Chasing wild geese

I opened The Independent this morning to find a photograph of someone I once knew staring back at me. An entire decade has passed since we last set eyes on one another, but this article by Johann Hari brought memories flooding back. Not because his article resonated with me, mind you, but because his narrative troubled me. In Renouncing Islamism: To the brink and back again, Hari presents that old acquaintance as an ex-Jihadi—or he presents him as presenting himself that way. But the fellow I knew back then was nothing of the sort.

I cannot say I was ever a close associate of his—and so it is quite possible that I missed the portion of the tale that Hari recounts in his article—but we did encounter one another frequently between 1997 and 1999, as we were both students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in central London.

I first encountered him in the student common room in the SOAS halls of residence on Pentonville Road, where he would play pool and chain-smoke cigarettes. He wore designer clothes, had a very fashionable hairstyle and was always cleanly shaven. His rhetoric constantly concerned neo-colonialism, but this never had much impact on me as a student of International Development, where the post-colonial discourse was already commonplace. At SOAS, his assault on the mischief of the West was nothing extraordinary, for the socialists’ arguments were the same.

Even as a non-Muslim I found myself socialising with him quite frequently through my Muslim pool-partner, whom I had met going to a bizarre comedy show at the student union earlier in the year. Our gatherings often took place on Friday evenings in the cafes of Edgware Road, where we would drink bitter black tea and smoke fruit-flavoured tobacco. Again, the talk was of neo-imperialism, of western-proxies ruling the Islamic world and the Khilafah, but memorably the sources were Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and John Pilger.

Those social meetings ceased when I became Muslim in 1998, as I considered the smoking and time-wasting un-Islamic, but I continued to encounter him on campus. I largely kept company with a group of apolitical Salafis at the time, who were fiercely critical of HT whom they considered to hold heretical beliefs. The Salafis believed that the Muslim world would only be reformed by individual Muslims reforming themselves and adhering to the sunnah, whereas HT had a Leninist view that change would come about upon the establishment of the State. Thus I frequently stumbled upon arguments between this fellow and my friends, with the latter mocking HT as the Socialist Worker Party for Muslims.

I am puzzled, therefore, when Hari writes that my acquaintance, ‘wanted to be at the heart of the jihad’, for I never heard him talk about this even once, even theoretically. Instead he was perpetually obsessed with the idea that ‘intellectual argument’ would be the driver for change in the Muslim world. He went on about ‘intellectual arguments’ to such an extent that it became something of a joke amongst the other students.

I have no idea whether the tale of a coup plot involving junior Pakistani army officers is in any way true. However, it is the case that he was involved in an attempted coup in 1999 rather closer to home: not in dusty Karachi, but in the tiny second-floor prayer room at SOAS. Here he intended to wrest control of the Islamic Society from the Iqwanis, who had wrested control from the Salafis earlier in the year.

I know this, because he thought this quite amiable, decent chap would help him. His great talent, as I recall, was not so much in being able to convince people and win them over, but in talking them into submission. He would go on and on at you with circular arguments so that in the end you would agree with him just to be able to change the subject.

And so it was one day when he came over to my flat to argue that something had to be done about the Islamic Society, which he claimed was corrupt and unrepresentative of the Muslim students: he talked at my flatmate and me for ages until we finally agreed to put our names to his vote of no-confidence. Unfortunately he did not get the message when I rang him back to tell him I had changed my mind and the next I knew about it was when members of the Islamic Society came for me, demanding to know why my name was listed on a petition pinned to the notice board in the prayer room.

Alas, I never had the privilege of reading the notice, but was in any case called on to attend a special meeting of the Islamic Society to explain what it was all about, for the instigator had disappeared and was unreachable on his mobile phone. As in Hari’s article, he was never drawn on the details of this coup plot either, but it did make my remaining days at SOAS somewhat uncomfortable where the Islamic Society was concerned.

Meanwhile, he continued to organise lectures on campus, inviting academics like Fred Haliday to duels where he would demonstrate the power of his ‘intellectual arguments’. Nobody I knew ever considered him a jihadi, but only something of a friendly bore. Rather than taking him seriously, people dismissed him as a caricature socialist wrapped up in Muslim garb.

Reading Hari’s article, however, he sounds like a great Missionary, steaming off to one Muslim country and then another as if on an adventure inspired by Indiana Jones. Hari writes that he ‘decided to move on to Egypt’. Yet to say that he decided to move on to Egypt is to stretch language a little far. In reality he was undertaking a degree in Arabic at SOAS and was required to spend a year in Alexandria as part of the course, like every other student.

Even there his capacity to talk people into submission was well noted, even by his lecturers, who advised him to reign in his tongue. But he was not one to listen to such advice and was soon arrested for belonging to a banned political party. Upon his release several years later, he appeared on Hard Talk on the BBC News channel, still eloquently and passionately defending HT, once again talking of those ‘intellectual arguments’.

All these memories signal my trouble with Hari’s article. Yes, he was indeed a recruiter for HT and he was dedicated to this cause. But to claim he was a jihadi is to stretch the truth too far. Granted I never attended any of HT’s gatherings to learn what may have lain beyond the mockery of my friends; perhaps, if I had, I might have formed a different picture of him. But in the ordinary interaction between us, and in witnessing his debates with friends and his famous debates with secular academics, I believe I framed a fair picture of the man. He was a passionate and eloquent disputant, absorbed in the kind of post-colonial rhetoric common to many students of the time, like my many socialist acquaintances.

I am not dismissing his devotion to HT or excusing it. I am merely suggesting that the article I read this morning was full of exaggerations. I am not in denial about the threat of extremism within the Muslim community—indeed, I have noted elsewhere the advice I was given to steer clear of known extremists when I first became Muslim. My objection to Hari’s article is that for me it raised more questions than it answered.

Why, I find myself wondering, is it necessary to build oneself up as a great sinner who saw the light—like Paul on the road to Damascus—in order to denounce what is wrong? There are many, many Muslims who have been quietly, modestly, cautiously working on the ground to counter extremism for years and years. Theirs is a thankless task. Condemned by the extremists and ex-extremists alike, their work is ever more difficult. These men and women did not need to venture to the brink and back to realise that it was wrong; they had already delved into their faith and forged a forward path.

Should I be grateful that I saw that face peering back at me from the newspaper this morning, for reminding me of all of this? I’m not sure to be quite honest, but of one thing I’m pretty sure: Johann Hari has just been sent on a wild goose chase. I hope he realises this before he invests too much hope in his new found friends.

Killing

Why all the killing? I really cannot comprehend it at all. A bomb planted in a Peshawar marketplace extinguishes the lives of 91 in an instant as it rips through everything in its path; 200 more are left injured. Just a matter of hours earlier 150 are slaughtered in Baghdad.

Islam holds that indiscriminate violence is makruh (offensive) on the battlefield and haram (forbidden) in a place where there are civilians. This slaughter follows not the sunnah of our Prophet, upon whom be peace, but that of the twentieth century, during which 250 million people were needlessly killed. Fifteen million during the First World War, 9 million during the Russian Civil War, 20 million under Stalin’s regime, 55 million during the Second World War, 2.5 million during the Chinese Civil War, and on, and on.

Who gave Muslims permission to adopt the sunnah of the Luftwaffe and RAF, who once championed terror bombing for utilitarian ends? And who gave them permission to abandon the sunnah of the Messenger, peace be upon him, which forbade attacks on non-combattants?

Who now will stand up to the killers and defend our deen and the common man? If a man in the midst of this anarchy must now blunt his sword and resign himself to a fate like that of the better of the two sons of Adam, does the burden then pass to those of us living in safety and security?

For years Muslims have lamented that though we condemn terrorism repeatedly, nobody hears us. But today we realise that all this time we have been addressing the wrong ears. Those who needed to hear us were not our angry neighbours, but those men wielding high explosives and an alien utilitarian way.

Amidst the carnage of a bombed-out marketplace, who now will make themselves heard?

More than bricks and mortar

Recent months have seen a sudden upsurge in devotion to the Christian faith amongst followers of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). In June the BNP chimed against the Islamic colonisation of Britain, seen in the widespread conversion of churches throughout the land: the Central Mosque of Brent; the former Forest Gate Church; Peckham’s St Mark’s Cathedral; West Didsbury’s Albert Park Methodist Chapel; Oldham’s Glodwick Baptist Church; and 250 year old Brick Lane Church in London’s Spitalfields (once a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a Bengali mosque). All of these churches — and many more — have fallen to the Islamic invasion.

The BNP are not alone. As the EDL prepare to descend on Manchester on 10 October to protest against Islamic extremism, a video has appeared on the internet, making a rallying cry for England’s Christian heritage.1 In his video entitled, ‘EDL: Defending our heritage & birthright – Manchester Oct 10th 2009’, Lionheart of Luton, Paul Ray, builds a picture of a nation under siege. While it begins with headlines captured from the Daily Mail and the Express to illustrate how Muslims receive special treatment — whilst England’s natives suffer at their hands — this is another ode to the churches of England.

‘Manchester England,’ reads a slide midway through the video, ‘The destruction and desecration of a Christian Church and graveyard to make way for a Mosque’. The slides intersect a video showing a tracked Komatsu digger moving earth within the grounds of Longsight’s St John’s Church. The next slide reads:

Are yesterday’s politically correct Church leaders irrelevant to us in todays United Kingdom? Psalm 81:9 There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god.

In this video, the EDL has messianic pretensions, likening church leaders to the corrupt Pharisees of old, but they would rather not share the Christian message here. Instead, invoking the book of Samuel, they turn to an earlier saviour for inspiration. The EDL is David to the Muslim Goliath in England’s midst:

The Saul generation of Church leaders is coming to an end with the emerging David’s poised to take their place. Please show God where you stand and pray for the United Defence Leagues and their members

The video from St John’s is followed by newspaper clippings about the resignation of Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — the only bishop, we are told, who grasped the extent of the threat of Islam to British civil society. Nobody mentions Kenneth Cragg these days, while the intellectually brilliant Rowan Williams is dismissed as some sort of loony. And so it is left to the EDL to defend Christianity, not just from the Muslims, but also from parish priests, pastors and impotent Bishops:

The David generation leaders are already in place and speaking the truth on-behalf of His people
Are you one of them who is willing to stand against the Islamification of this Christian land?

A little probing reveals that the source of the video showing building contractors working on the church site is a BNP supporter, who posts the full version on YouTube entitled, ‘Saint Johns, Christian Graves Desecration’2 with the description, ‘Graves desecrated at Saint Johns Church in Longsight, Manchester, England as Church is converted into Mosque.’ The BNP itself has an article featuring both the video and further photographs on its website.

There is a problem, however. When I researched the history of St John’s, Longsight, I found that it was decommissioned in 1999. Neighbouring St Agnes — ‘in this place will I give peace,’ inscribed above its entrance — now houses the abandoned church’s statue of St John the Evangelist in its nave. It has taken the BNP and EDL an entire decade to lament the loss of this historic place of worship and its descent into disrepair.

Of course, the key issue riling the nationalists is the desecration of the site. But here again there is a problem. A quick enquiry with the City Council reveals that St John’s Church is a Grade II listed building, which means that it is considered nationally important and of special interest.3 To make any changes to such a building requires the owner to apply for building consent.

Lo and behold, we discover that planning permission for a 16 space car park in the church garden was granted early in 2007. In the intervening period, the owners have spent £50,000 repairing the building, which now houses Dar-ul-Ulum Qadria Jilania mosque and Islamic Centre. A photograph on the BNP website clearly shows that the graveyard has been carefully preserved, although the picture has been tagged, ‘grave-in-front-OF-DIGGER’, since the work in the church garden can be seen in the background.

It turns out that the graveyard has not been touched at all. But if it had been, should we not expect the BNP and EDL to be enraged whenever a graveyard comes under the developer’s gaze? Locals certainly protested when a builder obtained planning permission to redevelop a derelict chapel in Coedpoeth, Wrexham, which included plans to build luxury flats and a car park on top of approximately 100 graves in 2007. But as far as I can tell, the BNP did not join their protests.

The truth is, the redevelopment of graveyards is a fairly common occurrence in the United Kingdom. Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, for example, has just completed construction of a seven space car park and garden of remembrance on its former graveyard. Planning permission to remove the headstones without disturbing the actual graves and to block pave part of the site was granted in 2005. The BNP and EDL, of course, will not be protesting about this car park on this graveyard.

And that’s the problem. The BNP and EDL wish to use the redevelopment of church buildings as ammunition against Britain’s Muslim population, but the facts do not support them. Reading their literature, you would imagine that hoards of Muslims were running amok throughout the land, confiscating church property at the expense of lively congregations. Nowhere is the reason for church closures mentioned — ironically for people that speak of a David Generation, a term commonly employed by those concerned with conquering the personal Goliaths of the ego, there is no introspection here.

Nor are the numbers of closures put in context. For while seventeen hundred Anglican churches have been made redundant since 1969, there are still over 48,500 churches of different denominations serving their communities nationwide. Moreover, over the same period, The Church of England opened more than 500 new churches, while continuing to maintain over 16,000 others. If, as some claim, there are now seventeen hundred mosques in the United Kingdom, this is still only 3.5% of the total number of churches in the country (interestingly the Muslim population of the UK is a similar proportion of the whole).

If Muslim worship appears to be more visible than that of the Christian, it could only be because the Muslim still views the Friday Prayer as England’s Christians viewed Sunday Worship one hundred years ago. Even a believer on the borders of his faith still feels duty bound to put on his Friday-best once a week. But it would be misleading to suggest that seventeen hundred mosques have sprung up in place of the seventeen hundred Church of England buildings closed over the past forty years, for Anglican churches have covenants conferred upon them which usually prevent them from being used by other faith communities. While BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has claimed that Church of England buildings are being turned into mosques, ‘up and down the country,’ it is actually rather hard to find any. The closest I can find are a couple of gurdwaras utilised by the Sikh community.

If my own experience reflects a wider trend, I would suggest that only a handful of mosques in Britain are of great note. Converted houses, rooms above shops, disused warehouses and hired halls in multi-cultural centres are all included in the number of mosques in Britain. The Archbishop’s cubbyhole under the stairs for private prayer would not seem out of place in our sometimes ramshackle collection of prayer halls. Nevertheless, it is true that Muslims have bought former churches — notably redundant Methodist chapels which seem to be in great supply.

So the BNP and EDL have a point? Well I don’t think so. While ranting about St John’s, Longsight, they completely ignore St George’s, Hulme, a Grade II listed building built in 1823 which has been converted into a place of residence, a mere two and a half miles away. But why should this surprise us when they also ignore the conversion of former churches into restaurants, gyms, pubs, nightclubs, shops and private apartments? Brixton’s St Matthew’s church is now the Mass nightclub, which promises revellers loud music, all night dance and expensive spirits. O’Neill’s on Muswell Hill Broadway, housed in a grand old church, offers cheap food and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Cheltenham’s St James’ is now an Italian restaurant. St Luke’s in Heywood, Lancashire, located 14 miles from Manchester City centre, has been turned into a huge family home, featuring six double bedrooms. And for between £250,000 and £500,000 you too can own one with estate agents listing hundreds of former chapels, rectories and churches, already converted or waiting to be converted, with planning consent already obtained.

If the BNP and EDL were genuinely concerned about the loss of historic places of worship and the demise of their Christian heritage, they would say to their members, ‘Look, churches are closing all around us because we don’t use them. We need to start making Sunday special again.’ That task, however, would entail asking their followers to take personal responsibility for their lives: that only ten percent of British Christians regularly attend church cannot be blamed on the mainstream political parties, on multi-culturalism or political correctness. It certainly can’t be blamed on the Muslims.

But the likely response of such people would be to say, ‘Don’t bring religion into this.’ Though they claim to be defenders of the faith, they are in fact like the utilitarian jihadis who dispense with the boundaries of religion, claiming that the end will justify the means. Like those who ignore the prohibitions of their faith, the BNP and EDL ignore the message at the heart of the religion they claim to hold dear. When Jesus — peace be upon him — was asked which were the greatest commandments, Christians believe that he replied:

“The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”4

If this message is unclear to those of the David Generation, Jesus — peace be upon him — is reported to go on to say, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’5 And if they insist on bringing, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,’6 let them read it in context: Jesus — peace be upon him — knew that most of his people would reject his teachings, which would divide both families and communities. His was a vision of a just society: he overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, he promoted fair treatment of the poor and forgave his enemies. In the context of his time, many of the parables appear as much an assault on the social injustices of his society as messages for spiritual growth.7

More famously, perhaps, we have the Beatitudes: blessed are the are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the meek, the merciful, those pure in heart, and the peacemakers.8 A worthy message indeed, but one clearly lost on those self-declared champions of Christianity in Britain, the BNP and EDL.

Last Thursday, twenty Muslim gravestones were pushed over and a number were broken at Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on Barlow Moor Road.9 It is not possible to say at this stage who was responsible and what motivated them, but the Police are treating it as a racially-motivated crime. It is not inconceivable that it was a revenge attack for the alleged desecration of Christian graves at St John’s, Longsight — a mere ten minute, four mile drive away.

Love your neighbour as yourself? Love your enemy as yourself? Blessed be the peacemakers? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the authenticity of the nationalists’ new found faith, and where it is liable to lead us.

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWcGOt4btwY (spiritofstgeorge)
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z6o5Ccwb0A (SuperAceofDiamonds)
  3. Listed buildings in Manchester by street, Manchester City Council — http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/514/listed_buildings_register/1908/a-z_of_listed_buildings_in_manchester/18
  4. Gospel of Mark 12:29-31
  5. Gospel of Matthew 5:44
  6. Gospel of Matthew 10:34
  7. See for example Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth by R David Kaylor, John Knox Press, 1994
  8. Gospel of Luke 6:20-23 and of Matthew 5:1-14
  9. Manchester Evening News, 2 October 2009 — http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1153293_muslim_graves_targeted_in_hate_attack

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.