Faith invaders!

Those of you in the UK should read the lead article in this week’s New Statesman, which is a largely Labour-supporting political weekly. It’s by Cristina Odone, a regular contributor who was formerly deputy editor (and was editor of the Catholic Herald in the mid-1990s). It alleges that a “spiritual fifth column” of both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism is being established in the UK by American and Saudi money respectively.

Odone cites “foreign-inspired and foreign-financed religious conservatives” for the recent upsurge of culturally-conservative actions, including opposition to gay marriage, stem cell research, artistic freedom and “criticism” of sacred texts, in which hardline Christians and Muslims often end up on the same side. There have been alliances across religious divides on a number of issues, such as Michael Howard’s stance on abortion and the supposedly anti-Sikh play which was driven off the stage in Birmingham. Odone also alleges that Blair “panders to the moral minority”, and nobody makes the case for secular politics.

The problem is that “secular politics” is not really under threat. Banning abortion is not even on the agenda, although Michael Howard has proposed moving the time limit a couple of weeks back to take into account the recent knowledge about babies at that stage of gestation. There has been talk about the filth on TV and on advertising billboards and the like, but laws against it are also not on the agenda. Apparently Richard Dawkins is narked because Blair talks of “diversity” when the issue of creationist schools comes up. But given that Dawkins is at the extreme of the anti-religious spectrum, why is his opinion given particular prominence?

Odone then gets onto the subject of the spread of Wahhabism aided by Saudi money, which I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with. There are, however, subtle differences between the different groups, something Odone doesn’t mention. Al-Muntada al-Islami, in Parsons’ Green in south-west London, caters more for the general Arab community; its version of Wahhabism is not the same as that of, say, Brixton mosque on one hand (i.e., the Medina University version), or that of the former Finsbury Park set on the other. I suspect that al-Muntada’s regulars are more sympathetic to the Ikhwan, unlike the people behind King Fahad Academy. She claims that the Wahhabi message is pitched at “the voiceless, frustrated, jobless male youths of immigrant communities in big cities”, but these are certainly not the clientele of the KFA, or even, I suspect, al-Muntada.

It’s certainly a mistake to associate Wahhabism with “the strict observance of prayer times” - this is part of mainstream teaching. She seems to be making the classic mistake of confusing Wahhabi strictness with orthodoxy, whereas in fact there’s nothing orthodox about it. It’s a sect which appeared in the 18th century, and has achieved prominence due to oil money and the collapse of the central Islamic authority which had existed in the Ottoman empire. It’s not just Wahhabis who say that a Muslim has to pray! Youths tend to get attracted to sects through college, where they often run into Islamic societies which are dominated by one sectarian group - be it Hizbut-Tahrir or the Wahhabis; mainstream Sunni Islamic societies at universities seemed to be thin on the ground at one point. At university, particularly if they are far from home, youths are free to experiment and investigate without their parents looking over their shoulder. And they may well want to break away from the tribal and sectarian divisions which affect the communities in the inner city communities from which they may come.

Furthermore, she seems to think the Wahhabis are opposed only to “free thinkers” and “progressive Islam”, and to that of poorly-educated “village imams”. In fact, they are opposed to mainstream traditional Islam, even in its scholarly form. For example, she alleges that “Saudi money has already had a pernicious effect on the intellectual climate in Britain”, as Saudi donors will readily donate for the study of “uncontroversial” subjects like architecture, calligraphy or law, but will turn down any request to fund “intellectual inquiry in the field of Koranic studies”. This seems to mean the Patricia Crone style of scholarship, and it’s not surprising that Muslims will refuse to fund such “inquiry”. But it has also been known for funding to be cut when a department takes an interest in a subject like Sufism, which their sect rejects but, everywhere else, is part of mainstream Islam.

The article also claims that it’s not only secularism that is under threat, but “liberal versions of Christianity and Islam”. “Moderate mainstream British Christianity canbot compete with the glitzy style and high-pressure salesmanship of the American evangelists.” Really? I’ve not seen much evidence of American evangelical Christianity making inroads here. I have seen a proliferation of evangelical churches appearing in areas with a high African population such as south-east London; the movement itself may be American in origin, but the leaders and congregation in these churches are mostly Africans. (Among these is the infamous Gilbert Deya ministries, whose eponymous founder is currently in court over his baby-trafficking racket.)

Then she laments the lack of support for the “progressive Islam” she claims is gaining ground in Canada and Australia, “which attempts to reread the Koran in a non-literal way, and to ditch orthodox Muslim hang-ups on sex, clothing, diet and so on”. These groups don’t have that much support even there; they are so far from the mainstream of Islam as to be, in some cases, outside Islam altogether. For example, the definition of a Muslim, according to the Progressive Muslim Union’s website, is ‘anyone who identifies herself or himself as “Muslim,” including those whose identification is based on social commitments and cultural heritage’ (the punctuation errors are theirs), and this isn’t the Islamic definition, which is someone who believes and testifies to what he believes through the two Shahadas (discussed here). Much has been exposed on the various Islamic blogs, particularly PMUNA Debate and Living Tradition about the political connections of their most senior members like Ahmed Nassef and Ziad Asali. They have been accused, for example, of being loud about the right of a woman to lead prayers (when what’s at stake is the right of a man to follow her), but remained quiet about, for example, the suspicious death in custody of a Muslim woman in Illinois and the murder of a pregnant Muslim woman in Louisiana.

Odone then alleges that Muslims rely on evangelicals to betray “liberals” within their community to the Muslim Council of Britain, which she posits as some sort of Islamic Inquisition; according to the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, “the Christian Institute will snitch on liberal Muslims to the Islamic Council (sic), which in turn has leaned on them, threatening their careers”. “One liberal imam, who regularly spoke out against the persecution of gay Muslims and the restriction on girls’ education, found himself hauled before the Muslim Council of Britain (which receives funding from Saudi Arabia) and told to explain himself,” she claims. In fact, the MCB has no political power; nobody is under any obligation to explain themselves to the MCB - this “liberal imam” could have told them to get lost. The MCB does not control mosques or religious schools, and if an imam had gone against Islam, it would not take the MCB to get rid of him. The local Muslim community would do it, most likely within a week.

She concludes that we have “entered uncharted territory”, with a Muslim community more politicised by events since 11th September 2001 such as the new anti-terrorism laws, and Christians “fed up with seeing its values trashed by the metropolitan liberal establishment”, and that it is up to the secular establishment to “meet the challenge of stopping the attack on [their] way of life”. I’d actually dispute that there is an attack on their way of life; I would say that they are more interested in pushing Wahhabism among Muslims (and, in some cases, merely catering for their existing followers) than pushing conservatism among non-Muslims. Some of these same secularists whose way of life is supposedly under threat from us also openly threaten our way of life by demanding the abolition of religious schools and opposing the toleration of any manifestation of religion in school. She also mentions in her concluding paragraph that the secular establishment “has to recognise that religion now identifies many people in the way race once did”, although these racial definitions were always hotly disputed (such as lumping Asians in as “black”). I can’t disagree with this. But she should recognise that much of the foreign money which she sees as infiltration actually answers a widely-acknowledged need, and until Muslims can find alternative sources of funding, the names and insignias of members of various Gulf élites will continue to appear on Muslim religious projects.

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