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?
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.
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 seven million pounds 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?
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.
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.
Has history known any period as horrific as the twentieth-century? Even today’s strife seems to pale against the excesses of the last century. Are we more human now than the generation which conceived the Terror Bombing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the use of napalm and the nuclear bomb? Or are we just ill-informed? Will we also be just a footnote in the history books in another hundred year’s time?
It’s incredible that thousands of refugee children risk their lives to escape conflict in Syria every day, crossing dangerous seas and hostile states in search of safety… and yet relatively properous British children are prepared to go the other way, entering a brutal war zone as if it is but a playground. A sure sign of a failed education.
If our places of worship are a microcosm of the wider world, it’s no wonder we’re in the state we are. Tribalism, political power games, religious manipulation, financial fraud, sectarianism, exclusion of outsiders… the list goes on. Change has to come from within.
It’s increasingly evident that a small minority of extremists are trying their best to subvert democracy in the UK. They seem to hate our freedoms and our way of life. They seem intent on destroying everything we love about this country, undermining our liberal tolerance, respect for human rights and belief in equal opportunities for all. Yes, I’m talking about the Conservative Party. Please don’t vote them in again.
Many religious folk, it seems, thrive on visions of the last days. The Church of England might be setting out a blueprint for a more compassionate nation here on earth 1, but Christian prophecy is a massive movement in the United States and across Africa. Many Muslims, meanwhile, are consumed by the impending arrival of the promised Mahdi, the return of Jesus and the onslaught of the Dajjal or Anti-Christ. One only needs to sit in the company of students of knowledge for a little while, before conversation turns to the imminent signs of the Hour. It is a cause of excitement for some — jubilation at the prospect of world-changing events.
For me, however, all of this talk causes paralysis. It sends me into a spiral of depression and prevents me from functioning both on the spiritual and productive level. We have all heard the saying that if the Hour comes while you are planting a seed you should go on and plant it, but conversations about the coming of cataclysmic change causes me extreme numbness. Instead of celebrating the era of peace and justice which the Mahdi is said to usher in, I imagine the vast all-consuming battles which are supposed to precede him. However glorious the days presumed to await us on the other side of genocidal anarchy, I cannot share the excitement of the students in their circles of knowledge. I seek refuge in God from seeing days like those.
I recently posed a question to friends: ‘Why strive for apocalypse, when you can strive for utopia?’ I meant, ‘why strive for war when you can strive for peace?’ But an erudite acquaintance responded, ‘Apocalypse is the harbinger of utopia.’ Of course he is right. How many visions of a bright new future have been predicated on the extermination of undesirables? The striving for the Communist ideal left 100 million dead in the twentieth century. Hitler’s Aryan utopia necessitated the death of millions of Jews, Roma Gypsies and those of African-German descent. And as anyone who has had the misfortune to read shoddily compiled collections of hadith in English concerning the signs of the hour know, a similar fate apparently awaits us.
George Bush junior and Tony Blair both spoke of how their intense Christian faith drove their belief in the rightness of their invasion of Iraq, but they were certainly not alone in their mission to hasten the Hour. Zionist Christians seek all-out confrontation on the plain of Meggido, sixty miles north of Jerusalem. Messianic Jews agitate for the reconstruction of the third temple in Jerusalem and await the dawn of their millennial messianic kingdom. The radicals of ISIS invoke apocalyptic hadith concerning the conquest of Constantinople from the staging post of Dabiq in northern Syria.2 Characterizing ISIS as followers of the despotic Sufyani, Shi’a activists envision the present days as our last; soon the Mahdi will arrive, to rule with peace and justice.
It may be that all of these visions of impending doom and redemption are true — though I, for one, hope not — but it seems to me that history is simply repeating itself. For each crisis which befalls us, the spectre of wars to end all wars are invoked, from the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of European forces. The End is Nigh, come those pessimistic voices, and once more we slip into this morass of unending gloom.
So ISIS has taken Dabiq and awaits the arrival of the Roman forces. Soon they will march on Constantinople and claim the city for the Muslims. Who will break the news to these men and women that Constantinople fell to the Muslims 562 years ago in 1453 under the leadership of Sultan Mehmed II? While transiting through Istanbul on their way to the Syrian border, did none of these young muhajirun pause to listen to the call to prayer? Did they not look down on hundreds of minarets and domes as their planes came in to land?
I don’t know if the generals of these rabble armies believe these prophecies — some say that these are really proxy wars for the control of water and oil, and that their leaders are getting rich on vast oil revenues — but the foot soldiers on either side are convinced that the best of times lie just over the hill. Shia militia have been mobilized to fight the Sufyani army. Sunni militants have been mobilized to take on the evil Rafidis. Each side is engaged in a battle of epic proportions. No wonder we have come to process events through the lens of an all-consuming conspiracy.
It comes as no surprise that many of us came to see the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which has just been made law, not as a knee-jerk response to unforeseen events unfolding in Syria, but as part of seditious machinations of a state making preparations for Armageddon. Everywhere we look nowadays, events in the world are framed as part of a conspiracy. It does not help that we as a community pay so much attention to people who speak out of both corners of their mouths. We do not pay attention to the source of our news on social media and the agenda that is being promulgated. We do not challenge the activist website which publishes decade-old news, passing it off as current affairs. All too willingly, we allow ourselves to be led by groups with political motives different from our own.
I am partial to conspiracy theories myself. Europe has a massive problem with refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Libya, I noted rather cynically the other day, so claims that ISIS plan to use the country as a staging post for its invasion of Europe will help policy-makers immensely, for a humanitarian crisis can now be treated as a security matter. Believing that newspapers tell lies to forward the political and commercial agendas of their owners does not make you a wacko: Peter Oborne’s recent revelations about The Telegraph’s dealings with HSBC ought to make that clear. But a lot of our ingrained behaviour does.
If you set up a school and then deprive your female students of the educational opportunities you afford your male students, you deserve to be called out by Ofsted; it is not a witch hunt, but the consequence of poor decisions. If you invite racist or sectarian scholars to speak to your Islamic Society, you should expect people who do not share those views to object. Acknowledging these realities does not absolve those with prejudices of their wrongs: clearly an anti-Muslim narrative permeates much of popular culture, but Muslims are not alone in suffering disadvantage, nor are all of us afflicted. Surely it is possible to take a step backwards and look again at events with a fresh pair of eyes.
Look again at Syria: sure, we can argue about the source of weapons and the underhand actions of foreign intelligence agencies, but Muslims are shedding the blood of Muslims without pause. Look again at Nigeria: Boko Haram is massacring both Muslim and Christian populations in huge numbers, in what the United Nations would call the Lake Chad water conflict.3
But where is the scholarly input on these issues? Can anyone point me to a convincing, scholarly response to the issues of the day surrounding Syria which are plaguing so many of our young? Can anyone point me to the contextual framing of apocalyptic eschatology, which is now so common amongst Sunni and Shia activists? Far from addressing these concerns, many so-called Traditional scholars are fanning the flames, advising their followers that the Mahdi is already amongst us: they have lit a fire which they cannot put out. The same scholars who rallied for an uprising in Syria three years ago, now issue futile declarations about ISIS, but will do nothing to address the gambling with hadith in their circles.
Without a doubt, the Hour is near at hand. Fornication is widespread. The bare-footed Bedouin have constructed their vast towers of steel and glass. The mountains have been moved from their places. The Kaaba stands in the shadow of a vast clock face. The Arabs live in fear of the ravaging drones. These signs are clear and true.
But what is nearness to the lifespan of time? The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘The time of my advent and the Hour are like these two fingers.’ If the universe is 14 billion years old, we could well say that any event which occurred over the past 2000 years was ‘just before the Hour’. If the earth is 4.5 billion years old, we could easily say that Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople immediately preceded the coming of the Mahdi. The Hour will come — about that there is no doubt — but when: these are matters unknown.
I wish our scholars and leaders would seriously address these issues, for they are like a plague, consuming us. I wish the learned would put these oft-cited hadith in context, now that the books of hadith have been broken open for all to survey as they please. Where is the guidance we so desperately need in these times? Personally, I am yet to come across anything which seriously counteracts the polemical propaganda which young people are being exposed to today. And yet our leaders constantly express surprise at the actions of these same youngsters. But why? The propaganda they have absorbed is convincing. The arguments they have read are persuasive. In the end, they are trying do to what’s right, however misguided that may seem to those left behind. Our scholars and leaders have failed them absolutely.
And the rest of us? Apocalyptic eschatology continues to send me into a downward spiral. Claims of great battles prevent me from planting seeds. Stories of turncoats who will never be forgiven drive a wedge between me and my Lord. Pessimistically I resign to never being good enough and to never being accepted: to living a life which is ultimately of no value, which will be rejected on the Day of Judgement. It promotes hopelessness and despair. It is, in short, a complete contradiction of everything I hold dear about my faith: that God is All Forgiving, Most Merciful. That God loves beauty. That God loves those who establish prayer, spend of their wealth on the poor, look after widows and orphans, who walk gently on the earth and who, when the ignorant address them, respond, ‘Peace.’
The paralysis wrought by visions of an impending apocalypse help no one. It’s time that our scholars and leaders set out a vision to counter the madness unfolding around us. If Church of England Bishops can ask, ‘who is my neighbour,’ surely our leaders can do it too. When will they plant this seed?