The day a former director learned I am Muslim, he quipped, “I hope you’re not going to blow yourself up!”
Had the power dynamic been different, and I more articulate, I might have made a similar gibe about his Northern Irish accent, recalling that the day before my marriage in 2001, the Real IRA blew up a pub on Ealing Broadway just four hundred metres from our registry office.
Of course, if I had made such a wisecrack, it would only have been in retaliation, for never would I hold an entire community to account for the actions of a tiny minority of extremists.
Nevertheless, that has been my experience throughout my career, whenever my faith has become known in the workplace. A colleague once sent me a harrowing email about the impact of terrorist attacks, commenting, “Maybe this will help you to understand.”
In another office, two colleagues joined forces to tell me that I was completely wrong insisting that the targeting of civilians is prohibited (haram) even in a legitimate war according to Islamic law. One of them had the Daily Mail to hand, and jabbed her finger at her proof as she told me.
After numerous unpleasant experiences in which office gossip associated me with the most heinous of crimes, presumed to be beliefs, I eventually learnt to keep my head down and not speak of my faith to anyone, even if that meant social isolation.
But of course, that’s white man’s privilege. For most victims of this sleight, there is a racial dimension. Hindus, Sikhs and Christians of colour, as well as Muslims, are forced to loudly disassociate themselves from acts of terrorism whenever an atrocity is perpetrated on European soil. By now, two decades into our careers, these declarations are well-rehearsed.
So it is no surprise that the spectre of extremism looms large over the consciousness of our generation. However much we detest it, our faith has now forever been associated with the horrific actions that have defined our era. It does not matter how frequently or vociferously we condemn those acts — even bringing legal rulings from our body of law to prove our point — repetition alone has embedded this notion in the global psyche.
Without a doubt, it is an obstacle to all who might otherwise believe, moved as they are by the profound spiritual and humanist dimensions of the faith. Unfortunately, pointing out that all communities have a problem with terrorism cannot make this go away. Merely insisting that statistically far more acts of terrorism are perpetrated for ethno-nationalist or separatist reasons than for any religious motivation will not change this pervasive narrative.
Only the most obstinate of ostriches, head firmly embedded in the sand, would deny that Muslims have a problem with terrorism. Individuals who profess the Muslim faith have indeed perpetuated such acts, and some of them claim legitimacy, arguing that their actions are sanctioned as a response to atrocities perpetrated against Muslims elsewhere.
However, it remains the case that most Muslims are not terrorists and most terrorists are not Muslims, and further that most Muslims do not condone terrorism, but rather actively condemn it. If society does not hear that condemnation, it can only be because it does not hear, does not want to hear or that louder voices have control of the narrative. Based on my experience in the workplace, perhaps all three explanations could be true.
What can we say with any certainty? Islamic law does grant people the right to self-defence when they are attacked, evicted from their homes and tyrannised. This is also a right enshrined in International law, as recently remembered for the Ukrainians repelling Russian aggression. However, the boundaries and limits of war are well-established in Islamic jurisprudence.
There is no concept of collateral damage: the targeting of civilians is prohibited, with no exceptions. Attacks on civilians — on their lives and properties — is defined by Islamic law as banditry (hirabah), roundly condemned as waging war against God. Adding the prefix “Islamic” to such crimes cannot and will not make them legitimate, whatever some may claim.
Peace is the ideal state for humanity, to which all right-minded individuals should strive. We must challenge those, both in the east and the west, who argue for perpetual or total war; there is no precedent for this either in International or Islamic law. Where the Quran gave those who were wronged permission to fight, it set the bounds out clearly: fight those who fight you alone, but do not transgress the limits, and if they incline to peace, likewise incline to peace.
Ours is not a tradition of lawless anarchy, or vigilanteism unbound by rules. We are not called to create oppression or tyranny (fitna) in the land. On the contrary, we are called to stand against all of that, and instead establish prayer, give of our wealth to help the poor, enjoin all that is good and virtuous, and forbid all that causes harm.
This is a path of peace, whatever you may have heard. A path one must traverse to navigate a very unjust world, in which the odds are stacked against the poor, in which some are striving their utmost to everywhere seed conflict, hatred and division. The latter are found in all communities. Amongst the Muslims, as amongst humanity at large, some are good and some are bad. In choosing your companions, be with those striving to establish peace, stability and justice. Be with those who embody mercy, wherever they may be.
And vie one with another for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a garden as wide as the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who ward off evil; those who give in ease and in adversity, who control their anger and are forgiving toward mankind; God loves the good.Quran 3:133-4