Confirmation bias

Keep in mind that on Social Media we are afflicted with amplified Confirmation Bias.

Most of us would agree that it is unhealthy to read only the Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail or Guardian, for each of these partisan newspapers will only reconfirm the readers’ own political views. A feedback loop is created in which the source and the audience feed off each other.

Yet on Social Media we do just that: we surround ourselves with people with similar views, who echo and mirror our own sentiments ad nauseam, setting in motion an even bigger feedback loop, which creates a distorted picture of the outside world.

We subscribe to news feeds which we believe represent our interests, but which instead channel the world through selective filters. The simple act of Sharing and Liking another’s post, picture, video or article creates viral avalanches the power of which can never be diminished, no matter how hard the voice of reason tries.

Meanwhile, largely unbeknownst to us, complex algorithms designed to sell advertising work away in the background to serve up targeted news and products determined to appeal to us.

In short, Social Media creates a version of reality which only confirms our own fears, prejudices and beliefs correct. We prioritise information that confirm our biases and ignore everything else.

A trip outside, a conversation with neighbours, a walk in the wild, a moment’s meditation, a few hours volunteering or a day without the ever-present smartphone might break the infinity loop of despair. I suggest we try it.


We need to stop rejoicing in what we think we have.

There’s a reason our scholarly refutations consistently focus on the question of authority and not on actual practices.

What would happen if, instead of revelling in our selective reading of tradition, we acknowledged all that we have inherited, both the good and the bad?

Would we still blindly celebrate the esteemed scholars’ every word, or would those unasked inner questions finally break surface?

Might we allow ourselves to ask if this is truly the prophetic way? If this is truly what we find in the Qur’an? Might we allow ourselves to truly follow the best of ways, and not just a schizophrenic reading of it?

A time to mourn

Europe is mature enough to mourn these acts of barbarism without descending into civil war or embarking on pogroms.

The days ahead will be hard for some, but our leaders — who gathered a week ago to remember the 13 million who died in WWI, 60 million who died in WWII and the hundreds of thousands killed since — know that the responsibility for what happens next is theirs. These difficult moments will pass.

Spare us the commentary, the fear-mongering, the conspiracy-theories, the appropriation of victimhood, the excuses, the blame, the calls to action, the false patriotism, the ethnocenticism, the propaganda, the pseudo-religious apologetics, the sectarian polemics, the moral equivalence, the misguided lamentations.

Let those who must grieve.

The pursuit of truth

I have a problem with the scholar’s refutation of our enemy, because I know what our books of fiqh contain. It is not enough to say these people are Wahabis or Kharajites. What they are doing is right there in our manuals of Hanafi and Maliki fiqh.

So we say they do not have authority to act thus. What? So legitimate authority would make their odious actions true and fair? These are the intellectual acrobatics we subject ourselves to.

Our books of fiqh say many wonderful things, unmatched in other traditions. But they also contain extremely unpalatable ideas, such as the notion that it is a communal obligation to wage offensive war every year to expand the borders of the state, and worse. These are not Wahabi teachings; they are detailed in our madhabs, and the learned know it. Some of us have honest teachers who acknowledge these realities. Others pretend not to know.

The latter are those who condemn people who seek to put the Qur’an first and restore it to its rightful place in our lives. While condemning those who bring the directives in our books of fiqh to life to such hideous effect, they simultaneously lambast those who turn away from them. The dishonesty is risible. Many a parable I was raised on springs clearly to mind.

There is a better way, but it demands bravery. Not the path of covering up what is in our books or pretending not to know — you cannot unsee what you have seen — but that hard, rough road where we acknowledge what we have inherited, but ask if it is really Quranic and really the prophetic way. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of truth, you have to expect most people to oppose you. It is a lonely road.


If Facebook and Twitter had existed in the midst of the Ottoman Empire, what would our news-feed look like?

Would we be attacking our own leadership for its wars without end, as we do now for the West?

Would we be circulating a meme pointing out that the Ottomans had been at war for over 600 years without pause, or is our censure only for our enemies?

Would we still be absolutist regarding our madhab, finding that it is a communal obligation to wage offensive war every year to expand the borders of the Islamic State, or would we side more quietly with those we nowadays condemn for returning the Qur’an to its rightful place as the filter through which we read our tradition?

Would we be condemning the authors and implementers of our books of fiqh for disrespecting life and taking slaves? Would we label the warring Sufis a Crusader black-opp?

Would we stand up for life, against extremism and in favour of freedom of conscience? Would we be the voice in the wilderness calling to sanity and reason? Would we be calling our own leaders to account? Would we be championing the cause of the oppressed?

The loss of political power has humbled us: we cannot imagine being on the ascendancy, when we are not downtrodden and despised. But sometimes it is helpful to remember that it wasn’t always so.

Sometimes you have to look into what you are blindly defending, be it the romantic past, presumed glory days or every single ruling of a scholar of the past. If we view the past through the same eyes with which we view the present, what do we see? Are we fair and just and true, or are we just taking sides?

Fallacious arguments

Apparently Abdullah Andalusi has thoroughly disemboweled the arguments of Maajid Nawaz, who continues to upset people wherever he goes (it’s his raison d’être). I can’t say I’m particularly convinced though.

The truth is, it works both ways. As the extraordinarily cynical git that I am, I confess to have heaved a momentous sigh myself when I saw the make up of the panel in question in my own news-feed a few days ago. Which means that I now risk being tarred with the same brush as the annoying former Islamist.

For just as Mister Nawaz uses the ‘You share the same ideology as ISIS’ argument, so our most vociferous activists consistently employ the thesis, ‘You share the same ideology as Maajid Nawaz’ to attack all dissenters. Naturally, both approaches serve to silence critical voices.

The tragedy of this circus of personalities is that the resulting divisive discourse acts as a distraction from a very real and important message that must be heard in our times. Rather than allowing ourselves to listen and be listened to, we judge each other as guilty by association; instead of pondering considered arguments, we allow petty labels to silence us.

It really is a calamity that the medium is killing the message.

Beyond naïve apologetics

It may be a triumph for apologetics, but it is not a triumph for truth. Our activists undoubtedly have good intentions, but their arguments are not in the least convincing. Religious belief and religious ideology, it is claimed, have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s decision to commit acts of violence, and the sociologists’ summarised research backs this up. In short, we don’t have a problem with extremism, so let’s move on.

Of course all of this is nonsense. An in depth reading of history is hardly necessary to see that religious belief has often led to types of activism which have terrorised others. From the Zealots of Qumran to the Umayyad caliphate against its opponents, from the Inquisition and Conquistadors to the Stern Gang, we could enumerate hundreds of thousands of examples of acts of violence sanctioned as a religious duty.

Sure we can all argue that when representatives of religion promulgate violence they are acting against the essence of the religion itself, but this is a difficult argument to make given that religions are in a constant state of adaption and flux, filtered through the worldview and experience of their adherents.

All manner of arguments can be had about authentic teachings or orthodox beliefs — and all of us want to believe that we personally have a proper grasp of the truest and most authentic original faith as conveyed to us by the Messengers — but they obscure the reality that religious belief is expressed, interpreted and practiced in a multitude of ways, even when based upon the same sources.

It is undoubtedly true that millions of people have lost their lives during the past century for reasons other than religion; the scourge of nationalism and the rise of ideologies such as Communism have caused slaughter unmatched in earlier times. Nobody denies this. But recognising this fact does not absolve the religious of responsibility. It is truly not possible to claim that religion has nothing to do with violent extremism and it is foolish to pretend that this is so.

Have we not seen sincere young converts commit atrocious acts of barbarity thousands of miles from home because they were taught and convinced that it was their religious duty? To pretend that this is not so does a disservice to us all. If we are to address the situations in which we find ourselves and prevent atrocious acts of barbarism, we much start by acknowledging uncomfortable realities. Naïve apologetics cannot do that; only sceptical introspection borne of faith can fix the diseases which afflict us.

Status quo

Must the self-appointed gatekeepers of orthodoxy constantly bash us over the head about what they erroneously think we believe? At least find out what it is you are defending, and what it is you are attacking, instead of hitting us with sweeping generalisations, broad brush strokes and unfounded suppositions.


We are not “Qur’an only”, but we are “Qur’an first” — a tradition which has a long lineage amongst those who learn and teach the recitation of the Qur’an. Imam Abu Hanifa, even if not the Hanafi madhab as it subsequently developed, was also “Qur’an first”. If a hadith contradicted the outward meaning of the Qur’an, he rejected the narration. Aisha did the same. It is sad that people who try their best to return the Qur’an to its rightful place are given nicknames and labels, and are written off as unlearned fools. Nothing could be further from the truth.