Islam’s besieged moderates are making themselves heard

16 Octboer 2009
by Professor Yasir Suleiman

To say that Islam and the Muslims of Europe and North America are under pressure is an understatement. In fact, the Muslims feel under siege. On one side of the squeeze are certain non-Muslims who do not wish Islam to be seen as a religion of peace, moderation and ethical values that cuts across faiths traditions and cultural systems.

Whether out of Islamophobia or political convenience, people of this persuasion love to demonise Islam and Muslims as the main sources of violence and terrorism in the modern world. They have succeeded in turning this image of violence and terrorism into a dangerous stereotype, a self-evident truth that needs no substantiation. The fact that the majority of Muslims speak against violence and terrorism, regardless of its origins or the identity of its perpetrators, cuts no ice with these confirmed Islamophobes and political opportunists.

From the other side, Islam and Muslims have come under attack from within the fold by a small minority of extremists who wish to hijack the peaceful message of Islam, replacing it with bloodthirsty assertions about what true Islam really is. These Muslims believe that interpretations of Islam that speak of peace, moderation and the ethics of justice and toleration are acts of surrender to the power of anti-Muslims who wish to destroy Islam from within.

The logic of both parties is the same: a moderate Islam that is willing to live in harmony with itself and at peace with others if they are willing to do the same, is a historical aberration, a posture of dissimulation and deceit, or an abominable act of surrender to the enemy. The implacable enmity of these two camps to a moderate Islam loyal to its universal truths and values paradoxically makes it the most radical form of the religion.

The term “radical” has been endowed with negative meanings these days, but I am using it in its old-fashioned sense of being revolutionary and thought-provoking. When moderation becomes the new form of positive radicalism in matters of faith, culture and civilisation, then we know that the extremists have either won or, I would like to believe, pushed themselves to the outer limits of extremism, to a point where the only platform is the politics of hatred and fear. When those who are bitter enemies of each other hate you for more or less the same reasons, you must be doing something right. This situation reflects the reality of moderate Islam.

Contextualising Islam in Britain: Exploratory Perspectives is the first report of its kind in the UK and the outcome of a community-led project in which 26 Muslims took part in a series of colloquia over nine months. Reacting against the discourses of extremism from within and outside the Muslim community, the project engaged the energies of a cross-section of Muslims in the UK: men and women, young and old, heritage Muslims and new Muslims.

The project aimed to reflect the diversity of the Muslim communities in the UK in faith, culture and ethnicity. Led by the University of Cambridge, in association with the universities of Exeter and Westminster, the project created a space where Muslims could meet, discuss, debate, agree and disagree in an atmosphere of mutual respect and critical self-reflection.

Funding came from the Department for Communities and Local Government, but the project remained independent of both the British government and the universities. This strongly guarded independence was important to its success of the project; it meant that members of the project were able to set their own agenda, determine membership without interference, and choose their own title for the report.

The government recognised that interfering in the project would not only be met with resistance but would also lead to an outright rejection of the report by the Muslim community, its primary audience.

Members of the project did not feel they had to apologise for the universal truths of Islam. These were presented as they are. However, an attempt to place the Sharia in its historical setting was felt to be important in developing an authentic understanding of Islam that is capable of responding to emerging questions and needs. The overriding question members posed to themselves was, what does it means to live as a faithful Muslim in Britain today?

As the discussions in the project developed, the group engaged and debated a range of topics that emerged from this central question. The simple issue of living in multicultural, plural and “secular” Britain developed into a range of related issues: what are the different meanings that “secular” can have, and how are these contested? What does the Quranic commitment to pluralism mean in our current context? What is the relationship between the overall objectives of Sharia and the political and ethical vision expressed in international human rights instruments?

Another important area of discussion was citizenship. What do Islamic traditions have to say about citizenship, and how might Muslim scholarship develop this notion further? How are discussions about citizenship created in Britain today? What does or should active citizenship imply, and what might the barriers be to exercising this citizenship in wider society?

In response to these questions, the report stresses the importance of allowing the free expression of religious voices in the public sphere, and expresses strong support for an accommodative approach by the state in religious matters.

The report also emphasises the importance of political engagement through democratic channels, the need to strengthen civil society institutions as a protection against the power of the state, as well as the legitimacy of secular democracy as a framework within which to hold power to account. Active citizenship implies a commitment to the ethical responsibilities of citizens in relation to the Quranic notion of humans as vicegerents of God.

The report sets out to counter the stereotypical interpretations of some Islamic concepts, including jihad, Sharia, fiqh, khilafa, dar al-Islam and dar al harb that have entered the English language with streamlined, ossified or distorted meanings. Even the term fatwa has acquired a narrowed meaning in English, almost replacing that of “legal opinion” with “death sentence”. Locating these concepts in their historical settings, the report seeks to outline some of their alternative meanings to correct and enrich the public understanding of Islam.

Contextualising Islam in Britain is an “exploratory report”, as its subtitle says. Reaction to this well-crafted and balanced document has been largely positive, although those who oppose Islam from the extreme ends of the spectrum, on the inside and the outside, have criticised it as a whitewash or as an act of public surrender to government power.

These two groups could not be further from the truth, and the fact that some who refused to take part in the project have expressed strong interest in joining a second phase is a ringing endorsement of it.

This change of mind and heart shows that the report is timely and that it resonates with Muslims in their search for authentic, faith-based answers to their modern-day problems.

Read more about Contextualising Islam in Britain.