Yes, I believe we could be political prisoners: prisoners to the politics of community, so often browbeaten into an unthinking stupor through loyalty to a common cause, shackled by that ever-present fear: of the imminent accusations of heresy and disbelief reserved for anybody who might step out of line and think for themselves.
Perhaps I have imbibed too much of the gospels I was raised on to blindly follow mute. Of small gates and narrow roads. Of good trees bearing good fruit. Of the wise man building his house on the rock. Perhaps I took the Sermon on the Mount too much to heart in my youth, carrying it with me on my onward journey.
Amongst us, we have activists who preach to student Islamic Societies all across the land, year after year, setting the narrative for each new generation of the newly-religious, mixing truth and falsehood. Be it the fruit of misinterpretation or malicious ill-intent, the effect is the same. They carry us along upon their agenda, as those that listened become people of influence, parroting their lessons without pause for thought, conveying it on into our own communities and amongst circles of friends, setting the tone for all that is perceived to be Islamic for years to come.
Our foremost activist, fabled for speaking truth to power, is celebrated everywhere, across usually acrimonious sectarian divides. Whatever he says, believers take as certain truth, for he is a man who has suffered much for the cause: incarcerated unjustly in inhumane conditions for years on end, a dreadful casualty of the war on terror. He is a better man than the rest of us, we naturally believe, and so we must always give him the benefit of doubt and believe whatever he tells us.
So in an affront to the concept of the freedom of expression, he tells us frequently, the state sent a man to prison merely for publishing books written by eminent scholars in the 12th century. He never tell us, whether wilfully or due to genuine ignorance, that the books in question were not straight translations of the originals, of the kind found in the libraries of any institute of orientalist studies. He never tells us that they were heavily edited and adulterated texts, only half of which could be said to have been the original work; amidst the additions that made up the rest were glosses encouraging indiscriminate violence and eulogies of men associated with al-Qaida. An important difference, treated as insignificant by this influential voice in our midst.
And here we are again, with another conspiracy against freedom of expression — one rule for the Muslims, they say, another for everyone else — as our hero activist champions the cause of an averred scholar, incarcerated by a state intent on silencing dissent. Nobody ever asks what precisely that dissent looks like, for the published works of the persecuted academic preach integration and personal reform. His “entire corpus consists of a steady and unyielding assault on Muslim insularity, self-righteousness, and self-pity,” claimed Andrew March. Paul Donnelly asked if he was the Muslim Martin Luther, bringing about a protestant reformation in the Muslim world. Those of us with long memories will recall that for these traits — and for his role on a government-led counter-extremism task force following terrorist attacks in London in 2005 — he was once viewed with suspicion by a previous generation of Muslim activists.
But no matter: a man who frequently appeared on television sets before vast audiences for two decades, celebrated as a voice of moderation by academics and admirers worldwide, has somehow been transmogrified by activists in the Muslim community into a new Malcolm X, forever threatening the status quo. So dangerous has he become, argues that most prominent of our activists, that the state must bring him down and silence him for good. Our activist knows this better than most, for he too was incarcerated in pre-trial detention for months on end, to be released only when MI5 acknowledged its links to him. Thus the mild-mannered academic is suddenly a thorn in the side of the establishment, turned prisoner of conscience, held in solitary confinement on trumped up charges.
With his 25,000 followers on Twitter, 15,000 followers on Facebook and 5,000 Facebook friends, the activist is a man with reach: what he tells us matters. Everybody who is anybody in the Muslim community references him as an authority. His directory of friends on social media reads as a who’s who of famous Muslims. He moves in circles of influence, and yet has incredible influence of his own, impacting all with his presumed piercing insight and advocacy. If he speaks of a man held in solitary confinement, then it becomes the truth. If he speaks of a man nearly paralysed by ill-health and close to death, then it becomes reality. If he speaks of a dissenter incarcerated for speaking the truth to power, then it must be taken seriously and never questioned.
The presumed scholar suffers a dreadful illness, made terminal by his constricted confinement in a tiny 9m² cell for several hours each day. One can then only imagined the tortures of his busy schedule speaking to international audiences over the previous year, taking long haul flights, confined to a business class seat for hours on end, followed by the numerous overnight stays in strange hotel rooms. The 13 hour flight to Tokyo in September 2016. The 7 hour flight to Canada for multiple appearances across the country in January 2017. The 14 hour flight to Putrajaya, Malaysia, in March 2017, or 8 hours from his previous appointment in Doha. The 7 hours to Abidjan, Ivory Coast in August 2017, 10 hours to Washington DC in September 2017, and 11 hours to Kerela in December 2017, not to mention all those 4 hour flights to Moscow and Istanbul in between.
You should never underestimate the effects of politics on religion. For my part, I fear we are being taken for a ride by the politically astute in our midst, who wish to make the academic a martyr, like the secularists’ Hosni Mubarak, all of a sudden too ill to stand trial. Not necessarily out of any love for the man himself, or true concern for the individual — for otherwise surely they would campaign against the unjust detention of the other 20,000 people held in pre-trial detention with him — but for what he represents: a prominent, influential Muslim apparently held hostage by the state.
In truth, there are those who need you to believe that ingrained, institutional anti-Muslim hatred is everywhere. They need to convince you that there is a binary us and them, a battle of good and evil, black and white, as clear as day. They need you to believe that when an imam is prosecuted for embezzling funds freely given, he is not personally responsible for his deeds, but merely a victim of a meddling state intent on undermining the works of Muslims. They need you to believe that when a teacher is sent to prison for sexually abusing his students, it is a politically motivated case. They need you to believe that the disbelieving state is inherently predisposed to work against Muslims everywhere. They need you to believe these things, because it is part of an agenda that uses the cover of humongous conspiracies to rise to prominence.
Your job, if you are suitably subservient, is to nod and agree: to agree that there is a clear and present attack on our scholars, everywhere, and to remain silent when men who claim to be scholars perpetuate great wrongs. Your job, if you truly submit, is to let others think for you: do not ask questions; do not ask yourself whether what our activists tell you makes sense. When they post on Twitter photographs easily debunked as having been repurposed from another place and time, do not challenge them: just like and share, and forward in bulk. When asked to sign a petition, do not ask yourself why. When an almighty storm breaks out around you, don’t be the one who asks what is going on here, who probes beneath the surface and asks more. If you truly submit to the politics of community, don’t do any of these things; fear your brother and be silent.
But if it is God that you seek, ask yourself that question you suppress deep down within: how can any of this be right? Don’t be a willing prisoner of conscience, who refuses to respond to the inner questions within. Allow yourself to challenge the presumed orthodoxy, sold to you by the activists running careful campaigns which mix truth and falsehood into an intoxicating cocktail that obscures reality. Don’t be so distracted by the vision set out before you, that you forget to take yourself to account and live the life prescribed by the giver of life. In short, don’t be a prisoner of the politics of community, shackled by the visions of men.