Patrick Sookhdeo on moderate Islam

I just received a letter from someone at the Evening Standard, asking me if I’d like to write a letter in response to two articles they printed on Friday, one by Patrick Sookhdeo and one by Agnes Poirer of the French newspaper “Liberation”. I’m not sure if the Sookhdeo article is the same one issued in the Spectator this week, but if it is, it’ll take rather more than a letter to refute all the distortions and falsehoods in it. Sookhdeo is generally considered an expert on the miserable plight of the poor, downtrodden Christian minority of Pakistan.

As Shaikh Riyad Nadwi points out in a rebuttal of errors which appeared in a Spectator article in March, Sookhdeo’s advocacy of Christian rights is rather selective; as with the Anthony Browne piece which is the focus of Shaikh Nadwi’s article, Sookhdeo entirely ignores the damage Israel has done to the Christian community it dominates. He is, in fact, “a showpiece figure for the Israeli government”, with the Israeli Foreign Affairs ministry’s journal Christians and Israel boasting in 1999 of Sookhdeo’s visit. Shaikh Nadwi believes that the organisation Sookhdeo runs, the so-called Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, shares with the Middle-East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) the primary function “not to create awareness of the declared aim, which seems to be benign, but to foment anger against Muslims in the West”. (An updated version of the same article is available here.)

The article starts off with a mention of the funeral in Pakistan of Shehzad Tanweer, one of the four people who carried out the 7th July Aldgate bombing:

The funeral of British suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer was held in absentia in his family’s ancestral village, near Lahore, Pakistan. Thousands of people attended, as they did again the following day when a qul ceremony was held for Tanweer. During qul, the Koran is recited to speed the deceased’s journey to paradise, though in Tanweer’s case this was hardly necessary. Being a shahid (martyr), he is deemed to have gone straight to paradise. The 22-year-old from Leeds, whose bomb at Aldgate station killed seven people, was hailed by the crowd as ‘a hero of Islam’.

If this happened, it is as ignorant and misguided as the bomb attack itself. Shehzad and his gang are certainly not heroes to the Muslim community here in London. There is, of course, a contradiction here, because martyrs of jihad do not receive funeral rites, because it is unnecessary. They are guaranteed paradise (unless they fought to show off, in which case they are guaranteed hellfire). There are also lesser martyrs, such as women who die giving birth, people who die in epidemics or in fire, who unlike jihad martyrs do receive funerals. I personally question the significance of the thousands in attendance; funerals are whole-community events which are often held after communal prayers. In any case, the sole source for this accusation seems to be this article in the London Times, in which one short paragraph is dedicated to the event. The article is mostly about the funeral of Anthony Fatayi-Williams in London; one wonders where its author, Stuart Wavell, got his information from.

Sookhdeo’s basic contention here is typical of certain right-wing commentators, that ample justification can be found in Islam for terrorist action:

By far the majority of Muslims today live their lives without recourse to violence, for the Koran is like a pick-and-mix selection. If you want peace, you can find peaceable verses. If you want war, you can find bellicose verses. You can find verses which permit only defensive jihad, or you can find verses to justify offensive jihad.

This essentially denies that Islam is a whole, and that people who “pick and mix” verses from the Qur’an (not to mention reports from the Sunnah literature) are either ignorant of, or just ignore, the way apparently contradictory verses and aspects of the Sunnah are resolved. There are times when a certain course of action is permitted or necessary, and times when an opposite course is required. That is pretty much common sense to most people. His quote from Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, tells only half the story: Blair was distinguishing fundamentalism from extremism - thought and opinion from violent action.

Next, Sookhdeo mentions a verse which he claims actually commands terrorism:

You can even find texts which specifically command terrorism, the classic one being Q8:59-60, which urges Muslims to prepare themselves to fight non-Muslims, ‘Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies’ (A. Yusuf Ali’s translation).

As if to underline his own stupidity, he follows it up with a quote from a Pakistani army officer:

Pakistani Brigadier S.K. Malik’s book The Quranic Concept of War is widely used by the military of various Muslim countries. Malik explains Koranic teaching on strategy: ‘In war our main objective is the opponent’s heart or soul, our main weapon of offence against this objective is the strength of our own souls, and to launch such an attack, we have to keep terror away from our own hearts…. Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means, it is the end itself. Once a condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved. It is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision on the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose on him.’

Does Sookhdeo not understand the difference between war and terrorism? Both the verse of the Qur’an he quotes, and the book by the Brigadier, concern war. This is the same shoddy reasoning offered by Abdullah Faisal in a lame attempt to refute apologists’ claims that we are not all terrorists, or something like that. Striking fear into the heart of the enemy in war is not the same as terrorism, which means committing random and spectacular murder and criminal damage in order to intimidate a civilian population.

Next, he takes on the Islamic penalties:

If you permit yourself a little judicious cutting, the range of choice in Koranic teaching is even wider. A verse one often hears quoted as part of the ‘Islam is peace’ litany allegedly runs along the lines: ‘If you kill one soul it is as if you have killed all mankind.’ But the full and unexpurgated version of Q5:32 states: ‘If anyone slew a person — unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land — it would be as if he slew the whole people.’

So, the verse pertains to unjust killing, rather than to the killing of criminals; it does not really contradict the meaning generally applied to it.

The very next verse lists a selection of savage punishments for those who fight the Muslims and create ‘mischief’ (or in some English translations ‘corruption’) in the land, punishments which include execution, crucifixion or amputation. What kind of ‘mischief in the land’ could merit such a reaction?

The “mischief” referred to in this verse is understood by scholars to mean banditry (hiraaba). Many scholars of our time regard terrorism as a form of banditry.

Sookhdeo then goes on to give a very simplified analysis of the science of abrogation (nasikh wa mansukh) in Islam: to him it is simply a matter of the earlier being abrogated by the later, and therefore “the peaceable verses of the Koran are almost all earlier, dating from Mohammed’s time in Mecca, while those which advocate war and violence are almost all later, dating from after his flight to Medina”. There are other ways of resolving such apparent contradictions, such as that specific injunctions take precedence over general ones. But this does not change the fact that Muslims in this country are not in a position to undertake military missions as we are not in charge: the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) was invited by the Medinians to be their ruler, as the two main tribes of their own community, the Aws and the Khazraj, had been in a state of persistent internecine conflict for many years. In this country, the Muslims were invited to be guest workers, and later ordinary citizens. We are in no position to wage war on anyone, which makes the mere discussion of these verses irrelevant and possibly malicious.

Sookhdeo also brings in a barely-known fringe group called al-Ghurabaa, which “stated in the wake of the two London bombings, ‘Any Muslim that denies that terror is a part of Islam is kafir.’” (The punctuation mistake is theirs.) The Ghurabaa (strangers) are thought to be an offshoot of al-Muhajiroun, which makes them a pretty small group given that others of that ilk have formed the “Saviour Sect”. Their views, needless to say, don’t count for much in our community.

He then alleges that Muslims, having come to the UK initially for economic reasons, “have evolved away from assimilation with the British majority towards the creation of separate and distinct entities, mimicking the communalism of the British Raj”. As examples:

British Muslims now have Sharia in areas of finance and mortgages; halal food in schools, hospitals and prisons; faith schools funded by the state; prayer rooms in every police station in London; and much more. This process has been assisted by the British government through its philosophy of multiculturalism, which has allowed some Muslims to consolidate and create a parallel society in the UK.

But the different Muslim communities are far from unique in settling certain areas so that people can be near those of their “own kind”. After all, do not middle-class white people seek the same thing by moving to the suburbs and dormitory towns? London has many areas settled by different ethnic communities: Brixton, famously, for black Carribeans, Stockwell for the Portuguese, Peckham for Africans, east London for Bengalis of both Hindu and Muslim religion. Some of the accommodations he mentions are necessary to prevent unrest (eg. halal food in prisons), others can be justified on the grounds that we pay the same taxes as the rest of society, whose children also receive school meals acceptable to them (well, that’s debatable - a lot of people say school meals are of unacceptable quality, but that’s a separate issue). We have a small fraction of the state religious schools in this country - two in the whole of the UK - and Shari’a-compliant banking is provided by the banks themselves, as is their prerogative.

Then, he tries to put the scares on us:

The Muslim community now inhabits principally the urban centres of England as well as some parts of Scotland and Wales. It forms a spine running down the centre of England from Bradford to London, with ribs extending east and west. It is said that within 10 to 15 years most British cities in these areas will have Muslim-majority populations, and will be under local Islamic political control, with the Muslim community living under Sharia.

A spine running from London to Bradford? To my knowledge, there’s not even a single halal service station on any British motorway, including the M1, M6, M40 and M62 which link the major Muslim centres. I find it unlikely that the Muslims could gain control over these towns because they are so divided amongst themselves. They have not even produced their own party, and in many cases would sooner vote for a non-Muslim candidate than for a fellow Pakistani of a different caste. The Muslim community are generally still wedded to Labour; their areas are considered safe seats suitable for senior cabinet ministers such as Jack Straw. I find it unlikely that Muslims could control the urban north as Muslims any time soon. He also claims, without the slightest evidence, that the Deobandi minority “argue for a quicker process [than the Bareilawi majority] using politics and violence to achieve the same result”, that of Muslim control of the UK and an Islamic state. While connections between Deobandis and the Taliban and Kashmiri rebels are well-known, Deobandi involvement in political violence here is simply unheard-of.

Sookhdeo then makes an absurd attempt to link isolated incidents of violence between groups of Muslims, and between Muslims and other minorities, in this country with violence elsewhere, specifically southern Thailand, the southern Phillipines, Kashmir, Chechnya and Palestine. In all these areas Muslims have either seen their lands invaded, or found themselves on the wrong side of someone else’s border. The Muslims of the far south of Thailand are mostly Malays, not Thais, unlike those further north (Phuket and Chiang Mai, for example) who are not linked to any of the violence. Simiarly, the Phillipine-Malaysian border reflects only the Spanish-British colonial border. In Malaysia, a wealthier country where the Shari’a is implemented to some extent, Muslims there have felt little need to resort to violence.

He demands that we “stop this self-deception” and “with honesty recognise the violence that has existed in their history in the same way that Christians have had to do, for Christianity has a very dark past”. To my knowledge, Muslims don’t in general deny that Muslim caliphs undertook aggressive wars in order to spread Islam; the issue is what it has to do with terrorism in our day and age. He also demands that we “look at the reinterpretation of their texts, the Koran, hadith and Sharia, and the reformation of their faith”, and lists a number of people who, he claims have tried to do this. Among them are Mahmoud M Taha of Sudan, who was executed for supposed apostasy by General Nimeiri’s regime in 1985. I’ve not found much reliable information on this incident, but much of it claims that the execution was politcally-motivated.

Sookhdeo then offers the “Free Muslims Coalition”, which was “set up after 9/11 to promote a modern and secular version of Islam” - uh, no, to promote the political career of its founder, Kamal Nawash. Much has been written here about Nawash and his club in the past, concerning such matters as his “anti-terror” march and the lack of support it received in the community (perhaps this was its purpose), to the extent that it permitted one “group” to be listed whose name included the words “Nawash sucks” backwards. “Universal condemnation of suicide bombers instead of acclamation as heroes would indeed be an excellent start,” he claims. Well, from those whose opinions count, even Omar Bakri, the bombings did receive condemnation. We can’t account for the words of lying rabble-rousers and peasants in Punjab.

He also offers a “three-point” plan by Mansoor Ijaz, of the same Benador cabal as Amir Taheri, which can be found in greater detail in this article at the Benador site. Writing in the Financial Times on 11 July, he proposed the following:

First, forbid the use of mosques and other religious institutions to discharge bigotry and hatred. As France has done already, Britain should require each imam to pass minimum competency exams. Radical preaching must be replaced with knowledge of how the Koran relates to daily life within Britain’s secular traditions. Any imam failing to comply should be shown politely to the departure lounge at Heathrow airport. Those that pass must accept their citizenship responsibilities to become resources for authorities seeking data on criminal elements residing in Britain’s Muslim communities.

As already stated here, very few mosques indeed are in the hands of radical groups; they are mostly dominated by sects and caste groups tracing back to Pakistan. Mas’ud Khan’s blog, for example, mentioned last July (Google cache’d copy here - his page is currently in excess of its bandwidth) that his mosque’s committee consisted of representatives of the Rajputs, Jats, Pathans and Rawalpindians - no mention here of HT or any other group. The imams are usually Breilawis or Deobandis, trained in seminaries in Pakistan, India or the UK (occasionally South Africa). Does he really propose that imams who don’t preach what the government demands be kicked out (a lot of them are citizens)? And if people are suspicious of the imams because they are seen as government stooges, they will ignore them and go to the radical back-street preachers.

Second, open Britain’s Islamic charities to greater financial scrutiny to identify those that fund terrorism. Charities should be asked to limit foreign donations to 10 per cent of operating budgets and certify that the remainder of their donors are British citizens who give from taxable – and transparent – income sources. Stopping the flow of money is central to dismantling al-Qaeda’s franchise strategy, where one or two foreign “masterminds” oversee terrorist attacks with foreign money and logistical support.

What other charities - even religious charities - would be required to refuse donations from all but local donors? Only one British Muslim charity - Interpal - has been accused of financing terrorism; it has been investigated twice, and cleared each time. The Charity Commission already exists to investigate the financing of charities and identify false charities.

Third, form community watch groups made up of Muslim citizens to reclaim Islam from the terrorists and committed to contributing useful information to the authorities. Britain’s tolerant political environment has transformed it into a haven for militant Islam. Communities joining together to compile and analyse data on Muslim fanatics for use by British authorities in official proceedings is the best way for moderate Muslims to prevent the state’s anti-terror apparatus from appearing biased or being used inappropriately. It would also be the surest sign that British Muslims take their citizenship as seriously as their religion.

You mean, groups which spy on other Muslims and report “suspicious” utterances to the police? I’m sure most Muslims who know that a terrorist attack is in the planning, and who know who is planning it, would tell the police without hesitation. What the people have known about is what is obvious - that certain people have extreme opinions and express them.

“To this,” continues Sookhdeo, “could be added Muslim acceptance of a secular society as the basis for their religious existence, an oath of allegiance to the Crown which would override their allegiance to their co-religionists overseas, and deliberate steps to move out of their ghetto-style existence both physically and psychologically”. Winning hearts and minds is all very well, but invading them is just not possible. An oath of allegiance is a pointless exercise; Americans give oaths of allegiance at school daily, but it has not stopped US citizens from being convicted of various anti-American and terrorist offences. For those who had no intention of carrying out terrorist acts anyway, it would not matter; those who have such intentions would not be deterred. And I’m not sure how you could get rid of ghettoes without such measures as forced exchanges of property. I’m sure some Muslims would not mind being moved from a council flat in Bethnal Green to a five-bedroom house in Woodcote Village; the person who has to move the other way would take more persuading, however.

As an example of what reform is possible, Sookhdeo tells us of the conference of “eight schools of thought”, presided over by the king of Jordan, which issued a joint fatwa forbidding that anyone of those schools be declared an apostate. The problem Sookhdeo has with it is that it negates an earlier fatwa of exactly that nature against Osama bin Laden, from some community leaders in Spain. There are, in fact, well-defined guidelines on what someone must do or say to be pronounced an apostate; people who don’t may be considered deviants, renegades or criminals, but not apostates. “Could not the King re-convene his conference and ask them to issue a fatwa banning violence against non-Muslims also?” Perhaps the conference was not about violence against non-Muslims, but about internal conflict which has been rife in some Muslim countries including Iraq and Pakistan.

The final paragraph expects “the changing of certain fairly central theological principles”, but the defeat of the small radical fringe depends on the propagation of proper Islamic knowledge, something which has become more and more difficult as time goes on. After the Tel Aviv bombing last year, foreign students were barred from independent religious schools in Syria (which were already coming under political pressure to standardise religious texts), and last week the detested military dictator Parvez Musharraf (also known as Busharraf) of Pakistan announced that foreign students would simply be kicked out of madrassas in Pakistan - including dual citizens. Abu Easa notes that several other countries have closed their doors on foreign religious students; I add that Saudi Arabia closed its own a number of years ago for sectarian rather than political reasons.

Something Mansoor Ijaz does not mention regarding the reforms of British mosques is competency in English, the language spoken overwhelmingly by British-born youth, but not so well by the older generations. Often sermons are delivered in Urdu, primarily for the benefit of the old folk, with the assumption that the youth know enough of it to understand, and there’s hardly anyone around who actually doesn’t understand any of it; such reasoning may make sense in a small-town mono-ethnic Muslim community, except of course when visitors decide to stop around. I have personally heard of an incident in south London in which a visiting speaker asked whether he should give his speech in English or Urdu, was told “Urdu” by some of the assembled men, and he obliged, excluding a large number who simply left.

This is one of a number of issues which have separated the youth from mainstream Islam; others include the long-standing petty sectarian division of the Bareilawis and Deobandis. But even though terrorists tend not to be followers of classical Islam but of various schismatic groups, people like Sookhdeo don’t like mainstream, classical Islam; what they demand of us is a neutered version with bits taken out of it. What he expects is a level of state interference in Islamic practice vastly in excess of the norm in this country, and vastly out of proportion with the actual threat and with the community’s actual connection with that threat. More than three and a half years passed after 9/11 before a single attack took place on British soil, and those responsible apparently felt it necessary to conceal it from the Muslim community. Still, one can’t expect any better in a magazine whose editors have not yet seen fit to solicit authentic Muslim opinion.

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