As the COVID-19 lockdown has progressed, Mosques and other religious venues have been eerily empty. Ramadan has started and the COVID-19 induced disruption of the rituals that Ramadan usually consists of, has given Muslims a unique opportunity to examine the religious status quo.
Religion is like marmite; there are those who love it, those who hate it and those who feel everything in between. It is extremely personal. One thing I can say for certain is that in most cases religion creates a glass ceiling that inhibits true human unity because there is the inevitable othering of the non-believer. When this othering becomes absolute, it is often the first step for many of those who I have worked with on the other side of a terrorist conviction.
I learned the term “preacher hustle” from Ismael when he questioned me after one of the informal talks I gave at Cafe Sara off Edgware road. Cafe Sara was a fashionable sheesha venue that was a second home for middle eastern professional criminals. I later found out Ismael was a former PKK assassin who was now selling his trade on the street. His question was whether what I was doing, speaking to them about connecting to a higher consciousness beyond imagination and appetite, was a “Preacher Hustle”; he was puzzled by my continued talks and regular support for this community without the presence of a charity bucket.
The evangelical vigour of the 90’s Dawaah movement was a powerful force pre-9/11 and the Islam that it propagated had less of the political top down ambition and more of a relational understanding that emphasised brotherhood and community. Something attractive to those coming from a underclass background like myself. Perhaps it was the fact that my early experience was idealistic and I was surrounded by converts whose experiences echoed Malcolm X’s words;
“I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same God— with fellow‐Muslims whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, and whose hair was the blondest of blond—yet it was the first time in my life that I didn’t see them as ‘white’ men. I could look into their faces and see that these didn’t regard themselves as ‘white’”.
However, this entry level romantic humanism was soon hijacked by the religious paradigm. Religion as a concept in the west relates to a set of beliefs that is held by a group of people reflected in a world view and often expressed with some form of ritual. The divine laws dictated within these belief systems are based on texts. This creates a transactional system where the religious observer abstains from sin to be awarded with a divinely authorised version of the same thing in the next life. This reward system fits perfectly into a consumer system that also relies upon imagination but never liberates the individual from his lower consciousness or reptilian mind. So in other words, anticipate and dream over buying that expensive leather coat, restrict yourself by not spending on anything else then you will be rewarded with the leather coat. And see yourselves as part of the cooler group and look down upon those without.
This text based simplistic understanding and its validation through proselytising was something that I saw a lot of when I first discovered Islam with the Malcolm X craze in the nineties. I had grown up in a single parent family on a white underclass estate in Farnborough just outside of the army town of Aldershot. The area was also one of the drugs hubs for the south of England. We had moved there when I was 8 from East London and my father left shortly afterwards leaving my mother to care for three children through being made homeless and living in a hostel to the daily racism and violence of a xenophobic community where we were the only asians.
Ben, who was one of the elders in our gang initially started looking into Islam. I recall watching Ahmed Deedat debate Christian preachers on video tape. Each of the debaters would be grasping his text book whether Quran or Bible and trying to prove the other wrong by referring to the text.
In the 90’s the concept of atheism was not within mainstream thought and schools still sung hymns but the paradigm that Islam was taking was distinctly western. Ahmed Deedat’s methodology of debate was something formalised in Europe during the reformation.
This was in contrast to what had happened in the 60’s when Europeans were travelling to the East to study Islam as an Eastern Philosophy and bringing back the teachings of Maulana Rumi and Ibn Arabi but in between we had the re-contextualisation of the term Jihad in order to propagate recruitment to the Afghan conflict and Saudi sponsored mosques with £20,000 sponsorships.
As someone who has spent over a decade in the rehabilitation of the some of the toughest terrorists and most recently IS members, I cannot help but raise my head above the pulpit and ask “Is anyone looking at the BS that these guys are following?” As the late great Robert Anton Wilson said “Your always following someone’s belief system, someone’s b….s!”
Let me be clear that I am not attacking the ritualistic practice or an individual searching for spiritual awakening within a collective through moral symbolisms of systems like Islam, Hinduism, Judaism etc. I am simply asking all of us who subscribe ourselves to a particular group to consider the possibility of stepping back from own imagined allegiances to a more universal perspective. To consider the fact that everyone is searching for tranquility and that if someone is aggressive towards you, it is a veil borne of their own vulnerability. To consider we approach each other without ego and with compassion and truly understand and practice the othering does not separate us from the one true community of this earth; the community of humanity. I do not claim any enlightenment but I do bask in the reward of love and stillness that such an approach delivers and it is this that compels me to invite you to join me.