Saturday, 20 September 2014

Distorting Islam

          Writing in the London Daily Telegraph on September 18, Dr Hasanat Husain, a prominent British Muslim, depicts the Islamic State as “composed of people who have vowed to establish a blood-drenched caliphate in which only their distorted version of Islam – a fusion of misogyny, intolerance and mayhem – will hold sway. We have an obligation,” he asserts, “to snatch our faith from the clutches of these killers. These so-called Muslims are damaging Islam and dishonouring the Prophet.”  He calls on Muslims “in particular” to stop IS from the pursuit of its unacceptable objective.

            Dr Husain is surely correct in maintaining that the bloodthirsty activities of IS are damaging Islam certainly so in the eyes of the non-Islamic world.  He does not, however, go quite as far as British prime minister, David Cameron, a few days earlier, in his televised address utterly deploring the beheading by IS of its third victim, aid worker David Haines.  “Islam,” declared Cameron, “is a religion of peace.”

There is a widespread belief that the word “Islam” is derived from “al-Salaam” (which is “peace”).  However, Lissan al-Arab, perhaps the most authoritative lexicon of the Arabic language, states that it is derived from the root verb istaslama, which means 'to submit' or ‘to surrender' (meaning, of course, submission to the will of Allah).

             Cameron’s assertion instantly stirred up a hornets’ nest of comment.  Quoting all sorts of chapters and verses from the Quran and elsewhere, writers fell over each other to maintain that the Muslim religion was nothing of the sort.  Indeed, when Pope Benedict XVI was asked whether Islam could be considered a religion of peace, he refused to respond positively. "It certainly contains elements that can favour peace,” he said. “It also has other elements.  We must always seek the best elements."

            The best elements must surely include the five tenets of Islam which are the foundation of observant Muslim life, and which together constitute the basic religious duties every Muslim must perform.  These are first the declaration of faith (“There is no god but God, and Muhammed is his messenger”); secondly undertaking ritual prayer five times a day; thirdly compulsory alms-giving of at least 2.5 per cent of one’s income; fourthly fasting in the month of Ramadan; and fifthly making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once, if possible.

It is, perhaps, when examining the broader principles underlying the faith that Pope Benedict’s misgivings are revealed.  They are summarised rightly or wrongly by author and film-maker Gregory M Davis, who writes:  “Islamic scholarship divides the world into the House of Islam (i.e., those nations who have submitted to Allah), and the House of War (i.e., those who have not). It is this dispensation that the world lived under in Muhammad’s time and that it lives under today. Then, as now, Islam’s message to the unbelieving world is the same: submit or be conquered.”  Supporting this contention, journalist Melanie Phillips in a recent article wrote: “Millions of Muslims believe that Islam should rule the world, and that jihad is the path to this end. The fact that millions of other Muslims do not believe this does not make it any less of a core Islamic tenet.” 

But for the vast majority of the Muslim world considerations like these are academic, if not arcane.  Most people know that there is ample opportunity in the sources and holy writings of Islam, no less than of Judaism or Christianity, for zealots, extremists or opponents to place their own distorted interpretations on the faith.  William Shakespeare, as ever, puts the case in a nutshell and most felicitously in “The Merchant of Venice”:

                    “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
                      An evil soul producing holy witness
                      Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
                     A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
                    O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

Of course, most Muslims deplore the brutality and violence being perpetrated in the name of their religion by extremists, seeking dominance and power.  These sentiments were expressed with some force in a letter sent to the UK prime minister on September 14 by a coalition of imams and organisations representing British Muslims.

            “Dear Prime Minister,” they begin, “as human beings, we have been sickened by the murders committed by the terror group ISIS.  As Britons, we have been troubled that some young men from our society have been misled into believing that taking part in such hatred and poison would be some kind of adventure.  And, as Muslims we have been appalled that these actions are being undertaken by those who claim to be inspired by our faith, which is a vicious libel on the Islam we believe in.”

They continue: "We do not believe the terror group responsible should be given the credence and standing they seek by styling themselves Islamic State. It is neither Islamic, nor is it a state… we believe the media, civic society and governments should refuse to legitimise these ludicrous caliphate fantasies by accepting or propagating this name. We propose that 'Un-Islamic State' (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternative name to describe this group and its agenda – and we will begin to call it that."

There could be no more unequivocal a rejection of the distorted concept of Islam espoused by IS and other jihadists, both Sunni and Shia, who are making hay while the sun shines on a war-torn Iraq and Syria. 

These leading British Muslims speak also for others in their community.  On September 17 a group of young British Muslims joined the fight back against IS militants with a video and social media campaign which they call Not In My Name. Their intention is to show that IS does not represent the Islamic faith or the Muslim community, and to spread the word that British Muslims reject IS, its ideology and actions that "use Islam to justify evil objectives.”

In the years since the growth of indiscriminate terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, there have been many calls to the Muslim world to take a more proactive stance against those who carry out these acts in the name of Islam.  It has taken the emergence of IS, and its particular forms of brutality, at last to rally moderate and reasonable Muslim opinion against the distortion of their faith.  

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 September 2014: 

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