By Usman Ahmad
Islam is once again under the spotlight for its supposed role in the recent Charlie Hebdo killings, sparking more calls for Muslim condemnation and a fierce discussion on the limits of freedom of speech. The British Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles has made his own entry into the debate with a letter sent to more than 1,000 Muslim leaders across the United Kingdom, urging them to do more to root out Islamic extremism and prevent young people from becoming radicalized.
In part of the letter he writes:
“We are proud of the reaction of British communities to this attack [Paris]. Muslims from across the country have spoken out to say: Not in our name.”
But there is more work to do. We must show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them. We must show them that there are other ways to express disagreement, that their right to do so is dependent on the very freedoms that extremists seek to destroy.
We must show them the multitude of statements of condemnation from British Muslims; show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship, and that they do not speak for Muslims in Britain or anywhere in the world.”
Despite its conciliatory tone, the reaction from the Muslim community to the letter was swift and full of anger.
The Muslim Council of Britain decried Pickles for signalling out Islam as something inherently separate to wider British society, while others accused the politician of being unhelpful and patronising.
Yet therein lies the problem.
Whenever terror attacks like the one in Paris occur the conversation within the Muslim community is framed around 1) condemnation, 2) the assertion that it has no connection with Islam, and 3) that the attackers are not Muslims. While a definitive counter interpretation of Islamic teachings is important, the real conversation to be had is why some Muslims in the modern world are so acutely prone to extremism, and what can be done about it.
There needs to be a recognition that somewhere along the line something has gone terribly wrong. If Islam is a religion of peace, as I and many others believe, why are some of its adherents, even as a minority, succumbing to vicious and inhumane forms of militancy? The time is not one for denunciation alone – reflection and more work towards routing out extremism is also vital.
Yes, not every Muslim is an ISIS fighter or al-Qaeda recruit. Most reasonable people would recognize that. But the hardening of attitudes across the wider Muslim world, which contradict the fundamental principles and rights of human beings, has created an atmosphere of intolerance that is fertile ground for the breeding of extremists. This is true for Britain, which has provided as many as 400 fighters to ISIS since the war in Syria began, and elsewhere. And, more needs to be done about it.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a comprehensive study of attitudes and views of the global Muslim population across 39 countries and three continents. This included a majority of countries that have a Muslim population in excess of 10 million. A number of their findings shed a very stark light on emerging trends among Muslims. The study found, for example, a high level of support for the imposition of the death penalty for those who leave Islam. In Egypt, this was as much as 88 percent.There was also considerable backing for honor killings in cases of pre-marital sex, and substantial minorities held the belief that suicide bombing was justified in countries like the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The often appalling behavior of Muslim countries in their treatment of other faith groups further demonstrates a narrowness of thought. Christians are a prime example of this and face a great deal of religious intolerance in Muslim-majority countries, where they live under constant threat of violence and restrictions on their freedoms.
One need look no further than the much publicized ordeal of Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan last year, who was sentenced to death for marrying a Christian and thereby stood accused of renouncing her Islam even though she claimed that she was never a Muslim in the first place. In November, a Christian couple was burned to death in Pakistan on the mere allegation of blasphemy by a baying mob.
Again, in Iran Baha’is are regularly subjected to denial of their civil rights and liberties as well as employment because they are considered heretics. Nor has the Baha’i diaspora populations been left alone. Their persecution now extends across borders, and most mainstream Muslims retain the belief that they should not be able to identify themselves with Islam. In a grand irony, Lord Ahmad, the co-signatory in the Pickles letter happens to be an Ahmadi, another community often condemned by Muslims as heretics.
In 2003 the Muslim Council of Britain raised a furor when the Ahmadiyya Muslims opened a mosque in Morden, London, saying that it should not be referred by the Islamic term for a place of worship. This double standard of labeling others, while also wishing not to be falsely categorized is just another indicator of the myopia and lack of constructive thought among Muslim leaders.
Islam, as many have so rightly said in the past, is not a monolith. However, growing radicalization is an undeniable reality in today’s Muslim world. The inherent tension caused by denouncing certain forms of intolerance while rigorously upholding others only plays into the hands of militants. Decrying murder is easy, for it sits on the most extreme and amplified end of the spectrum. The real work needs to be done on the more nuanced and less overt prejudices that slowly seep in the poison of hate.
Exposing and combatting these problems must be the main priority. According to its teachings Islam is, at its primary core, a religion for all people. Yet Muslim leaders need to return it to its fundamental universal principles , as are common to all human beings, for others to be able to see this too. Until a real and firmly determined dialogue takes place within the Muslim community, Islam and its prophet will continue to be maligned not by cartoons, or the letters of politicians, but by the actions of their own followers.
Usman Ahmad, is a British freelance writer currently based in Pakistan. He writes mainly on issues of minorities, human rights and feature pieces. You can find him on Twitter @usmanahmad_iam