Who said we were pacifists?

Who said Muslims were pacifists? I have never heard a Muslim say such a thing. In fact, the only religious community I have encountered personally who take an anti-war stance are the Quakers. My father is now an Anglican priest, but his passionate faith did not prevent us from spending our childhood climbing all over tanks, artillery and fighter planes at military museums and air shows. My practising Christian neighbour used to design guided missile systems for the RAF. I seem to recall that the vicar that oversaw my Confirmation used to fly the Lightning (I may be mistaken here).

The fact that I was brought up in a Christian household did not prevent me from receiving a toy sub-machine gun for my seventh or eighth birthday, it had no impact on the choice of the SAS Handbook as a Christmas present for me one year, or stop us boys from each adopting a fighter plane: my eldest brother had the Tornado, my middle brother the Phantom, while I the Harrier Jump Jet, and still I would probably champion it if a top-trumps discussion on fighter planes were ever to occur.

Today there is a discussion occurring online in which it is claimed that there are Muslims that can be compared to Zen Buddhists, who deny that Islam has anything to say about warfare. This is peculiar, because I have never encountered such people or such arguments. I have never read a book concerning the sira—even those intended for children—that has not touched upon the battles that occurred in the Hijra years. The charge seems to be being levelled particularly at those who call themselves Sufis, but this too seems peculiar to me, for in my reading of Islamic history Sufis have always featured prominently as those who would go to war when the battle cry was heard.

What I have encountered, however, are the many Muslims that point out that war is limited in Islam by the shariah: that we don’t just adopt the norms of modern warfare because everyone else is doing it, that we don’t accept the concept of total war, that we consider the idea of collateral damage illegitimate. Yes, I have heard all of this, for sure. And what is wrong with this? It is called adherence to the sunnah.

Yes, I have heard Muslims condemning terrorism. Are such Muslims pacifists? No, they are people who are familiar with the sunnah and shariah: people who appreciate that indiscriminate killing and vigilantism are prohibited in Islam. People who respect the Prophetic guidance passed down to them, which places boundaries on what is halal and haram.

Sure, there are non-Muslims who demand that Muslims deny that their religion has anything to say about war, like that mocking website, Religion of Peace, which all the same permits its contributors to support Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. Sure, there are powers that demand the disarmament of Muslim nations, despite their own frightening arsenals of nuclear weapons and stealth technology. Sure, there are those that demand that Muslims should forever turn the other cheek like the Christians of the first century of their era.

I have never, ever heard a Muslim say such things, however. Sure, plenty of Muslims have claimed that Islam means Peace, but that’s not quite the same thing as saying that Islam has nothing to say about warfare. Even the Qur’an presents that duality: ‘Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God.’

To take a Muslim’s condemnation of indiscriminate, unlawful violence and twist it into a parting from the sunnah is pure mockery. I won’t be apologetic that Islam pronounces on warfare and sets out rules of engagement, but I also won’t stand for those who demand that we blindly support the actions of Muslims wherever they are involved in conflict. That is not pacifism. It is recognition that warfare is a serious matter that is viewed entirely seriously by our deen.

In Defence of Civilisation

I have before me a copy of The Telegraph—it isn’t mine; my grandmother left it with us after her visit today—and there is a photograph and a headline on the front that occupy me. I keep on returning to the dining table to sit hunched over it, studying the photograph and the words that accompany it.

The strap line above the photograph reads ‘Hamas Leader killed as bombs destroy home’, but the picture immediately below tells its own story. In the background we see three buildings severely damaged: not destroyed, but still no longer habitable. And then there is the rubble strewn land where Nizar Rayan’s house is said to have stood. But looking at the buildings in the background, it seems clear to me that this space once accommodated—by my estimation—at least a dozen similar buildings.

And so there we have it: in its pursuit of one man the Israeli air force not only chose to hold his seven innocent children responsible for the decisions of their father, killing them along with his wife and relatives, but it also chose to blow to pieces the homes of fifteen of his neighbours.

And what is a home? It is not just the place where we rest our heads. A home contains furniture, clothes, books, photographs, memories. A home contains treasured possessions, things of sentimental worth. The jewellery that a husband bought his beloved. The toys that a mother bought to put smiles on the faces of her children. I consider my own home a part of me: it is my abode of peace, my sanctuary, the container for much that I am. A home is more than bricks and mortar.

The newspaper article does not say what happened to his neighbours. If they survived, clearly all they have left is their body and soul, for the bricks and mortar have been pulverised and their every possession destroyed. If they are alive, they will have only the clothes on their backs.

The loss of innocent life is regrettable say the spokesmen for the state of Israel, but what are such words worth when the missiles fired at ‘identified targets’ are powerful enough to pulverise an entire street? Our politicians—who only a matter of weeks ago rightly condemned the atrocities in Mumbai absolutely—express ‘worry’ about the situation. A dozen houses flattened in a split second and you tell us you are worried?

A couple of nights ago I read an article by Melanie Phillips in The Spectator which sought to condemn her one-time ally, Mr Ed Hussein, for his part in protesting about the massacre of innocents. Mr Hussein, she argued, was still the Islamist through and through, misrepresenting the actions of Israel to suit his own agenda. The article was only partly about that infamous author however: it was really about the innocence and righteousness of Israel in responding to its terrorist neighbours, and the bulk of the comments that followed the article were congratulatory in their tone, praising Ms Phillips for speaking the truth, for consistently standing up in defence of Western Civilisation.

She and they are entitled to their opinions, but to me the arguments resembled those of the very people they claim to loathe. Responding to Mr Hussein’s claim that innocents were being massacred, Ms Phillips wrote, ‘The vast majority of Gazans who have been killed were Hamas terrorists. According to today’s UN figures, 364 have been killed of whom only 62 were civilians.’ Ignoring for a moment that police officers have been included in the non-civilian category, is ‘only’ an appropriate word to describe the tragic deaths of innocents? The death toll of the bombings in London on 7 July 2005 was 12 less than this number, but I have no difficulty describing it as a massacre. Fifteen people died in the Columbine High School shooting, and we still call it a massacre. What an odious defence.

What is it that these people do not get? The protests against this conflict are not a defence of Hamas. It is a protest against the killing of innocents, against firing heavy explosives into densely populated residential areas. Oh yes, Britain dare not complain after conceiving Operation Gomorrah. Germany would be a hypocrite after the Blitzkrieg. And what could the United States say after the Manhattan Project? Nations may stumble, but the ordinary man and woman knows that it is wrong. And so this is their cry.

Repeating ad nauseam that Hamas is to blame misses the point entirely. Ms Phillips may claim that ‘Israel has been targeting only the Hamas infrastructure and its terror-masters,’ but she ignores completely the power of the weapons they are using: weapons which are capable of pulverising a dozen houses into a pile of rubble within minutes, which cannot target with the precision she believes they have because their power is just too great.

We the people—not the leaders of our nations—protest because we see with our own eyes children’s lives cut short. Can you justify the death of one child? I can’t.

But in the comments that followed that article, people were indeed doing just that, arguing that it was just an unfortunate consequence of the battle with the terrorists. Thus the respectable readers have themselves become the very people they claim to loathe, no different from another group of people that is indifferent to human life. There are no surgical operations here—in the old European world amputation was the answer to many an ailment when directed infection control was all that was required—for collateral damage is not just tolerated, but justified too.

Some people may defend Hamas, claiming that by their actions they are fighting a resistance against Israeli occupation, but I cannot. The argument is often made that the Palestinians do not have F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, cruise missiles and tanks, and that if they did they would fight a traditional war of army versus army; because the only weapons they have are the meagre resources around them, striking against the military is like David fighting Goliath. I would not necessarily reject that thesis, but still I lack sympathy for the organisation we know as Hamas.

What options do the Palestinians then have to resist occupation, to break the wall and fight the blockade? I’m afraid I do not have an answer. I am not a strategist and I have no skills in international relations, so I cannot provide an educated commentary on the actions of Hamas. I can only return to my very simple interpretation of my faith: to those ideas that the civilian is not to be attacked in war, that we do not destroy their homes or cut their fruit trees down. If our jurists sought to condemn the use of suicide bombing in 1994, why should the passage of 15 years now make it halal?

I may well be mistaken in my simple faith, and of course it is easy to be an idealist as an outside observer with little intimate knowledge of the facts on the ground—and indeed as one who has never had to live all my years under a humiliating occupation—but I would be a liar if at this time of passion and emotion I denied that my gut reaction to the practice of firing hundreds of missiles indiscriminately at civilians in a nation with vastly superior weapons each day was that it not only flies in the face of our Prophetic guidance, but also makes no sense at all. But again I speak as a simpleton, one unversed in strategy.

In truth, I do not know a lot about Hamas. When I was an undergraduate 10 years ago the Palestinian Society at my university organised a lecture on the conflict which included a discussion on the role of Hamas. Some students claimed that Hamas was being funded by the Israelis to undermine the PLO, while others claimed that they were actually a popular social movement that spent 90% of its income on hospitals, schools and welfare, and just happened to have a military wing as well.

I don’t have enough information about Hamas to make an informed decision about them, but can I honestly deny my feelings about the deaths of over 600 people, women and children included, that it is claimed were killed during the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah over the past year? That’s far more than were killed during the Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in March 2002, for which Hamas claimed responsibility. When I read on Christmas Day that 27 bakeries out of a total of 47 in Gaza City have been shut down completely due to a lack of cooking gas and wheat, and that the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees had had to halt food distribution to 750,000 refugees because their stocks of wheat flour had run out, I couldn’t help the obvious questions that bubbled into my mind. Rockets versus bread.

When we protest about what is happening in Gaza today, it is a protest for humanity. It is not a defence of the actions of the group the Israelis claim to be fighting. It is a plea for a people already suffering from an 18-month blockade—the majority of whom are without adequate water, electricity or gas—to be allowed to live their lives in dignity. To be allowed to live, to have a right to their home, without the fear that it will be blown to pieces because Israel has identified a neighbour as a Hamas target.

Ms Phillips tells us:

‘The issue of Israel sits at the very apex of the fight to defend civilisation. Those who wish to destroy western civilisation need to destroy the Jews, whose moral precepts formed its foundation stones … Unless people in the west understand that Israel’s fight is their own fight, they will be on the wrong side of the war to defend not just the west but civilisation in general.’

But here I sit, with my grandmother’s copy of The Telegraph spread out before me and there’s that photograph that haunts me. Is this the defence of civilisation? A dozen homes destroyed for the sake of one man, his children executed for their father’s crimes? What kind of civilisation is this?

Shall I remind Ms Phillips of some of those moral precepts that formed the foundation stones of the civilisation she cherishes so? Let us delve into the Beatitudes:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

Eight lessons to live by. That, Ms Phillips, is civilisation.

I cannot promise

This weekend I intended to tidy my study, which is indisputably the messiest room in our house. Unfortunately, as often happens, I soon found myself side-tracked from the task and absorbed in reading a document that had no obvious place amongst my piles of bills and letters. It turns out it may not have been the most appropriate reading material for a Sunday afternoon, because now imagined images keep flashing before my eyes, causing me to weep.

I had barely dug into my huge pile of paperwork when I chanced upon a dossier of newspaper clippings from 1997, most of which were photocopied articles from The Observer, The Independent and The Financial Times. Each article related to the brutal massacres that ravaged Algeria that year, whether to the murderous rampages themselves or to the behaviour of the Algerian police.

Looking back to 1997, I was clearly aware of what was happening in a general sense, for I remember writing an article about it for the student magazine, but I am not sure that I was conscious of it. I mean, I am not sure I really appreciated how horrific it was, for my reaction then was not as it is now. I remember looking at it—as a non-Muslim with left-liberal leanings—as the media painting Muslims in a bad light, again. Where my sympathy for the victims was, I do not know.

I don’t know that I can bring myself to summarise what I read, or to pull out extracts to help you to understand. I am not even sure where to start. Won’t the headline from The Guardian on Monday 20 October 1997 suffice? ‘This is where they shot my wife. Here they killed my daughter with an axe’. Or from The Times on 23 October? ‘Algerian terror victims plead for death by bullet’. I am sorry, but I cannot go on, for the tears come flooding back.

At first those massacres were reported as the work of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group, but within weeks suspicion had fallen on the police and army instead. In The Observer on 26 October 1997, ‘Robert Moore visits the Triangle of Death but doubts the official line’:

Women had been slashed to death. Infants thrown off balconies. Old men shot, and even pregnant women mutilated. All of it happened. I have never had a glimpse into such brutality and fanaticism.

We were told that those responsible for such crimes were solely the guerrillas of the GIA.

It was finally becoming clearer why the Algerian authorities were facilitating these trips to Sidi Moussa, Benthala, Rais and Larbaa. We were the tools that could be used to show the international community that there is no point negotiating with the militants…

If the public relations had ended there, both sides would have been contented. Shocked but mesmerised journalists would have had their story. And the Algerian government would have seen the GIA described as brutal killers, devoid of ideology…

But instead, witnesses started giving disturbing testimony about the role of the security forces and the behaviour of local militias. It was evident to all of us that many of the most harrowing attacks took place only a short distance from police stations and barracks. We could see that for ourselves.

Local people looked down at their feet when we asked how long it had taken for local troops to intervene. Four hours, some answered. Four hours to move a few hundred yards and engage the GIA? More questions followed, all of which hinted at collusion between the attackers and the security forces…

In the same edition, ‘A deserter in London tells Francoise Sergent of the army’s role in the killings’:

One evening last June his squad went on a mission. ‘They injected us with something, telling us it would makes us strong, so that we would not be afraid. People said it was cocaine.

‘They took us by plane, then by truck. Around three o’clock in the morning we were near a village, about 120 to 130 men. They told all the conscript soldiers to stay on the hillside overlooking the village and not to move, unless we saw a flare fired over the village streets.

‘About 25 enlisted men left in the direction of the village. We saw nothing and stayed without moving. Around 5.30 they came back. They were dirty, with false beards and smelling of musk like the Islamists. They were still wearing army trousers but had civilian T-shirts and really looked like typical Islamists. Some had blood on their trousers and their paratrooper knives were also bloody. They were asked nothing. No one asks anything in the army.’

The unit returned to the barracks in the morning. ‘I learnt that there had been a massacre in the village where they were. We knew it from the police who were nearby. There would have been about 30 dead. We made the connections, but nobody talked about it. We were terrified.’

On 12 January 1998, John Sweeney wrote in The Observer of Algerian policemen who said they had killed for the state:

The ninja – slang for the Algerian junta’s feared Balaclava-clad paramilitary police force – spoke quietly as he gave the details of the October 10 massacre last year.

“We were in a convoy of 16 vehicles, Nissan Jeeps and Peugeot 505s, four ninjas to each car. We left Chateauneuf police station (three miles to the west of the Casbah in central Algiers) at around 1.30am. The journey to the Algiers suburb of Rais Hamido took about 45 minutes. We were armed with Kalashnikovs and 9mm Berettas.

“Close to the target house, we stopped and waited for the special forces of the securite militaire. As soon as they arrived, one of us killed the electricity supply for the area, turning 20 to 30 houses completely dark. Switching off the electricity is one of our jobs,” explained “Robert”, a ninja trooper who fled from Algeria to Britain last month and only spoke to the Observer in the strictest anonymity.

“Our orders were clear. We should guard the surrounding area but not act unless we were given specific orders. The securite militaire went in and came out after a time, maybe two hours, maybe less. After they had gone, we went in to clean the place up. There were about 16 bodies, two families. I saw with my own eyes dead men, women and children, even a baby, all with their throats slit. I cannot tell you what it was like…”

So who is doing the massacres in Algeria?

“It’s us,” said the two ninjas in unison. Their testimony is damning evidence contradicting the official line of the Algerian government – that Islamic activists alone are responsible for the slaughter.

“Robert” and his fellow ninja, “Andrew”, gave detailed evidence of the state’s involvement in a whole range of human rights abuses: massacre by military security death squads, torture of the regime’s opponents, spying, and the murder of difficult journalists and popular entertainers to blacken the name of the Islamic activists in carefully organized psychological warfare.

Surely all of this is gruesome enough, but I have spared you the details reported in the dozens of newspaper articles in that dossier. My stomach turns as I look over them once more. Here is an article in The Independent on Saturday 1 November 1997 about the nightmares of torture—of a torturer. Here an article from The Independent on 31 October about the women who wait for their husbands and sons, even daughters, to come home—the thousands of men and women ‘disappeared’ by the security forces. Here an article detailing how the police forced prisoners to drink acid, how they pulled out their beards and finger nails. There is worse, but I dare not copy those words.

Some of my colleagues enjoy a good horror film at the cinema, which to me is a sign of a sick mind. But what we have witnessed here is not fiction, but reality. What we have witnessed here is all the horror of the worst horror film multiplied a thousand times over. These people existed, had dreams and desires, feelings and thoughts. Like you and I, they had mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. And like you and I, they too could be broken by brutality.

As I read through all of those newspaper clippings when I should have been tidying my room, a thought lodged itself in my mind: I don’t think I could survive such brutality. I don’t think I could survive my nails being ripped from my fingers. I don’t think I could survive such terror perpetrated against my family. I think my mind would die and my sanity leave me, even if my body survived.

I have always condemned terrorism, for I believe it is an abomination in the sight of God. Reflecting on the sunna, I believe Muslims are duty-bound to condemn it wherever it occurs, regardless of the perpetrator or the victim. A study of Islamic Law reveals that there is no place for the targeting of civilians even during a war. I have no room for extremism.

But as I sat reading those newspaper clippings on Sunday, a thought lodged itself firmly in my mind. I cannot promise that if I am ever exposed to violence of that kind I will not resort to extremism. I cannot promise that I will not lose my mind. And I cannot promise that I will survive.

Must we condemn? Yes we must

Two Muslim authors have told us today that we must not condemn the terrorist atrocities carried out in India yesterday: Umar Lee argues that American Muslims should not condemn them and Yusuf Smith that Western Muslims should not. They both argue their case effectively and I can see where they are coming from, but I must confess: when both of their headlines appeared in my blog-reader, I was utterly disgusted. To one of them I responded as follows:

I beg to differ. We should condemn them. We just should not condemn them because others demand us to do so.

We should condemn every single terrorist atrocity until we are blue in the face and until there are none.

This is because our religion teaches us to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. I just don’t care about this “we should not” because of what people think; it’s not about what people think.

It’s about getting the message through to terrorists that this is evil.

If one of you sees something bad he should change it with his hands, and if he cannot do that he should change it with his tongue, and if he cannot do that he should hate it in his heart, and that is the weakest of faith.

Your headline doesn’t sit well with me this evening I’m afraid. I utterly disagree.

Peace.

Someone argues that we do not know who was responsible for it yet. What has that got to do with it? We do not condemn it because we share some innate guilt. We condemn it because it is evil, because it is wrong, regardless of who did it or their reason. When bombs are rained down on a foreign land from a high-altitude bomber I condemn it because it is evil. When a gunman opens fire on civilians I condemn it because it is evil.

Someone argues that Muslims have condemned terrorist atrocities repeatedly but nobody pays any attention. What has that got to do with it? We condemn it not because a social commentator tells us to, but because Allah subhana wa ta’ala tells us to: “you enjoin right and you forbid wrong, and you believe in God”. And indeed because our beloved said:

Towards the latter days of indiscriminate violence, be like the first and better of the two sons of Adam who said, ‘If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you; surely I fear God, the Lord of the worlds.’ (from a sahih hadith in Tirmidhi)

Someone argues that we have no influence on people far away who have done this. Who says we have no influence? Do we not have prayers for rain? Do we have influence on the clouds of the sky? Yet we pray and it rains. You may have a neighbour who knows nothing about Islam, who sees this behaviour and believes it is of his religion. Perhaps your condemnation might make him think again.

Have some compassion. It does not matter who the perpetrators are or who the victims are. We condemn terrorism because it is wrong.

The Semitic Way

In British politics today, there is so much talk of identity, of what it means to belong, of shared values. Sometimes it is assumed that we must all trace our values back to Hellenic roots, as if this were the foundation of civilisation. Yet my heart has always felt comfort in the Semitic pathway. As a child, the Parables spoke to me, but Paul’s Epistles did not. As an agnostic it was the Letter of James. And now: well you know the journey I am walking, the road I am taking.

My burgundy-bound Bible from those days before faith is filled with scribbles in pencil, with scruffy underlining and highlighter ink: the etchings of a searching soul. But one book stands out. On the title page of the Letter of James there is a handwritten note which reads, ‘The most beautiful book in the Bible.’ I was yet to learn of Islam—yet to tread this path—but looking back now it seems clear to me that the author was a Muslim. A Muslim of the era before Muhammad, peace be upon him.

I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion though. James’ address of the twelve tribes dispersed throughout the land nods to the Judaic-Christian world, whose resemblance to another tradition has been widely noted over the years. Hans Küng et al point out in their work on the World Religions, ‘the traditional and historical parallels between early Judaic-Christianity and Islam are inescapable.’ Meanwhile, while I would naturally dispute the case of dependence given my belief in revelation, Hans-Joachim Schoeps writes in Theology and History of Jewish Christianity:

Though it may not be possible to establish exact proof of the connection, the indirect dependence of Mohammed on sectarian Jewish Christianity is beyond any reasonable doubt. This leaves us with a paradox of truly world-historical dimensions: the fact that while Jewish Christianity in the Church came to grief, it was preserved in Islam and, with regard to some of its driving impulses at least, it has lasted till our own time.’

When I put the teachings of the Letter of James and the teachings of Islam side by side, the similarities are striking. About six years ago I began work on a small text that would do just that, for I felt that the parallel presentation conveyed meanings that have sadly escaped many. Much is made of difference when we encounter the Other, but there is a great deal to be gained from highlighting the common ground.

The reality of the focus on identity, on what it means to belong, on shared values, is that what defines our present is a hugely diverse past. While the phrase ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’ has emerged over recent years, that old focus on Hellenic and Grecian ancestry remains dominant. I have seen it in the current debates on multi-culturalism. That is wrong: Semitic pathways have had a huge influence on our culture. What is more, where would Britain be had the no one translated those ancient works held up so high?

So talk of identity, of what it means to belong and of shared values, but don’t give me a hard time when I say I am proud of who I am: a devotee to the Semitic way.

The Wakeup Call

In the community in which I live I could not say that there is a problem of extremism amongst the Muslim youth. Not ‘Islamic Extremism’ in any case – jahil extremism maybe. In this community, our concerns are with drug use, alcohol consumption and anti-social behaviour. A friend tells me that some young Muslims are bringing drugs into the area to foster a previously non-existent trade in the town. Our local press has reported on a number of occasions about youths in our town being given ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders); troublingly in each case the recipients have Muslim names. Late on Friday and Saturday nights, young Muslims gather in the centre of town, smoking perpetually and ranting aggressively with sentences littered with expletives. This is probably not what the middle-class commentators have in mind when they call for Muslims to integrate with society; still here the Muslims certainly are adopting the culture of those they find themselves amongst.

Undoubtedly British Muslims have a duty to tackle extremism in our midst, where it exists, but there is also an urgent need to tackle the vast array of huge social problems which have emerged. A friend of mine is the head of department in an inner city London secondary school and he is appalled by the behaviour of his students – more so, he laments, because the majority of them come from Muslim families. Apart from having no knowledge of their religion whatsoever, these young people have no manners, no respect for the people around them and are frequently members of gangs. The Muslim community makes up barely 2% of the British population and yet 7% of the prison population. The Muslim Youth Helpline draws the following inferences from research carried out by Muslim organisations:

– Drug abuse and smoking are shown to have a significantly higher prevalence amongst Muslim youth between the ages of 16-25 years, despite the fact that an estimated 45% of Muslim youth have never used illicit drugs, smoked tobacco or drunk alcohol.

– Mental Illness occurs more frequently amongst Muslim youth, particularly those that enter Britain as refugees. Almost one-half of the Muslim Youth Helpline’s clients complain of mental anxiety, depression or suicidal feelings.

– Muslims make up 7% of the country’s prison population, a figure that is five times that of the total Muslim population in Britain today. Numerous clients of the Muslim Youth Helpline have been to prison and one client recently accessed our service from prison.

As I have noted before, I work with a national helpline charity which aims to help Muslim women in crisis. Domestic violence is rife, divorce rates are high and the issue of forced marriage is not going away. My wife used to work as a social worker around the time she became Muslim and it is sad to report that huge numbers of unwanted babies are being abandoned by Muslims in the care of social services, often by Muslim girls who became pregnant outside marriage. Meanwhile educational achievement amongst young Muslims remains poor. All in all, as a community we have huge problems and the question of extremism is only one of them.

With the Prime minister’s words to the Muslim community this week about doing more to tackle extremism, the first response is naturally one of defence. We ask what power we have, given that the extremist groups quite deliberately do not frequent established mosques. If wider British society is understandably not asked to root out the extremism of the BNP, we ask, why should the Muslims be asked to take on the role of the Police and Local Government? But once these initial objections pass, we are faced with a very uncomfortable truth: despite pockets of light – and there are many examples of the Muslim community making a positive and successful contribution to society – there are issues which we as a community must address ourselves.

Merely resorting to the very un-Islamic sense of victim-hood is not going to help any of us. Merely condemning terrorism is not going to help us either. Nor is my writing about social problems going to help. Like my friend who went into teaching or those running the various Muslim help lines, there is a realisation that we need to get out into the community to engage in social works. There has been too much focus on establishing a Muslim media, believing that this is somehow going to improve our situation. But public relations exercises are always bound to fail when what lies beneath the surface is diseased. My experience of this media over recent months suggests that our priorities are confused – I might even say we have our heads stuck in the sand. On several occasions I have been asked to write something about the nasheed business and listening to music. That’s right: at a time when Muslims have a disproportionate representation in prisons, when Muslims believe it is acceptable to target civilians with bombs, when drug use and gang membership is mushrooming, the issue which is causing most debate in our community is listening to music. Has nobody heard the narration of the sahaba who was asked whether it was permissible to kill mosquitoes, at a time when righteous Muslims were being slaughtered in that early great fitna.

It’s time we extracted our heads and awoke to the realities facing us. Coinciding with the first anniversary of the explosions on the London transport system, there will be a lot of focus on the Muslim community this month. Some of it will be unfair, some of it deeply insulting, some of it untrue. But let us not pity ourselves. We have a lot of work to do. If one of you sees something bad, we are ordered, you should change it with your hands, and if you cannot do that you should change it with your tongues, and if you cannot do that you should hate it in your heart, and that is the weakest of faith. For years we have been using our tongues and our typing fingers, but we seem reluctant to use our hands. We are reluctant to get out there on the streets as youth workers, teachers, social workers. The time has come. This anniversary of 7 July should serve as a reminder of this. It is a wakeup call.

Blank Canvas

A brother sent me an article in the last few days by a sister about her choice to wear hijab. It was like others I had read before: a defensive response to the perceptions of others. ‘So next time you see me,’ the author concludes, ‘don’t look at me sympathetically. I am not under duress or a male-worshipping female captive from those barbarous Arabic deserts. I’ve been liberated.’

I have often reflected on our response to non-Muslims’ perceptions of us; indeed, on our perception of their perception. I have no doubt that we do often encounter hostility, but I wish to say that we must not let ourselves ‘expect’ it.

I recall the day I became Muslim and the weeks after it. My shahada came after a very personal journey over the preceding years, months and weeks, and yet when I had made the decision to utter those words, I found my whole life thrust into public view for all to scrutinise as they pleased. I had considered it a personal affair, but within only hours the news was in the public domain. I had many friends at the start of that day who, by nightfall, would now refuse to speak to me. At the time we were in the midst of our second year exams and I put their strange behaviour down to exam stress. Only, when the exams came to an end, the same people would still only smile, as if embarrassed, when I said hello, if they didn’t just turn their back on me and walk away.

Relating to other people became very difficult: it was paranoia time. I came to understand the reactions of two unconnected sisters to my behaviour when I was not a Muslim after they had taken to wearing hijab.

When I first went to university, there were really only two things which I ‘knew’ about Islam: Muslims don’t eat pork ‘because pigs eat dirt’ , and Muslims only eat halal food. I didn’t have an opinion of Muslims – I didn’t even think they were all terrorists or that they oppressed women. But one thing I found when I went to university was that there were Muslim women there who wore the head scarf. I cannot tell you why I reacted as I did, because I do not know; I just thought that I should; but whenever I saw such a person, my eyes would hit the floor. I would not look at her face. I think I thought that because she wore the scarf, she wanted privacy and, therefore, I was not allowed to look at her. I remember there was a day when I was sitting with an ‘ordinary’ Muslim girl from my course in the university’s common room, and she pointed to this sister wearing hijab and said, ‘Can you guess where she’s from?’ I thought this was incredibly odd, because I thought I was not meant to look.

I encountered the paranoia tendency twice because of the way I behaved. The first time it was in my first year, the second time in my second year; both times those involved were new to wearing the head scarf. Both times my refusal to even look at the person was taken as meaning that I hated Muslims or that, at least, I had a great problem with them wearing hijab. I really thought neither; I just acted as I thought was expected of me.

Now that I have been there, almost in their shoes, I know just what is like. Visually, little had changed about me, but words were enough: without me even telling anyone, the grapevine revealed that I had become a Muslim. Most of those acquaintances who have never been very close, but you considered them friends, drop you in an instant. They blank you when you say hello or look at them, and you come to know that they hate Muslims or that, at least, they have a problem with something that you believe. Later, other friends, even your closest friends, drift away. They don’t have a problem with you, they say, but then they cut off all our ties. And when you experience this, you start to think that everyone thinks this way.

But they don’t.

I remember finding people on my course when I was in the third year periodically ignoring me. I would think, ‘Oh, well this is because I’m a Muslim.’ But often it wasn’t. People get stressed, consumed in their own worries. Study gets on top of them. Then there are the people who don’t know exactly how to react around you; they just want to show respect. So there was me, once upon a time, feeling that I should show respect, my intentions being misinterpreted, and then me later on doing the misinterpreting when others respond to me in exactly the same way.

In the two and a half years that I have been a Muslim, I have encountered all sorts of different reactions to me and my beliefs. I have encountered fascination as well as disinterest, respect as well as hatred, curiosity as well as being boycotted, sincerity as well as mockery. I have met people who have asked me question after question about Islam, searching on their own for the truth. I have known people who don’t even have an opinion on Islam; who aren’t even confident that they can pronounce the word ‘Muslim.’

So what I’m really trying to say here is, please treat every potential Muslim you meet as a blank canvas. Don’t assume things about that person. It is so hard, I know from experience, to decipher what people are thinking, but we must try our best to be optimistic. Should we start on a negative like, ‘I’m not a terrorist, you know?’ or begin with a positive like, ‘Hello, how are you?’ Islam is a blessing, so don’t forget to share it. We really have been liberated!

T.Bowes 18/02/2001