Zia: Let Muslims run their own committee

Ziauddin Sardar, in the current New Statesman, has a worthwhile argument about some recent government idea to “set up a board of Muslim theologians” in order to “steer the more radical elements of the Muslim community away from violent extremism and issue fatwas on controversial issues such as the position of women and loyalty to the UK”. He thinks this is “bonkers”, and suggests instead that any such committee should be elected by the Muslims themselves and consist of people other than “beards”, rather including women, young people, Muslims other than Asians, and professionals other than “theologians”.

I partly agree with this; a state-appointed consultative council only has so much legitimacy as a representative of popular opinion. When king Fahd of Saudi Arabia set up an appointed consultative council, it was generally dismissed and one local liberal said it had as much power as a flock of sheep. A council of “theologians” consisting mostly of Asian imams with one or two representatives from Central Mosque would be seen as just another talking shop, particularly by Muslims outside the communities represented.

On the other hand, fatwas, whether on loyalty to the UK or anything else, can only be issued by people qualified to give them, and this usually does mean “beards”, i.e. religious scholars who studied in traditional religious schools or somewhere like al-Azhar. It is simply not permitted in Islam to take fatwa from someone who is unqualified, or even from a council of various experts where the religious scholars were outvoted. Of course, they do not have to be old, or Asian, but they are usually male. Even then, when a religious scholar starts saying things the government wants him to say, people switch off, and any such council will have no effect on the youth who are already radicalised. It will, if anything, damage the image of the imams in this country among young people who are at risk of such a transition.

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