Sowing Division

I think we can all see through the hollow cynicism of Al-Shabab, who kill Muslims without compunction in Somalia, but seem to go to immense trouble to separate Muslims from non-Muslims when they commit atrocities across the border in Kenya. Divide and conquer is an old game; hopefully we are wise enough today to see blind killers for what they are.

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Deformation

I do wish people would stop saying that Islam needs to experience the like of the Christian Reformation. This is exactly what it is already experiencing, and it is as bloody and brutal as the historical European template.

Haldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther and John Calvin were not nice people. They were as intolerant and violent as many of today’s puritanical ideologues.

The grotesque violence in the Muslim world today can quite easily be attributed to a reformist movement, which claims to leapfrog back to a truer, purer faith, allegedly not practised for hundreds of years.

The parallels are innumerable. Calvin had the printing press; today’s puritans have the internet. Zwingli chose which books of the Bible were apocryphal; today’s puritans just burn the books which delegitimise them and pretend they never existed. The Protestants whitewashed church walls and pulled down monasteries; the self-righteous of today blow up the graves of scholars and bulldoze the remnants of ancient civilisations.

So don’t tell us we need reform; we need reprieve from this simplistic, binary mind-set. A Protestant Islam is not going to work for us.

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Ignorance isn’t bliss

UNICEF says that Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a child today.

7.5 million Syrian children are in need of humanitarian aid and 2.6 million are no longer in school.

What could be going through the minds of educated British citizens for them to attempt to take infants and young children into such an environment?

Time to remove the blinkers, I think. Tunnel vision has stunted the intellect of a nation. Millennialists say no to the “Mainstream Media” — and submit to pure, unadulterated ignorance instead.

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State of ignorance

They travel thousands of miles to build new lives in somebody else’s land, oblivious to the desperate, shattered lives of millions of refugees scattered from their homes and livelihoods. What irony: when Israel did this, they jumped up and down at the eternal injustice and wickedness of the nascent state. But now they do the same: they are now the thoughtless settlers, taking advantage of the misfortune of others. Here is a land that has been emptied of its native population; children risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of peace and safety. In their place come the maniacs from comfortable lives in the West, some with children in tow. They dream now of their great religious state, enforcing their own kind of apartheid, discriminating against all except their kind. These squatters have learned nothing from history, because they never bothered to study it. Capitalising of the misery of others, they will have their state. But it will not last.

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Reboot

Every once in a while it’s necessary to pause and take stock. To ask those key questions: are these words true, are they of benefit, are they virtuous, are they kind? Words scare me, though sometimes they run away with me. Sometimes you have to stop, stand still for a while and review where you’ve got to. What is my purpose here? What are my aims? Is it necessary to write up every thought that springs to mind? Is it necessary to keep a record going back years and years? So here I pause for thought and ask myself: where am I going? What am I doing here? What is this website for? Is it time to discipline my tongue and my typing fingers? Or is there benefit in sharing my thoughts? Where does one go in this noisy world? Do you participate in the great debate of life? Or do you withdraw and take refuge in silence and a semi-monastic life? These are the questions on my mind these days. Is it time to reboot?

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Selective Sympathy

Of course we are selective and reductive in deciding where our sympathies lie. Between 3 million and 7.6 million people died as a result of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1998 and 2008. Over the same period the conflict received miniscule coverage, and on going violence even today is largely ignored. The news we consume, the alliances we make, the sides we take: all of this is political. We choose to make some lives more worthy than others. We choose where our sympathies lie.

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The prevailing tide

Most of us are not leaders, free thinkers or trendsetters. Most of us just follow the prevailing tide.

There may be a groundswell of revulsion today at the alleged crimes of Cyril Smith, Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris, condemnation of the Police for infiltrating the Green Movement and behaving like agent provocateurs, and intense soul searching regarding the failure to prevent the exploitation of young women and girls by gangs of predatory men.

But in truth, at the time and for years and years, the victims of these crimes were not just ignored, but often vilified by the very same people taking the high moral ground today.

Today we are allowed to be outraged by those crimes; but at the time all of that outrage had to be directed at the victim. And nothing changes.

Today’s victims of events yet to be classified as crimes are also vilified in newspapers, on television, during radio phone in shows and by politicians storing up pre-election capital.

Speak of agent provocateurs causing havoc and nobody will recall Mark Kennedy or Craig Monteilh: you are just a fantasist with too much time on your hands.

Speak of underhand political conspiracies and nobody will recall Operation Boot: you are an unpatriotic turncoat.

Speak of the grooming of young girls by militant extremists: the girls are not victims, they say, for they know exactly what they are doing.

Just sit back, be patient. In ten, twenty or thirty years time, lessons will be learned. Investigations will be launched. Papers will be declassified. Court cases will be heard. There will be moral indignation, revulsion and outrage. It will be front page news, the topic of conversation, a wellspring for every columnist and commentator in the land.

But by then, those affected will be long forgotten, their allegations never really, truly taken seriously, even after all this time. The shadow of doubt will remain. And even then, after all that has come to light, people shall say, “Those were the mistakes of the past. We would never behave that way today.”

And we, the people, will ebb and flow like the prevailing tide, following orders, doing whatever we are told, nodding our heads in righteous indignation. For we are a superior people, so much more enlightened than those who passed before us. What superior people we are.

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“We need to do something”

This weekend marks four years since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. While Assad is hardly ever mentioned today, up until last summer the western media were feeding us a constant litany of his regime’s atrocities. For good reason, the Syrian conflict registered on everybody’s radar: terrible suffering, 180,000 people killed, 3 million refugees.

In light of the suffering in Syria, many a conversation amongst friends turned to the need to do something. Hundreds of people joined aid convoys to Syria, delivering ambulances, blankets, medical supplies, food and money. We witnessed great fund-raising efforts and incredible generosity.

Others, of course, took it upon themselves to go over to fight, in the tradition of the Spanish Civil War – much like those Englishmen now praised for joining the Kurdish Peshmurga against ISIS. They did not see themselves as extremists waging Holy War, but as sincere helpers of the oppressed.

Whether as doctors helping refugees, drivers delivering aid or the rich donating their own money to the destitute, everybody wanted to “do something”. Everybody wanted a piece of the action: to make a sacrifice for others less fortunate than them, and some paid the ultimate price. An orthopaedic surgeon, who went out to treat injured civilians, was killed in a Syrian prison. A taxi driver who delivered an ambulance was kidnapped and later executed. Aid workers, who travelled to Syria to serve others had their lives mercilessly extinguished.

Many people did immeasurable good in the face of the most heinous of crimes. They went with good intentions to benefit others. To have sympathy and concern for oppressed people is not radicalism, but worthy, compassionate empathy. The problem is how that concern is channelled into action. Many individuals put themselves in very dangerous positions when they didn’t need to, and the situation is only getting worse.

Was is really necessary, we might ask, for young men and women from High Wycombe, Bradford and Manchester to risk their lives driving ambulances filled with aid across two continents, when they could simply have donated the money to established organisations like Islamic Relief, Save The Children or the UNHCR, who were well placed to source vehicles and supplies in Turkey and get aid directly to those in need?

It is true that many well-meaning individuals had personal links with people in Syria. Indeed the Syria conflict may have gained greater significance than other equally appalling conflicts for many, precisely because Western students of knowledge have been travelling to Syria for the past 20 years to sit with the scholars of Damascus. Western Muslims have developed an emotional attachment to this land because the new generation of young, English-speaking Hanafi imams spent years of their lives studying Muslim theological traditions there; their fondness is ever apparent in their speech.

Who am I to belittle those efforts? May our Lord reward them for the good they did. Nevertheless, sometimes it is necessary to ask hard questions about the wisdom of our actions, even when they are seemingly good. The Muslim community is known to be extremely charitable and generous, but delegation is not our strong point: every individual, mosque and community group seems to set up a charitable foundation in times of need, rather than relying on established routes and means to address those needs effectively.

Was it necessary, we might ask, to personally carry thousands of pounds of cash in aid convoys, only to have it seized by UK Border Police on suspicion that it would be used to support terrorism, when it could have been given to established charities already operating on the ground, whose transparent accounting and audit processes would have ensured it reached only those in need?

Instead, a lot of people put themselves in danger, when they did not need to. Professional organisations undertake risk assessments to avoid harm and minimize the risk to the lives of their volunteers and workers. They also operate within the law, both local and international. Well-meaning individuals might pray and hope for the best, but there is no substitute for planning. The desire to “do something” needs to be tempered by a rational assessment of the situation and the abilities of those involved.

Media commentators may be suffering from amnesia, but I clearly remember the discussions on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, on BBC Newsnight and in The Guardian and The Independent concerning the need to support the rebels against Assad between 2011 and 2014. The British government announced it would be providing them with non-lethal military support in 2013. Anyone minded to go out to fight alongside them during that period, might reasonably have concluded that their actions had been sympathetically sanctioned by our governments, much like those of today’s anti-ISIS volunteers.

I have no doubt that many who went out during that period had absolutely no sympathy with a groups like Da’ish or Jabhat al-Nusra. They did not see themselves as terrorists or supporters of extremism, but as freedom fighters, taking on the tyranny and brutality of Assad, as it had been reported by the BBC for months and months. But war is murky: a poisonous environment which nobody in their right mind would expose themselves to. On their arrival, these naive young men would have encountered the reality behind the propaganda: sectarian, gangster-like militant groups slaughtering one-another in battles not for the ultimate establishment of peace and justice, but for power and control.

On his release from captivity in Syria, the French hostage, Nicolas Henin, told journalists that he believed many of the fighters had started out with a genuine desire to help victims in Syria:

“These are fragile people. As soon as they arrive, [their recruiters] hook them and push them to commit a crime, and then there is no way they can turn back.”

Muslims may have been caught off guard by the sudden change in narrative on the part of government and the media – not that this kind of switching of alliances is anything new. Up until last summer, the focus of all efforts and attention was on Assad and our governments were openly supporting the rebels against him. Those who went to fight on the side of the good may be surprised to learn that, now that the official narrative has reversed with the apparent emergence of Da’ish, they are considered dangerous terrorists and radicals. But this was entirely predictable and many of us saw it coming.

It is not that the conflict in Syria was benign. Turkey is housing 1.9 million refugees and asylum-seekers, of whom 1.7 million are Syrian refugees. It is not that the destruction was not real, or that it did not happen. It was and is a human catastrophe of immense proportions, about which the world should be ashamed. The international community and the United Nations have once again failed in their mandate to protect the innocent from harm.

The problem is that the actions of well-meaning souls might have made the situation worse. Governments with their own ambitions in the region have flooded the country with money and arms. Individuals who wanted to “do something”, to go to the aid of innocent women and children brutalised by war, have themselves been brutalised and broken. Many of them have been forced to commit atrocities of their own, to take actions which were the exact mirror of those they had set out to prevent. Well-meaning men left comfortable lives to assist unknown others in a foreign land they had no real connection to, out of a feeling of faithful brotherhood alone, and have ended up killing farmers, shop keepers and anyone else in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Our communities need to have a conversation about doing good: about channelling that desire to “do something” in a positive, constructive direction. About tapping into that wellspring of compassion and empathy for the good of society, not its destruction. Our advocacy groups and those associated with them need to change the direction of our discourse: from hyping us into a frenzied, angry, vulnerable state, to setting out a positive vision of engagement in society.

We should be inspired by initiatives like Charity Week, which saw Muslim students nationwide raise well over £730,000 for Islamic Relief projects during a single week last autumn. We should contemplate what we can do, as children of Britain, to make the world around us a better place. Our communities need to engage in the conversation on everyone’s lips: we want to do something, but what exactly should we do?

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Missing the point

We can protest about misrepresentation all we like, but the truth is that the message about Da’ish from people with popular influence has not reached those who need to hear it.

If you find yourself with a position of respected influence amongst young Muslims and you have come to a conclusion about Da’ish that it is an evil force, you need to get those views out there to have a real impact on those at risk of falling prey to their propaganda.

A straight forward, unequivocal declaration on the wrongness of their actions would have been far more helpful for those naïve teenagers perhaps still wavering about running away from home and jumping on a plane to Turkey, than an article which, while condemning ISIS, nevertheless sought to understand their narrative. These youngsters need to hear the former argument clearly articulated.

The point has been missed: it is not about getting the message across to journalists and social commentators. It’s about reaching the vulnerable in our communities who are at risk from the narrative of despair.

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Convert Extremism

On the World at One on BBC Radio 4 this lunchtime, they were asking why it is that converts to Islam who make up 2% of the UK Muslim population are represented in 30% of Muslim terrorism-related convictions. Why is it, they ask, that so many of Muslim extremists are converts?

Well it’s complex, obviously, but here are a few ideas…

1) There is no real Muslim community, just collections of families. Most of what appears to us to be community amongst the migrant Muslim communities, turns out to be large extended families. Outsiders naturally feel unwelcome and thus become alienated.

2) Outside of big cities, mosques serve tribal and ethnic affiliations. Often the English language is not used. There is usually no recognisable provision for those outside the dominant tribal/ethnic/sectarian group, causing individuals to turn elsewhere for support and guidance.

3) The call to faith, which many young people encounter online, is often simplistic and sectarian. Simplistic in that it presents an unrealistic binary view of the world, which is attractive to young minds. Sectarian in that the faith of migrant Muslim communities is considered wanting and unworthy of respect or consideration.

4) We all have history and cultural baggage. Conversion does not render one’s psychology benign. Many extremists have a violent or criminal past. Some individuals use their interpretation of religion as a means to legitimise criminal behaviour.

5) Muslims generally are not provided with a convincing toolkit to help them navigate their faith. They do not know how to approach and interpret textual sources, rendered into English. Muslim history is not taught, except in a very romantic and white-washed fashion. Muslim education does not provide context or address cultural difference, and problematic ideas are swept under the carpet, rather than addressed openly.

6) New converts are often encouraged to suspend their intellect and to slavishly accept the interpretations of others unquestioningly. Frequent accusations of heresy in some circles prevent individuals from asking questions. In early periods, converts are often afraid to challenge the ideas of those presumed to have more knowledge and understanding of religion and politics.

7) There is injustice in the world. Empathetic individuals often have a desire to “do something” to rectify perceived wrongs. While some individuals might respond by focusing on charity or social work, others will naturally respond in anger. There is nothing unique to the Muslim psyche in this.

8) It is just one of those things: we’re talking about a very small number of individuals. Not 30% of Muslims and not 30% of Muslim converts, but 30% of Muslim terrorism-related convictions.

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