“Cultural separatism” and the Islamic studies conference

Islamophobia Watch - David Cameron accuses Muslims of ‘cultural separatism’

David Cameron gave this speech at a conference on “Islam and Muslims in the World Today”, hosted in London by Cambridge university earlier this week, an event also attended by Dominic Grieve, by Conservative party vice-chair Sayeeda Warsi, by Tony Blair and by the mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa. He began by telling everyone how successful Britain had been in the past in integrating minorities, notably the Ugandan Asians and the Jews in the early 20th century, and how the UK never had the violence between the Protestants and Catholics as happened on the continent. (More: Tariq Nelson.)

I’m not sure what history he’s read of British Protestant/Catholic relations, but in England, and later the UK, anti-Catholic persecution was severe. I was at Catholic school as a child and so I learned of the “priest-holes” in which Catholic priests had to stay locked up to avoid being dragged off to their deaths. The Catholic Emancipation Act was only part of the story of how Catholics came to be accepted as fellow citizens; there were riots in this country caused by anti-Catholic sentiment, with large events put on to caricature the “Romish Mass”. The Emancipation act was in fact bitterly opposed by the populace, and the petition against it which followed was - and remains - the biggest in British history. And in the case of both the Catholics and the Jews, colour was not an issue.

Cameron then attempts to address what he calls “cultural separatism”, claiming that while “all terrorists are cultural separatists [but] not all cultural separatists are terrorists”, other so-called cultural separatists are in denial as to Muslim involvement in terrorism, to the extent of blaming Jews or the CIA for 9/11 or British government agents for the July 2005 bombings, citing a recent Channel 4 opinion poll. I question whether these attitudes really do come from “cultural separation”, because many of the most prominent 9/11 conspiracists are White, and according to an Ohio university poll (see this San Francisco Chronicle article), 36% of Americans believe there was government complicity in the 9/11 attacks. I don’t dispute that many Muslims are vulnerable to believing such theories, and that they are often more willing to believe fantasic theories (such as the “remote control plane” scenario on 9/11) than plausible ones (that the hijackers were recruited by agents provocateurs rather than genuine al-Qa’ida terrorists, or that the government knew and stood by and let it happen).

However, Cameron does not explore how the people who made these suggestions to him in Birmingham got their ideas, or indeed what sort of Muslims they were. My own observation is that such theories have been losing credibility over the years, with many prominent Muslims being quite willing to accept that Muslims did it. Some, like Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, did so immediately. I don’t think you can blame people for not rushing to accept the official version of an event when it means that fingers will be pointed at them, rather than just the perpetrators. Cameron, like Tony Blair recently, has made much of the ideology of these terrorists being a perversion of Islam, which it is, but there are many on the political right who do not see it this way. They claim that the terrorists, and their supporters, are the real Muslims and that the only “good Muslims” are either peasants who don’t really know their religion, or the tiny minority of “liberal Muslim” commentators who pop up in the media from time to time, or dead Muslims. For example, see this blog entry by the Daily Mail commentator Melanie Phillips:

Whatever the true teachings of Christ may have been, the fact remains that in medieval times torture and numerous other forms of clerical terror designed to enforce the faith at sword-point upon heretics and unbelievers was the norm for Christianity. Such terror wasn’t ‘unrepresentative’ of the church; it wasn’t confined to a ‘few extremists’; and it certainly wasn’t got up by the media. As was demonstrated by the plight of the Jews who were routinely butchered by Christians for refusing to convert, Christianity was a savage faith until the Enlightenment separated out church and state. The problem with Islam is that it remains stuck in that pre-reformation state of clerical savagery; and while there are many Muslims in Britain and around the world who do not wish to live under what has been called Islamic fascism (and are indeed among its principal victims) the jihad currently dominates the Islamic world just as pre-modern Christianity was dominated by priestly violence and intimidation.

I’m sure some will agree with this, but my experience of Muslims does not lead me to think them at all savage; they are some of the most civilised people I’ve come across. Phillips fails to notice that many of the “savage clerics” she talks of have mostly condemned “the jihad”, if she is talking about that of Osama bin Laden and his gang. Quite a number of them have even condemned suicide bombings in Palestine. Citing the same poll as Cameron, she alleges:

From their own mouths, more than half of Britain’s Muslims reveal they believe in demented and paranoid theories, refuse to take responsibility for the part played by their community and its faith in Islamist terrorism, and believe instead that Britain is a giant conspiracy against them.

I hardly think that a single opinion poll could possibly have asked more than half - or even as much as a hundredth - of Britain’s Muslim community. You would have to be demented to think otherwise. I do think that whichever Muslims are answering these stupid polls should stop, because they give hostile elements, like Phillips, licence to attack us and to attribute their findings to all of us. As for our supposed responsibility, quite apart from the fact that al-Muhajiroun and their ilk have always been a minority, and a heavily contested one at that, none of us can do anything until we know that something is in the offing. Since the people involved do not otherwise busy themselves with less serious acts of violence in the fashion of the animal rights extremists, vandalising “hostile” property for example, knowing who is actually a terrorist is difficult. Even the wife of Jermaine Lindsey, for example, did not know he was involved in terrorism until after the event. His disappearances could, of course, have been otherwise explained - the average person is more likely to suspect that their spouse is having an affair than preparing a terrorist attack.

Cameron’s speech acknowledges that Muslim women are victims of discrimination - and not just within their own community - and that “involved citizens”, meaning those active in the community in whatever form, are more likely to see minorities as positive contributors than those who are not “involved”. However, he glosses over Muslim anger over the British presence in Iraq by saying, “we have to explain patiently and carefully that in Iraq and Afghanistan we are supporting democratically elected Muslim leaders”. Surely a ruler should not need to be supported by foreign occupiers for as long as those of Afghanistan and Iraq have. Nouri al-Maliki, the present ruler of Iraq, has been accused of ruling “as a Shia first and as an Iraqi second”; this same article claims that during his rule, Sunnis have been purged from several neighbourhoods in Baghdad, and that the Interior Ministry’s police recruits act as sectarian militiamen when not in police uniform. Quite apart from all this, however, Muslim anger over Iraq should not be overstated, as opposition to the war has been made evident only in peaceful demonstrations. The only violence which has come out of it have been an incident of aeroplanes being sabotaged (not by Muslims) and the July bombings, which happened not because the community acted in the heat of anger, but because a group of terrorists decided it was time to hit Britain, without doing much of a consultation. I don’t remember being asked.

The conference centred on the teaching of Islam in British universities, which the government are to designate a “strategic subject” and to invest an extra £1m in the teaching of imams “for a multitude of reasons including wider community cohesion and preventing violent extremism in the name of Islam”, according to the Higher Education minister, Bill Rammell. As this interview with a Muslim PhD student in Birmingham indicates, university courses in Islamic studies are not generally held in high regard by Muslims, and that “someone doing Muslims in modern day Britain should be in the sociology department” rather than the theology department. What this student says is true: Muslims who are serious about becoming scholars go to colleges which specialise in Islamic studies, which are run by Muslims to Muslim standards, and where the teachers have Islamic qualifications with the requisite chains of transmission: whether they are accredited by a western university is not an issue. I’m sure it would be possible to establish such a centre in a western university or in an autonomous centre linked to one, but it would cost considerably more than £1m. With what the government seems to be proposing now, the graduates these departments produce would find it hard indeed to persuade any mosque to employ them as imams.

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