Trying to divine the exact path to extremism that Muslims may follow – paths that may or may not lead to terrorism – is like trying to follow the path of water from the clouds to the ocean. We know where some terrorists came from and where they ended up. But that’s about it.
A recent miniseries on British television, Britz, highlighted shadowy groups operating on university campuses. Extremist imams such as Abu Hamza al Masri have been tabloid fodder for years, though many have been detained or deported. The Internet is often cited, as Britain’s Community Secretary Hazel Blears did this week (though without specifics). But, as MI5 chief Jonathan Evans also pointed out recently, the number of Muslims under surveillance has increased to over 2,000. Something is sticking, but what?
That something is the written word, books and pamphlets that can often subvert cyber-monitoring and public debate in a tangible way. A recent study by the right wing Policy Exchange think tank alleges that books containing extremist statements were found in about 25% of British mosques, including two of its most high profile ones, the East London Mosque and the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park (PDF).
It’s not the first time such allegations have been made. Earlier findings of literature have focused on material stumbled upon in dark corners of independent shops in quiet neighbourhoods, or the pamphlets accompanying firebrand preachers on their roaming tours. In this case, however, the claims are more specific and more damning in their inference. This time, mosques, stores, authors, and publishers are outlined in detail, with much of it stemming from a prolific and well-financed Saudi Arabian connections.
Independent Muslim analysts have noted that the Saudi influence may be overstated, with a spiritually low profile kept since the Saudi origins of September 11th were pointed out. Spiritual motivations have since been superseded by political ones, particularly over the Iraq war. And the irrational scrutiny from groups like Policy Exchange, the British government and police services do smack of a witch hunt, ensnaring – as many American domestic initiatives have – many peaceable Muslims and mosques who would have otherwise agreed with the concerns.
But advocacy groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain have focused attention on other aspects that don’t settle as well. Representatives have claimed a legal right to sell such material if it is not against the law (Policy Exchange says that some cases may be forthcoming). They note that many of the bookstores, although within mosque grounds, are independently run and impossible to monitor. As for the words themselves, they may be acknowledged as offensive on personal levels or merely for historical interest. But this offence is otherwise dismissed. Even the most comprehensive critiques of the report don’t explain them, which is what a now curious public (Muslims included) wants.
This legalistic approach to the controversy, while technically correct, brings its own contradictions. During the Danish cartoon crisis, the common refrain from Muslims in the West was less legalistic than moralistic. That is, while it may be legally permissible to publish material offensive to Muslims (though to many, even this was debatable), the plea for respect was based on moral grounds – that sincere Muslims deserved protection from gratuitous offence. Without the extreme response to the cartoons by a minority of Muslims around the world, this approach may have borne some fruit.
But by adopting a legalistic response to a crisis that is easily seen as a mirror of the Danish one, a case can be made for employing double standards. Muslims should have seen this coming. A resistance to addressing shortcomings pointed out by those hostile to us is understandable. It is also immature and short sighted. Regardless of the source, the words and books are out there. Merely pointing out agendas won’t win the argument.
Do British Muslims agree with the alleged pronouncements on apostasy, women, jihad, and non-Muslims? What are the parameters of morality on key issues as British Muslims see it – and what is beyond the pale? Couldn’t a “best practice” guide for mosque publications be developed – even if not enforceable – to represent a moral consensus? Facilitating public discussions and clear answers to these (and to questions not yet asked) should not be an onerous task for any umbrella organisation worthy of the name.
Without an effective response to an issue that will undoubtedly resurface, the debate will continue to be seen by silent (and peaceful) majorities on both sides as more political grandstanding. Ultimately, Muslims will have to determine their own moral framework for Islamic issues – whether in books, mosques, or in their own culture – before defending them on legal grounds. And before other groups hostile to Muslims exploit the absence of this for political reasons, Muslims should fill the vacuum for the benefit of their communities and religion.
Making sense of the myriad paths to extremism may continue to remain difficult for Muslims or anyone else. But effectively ruling out the ones we can identify – while marginalising our critics in the process – shouldn’t be.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.