Political magazine misery

One of the things I like about going up town on Thursday, as I did for the rally this week, is that you get to read some of the magazines a day earlier than you do everywhere else. This includes the New Statesman and the Spectator, the main political magazines for centre-left and centre-right respectively. The bombings of 7th July came too late for an awful lot of magazines to cover it, and this includes the Islamic press and the mainstream political press, including these two publications. It goes without saying that the main topic for both would be the bombings.

The New Statesman, which I buy most weeks, has on its front cover a skyline containing mosques and minarets against a red sunset, with the headline “The Struggle for Islam’s Soul”. This leads to a feature by Ziauddin Sardar, one of two voices from the Asian community who regularly write for the magazine. Sardar calls attacks of this sort a product of “a specific mindset that has deep roots in Islamic history”, namely Kharijism and its modern-day manifestation in Wahhabism. Sardar’s view, as expressed in his earlier writings, is that Islam should be understood “in its context”, and that aspects of the Sunnah, for example, are mere Arab custom and are not something that should be followed by Muslims of other ethnicities. As he opines here:

The Wahhabis want to universalise and eternalise every act of the Prophet [sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam]. For them, the context is not only irrelevant but dangerous. It has to be expunged.

This is in the context of discussing the ongoing destruction of historical sites in Makkah and Madinah, for which the Saudi kingdom has been notorious, and which has provoked much disapproving comment from Muslims, including Islamic scholars such as Yusuf al-Rifa’i of Kuwait in his famous book, Advice to Our Brothers, the Ulama of Najd:

You destroyed the sign-posts by which we knew the graves of the Companions, the Mothers of the Believers, and the members of the noble Family of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). You left them a vacant lot, the grave-posts scattered stones so that we no longer know whose grave is where. Gasoline was even poured on one of them. … You allowed a generous donor from Madina to raze and rebuild the mosque of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq [radhi Allahu ‘anhu] in Jabal al-Khandaq at his expense. Once the building was razed, you cancelled the rebuilding permit for you consider it an innovation to visit the seven Mosques at the site of the Battle of the Trench, concerning which was revealed Surat al-Ahzab! In fact, you wish to destroy them all. … You have wreaked destruction on the historical vestiges of the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] and those of his most honorable Companions [may Allah be pleased with them all] in Madina al-Munawwara especially and the two Sanctuaries generally. Nothing seems to remain of these vestiges anymore except the Prophetic Mosque itself. Yet, in our time, the nations of the world pride themselves in and preserve their historical vestiges as a memento, a lesson, a meaningful sign of their time-honored past. But you consider that every vestige that is stopped at for perusal or visit, is a partner [worshipped] together with Allah Most High. But Allah Most High Himself ordered us to travel the earth to see the vestiges of the idolaters and derive lessons from them … Why then do you deprive the Muslims from witnessing the sign-posts and vestiges of the battles of Badr, Uhud, Hudaybiya, Hunayn, al-Ahzab, and others of the Days of Allah in which He gave victory to His Messenger and righteous servants, routing idolatry and the polytheists? Fear Allah, and be among those endowed with hearts so that, perhaps, you will be granted mercy!

The bold part, which I highlighted myself, shows the actual excuse the Saudis use for destroying the vestiges of the early Muslim era in Makkah and Madinah. It is widely known that certain of the Wahhabi religious establishment has requested that the grave of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) be moved out of the mosque, which they see as the like of one of the many grave-mosques which exist right across the world of Islam. (There is in fact a lead barrier around the grave, established in the wake of an earlier desecration attempt.)

But Sardar does not touch on the root of Kharijite hostility to other Muslims, which is essentially tribal; the tribes of central Arabia (the Najd) were among the most resistant to Islam in the beginning and the most receptive to the various schismatic movements later on - including that of the notoriously brutal pseudo-prophet Musaylima, of whom one adherent is reported to have said that Musaylima was an impostor and Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) was a true prophet, but that the impostor of Rabi’a (the ancestor of the central tribes) was dearer to them than the true man of Mudar (the ancestor of the tribes of Hijaz). As pointed out in this article, the overwhelming majority of the Kharijites were from the central Arabian tribes. The rebellion has been assessed as a manifestation of the resentment of the Rabi’a tribes against the Mudar tribes. Wahhabism, as is well-known, originated in the Najd, and the most prominent scholars of recent times come from that region.

Sardar also gets in a side-swipe at Deoband, from which he alleges was issued a fatwa regarding the Imrana Bibi “rape” case in northern India. Islam Online reported (4th July) that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board had concluded that this was a property dispute and that no rape had taken place. It appears that Deoband concurred with the ruling of the village panchayat or meeting of elders that the rape of a woman by her husband’s father makes her unlawful to her husband, since sexual contact makes both parties unlawful to all ancestors and descendents of both parties in the Hanafi school of law. It was also alleged that the panchayat ordered the “victim” to marry her father-in-law, which is unlawful anyway. (The reader should note the bizarrely contradictory nature of this ruling!) I also find it difficult to believe that a fatwa from Deoband would claim that “any Muslim who opposes our fatwa is not a true Muslim and is betraying Islam”, since the Maliki and Shafi’i rulings on this issue are different. It just so happens that this incident took place in northern India, where the Hanafi school is predominant.

Sardar accuses Deoband of having “Wahhabi tendencies”, when in fact the differences between Wahhabis and Deobandis are pronounced. Deobandis have in fact been active in opposing Wahhabi innovations such as the attack on the the schools of law and on Sufism; they are known to oppose the excesses in celebrating the mawlid (the birth of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) rather than its commemoration per se. There are outward similarities, such as their hardline attitude to men’s beards, women’s covering and music, but in every other respect they are starkly different and often in opposition.

The other Asian piece is The Conveyor Belt of Extremism by Shiv Malik (I’m not sure if he is Muslim or Hindu, which is why I use the term Asian), and is about Hizbut-Tahrir:

Officially Hizb denounces violence, and there is no evidence to suggest that this stance would ever change. Walid [a former member] says that if you approached the group saying you wanted to carry out a suicide bombing, “they would dissuade you”. However, there is reason to believe that Hizb acts as a conveyor belt for terrorism: in other words, members of Hizb take their intellectual indoctrination with them and graduate to other, even more extreme UK groups that do condone violence, such as al-Muhajiroun, which was supposedly dissolved last September, but is still active.

A lot of this is dangerously inaccurate: HT does not so much “denounce violence” as not practise it. HT is a political party, not an armed faction, and is not linked, so far as can be gathered, to any armed faction. The beliefs are somewhat different to those of the Wahhabis who regard them as heretics (that is, heretics of a different sort to other non-Wahhabi Muslims); I have heard Abdullah Faisal, the imprisoned Jamaican preacher, ridicule their idea of “seeking the nusrah” (assistance). The days of HT causing trouble on British university campuses ended when Omar Bakri left; if some youths today find HT not radical enough, that is hardly their fault! There are worthwhile points made about how HT, and other political groups, recruit in an atmosphere in which the youth find the traditional religious teaching available irrelevant (sometimes because they do not speak the foreign language in which it is delivered), but HT is one of the less extreme of the groups guilty of this. They are a problem for us, not for the wider community. I fail to see why the current situation merits a two-page feature on HT of all groups.

Still, at least the New Statesman found a couple of Asians to report on what is at least partly an Asian issue, which is more than can be said for the Spectator. “In the Name of Allah”, proclaims its front page, with a painting of the bombed-out bus and the subtitle, “Boris Johnson on how we should respond to the London bombs”. They also find room for Rod Liddle and Charles Moore, and a load of people I’ve never heard of.

Johnson’s piece asserts that we should “reassert British values in the face of extremist Islam”, but its actual title is “Just don’t call it war”. It starts with a description of what the Israelis would be doing now: “despatch an American-built ground-assault helicopter and blow the place to bits”:

After decades of deranged attacks the Israelis have come to the conclusion that this is the best way to deter Palestinian families from nurturing these vipers in their bosoms, and also the best way of explaining to the death-hungry narcissists that they may get the 72 black-eyed virgins of scripture, but their family gets the bulldozer.

Johnson speculates that “there are some people in Britain — I can think of at least one Daily Mail columnist — who would approve of such tactics”, but it really would be the most stupid response imaginable. It would result in a spate of revenge arson attacks, and burning a building down takes less money than bulldozing it, and less know-how than blowing it up. Johnson observes that “we are not Israelis”, and that the bombers are “as British as the fish-and-chip shops in which they grew up”. “They are not metics, or the second-class citizens of the Occupied Territories.”

Johnson’s main point is that the campaign against terrorism should not be called war; in the fight against the IRA, the terrorists were called criminals and were denied the dignity of being called soldiers. By making such pronouncements as “you are either with us or with the terrorists”, which Johnson misquotes as “if you are not with us, you are against us”, Johnson argues that Bush “co-opted tens of millions of Muslims into the camp of his enemies, even though they might loathe Saddam”. Johnson also believes that suicide bombers are only consider themselves martyrs because they die in “war”, as if they will stop calling their actions war if the west does the same with its own actions. I find this presumption naive, as the jihadis already considered their actions to be part of a jihad well before 9/11.

He also managed to squeeze into this article the canard about the 72 houris being “correctly identified not with virgins but with raisins”, as “some Islamic scholars” supposedly believe. This theory has been proposed only by one German called Christoph Luxenberg, and only, so far, in German. To Muslims, “Islamic scholar” certainly does not mean “non-Muslim who studies Islam” as I’m sure I don’t need to explain to most readers, but even this theory seems to be based on thoroughly shoddy premises, namely that “hur” in Syriac is “a feminine plural adjective meaning white, with the word ‘raisin’ understood implicitly”, as explained in the Guardian by “Ibn Warraq”. Syriac is a Semitic language related, but not identical, to Arabic. To get an idea of the shoddy analysis found in Ibn Warraq’s own work, he represents the five Arabic letters beginning some chapters of the Qur’an as “KHYOS”, with O substituted for ‘ayn. Of course, ‘ayn is a consonant, while O is a vowel. When Arabic words containing ‘ayn find their way into non-Arabic languages, like Urdu, it sometimes changes an adjacent vowel into an O sound. But not in Arabic. Whatever the meaning of “hur”, the female companions awaiting men in Paradise are referred to explicitly elsewhere. For those who dislike the idea of us having sexual relations in Paradise, this theory is a gift; perhaps they think Paradise is like some sort of monastery. In any case, the application of these verses to suicide bombers is controversial in Islam, and they are nowhere understood to apply to criminal Kharijite murderers, except among their own circles.

Johnson makes some astonishing accusations about Islam itself:

To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture — to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques — it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers. As the killer of Theo Van Gogh told his victim’s mother this week in a Dutch courtroom, he could not care for her, could not sympathise, because she was not a Muslim.

The claim about Islam’s “vicious sectarianism” is simply false; it is certainly not the only religion which promises damnation to those who reject it. Unlike certain extant branches of Christianity, it does not promise the same to babies who die without someone bringing them into the faith by some ceremony, nor to disabled people who are unable to recite the shahada. To relate this to the attitude of some denatured fanatic in the Netherlands is just ridiculous; it is a false accusation that Muslims lack the ability to empathise with a non-Muslim who has lost a relative. The example of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) comforting Safiyyah (radhi Allahu ‘anha) after she was led across the battlefield on which the bodies of several of her tribe, including close relations, lay is well-known.

This is followed by another spurious accusation, that “we look in vain for the enlightened Islamic teachers and preachers who will begin the process of reform”. The teachers he talks of exist, and have never been silent. It’s just that neither the small minority of fanatics, nor the enemies of Islam, listen to them. Strangely for an article on re-asserting British values, he uses a vulgar American word for “buttocks” in a piece on reasserting British values. Didn’t anyone tell him that in British English, ass means donkey? I won’t quote the full sentence here - you can find it on the Spectator’s website - but it is about “getting 18th century” on the supposedly “mediaeval” aspects of Islam. Johnson suggests that it be demanded of the Muslim establishment here that it be announced, “loud and clear, for the benefit of all Bradford-born chipshop boys”, that “there is no eternal blessedness for the suicide bombers, there are no 72 virgins, and that the whole thing is a con and a fraud upon impressionable minds”. The people at whom this demand is aimed are not those who have ever incited people to commit terrorist acts, especially in this country, and are also the least likely to be listened to by the people who believe that these acts are acceptable. You cannot blame the elders for the acts of those over whom they have no influence.

There’s a few other examples of stupidity in this edition. Islam Online is called “the vehicle of Yusuf al-Qaradawi”. Al-Qaradawi certainly has an influence, but he answers too few of the questions in the fatwa section for it to be called his vehicle. (He has, or at least had, a website of his own at qaradawi.net, although at last examination it seems to be down.) Islam Online is in fact a very large site containing news, a fatwa service, articles on various aspects of Muslim life, and a discussion forum. There is also a stupid cartoon on page 16, showing a sign with the US Air Force logo with “USAFRAID” underneath it - a satire on the USAF’s ban on its personnel stationed here entering London in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, which was lifted on Tuesday, making this dig at the “burger-eating surrender monkeys” (to paraphrase an American insult to the French) somewhat out of date. Perhaps the cartoonist laughed so much at his own joke that they couldn’t bear to leave it out. And there’s the continual sneers at “political correctness”, including a whole article on it by one Frank Johnson:

Evidence soon emerged that all the cliches went off within seconds of one another. They were the work of experienced professionals trained to use them about any subject. Most of them live in this country. Many have British citizenship. They are taught never to write or say anything original. Only a few days before they had targeted Gleneagles. The ozone layer, African debt, Islam; it is all the same to them.

I really wonder where these people think they are going with this constant jibing at “political correctness”, by which is meant people making sure they do not slander an entire community (with possibly lethal consequences) by suggesting that Muslims are somehow all guilty, or that we are a violent community. The truth is, we aren’t. We don’t go round attacking people who offend us or insult our religion. There are places in the UK where people will shoot you if they don’t like your tone of voice; they are not usually areas where there are many mosques!

If anyone is wondering why the Tory party do so badly in ethnic minority areas, they could do worse than to look in the magazine most closely associated with their party. We see how they put Muslim candidates forward for Muslim constituencies, but this does not counterbalance their coverage of such a vital issue for Muslims - no Muslim voice, only the sniggers of a petty Tory MP and a notoriously hostile columnist best known for his sad sex life (and a couple of other unknowns).

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