I’ve been a Muslim for a few years now and from day one I knew that Islam did not promote terrorism. Before I became Muslim, I was already well-informed about Islam as a whole through self-learning and I was also explicitly taught by everyone I knew and encountered in my journey that terrorism was unequivocally un-Islamic. There was no question about it: Islam is about peace, faith, love and humanity.
However, several years later, I’ve become shocked and quite frankly tired – incredibly tired in fact – at just how widespread extremist ideology is within certain segments of the British Muslim community. Certain bodies, speakers and publications are pushing harmful, divisive, reactionary and toxic narratives. Time and time again they have been found to express extremist beliefs and proved links to extremist individuals and groups. Yet time and time again, no one says anything.
I have been on a long path of discovery and I know I am not alone in saying that this extremism ranges from the intolerant to the violent. It’s not simply about those in on the front page when a terror attack hits. It’s a wide, long path that is not being exposed and redirected. From sectarianism – vilifying Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims – to rampant anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism, I find myself questioning more and more, how can the government deal with this? And more so, why is nothing being said? More importantly, beyond the government, there’s the role of civil society. Yet there’s sadly a lack of inward reflection and dialogue by certain segments of the Muslim community.
I’m in fact shocked at how much of these beliefs and behaviours are being ignored both within and outside the Muslim community. Ignorant, intolerant, extremist views are not only existent among certain segments of the community but in fact often normalised, with some Muslims even in denial of the disturbing and irrational nature of these doctrines. These leaders and individuals promote a self-proclaimed message of peace and harmony on the face of it – or at the very least denounce acts of terror – but on their terms, as at the same time they accept and promulgate vile, morally abhorrent or at best completely outdated beliefs.
This is a serious issue. Young men do not suddenly wake up one day and decide to take up arms and join ISIS out of the blue. It’s a slippery slope. Just as the path to genocide is a slippery slope of “otherising”, discrimination and exclusion, so is the blackened slope of extremism. It’s marred with self-victimisation, ignorance of Islam and social, political, geographical and cultural complexities – as well as of course other key factors such as racism and socio-economic exclusion. In the end though, healthy mature adults accept the dark path of jihadism for themselves. No matter what circumstance we are under, as long as we are healthy, mature and of full age, the way we think, believe and ultimately react is down to us.
And this is where it becomes quite clear. We cannot sit back and simply just blame other people. Having spoken to Muslims from a variety of Muslim countries across the globe, I can quite honesty unequivocally state that some are shocked at the extremism rampant in this community, choosing not to attend mosques. How very sad yet telling this is…
We are confronting debates that are not even apparent overseas. Yes, as a human rights campaigner, I am all too aware of the issues within Muslim countries themselves, including the demonisation of political and social dissent as it becomes labelled automatically as “terrorism” and the lack of freedom of belief and association. This however does not negate the issues so widespread here in a free democratic society. Whilst we not should look to these nations as an example of freedom and democracy, on a social level we can examine how faith is practiced. At times, I am indeed shocked by certain levels of intolerance yet on other occasions I have witnessed a much more nuanced, intellectual and rational version of Islam – regardless of the level of “religious practice” or not.
Here in the UK, I’ve seen babies – yes babies – in headscarves. I’ve witnessed horrible cases of anti-Semitism and I’m tired of a complete black and white naivety when it comes to conflict in the Middle East. Freedom of choice and belief is paramount, as is diversity of opinion – and also the crucial “middle path” as Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) declared himself so many years ago.
Freedom of belief covers all range of faiths and teachings. Yet I am not simply talking about the need to accept differences of opinion and religious practice – which are in fact part of a rich yet often unheard of intellectual and theological diversity in Islam. No, instead I am talking about understanding, accepting, allowing and promoting basic freedoms, rights and levels of tolerance. I am speaking up against the vilifying of Jews (referred to as “pigs”), the exclusion of Ahmadi Muslims (called “Qadanis”) and the behaviour of certain Muslim men and women who excuse rape and victim blame by expressing at how women who are uncovered or “dressed “provocatively” are a “problem”. No. I am instead talking about those who openly denounce democracy in both implicit and explicit terms.
I have myself been unfortunate to have visited a mosque where a fellow “brother” openly denounced democracy as un-Islamic. Yes. This is 2018. Yet, you’d think we’d gone back to the time of the Spanish inquisition or crusades. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was an embodiment of the Qur’an, where Allah Almighty tells us Himself: la ikra fii deen – there is no compulsion in religion (2:256). So, tell me: where have such people lead themselves to?
Cultural patriarchal attitudes, religious sectarianism and Wahhabi-style teachings imported from overseas across the globe to Britain are avow. I can count on more than one hand the number of preachers, mosques and bodies who have a murky history and who I alone have to avoid/reject or sever links with. This isn’t hearsay. These issues relate to things that they have explicitly said, platforms they have shared and beliefs that they promote.
For example, whilst many Muslim men and women alike – including myself – continue to speak out about cultural misogyny, declaring cultural practises such as forced marriage as un-Islamic, we’re not really tackling the elephant in the room. We’re not grabbing the bull by its horns. Religious ultra-orthodoxy is an issue. All religions have different groups, doctrines and beliefs. We should not try to stifle diversity yet the fact is that there are people out there that who – according to their interpretation of Islam – believe that homosexuals should be executed and that homosexuality should be criminalised here in the UK. Likewise, there are people (respected preachers) who openly state that FGM/C is a “recommended practice” (even if not “compulsory”).
Likewise, certain Muslims cannot distinguish between anti-Semitism and the defence of human rights in Israel/Palestine. And yet they enjoin in the religious freedom we all cherish as they live their faith freely here in the UK. At the same time, there are many who also reject the same rights for Ahmadi Muslims, as for example those British Muslims who called for a recent Ahmadi advertisement to be withdrawn. Large segments of the Muslim community refuse to engage left, right and centre with this peaceful community. How sad that when attending a Muslim-led interfaith engagement, you’re joined solely by “Sunni majority” Muslims for example amongst members of other faith communities. Likewise, when attending an Ahmadi event as a friendly ally keen to engage with members of other faith traditions such as Christianity and Hinduism, there are no other Muslim representatives in the room. Would they attend? Quite simply no. Yet I ask, can we not see the blatant hypocrisy in standing for interfaith unity when there is such a blanket refusal to promote intrafaith cohesion?
One question I ask myself time and time again is: when you’re (again quite rightly) speaking out against human rights violations in places such as Myanmar and Palestine/Israel where other faith communities are involved (albeit the conflict/issues being political): where is your criticism of Saudi Arabia? Are you speaking out about the bombing and starvation of innocent Yemeni men, women and children before you enjoin in travels to KSA? Are you campaigning against forced veiling in Iran when you protest (again rightly so) about discrimination against Muslim hijabi women in non-Muslim countries? Furthermore, are you fighting against human trafficking when you visit the Gulf States – often practically built on modern slavery?
I reiterate, Islam is a blessing of mercy. It is not a violent curse. God calls upon us to use our minds, to rationalise, to be merciful, to think, to reason – not to bellow, to curse others or to alienate brothers and sisters in faith and humanity. And before you cry “Islamophobia!”, let me stress: I am Muslim. I stand against anti-Muslim hate. I stand against Islamophobia and I stand against the far-right. I also however stand against anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism of all kinds and quite crucially the abuse of human rights across the globe. Yet at the same time, I have also been met with slurs such as “oreo” (although I’m “white”), “whore” and “munafiq” (hypocrite) when speaking out against Islamic extremism and intolerant practices. Well, no. I am none of these. What I am in fact is honest – honest to my heart, my soul, my mind and to God.
So, to conclude, I stand up and say: when will so many of those who do not question open their eyes, their ears and realise that they speak for themselves? There can be no double standards. Human rights are for all. Islam is a humanistic universal faith. Islam does not stand for hatred, violence, bloodshed and exclusion. It stands for justice, self-sacrifice, tolerance, love and unity. We cannot keep simply blaming the media, government, colonialism and not look within our own community. We too must play our part. Ultimately, either you stand for everyone or you stand for no one.