Reply to ‘A Convert Speaks’

David T at Harry’s Place has replied to my last piece, Harry on IDS and Cohen on Livingstone (Again), taking issue with my definition of a religious community; he seems to think I define such a community as the religious or devout, those who “regard conservative and reactionary religious figures as their representatives”. This is, in fact, not so. As I Muslim, I define the Muslim community as those who believe in Islam and profess that belief. We do make a distinction between sinful Muslims and devout Muslims, but the former category do not automatically put themselves outside of Islam. However, when I referred to the “role of Muslims” in my earlier essay, I was principally referring to the role of practising, or at least religiously-aware, Muslims. In any discussion of how far accommodations should be made for religious Muslims on such matters as halal meat and religious headgear, the community is best represented by someone who has studied the religion, and who has contacts with others who know it. It is not best left to the Pakistani elder who knows only what he picked up from his father and from the imam at the village mosque in Kashmir or Sylhet.

And yes, these latter sorts may know best “Islam as they practise it”, but when different groups meet in places like London, their descendents may want to look beyond the tribalism and sectarianism their fathers brought with them. They may want to be just a Muslim, not a Barelvi or Deobandi, and they may be sick of the caste or biraderi politics of their communities. And so they start looking for a more authentic Islam than what they were brought up with. So, we start seeing Pakistanis or Bengalis adopting the Syrian-style headscarf, which was not seen much “back home”. Either women wore just a loose headscarf (dupatta) when outside, or they wore a long black veil which coverered the face, or the notorious “shuttlecock” Afghan burqa.

The intermingling of religious traditions caused by the “mixed diaspora” experience is something I have seen first hand; one sees, for example, British Muslim youths of Asian origin joining Sufi orders based in Syria and even west Africa, which their grandfathers had probably never heard of. India has its own Sufi orders, as does (almost) every other part of the Muslim world. Similarly, they seek legal opinions from sources outside their own (often divided) communities. A lot of local scholars of Indian origin demand of young women that they cover their faces, but many women find this demand onerous (and fear public hostility if they wear it outside the various Muslim ghettoes); the well-known hijab is a medium between the strict practice of face covering, and the inadequate back-homian shalwar-kameez and dupatta.

David T mistakenly alleges that I share with Robert Spencer the belief that “zealots should be regarded as the authentic voice of their faith”. I don’t consider al-Qaradawi a zealot, and the zealots Spencer and his gang think are an authentic voice of Islam are those who carry out terrorist attacks. Spencer is actually partly right about some aspects of Islam which some apologists attempt to play down; he is on the other hand wildly alarmist about the “Islamist” threat and portrays every concession to Muslims as some sort of surrender (even if it’s by a commercial organisation seeking to please Muslim customers). He is also dishonest, and given to repeating tired canards.

I also did not “hawk Qaradawi as the appropriate spokesman for the Ummah” nor call him “the natural spokesman, … certainly for religious muslims”. I suggested that he might be an appropriate spokesman on the issues for which Ken Livingstone was discussing. If the issue was hijab, a Pakistani elder whose family is not bothered about hijab is definitely not the appropriate spokesman, much less a secularist with a Muslim name. The issue wasn’t what should happen to ex-Muslims or gays, and needless to say implementing the Shari’ah here is not even on the agenda. Qaradawi has opinions with which a lot of Muslims disagree, but his opinions on Muslim relations with westerners in their own country, and on hijab, are moderate ones. Perhaps a better spokesman could have been found; but they could have done a whole lot worse. (Perhaps if Ken had just shaken his hand, we wouldn’t have seen much of this controversy.)

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