New Statesman slanders Dr Quick, boosts Hargey

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This week’s New Statesman (the first I’ve had through the door on a now ended subscription offer of £4.80 for three months) has on its front page a feature marking the anniversary of the 7th July bombings last year. There are two long articles, one by Shiv Malik (yep, him again) on the background of the bomber Shazad Tanweer and one by Ziauddin Sardar (yep, him again) on young British Muslims. Laughably Shiv’s feature is entitled The Suicide Bomber in his own words, which refers to the personal statement on his UCAS (university application) form that he’s managed to get hold of. Depressingly, as I noted last year when writing about political magazine coverage of the bombings, these two were the only voices within the community the NS could find, with Shiv concentrating on Hizbut-Tahreer, which had nothing to do with the bombings.

The feature is basically the story of Tanweer’s life from December 2000, when he entered college (from which he later dropped out, purportedly to help out in the family chip shop but, according to his younger brother “Nikki”, actually because he was bored), through his activities with the local “Mullah crew” and the Hamara Healthy Living Centre, to the bombings. Regarding the goings-on at the HHLC, he alleges:

I was barred from the Hamara Centre after asking the manager, Hanif Malik, about a meeting held in August 2004 in conjunction with the Iqra bookstore. That meeting, attended by several hundred young people, may offer a clue about the sort of activities the young men were involved with. Among the “special guests” was Sheikh Abdullah Hakim Quick, a South African living in the US, whose topic was “The Dilemma of the Muslim Youth”. What he said in Leeds is not clear, but in a similarly entitled speech to an Australian audience, which is reported on the internet, Quick spoke of the destruction of Islamic civilisation by the west and of the sickness of homosexuality.

I have listened to part of that lecture (you can download it here). In the first half-hour of the lecture (in which both these themes are discussed) there is no inflammatory content whatsoever, although I hesitate to agree with the idea of a general plan to undermine Muslims by selling them culture. He told the story, for example, of a village in Mauritania which was at one point a place where one could hear people recite the Qur’an in the street to the extent that it was never silent, and ten years later the travellers who had observed this came back to find the place silent, the Qur’an recitation having ceased after free televisions were given out along with free scholarships to western universities. Television, at the end of the day, sells things. People want to make money and they don’t care whether they do or don’t break down society somewhere to do this. Third-world countries offer unrestricted markets where rules which exist in the west, such as the law in the UK which forbade tobacco companies to encourage people to start smoking in their advertisements (this was before their advertising was banned altogether), are not in force. The point made about Muslim youth in Muslim countries forsaking their own cultures in favour of foreign non-Muslim cultures, even in Mecca and Madinah, is a valid one, preferring Levi’s baseball caps to kufis and McDonald’s to their own food. The fact that Dr Quick disapproves of homosexuality should come as no surprise to anyone, because he is a Muslim. If you find a “shaikh” willing to say homosexuality is OK, know that he is unrepresentative and a liar. I have heard many other lectures by this scholar and he is not a demagogue or a lunatic by any means, nor is he linked to any of the “political Islam” groups: he is simply a traditional, mainstream Sunni.

Zia Sardar’s piece concerns the response of Muslim youth to the recent events, notably their greater interest in politics (as if Muslims were not interested in politics before last July, or even before 9/11):

According to M A Qavi, a London-based social activist who spends most of his time attending meetings and listening to the young all over Britain, the new expression of dual identity “is a product of a certain self-consciousness of belonging to this country and growing awareness of the need to make their voices heard as Muslims”. Young politicised Muslims deeply distrust professional Muslim leaders, or those identified with the government, and are drawn towards those who articulate what they consider to be injustices suffered by Muslims everywhere, says Qavi. The Respect leader George Galloway, “even after his shameful antics in Big Brother”, remains their favourite politician.

He gives a voice to one Andleen Razzaq of the City Circle, who alleges (in Zia’s paraphrase) that “there are still a few imams and self-appointed sheikhs in Britain who project Islam as an ideology that is absolutely right, holy and totally good, and see everything else as an imminent danger to the community”. She alleges that most of them “are uneducated or semi-literate”, which strikes me as a broad-brush slur although people who’ve been in more mosques than me are welcome to disagree. It is normal for them to have received their training at a Dar al-Uloom or a religious university rather than have a wodge of (watered-down) A-levels or a bachelor’s degree. This doesn’t make them semi-literate.

Sardar interviewed Yahya Birt, “a research fellow at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester), whom he allows to say that “the Muslims are the new Irish”, but other than that allows few of his own words to get through. He is also rather scathing about the recent “roadshow” of traditional scholars:

As with previous official attempts to engage with the Muslim community, this one had the unintended effect of promoting traditionalists and conservatives, even to the extent of importing closed-minded traditionalists from the United States. In turn, this has increased theological engagement with extremism, and with it, sectarian division among British Muslims. As a result, differences between conservatives and liberals are much more pronounced. Conservatives such as the intellectual Tariq Ramadan and the American preacher Hamza Yusuf Hanson insist the only people with the right to interpret Islam are the ulema (religious scholars), who must seek solutions to contemporary problems within a largely ossified tradition. While Ramadan has called for the hudood laws, the problematic crime-and-punishment aspects of Islamic law, to be suspended, he is a strong supporter of the sharia. Hanson rejects the whole idea of religious reform and presents a romanticised notion of tradition where the sheikh or the teacher knows all.

This is a huge oversimplification; the religious tradition is in any case not “ossified” but rather certain questions, mostly about everyday religious practice, are deemed to have been settled and it is not up to the religious scholars of today to overturn the rulings of those who were just a few steps removed from those who were there at the beginning. Sardar’s position on the “gates of ijtihad” can be found in his printed books such as Introducing Islam, which in an earlier version under another title was instrumental in bringing me to Islam, but advances this modernist position as if it were commonly agreed, which is far from being the case. In fact, the youth often turn to these scholars precisely because they are seen as above sectarian divisions such as those affecting many of religious scholars of the Indian subcontinent (besides the fact that they speak English and Arabic and not Urdu, which a lot of the youth don’t speak and in many cases their elders never did speak). They bring proofs, going back to the revealed sources and the understandings of the earliest generations, in refutation of the claims of sectarians.

Sardar brackets Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui along with Abdul-Wahhab al-Affendi and the infamous Taj Hargey as “liberals”. Dr Siddiqui’s history is with the Muslim Parliament, which was originally basically a front for Iranian influence over the Muslim community in England, but has become rather more moderate (and obscure) since. Despite the ignorance he displayed in his speech at SOAS last Thursday (such as claiming that political Islamists regard 7th-century Mecca, as opposed to Medina, as “pure Islam”), I really doubt he has the same views on the Shari’a as Taj Hargey, an absolute nobody who has become famous since he was wheeled out by John Ware to issue broad-brush attacks on the community on Panorama last August:

Hargey sums up the liberal position. Liberals want to talk about “gender equality, sexual orientation, pluralistic notions of Islam, the nature of loyalty to the umma [global Muslim community], the accumulation of religious authority in the hands of a particular class, and the problematic nature of the sharia”, he says - the very issues on which the conservatives on the whole are silent. The “litmus test” of a liberal Muslim, Hargey suggests, is that he or she is ready to discuss everything and does not accuse others of heresy or of being lesser Muslims. He is particularly scathing about the religious scholars and the sharia. “Blind following of the religious scholars is responsible for our current impasse,” he declares. “And the sharia has no relevance to the 21st-century lives of the British Muslims.”

So, Hargey’s “liberal” Islam is a collection of attitudes which don’t come from within the Muslim population; they are simply the reasons non-Muslims (particularly those on the left) are dissatisfied with us. Any Muslim reading this knows that some things really are not up for discussion and that some Muslims are better than others and some are heretics. Most of the people invovled in terrorism are heretics of one sort or another, an idea I’m sure Hargey really has no problem with unless he regards their “orthodoxy” (as rigidity is sometimes mistakenly called) as the problem. In fact, one of the central planks of the attempt to fight extremism from within the community is the effort to expose it as being based on false legal and theological reasoning. The concept of truth still has meaning in Islam - we are not relativists such as those one finds elsewhere, which is why extremism can be refuted and why we cannot follow every societal trend such as allowing women to lead men in prayer (just because the Episcopalians do it) or getting involved in usury just because it’s convenient. His accusation regarding “blind following” is really just lazy and dishonest. What is commonly called “blind following” applies to long-settled matters and does not, for example, bind the community to accept orders from “religious leaders”.

Really, I don’t need to go into much detail as to why Hargey shouldn’t be trusted and why he should not be taken as a “leader” of the Muslim community here; see the earlier entry on Panorama. Quite simply, he is not representative.

What the NS has done with these two articles is to attack and smear the moderate proponents of normative, traditional Islam and to promote unrepresentative fringe elements. I find it puzzling that this magazine has not made the effort to find representatives of the Muslim community more representative than Shiv Malik, who trotted out Zeyno Baran’s “conveyor belt to terrorism” comment about Hizbut-Tahrir over and over again (and given that HT have nothing to do with al-Qa’ida, it is about as relevant as saying that PETA is a conveyor belt to the anti-Huntingdon intimidation brigade or that LIFE is a conveyor belt to arson attacks on abortion clinics). In my opinion the worst that can be said about the government sponsoring a roadshow by people like Shaikh Hamza is that they may have been preaching to the converted - the type of Muslims who would have come to a presentation by these scholars would have come anyway, while on the fence might have been less willing to come knowing that it had government backing. Whatever good the roadshow did, it likely did no harm, while promoting the sort of liberalism associated with the “progressive Muslims” in north America, whose main supporting organisation fell apart acrimoniously in a few months, would have had hardly more effect here than it has over there, other than foster ill opinion towards the wider Muslim community for failing to support it.

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