Britain’s “unique problem” according to Schwartz

While one Uncle Tom denounces us for not tolerating Qadianis in the New Statesman, another denounces much of the Islamic scholarly community in the Spectator, the main political magazine of the British right. Stephen Schwartz has his own section among the “Windbags” on this blog, because he goes on and on about the same things, denouncing Wahhabis wherever he sees them and using a definition probably closer to that of Islam Karimov than that of Shaikh Nuh Keller.

Schwartz seems highly ill-informed about the make-up of the Muslim community here. He alleges, for example, that “Islam in the UK is overwhelmingly influenced by imams and other religious officials born in Pakistan and trained in that country or in Saudi Arabia”. Many, many mosques have imams who were born in this country and trained at institutions in this country, notably Dewsbury and Bury. The origins of the community include parts of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and the majority of imams were trained in Subcontinental institutions, either in that region or here in the UK. Of course, imams in the “Salafi” community took their training from Saudi, but relatively few of the Deobandi, let alone the Bareilawi, imams did so.

As one might expect, Schwartz was unimpressed with the recent Radical Middle Way roadshow, in which the government sponsored a tour by a group of moderately-inclined Muslim leaders including Tariq Ramadan, Habib Ali Jifri, Hamza Yusuf, Abdul-Hakim Murad, Abdullah bin Bayyah and others. Schwartz doesn’t miss the opportunity to get another dig in at Shaikh Hamza:

Apart from Ramadan, the risible roadshow has included a Kuwaiti jihadist, Tariq al-Suweidan, a Californian charlatan, Joe Hanson, alias Hamza Yusuf. Hanson varies his message according to his audience: when he speaks before crowds where jihadists dominate, he proudly repudiates any questioning of radical Islam and shouts his hope that others will also ‘fail the test’ of moderate belief.

(Update 22nd August: I’ve been informed that Tariq Suweidan was in fact never on the roadshow. The reader might take Schwartz’s assessment of Suweidan’s positions in the light of how he writes about other Muslims.)

The test in question, referred to in Shaikh Hamza’s speech to the ISNA conference shortly before the 2004 US Presidential election, was one dictated by Daniel Pipes, in which he posed a number of questions some of which prompted Muslims to renounce what is part of normal Islamic doctrine and practice. Shaikh Hamza loudly condemned what happened on Sept 11 in ways that saw him condemned by a number of Muslims who were sympathetic to “jihadist” strains of Wahhabism. However, other of Pipes’ demands invited us to flatly contradict aspects of Islamic law which merely differ with liberal western understandings. Of course, any normal Muslim would fail such a test!

Shaikh Hamza, far from merely claiming “to be the number one enemy of Wahhabism in the West”, has been at the forefront of refuting some of their most notorious innovations: the rejection of madhhabs, the denunciation of Sufi tariqa practices, the slandering of scholars past and present, the condemning as shirk (idolatry) perfectly valid practices, and so on.

On the subject of the Deobandi school, who I consider to be in the same vanguard, Schwartz says:

Pakistan has a level of uncontrolled Islamist bloodshed exceeded only by Iraq. Along with adherents of Wahabism (sic), the country is swarming with fantics of the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, which originated in India and part of which metastatised into the Taliban. The Masjid-e-Umer mosque in Walthamstow, a converted synagogue attended by at least eight of the alleged terror plot suspects, is a Deobandi institution. These homicidally inclined ideologues summon the madrassa boys to riot for the benefit of global television news. They do so at the command of political parties standing for exclusive sharia law, fundamentalist theology and aid to the Taliban and al-Qa’eda. Among these movements, some merely drench the mosques and streets of Pakistan with blood, like the infamous murder machine known as Sipah-e-Sahaba or Knights of the Prophet’s Companions. Others, bearing such names as Jamaat-i-Islami (Community of Islam) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous), maintain extensive international paramilitary networks.

The claim that the Deobandis are “homicidally inclined ideologues” is a huge, libellous over-generalisation. The Deobandis are a denomination whose membership includes a huge proportion - a minority, but a substantial minority - of Pakistan’s and northern India’s Muslim population. Their differences with, say, Bareilawis, are about history and relatively minor issues of doctrine rather than about practical matters. They are also not “Wahhabis” in any modern sense, having been in opposition to all the developments associated with the sect for decades. And in India, where Deobandis also have major influence (much of the Gujarati diaspora are Deobandi), the sectarian violence found in Pakistan (and in particuar Karachi) is not much in evidence; instead, what violence there is is mostly the work of Hindu extremists.

It’s no secret that the Taliban were Deobandi and that the Deobandis supported them, something I discovered when I converted to Islam in 1998 and discovered much support for them in the local community. A number of brothers could be found who would either approve of or deny the many excesses and tyrannies reported of them in the press. Still, it does not follow from this that, just because Masjid-e-Umer in Walthamstow is a Deobandi mosque, they would encourage anyone who worships there to commit acts of terrorism in the UK or indeed anywhere. I have attended many Deobandi mosques myself, listened to lectures by their scholars and sat with men my own age who are of Deobandi background, and none of them that I’ve met have supported terrorism or praised people who carried it out. However many of the suspects in the present terrorism case worshipped there, it is highly likely that they also worshipped at many other mosques, depending on where they were at the time. It is, of course, likely that they preferred that mosque to the Bareilawi mosque on the Lea Bridge Road, for numerous mostly theological reasons.

Schwartz alleges also that the “constellation of crime” consisting of the armed groups he mentioned, “backed by senior officers in the Pakistani army, the country’s ISI intelligence establishment and other armed bodies of the state … is exported to every country where Pakistani Sunnis reside”. This is not a phenomenon I’ve encountered in several years of being Muslim; it’s not something Pakistani friends have ever mentioned, nor is it something I’ve ever seen mentioned in the Muslim press or on Muslim discussion fora, even though the influence of foreign Muslim groups over “community” bodies like the MCB has been mentioned in publications like Q-News, not always approvingly. So where does Schwartz get the impression that our community is controlled, and intimidated, by a network of “religious gangsters” linked to the Pakistani intelligence service? He gives not a single example of how “these zealots silence moderates through slander and intimidation”; sectarian violence between Pakistanis is rare if not unknown in the UK.

Schwartz concludes by recommending that Britain “require that Muslim clerics be at least trained and certified in Europe, if not in Britain, according to a classical, anti-radical Muslim curriculum that reinforces loyalty to the legitimate authorities”. Given that he denounces those who took part in the RMW roadshow as two-faced jihadists, it’s difficult to work out who is left after those he disapproves of are eliminated. Even if, for example, the Bareilawi group are given control over every mosque in the country, regardless of whom the local community might wish to vote into the management, they may not have the ability to prevent the youth drifting away into clandestine meetings in people’s houses or to persuade people that British foreign policy is not bringing about the deaths of Muslims in Muslim countries if that is what the Muslims are learning from the news.

And there is a reason lots of Muslims are not rushing to become Bareilawis despite the recent rash of articles raising suspicions about the Tablighi Jama’at and Muslim Brotherhood: Bareilavism is inherently sectarian, and denunciations of Deobandis, for reasons unconnected with Schwartz’s concerns, feature heavily in their literature. Deobandis have proved more efficient at founding religious schools, which contrary to certain columnists’ assertions are not jihadist production lines, than the Bareilawis despite the glowing praises the Bareilawis heap on some of their own imams on some of their websites. If anything, religious instruction in immigrant mosques in the UK has failed by being too centred on the needs of the mosques’ respective ethnic communities, to the exclusion of converts, less well-established immigrant Muslim communities (such as Somalis) and the youth who often do not speak the “mother tongue” as well as the older generation for whose benefit said “mother tongue” is still used in the mosque. This may have resulted in some youth falling into the hands of extremists who do speak English.

This does not mean that mosques themselves are breeding grounds for terrorists, and no serious evidence has been produced that they are; rather, we have seen a stream of claims associating certain terrorists or suspected terrorists with certain mosques - the most likely explanation for such associations being that the individuals lived near the mosque and had to worship somewhere. The modus operandi of extremists in the past has almost never been to use mosques, but to use private houses and hired-out halls. Since Schwartz knows so much about the Muslim community in this country, he might give us specific examples of what he alleges in his article, and I do not mean the out-of-context phrases his Front Page colleagues give, but solid examples. I suspect that he cannot, a fact which would not be lost on the editor of any Muslim magazine to which he might submit that article.

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