions of Mohammed, its founder). They say the teachings of Islam were twisted to suit the political ends of the terrorists’ masterminds.

Journeys of faith and illusion

The first difficulty in assessing claims of a direct link between acts of extremism and Islam is that (as in the other two “religions of the book,” Judaism and Christianity) there is enough breadth and elasticity in its scriptures to enable both sides to draw whatever supporting meaning they wish. But most British-based Islamic scholars agree that all Quranic references to martyrdom and jihad need to be understood in the context in which they were made – the two wars imposed on the early Muslims before the hijra (the flight from Mecca to Medina) in 622 CE, when 303 poorly-equipped Muslims faced annihilation against 10,000 well-armed Meccans.

The reward for martyrdom – a guaranteed place in paradise – was perhaps the only inducement available to the first Islamic army. Not quite enough Muslims took up the offer, though some of those who “absconded without official leave” later offered penance by chaining themselves to the pillars around the ka’aba to await the prophet’s judgment. (They were all forgiven.)

Later, as they grew stronger and inaugurated the age of Arab expansionism, many more Muslims died in conflicts. Some of these were internecine (for example, the army of the prophet’s son-in-law Ali against that of his widow Ayesha). There were – though scholars dispute the point – no martyrs in those battles, or in subsequent expansionist wars.

Half a millennium later, the popes of the time gave thousands of Crusaders similar guarantees of a place in paradise for suicidal leaps onto or off the well-defended walls of Jerusalem. But these suicides could hope to take, at best, one or two of the enemy with them. Mass murder in one blow is a modern phenomenon.

This is the problem. Contemporary Islam has produced more suicidal extremists than all other creeds, modern or ancient. In addition to real or imagined grievances, there are growth factors peculiar to Islam. An unshakeable belief that “life after life” is preferable to the earthly one; the mental discipline inculcated by rigid prayer rituals and the suppression of earthly desire through fasting and privation make vulnerable young minds especially receptive to brainwashing.

The ideal breeding-ground for uncompromising fanaticism is unquestioning belief in the “holy” writ and the resistance to rational thought that it provides. This can be found in other “faiths”: Marxist-Leninist (Cambodia’s Pol Pot, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, or Italy’s Red Brigades) who dreamed of the “perfect” communist revolution, Japanese seppuku who dive-bombed their planes in fealty to the emperor. Muslim suicide-bombers do it to enter a paradise of unimaginable pleasures.

They do it in vain. The verses of the Qur’an that condemn suicide as one of the gravest sins are unequivocal. Bukhari and Abu Muslim (considered the most reliable compilers of the hadith) cite the prophet’s companion, Abu Huraira, as repeating his words: “He who kills himself will be awarded the same torment on the day of judgment: that he should continue to kill himself in Hell, in the same manner as he killed himself in the mortal world.” For an unsuccessful suicide, Abu Huraira quotes Mohammed: “He who wounds himself (with suicidal intent) will spend eternity in the infernal world inflicting the same wound on himself.”

Among the fifteen people killed on the number 30 bus at Tavistock Square was a Muslim woman of Bangladeshi origin. On the murder of an innocent Muslim, the prophet’s companion Abu Saeed quotes the prophet: “Even if all the creatures of heaven and earth were to join together in murdering an innocent Muslim, on the day of judgment, He will throw them into hellfire with their faces down”.

The madrasa problem

It is clear that the London bombers – hypnotised, brainwashed or just demented – had no sanction from Islamic scripture and may now be sitting in hell, rather than enjoying the fabled 72 virgins in paradise. What is of greater interest to the rest of us, their would-be victims, is to seal off the British end of the terrorist supply-line. This has several tentacles, of which the most obvious is the network of mosques and Islamic guidance centres operated by the ultra-radical Wahhabi sect, to which the Taliban and Osama bin Laden belong. This sect, referred to in south Asia as Deobandi, runs most of Pakistan’s 10,000 religious schools (madrasas). The Pakistani regime of Pervez Musharraf has long promised to curtail those cultivating young jihadis – and the flow between them and radical mosques and madrasas in Britain needs urgent monitoring.

A British Home Office research paper has proposed that unqualified imams (mosque officials) – imported on the cheap by Muslim communities – could be deported, along with radicals of foreign origin and training. The report suggests replacing them with “locally qualified” English-speaking imams. But the authorities need to be careful here, too. The local imams graduate from dozens of Wahhabi-operated Dar-al-Alums (religious universities) that produced firebrands like the ex-jihadi Abu Hamza, now awaiting trial on terrorism-related charges. The two most prominent Dar-al-Alums are in Dewsbury and Blackburn, northern England.

As a volunteer training adviser in northwest England, I tried unsuccessfully to secure employment for two such graduates, one burqa-clad firebrand who had wasted three years on a worthless degree (in “Islamic studies”) that no employer – including mosques – recognised. Indeed, most British Dar-al-Alum acquire their syllabuses from radical counterparts abroad, and often contain inflammatory material incompatible with a multifaith, multicultural society. The need for reform, involving examinations of imams on the languages, cultures and religions practiced in Britain is evident; ideally, all Dar-al-Alums should be closed, and reopened only after submitting to the inspection and regulation process imposed on British universities.

The costs of sclerosis

The rise of fundamentalism in the Islamic world, and the inability of Muslim societies to contain it, carry huge costs: from sectarian riots and pogroms against religious minorities to the entrapment of minds in impoverishing dogma.

Unreformed Islam’s relationship to the Muslim world is equivalent to pre-Reformation Christianity in Europe. The Reformation allowed the west to liberate itself from religious thinking and set free forces of progress; meanwhile, Islamic empires shrank into their shell, refusing reality, rejecting change and resisting “infidel” knowledge. Stupefied by ignorance, they submitted to western conquerors with scarcely a whimper. If today’s Muslim bomb-throwers want someone to blame for their mindless rage, they should look at their own ancestors.

The long-term answer to terrorism in its Islamic guise can only lie in reform. Islamic reformers must re-examine pre-modern practices and concepts (such as the hudood laws that allow men “non-reciprocal” rights over women); repudiate Islamic radicals who wish (as in Canada) to apply sharia laws to Muslims in the democratic west; shed sectarian dogmas that perpetuate intra-communal conflict; consign the theological disputes of early Islam to the past; and update or discard rigid rules (often deriving from pre-Islamic rituals) that have no relevance today.

The path to enlightenment

Only Muslims themselves can undertake such a project. But to whom would it be addressed? The Shi’a in Iran and elsewhere and some sub-sects recognise spiritual leaders, but Islam as a whole has no pope, nor indeed any temporal or spiritual head. The only claimant to an Islamic papacy in modern times is a mass murderer hiding in the Tora Bora mountains.

The precedents and prospects for reform are not promising. For centuries, reactionary Islamic scholars and clerics have used threats, intimidation and outright murder to resist it. Islamic graveyards are full of unsuccessful reformers. Ijtihad, the practice of knowledge-seeking by consensual discussion, once enabled Muslims to resolve issues not covered in the Qur’an or hadith; but founders of the Sunni schools of thought replaced it six centuries ago with the word of a single mufti (religious academic).

A mufti can issue a fatwa declaring the mildest dissenter a murtid (apostate), whom a Muslim is obliged to slay. I received my first apostasy fatwa thirty-five years ago, in the run-up to Pakistan’s first democratic election. In this I was in the good company of all Pakistan’s progressive journalists. Fortunately for us, for every reactionary mullah there was an enlightened one; for every fatwa, there was a counter-edict. When the election was over, three-quarters of Pakistan’s population had been placed beyond the pale of Islam, by virtue of their support for secular parties.

The mullahs retired to lick their wounds, but returned when the Americans put General Zia ul-Haq into power. During the Zia decade, democratic forces were systemically crushed and rational clergy driven out of mosques and madrasas. This rooted culture of ignorance and intolerance was further emboldened by the emergence of people like Osama bin Laden.

The extremist ideologies holding modern Muslim societies to ransom have been exported across the western world by globalisation, the electronic revolution, migration, abuse of refugee and asylum-seeking status, and arranged marriages.

The outlook for reform in the Muslim heartlands is bleak, but a ray of hope comes from European Islam. A new generation of Muslim thinkers is emerging, free of the fetters of the thought-police that bind its predecessors. The moderate tone of their Islamic polemics suggests that an updating of outdated theory and practice might be possible. Progressive Muslims in Britain and elsewhere must be encouraged to support, protect and encourage this movement. Their work offers some hope that Islam will survive the even greater tribulations this century is bound to bring.

This article is published by Maruf Khwaja, and appeared originally on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. To view the original article, please click here.


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Opdateret d. 3.10.2005