Are we losing the war for the soul of Islam?
As the proportion of Muslims rises in Britain and across the West, extremists are increasingly dominant. What is to be done?
I have been studying and thinking about Islam for almost half my life. I got a slight head start on much of the rest of the world thanks to a Sufi Muslim friend. From her I learned, in those pre-9/11 days, about the horrors of the Wahhabis and the Salafis, the Deobandis and the Khomeinists.
And I heard about one thing in particular which I have since observed: how moderate movements in Islam have repeatedly lost out to the hardliners and how some of the most enlightened people you might meet can be trampled over by the most barbaric.
It was a timely lesson. In the struggle for an enlightened form of Islam one can find many Muslim allies. But their organised history is one of repeated failure.
If the discussion about the future of Islam once used to be confined to an exotic theology, it no longer is. The future of Islam and the future of the West are now inextricably linked. If disentangling them was ever possible it is almost certainly not now. What happens to Islam will affect what happens to Europe.
Before travelling over some of the possible paths it is worth remembering one key fact — as Bernard Lewis among others has said — there are essentially three Islams. There is the Islam of the Koran, Hadith and life of Muhammad. Then there is the extrapolation of this into the system of law known as sharia. And then there is a third Islam — Muslims themselves, what they do and how they live.
Even the briefest period spent studying the first two Islams should lead anyone — especially anyone brought up in another religion, let alone none at all — to worry. The traditions and the foundations on which the religion of Islam is built are deeply troubling — filled with imprecations to violence, oppression and conquest. Sharia, built upon these foundations, is a system of rules which would make any modern citizen shudder.
It is very hard to see how this system of laws can be reformed in a way that remains true to their sources without going so far away from them as to cause the centrality of those sources to crumble. These are serious and profound negatives, to which I will return. But they are balanced by one very significant positive which must always be borne in mind: what Muslims actually do.
Anybody living in a Western society who troubles over Islams One and Two may find Islam Three to be slightly baffling at first. Later they should find it a considerable relief, because although an undoubtedly large number of people exist who would wish to follow the violent and supremacist demands of Islams One and Two, a far larger proportion —indeed, as is often but necessarily said, the vast majority — do no such thing.
They do not chop people's heads off or "slay the infidels wherever they find them". They just get on with their lives like the rest of us. They are parents and children, doctors and neighbours, chiropodists and friends. They are people who live with the inheritance of Islam One and Two lingering to various extents in the background of their everyday lives, and upon the memory of this tradition they build their family lives, weeks, calendars and some or a lot of their moral outlook.
In other words, Islam Three is all around us. It is also Islam's — and our — only hope.
But it cannot be ignored that it has only come about because of Islams One and Two. It has not found a formal, or theologically permissible way in which to float free from its roots even though certain individuals may have accomplished that in practice. It is in the disconnect between Islams One and Two and Islam Three that the future of Islam as a whole will be decided.
If Islam Three breaks away from the first two Islams, the problems of Islamic integration into the West can plausibly be solved. But the moorings are tough to break away from. They have a gravitational pull which will probably always exist and remain strong.
Added to that, loath though most people are to admit the fact, in Britain and certainly around the rest of the world today, the nice neighbour, chiropodist or friend does not have control of their religion. They are not the ones with the power. That is in the hands of the worse people.
An additional problem of discussing Islam at all comes from the fact that when people speak about Islams One and Two people's minds tend to wander inevitably to Islam Three. When they hear troubling talk about "what Muslims believe", or "what the Koran says", they think: "That can't possibly be. I know Mr X or young Mr Y."
One reason for this is that the higher up the ladder of authority people go the more they must adhere to the principles in Islam One and Two, the closer they must be to the heart of the problem and the less wiggle-room they have to get on with their lives. This looks likely to remain a very significant problem. And it is an arm-lock which Islam's founder appears to have considered well.
In a surprisingly frank interview on Egyptian television earlier this year the leading Muslim Brotherhood cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi made an extraordinary admission. Defending the laws of apostasy (by which Muslims can be killed if they leave the religion), Qaradawi said: "If they [Muslims] had got rid of the punishment for apostasy, Islam would not exist today."
He is almost certainly right. The higher up someone goes and the more visible they are, the more any heresy can be noticed and punished, which is the reason the most extreme keep floating to the top. The less extreme, let alone the outright anti-extreme, tend sensibly to keep their heads down.
In the West today, more so than in the rest of the world, there is a large number of people identified as Muslims who are probably not believers of any serious kind. Yet even when there is no fear of immediate punishment there remains the pull and tug of the tradition. I know, because I have met and spoken with many of them. Even the most liberal can be defensive when they feel, for instance, that Islam is "under attack".
Those who are able to exit entirely are very few indeed. For these people, leaving Islam is not like rebelling against the Christianity of your parents. True, there is a growing number of semi-prominent figures in Britain and Western Europe who now identify themselves as "ex-Muslims", but few have escaped at least some threat of death for their actions. Most that I know of who have managed to make the leap have done so because they have a circle of people around them who are also non-believers, of all backgrounds.
I can think of few if any openly non-believing Muslims, let alone ex-Muslims who are critical of the faith who live in predominantly Muslim areas. Muslims who have converted to Christianity in the UK have often had to move from their homes.
The pressure of crowds is very great. The pressure of crowds exerting what they believe to be divine will is greatest of all. These problems of the pull of Islam even within fairly secular surroundings is a problem Britain and Europe have now inherited.
And although there will be those for whom a return to the sources will be like returning to a deep well of Islamic thought, the nature of that well and the nature of those sources will continue to present a problem which may well be insuperable. It cannot be stressed often enough that when Christians go back to the roots of their faith they find a man who was — even if you do not believe him to be God — an extraordinary, peaceable and moral teacher.
When Muslims go back to the source of their faith they too find a moral teacher, but one with other points on his CV too. The history of Christianity may certainly have been bloody and difficult. But how much bloodier and more difficult would it have been if Jesus had ordered his followers (even if only on occasion) to slay and enslave their enemies rather than implore them — in that extraordinary if not always achievable teaching — to turn the other cheek?
Christianity has had a terrible legacy of anti-Semitism. But how much worse would it have been had Jesus not been a Jew himself and anti-Semitic pogroms not been a wicked extrapolation of scripture but rather an emulation of the behaviour of Christianity's founder?
Over the last decade I have observed some of the repercussions of all this with my own eyes. I have travelled across the Muslim world, from North Africa to the Middle East and Far East. I have seen Muslim countries and peoples in peace and war. I have seen rockets fall and seen their effects, witnessed terror close up and spoken to its victims.
I have also seen an uncomfortable number of friends and allies — Muslim and non-Muslim — targeted for speaking critically about Islam and its problems. Friends have had assassins come to their doors and I have looked into the faces of a number of extremists and terrorists myself.
I have also travelled across Europe, and must admit that it can be terrifying to see the way in which the unsolved problems which Islam brings with it are dangerously simmering. Every European country is now experiencing this in the same ways. From the streets of Scandinavia to the outskirts of Paris, the northern cities of England to the East End of London, we have a set of societies in our midst about which even the use of the word "integration" must be regarded as some cosmic joke.
In all of these countries Muslim communities — generally through no fault of their own — have grown up alongside the rest of the society. What has been created are not multicultural societies but parallel societies. Every country faces similar challenges and all are going through similar debates.
Yet none seems able or willing to deal directly with any but the secondary and tertiary issues of the problem. They encourage Muslim leaders to "condemn" extremism but do little to tackle it. They praise "moderates" when they should be insisting on Muslim progressives. Lacking the resolve to change this, we all cling to an unfounded hope that the absorption of tens of millions of Muslims into Europe will change nothing very significantly.
I used to say that the future of this continent would be decided over whether Islam Europeanised or Europe Islamised. There were Muslim leaders back then — like Britain's Zaki Badawi — who preached just such a new form of Islam.
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