On June 19, when Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke at the 2015 Global Security Forum in Bratislava, one section (under the heading 'Clarity') drew widespread attention from the media and politicians, and from some the religious realm.
In that passage, Cameron spoke about the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, or, in Arabic, Da'ish). "In ISIL," he started, "we have one of the biggest threats our world has faced." He went on to express concern about the way in which young British Muslims were being drawn into the ISIS web through the internet or within their communities:
The cause is ideological. It is an Islamist extremist ideology -- one that says the West is bad and democracy is wrong that women are inferior, that homosexuality is evil. It says religious doctrine trumps the rule of law and Caliphate trumps nation state and it justifies violence in asserting itself and achieving its aims.
The question is: how do people arrive at this worldview?
How does someone who has had all the advantages of a British or a European schooling, a loving family, the freedom and equality that allow them to be who they want to be turn to a tyrannical, murderous, evil regime?
There are, of course, many reasons – and to tackle them we have to be clear about them. I am clear that one of the reasons is that there are people who hold some of these views who don't go as far as advocating violence, but who do buy into some of these prejudices giving the extreme Islamist narrative weight and telling fellow Muslims, "you are part of this".
This paves the way for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent. To go from listening to firebrand preachers online to boarding a plane to Istanbul and travelling onward to join the jihadis. We've always had angry young men and women buying into supposedly revolutionary causes. This one is evil; it is contradictory; it is futile – but it is particularly potent today.
I think part of the reason it's so potent is that it has been given this credence.
So if you're a troubled boy who is angry at the world, or a girl looking for an identity, for something to believe in and there's something that is quietly condoned online, or perhaps even in parts of your local community, then it's less of a leap to go from a British teenager to an ISIL fighter or an ISIL wife, than it would be for someone who hasn't been exposed to these things.
For what may be the first time, a head of state dared to make a connection between ordinary Muslims and extremism, by arguing that fundamentalist views might be quietly condoned online, or perhaps even in parts of a local Muslim community.
A report written in 2007 by this author for the British think tank Policy Exchange, titled "The Hijacking of British Islam," exposed the existence of hate literature in mosques across the UK. As soon as it was published, all hell broke loose, and everything possible was done to pretend that our evidence had been somehow faked. Many British writers and journalists such as Douglas Murray, Samuel Westrop and myself have tried over the years to draw attention to the realities of Islamic ideology and practice in schools, shari'a courts, and in politics, but we were severally rebuffed.
But now, over one thousand young British men and women have travelled to Syria and Iraq to support the Islamic State, and it is becoming clear to everyone that something is amiss -- not with British society, values or aspirations, but in parts of our two million strong Muslim community. Innes Bowen's study of the UK Muslim population, "Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam," shows in some detail just where these radical influences may come from.
Inevitably, Cameron's references to the Muslim community brought condemnation from the usual suspects (and one unusual one). Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of a Muslim think tank, the Ramadhan Foundation, found the remarks "deeply offensive." The Muslim Council of Britain found Cameron's statement "wrong and counter-productive." In a radio interview, Muslim Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi argued that, "To make the comparison he has done the way he has done, it is not only unhelpful but actually wrong." Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who sits in the House of Lords, described the speech as "misguided" and "demoralizing."
That Muslim leaders might respond this way was not surprising. Muslims in the UK, with several notable exceptions such as Haras Rafiq and Majid Nawaz, have been in denial for decades, and show few signs of facing up to the dangers facing them any time soon.
The unusual rebuke came, not from a Muslim, but from Britain's most important Catholic prelate, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster. Speaking on LBC Radio on the day of Cameron's speech, the Archbishop spoke unfavourably about the Prime Minister's remarks on Muslims. His remarks bear quoting almost in full here:
The interviewer started by saying that "he [Cameron] seems to be laying this squarely at the door of the Muslim community. Too many people in the UK are sliding into violent extremism. He's warned that British Muslims risk quietly condoning ISIS. Do you think that's fair?"
To this, Nichols answered:
No. I think the community is a very diverse community. I was at a Muslim meeting last Saturday week. It was a Shi'a Muslim meeting. It was looking at dialogue and how people live together. And then they were absolute in their condemnation of ISIS. So there are many voices, Muslim voices in this country, that condemn ISIS and condemn it absolutely. We don't hear those [voices] in the public media very often, but they're there. It is an enormous challenge to Islam in this country, and I know many of the Muslim leaders are deeply, deeply concerned about this. I would say for most of them and the families they represent, they feel a bit helpless in terms of the access to the Internet and to that whole seduction and manipulation that goes on. I think they need help with that.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster (center). Image source: Catholic Church England and Wale
On the face of it, the Archbishop's remarks are worthy of respect, since he is active in interfaith work and considers it to be his mission, like that of the current Pope Francis, to work for peace and conciliation. But interfaith work can often be marred by an underlying refusal to come clean about beliefs that contradict those of others.
With Islam, I have to ask how it is possible to dialogue with a faith that denies the divinity of Christ, denies that he was crucified or resurrected, denies the Trinity, denies Mary as the mother of God, denies the belief in original sin and salvation through Christ, regards the Bible as corrupt, believes that all Christians are the inferiors of Muslims and are destined to hell fire? What is there to talk about if both sides are to be honest about their beliefs?
Even if a majority of Muslims may be concerned about extremism in their midst, there are reasons to think that David Cameron's view is close to the mark: that some Muslims unwittingly or wittingly condone what goes on because much of it is in keeping with the Qur'an, the hadith [traditions], the Shari'a law books, and Islamic practice from the time of Muhammad.
Here is what I wrote. I await his reply.
An open letter to
His Eminence Vincent Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster
I have listened with interest to your interview last Friday on LBC Radio, when you were asked to comment on David Cameron's speech at the 2015 Globsec conference in Bratislava, specifically his remarks concerning British Muslims and the role he wants them to take in defeating the radicalization of Muslim youth. You took issue with him, and gave reasons for a different approach to the problem.
May I comment on the things you said in turn? I write as someone with a lifetime's experience with Islam and Islamic Studies. My second degree was a four-year MA from Edinburgh University in Persian, Arabic and Islamic History, when I studied the life of Muhammad and the Qur'an (in Arabic) with the late William Montgomery Watt, the world's leading authority on both subjects at that time. I also have a PhD from Cambridge in Persian Studies, researching aspects of Iranian Shi'ism. I have taught Arabic-English translation and Islamic civilization in Morocco and Arabic and Islamic Studies at Newcastle University. I have written many books, academic articles, entries for scholarly encyclopaedias (including the second edition of The Encyclopaedia of Islam).
More pertinent to what I want to say here is my authorship of think tank reports on hate literature found in British mosques, on Shari'a law in the UK, and two reports on Muslim schools in this country, when I was the first person to identify the problems revealed by the Trojan Horse scandal.
I say all this, not to brag, but to show that I come to this subject as an informed and experienced commentator. I am, as much as yourself, an active opponent of genuine Islamophobia, but not of honest criticism of Islam, whether from religious or secular points of view. I have often collaborated with and written about Muslim reformers here and abroad, and I regard them as the chief hope of the Muslim community in the years to come. And I frequently criticize the treatment of such fresh thinkers by Islamist governments, whether in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, or elsewhere.
I also take a deep interest in the fate of the Baha'i community of Iran, a religious group I have studied and written about for many years. I fear that the Shi'a meeting you attended recently would have asked you to leave had you spoken up in defence of the Baha'is and asked for an end to their persecution. You say you spoke about dialogue and how people live together. Shi'a Muslims almost to a man curse the Baha'is in their prayers and support the Iranian government's treatment of them. They are, may I say it, often vociferous in their hatred for Jews as well.
Like yourself, I have great hopes for Muslims, above all in their integration within this country and their adjustment to the British way of life while retaining those aspects of their faith that blend best with our own values -- notably their spirituality, prayerfulness, and their pursuit of the various cultural achievements they bring here, from Qawwali music to one of the highest art forms of all civilization: Arabic and Persian calligraphy.
But I fear I am not as sanguine as you are about the possibilities of finding genuine opposition to radicalism. Some form of intolerance, and acceptance of violence, seems to pervade so many Muslim communities around the globe. You say, "there are many voices, Muslim voices in this country that condemn ISIS and condemn it absolutely." That is undoubtedly true, but Muslim voices openly condemning radicalism remain muted, especially within the more closely knit communities, not least those where hate preachers still lecture in the mosques and intolerant literature is still to be found. As you yourself say, "we don't hear those [voices] in the public media very often." You add that "many of the Muslim leaders are deeply, deeply concerned about this." But rather more Muslim leaders, especially those from Deobandi, Salafi, Wahhabi, Muslim Brotherhood and similar circles do not seem at all concerned.
There is a simple reason. All Muslims, if they are at all pious, believe that the Qur'an is the unassailable Word of God, dictated by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad. They also believe that it is a complete and perfect transcript of a book that has existed with God for all eternity. Sunni Muslims (and Shi'is using a different corpus) believe that the ahadith -- the passages of hadith literature recording the sayings and actions of Muhammad -- are beyond criticism, since centuries of scholarship have winnowed out anything unauthentic. And all Muslims, however diverse their origins, believe that the Sira, the historical biography of the Prophet, reveals words and actions that serve as models for the behaviour of all believers.
Salafi Muslims, who are the most radical, are far from a modern suddenness. They believe that Muslims must act in accordance with the path laid down by the Prophet and his companions (the salaf), the first three generations who lived in Muhammad's lifetime.
Where does this lead? No Muslim may criticize or seek to re-interpret the Qur'an (some who have tried have been killed), the six canonical hadith volumes, or the behaviour of the Prophet and his companions. When members of ISIS murder apostates, therefore, it is hard to condemn the ISIS members, as that is what the Prophet did. When they take slave girls as war booty, that is what the Prophet did. When they impose the jizya or poll tax on Christians, or execute any who refuse to pay it, that is what the Prophet and his companions did. Waging jihad is an injunction in many chapters of the Qur'an. Taking concubines as part of war booty is ordered explicitly in the Qur'an. Killing non-Muslims who take up arms against the Muslims is repeatedly urged in the Qur'an. Killing apostates is enjoined by a Tradition in the most authentic book of hadith, the Sahih al-Bukhari. Beheading those deemed to have acted against the Muslims is an act approved of by Muhammad, famously when he allowed the beheading of some 700 male members of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayza.
Of course, many Muslims in this country are horrified by the things ISIS fighters do, above all by the non-Qur'anic punishments they carry out, such as killing Christians and others without offering them a chance for conversion, killing Muslims who have opposed them without giving them an opportunity to repent, or burning a prisoner alive. But where extremists act in accordance with Islamic law or scriptural commandments, criticism is far harder to express. I have heard only the tiniest number of British Muslims condemn Hamas, its terror tactics or its covenant to kill all Jews in the world.
After the terror recent attacks in Tunisia, Paris and Kuwait, David Cameron said that these had nothing to do with Islam and that "Islam is a religion of peace." This is a frequent assertion by politicians. It has also been echoed by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel," in which he writes: "Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence."
Much as I respect Pope Francis and find him a man of goodwill and understanding, I fear I find him much mistaken in this. It is a simple fact of Qur'an commentary, since the earliest period until today, that early, Meccan verses, which express a tolerant and peace-loving attitude, although applicable within the Muslim community, have been abrogated by later, Medinan, verses, which call for jihad, the beheading of non-Muslims, outright hatred for Jews and Christians, generalized hatred for all non-Muslims (who are destined for hellfire), and the need to use violence to impose Islamic rule across the world.
I do not know what copy of the Qur'an Pope Francis has been shown, but it is clearly very different to any copy in my possession, whether the original Arabic or a translation. When hate preachers in British mosques convey a violent or intolerant message to their congregants, they do so by quoting the Qur'an as the Word of God, thereby sanctioning acts of jihad. And the history of "authentic Islam" has been a constant story of acts of violence punctuated by periods of peacefulness within the Islamic realm. Muhammad led jihad armies and sent others out -- that history is regarded by all Muslims as "authentic." The first four caliphs (authentic to all Sunni Muslims) directed major campaigns of conquest that finally brought Muslim armies to India in the East, and the Iberian peninsula, the south of France, southern Italy and to the gates of Vienna.
The Ottoman Empire, between 1346 and 1918, conquered and enslaved much of Eastern Europe. Even several of the mystical Sufi orders, thought by many to be non-violent, fought jihad wars in North Africa, the Caucasus and elsewhere. From the 18th to the 20th century, jihad wars were waged against heretical Muslims and Westerners in India, Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Libya, British Mandate Palestine, against Israel, and in Arabia (twice). Today's wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere are a powerful testimony to the attractions of fundamentalist Islam.
There are many kinds of jihad, but violent jihad -- war in the cause of Islam -- has been constant throughout Islamic history. To that extent, Islam and violence are far more closely associated with each other scripturally and historically than in any other religion. To ignore this is to hamper us in our efforts to bring Muslims into peaceful relations with the West, with all non-Muslims and especially with one another.
It also does not help if we ignore another basic Islamic doctrine, something called Al-wala' wa'l-bara' -- meaning something like "loyalty and enmity," as it has been translated in several English-language Muslim publications issued in the UK. While the real meaning is more complex, what it amounts to is an assertion that Muslims must have as little as possible to do with non-Muslims. Muslims should not celebrate Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries or anything else with their non-Muslim workmates or neighbours. They must not take part in interfaith gatherings where they may be called on to compromise their faith. They must expose the falsehoods of Christianity and Judaism (based on passages in the Qur'an that treat both the Old and New Testaments as hopelessly corrupt); deny the sonship and godhood of Jesus; reject the crucifixion; condemn monks and priests, and so on. This doctrine has been widely preached and published in this country. It represents a significant challenge to your own interfaith work. Even the most moderate and companionable Muslims find it impossible to deny these things, because to do so would mean denying the veracity of the Word of God.
Those who ignore such passages in the Qur'an are to be commended for making an effort to engage with non-believers, but as often as not, doing so becomes a challenge to their faith or brings them closer to secularism.
Many convert to Christianity, but in doing so they expose themselves to threats or acts of violence from their families and other local Muslims. Many converts have paid the ultimate price.
There is strong statistical evidence to show that more than a negligible number of Muslims in the West subscribe to what we consider radical views. In survey after survey, polls taken by well-regarded agencies such as Pew, NOP World (a UK company now within the German Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung [GfK], one of the top five marketing research organizations in the world), the British public opinion researcher ICM Research, the Center for Security Policy, Policy Exchange, and Civitas show high figures for support for violence, honour killings, stoning adulterers, executing apostates and much else. There is far too much material to discuss in any detail here, but a thorough compilation of such findings is available. The figures are worrying in the UK, but grow even more alarming when surveys are conducted in Muslim countries.
In 2007, the conservative British Think Tank, Policy Exchange, published a groundbreaking survey of Muslim attitudes in the UK, "Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism." What was striking in it was that, instead of successive generations of Muslims becoming better integrated into British society, the younger they are the more radical they become. Overall, 53% of Muslims prefer Muslim women to wear a veil. Only 16% of 45-54-year-olds prefer shari'a to UK law, but this rises to 37% of 16-24-year-olds. Conversely, 75% of those aged 45-54 prefer UK law, but this drops to 50% of 16-24s. 56% of this youngest generation insist that a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim; 56% insist that a woman may not marry without the consent of her male guardian (father, brother, uncle); 52% say a man may have up to four wives, a woman only one husband; 36% believe apostasy is punishable by death; 71% insist that homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal. Whereas 56% of 45-54 year-olds want some reform of shari'a law, this drops to 37% of 16-24 year-olds. While a mere 2% of 45-54s support al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, this rises to 13% among the youngest.
These numbers go some way to confirming Sarfraz Manzoor's conclusion that apparently the majority of Muslims do not feel particularly progressive, especially in areas such as permitting homosexuality, mixing with members of the opposite sex, in reining in the application shari'a law.
The Policy Exchange survey must be read in its entirety. It is long, detailed, and sophisticated in its nuance. Overall, a majority of Muslims seem to be well integrated and do express loyalty to Great Britain. We should not go too far in claiming there are no progressives or that they are not in large numbers. But it remains worrying that the younger generations are clearly much less well-integrated than their fathers and grandparents.
Most immigrant communities go in the other direction. According to a 2011 report on integration by the US Migration Policy Institute, "Full integration into U.S. society and economy generally takes more than one generation, with children of immigrants reliably outperforming their parents in educational attainment, occupational status, wealth, and home ownership. Residential segregation also decreases between first and second generations, and rates of intermarriage between ethnic and racial groups increase. Language proficiency improves dramatically as well." Clearly, this does not seem to apply as strongly among British Muslims, and a similar pattern can be seen across Europe.
Other surveys are even more disturbing. An ICM Unlimited poll in 2006 found that a full 40% of British Muslims wanted shari'a law and that as many as 20% approved of London's 7/7 bombings. The 7/7 bombers seemed to be well-integrated young men, with jobs and educational qualifications. An NOP World Ltd. survey at the same time put the figure of support higher, at 25%. In 2005, the Federation of Islamic Students in the UK indicated that one in five Muslim students would not report other Muslims known to be planning terror attacks.
CSP Poll this year reported that 38% of Muslim-Americans say Islamic State (ISIS) beliefs are Islamic or correct. A 2010 survey of 600 Muslim students at 30 universities throughout Britain found that 32% of Muslim respondents believed that killing in the name of religion is justified; and that 40% wanted shari'a law. A 2006 NOP Research survey showed that as many as 78% of British Muslims supported punishing the publishers of Muhammad cartoons. The same survey found that fully 29% of British Muslims would "aggressively defend" Islam. It also showed that 68% of British Muslims support the arrest and prosecution of anyone who insults Islam. When compared with the views of Christians and Jews, this is a very high figure indeed. One in ten British Muslims supports honour killings.
This is only support for violence. There are other areas for concern. Only 34% of British Muslims believe the Holocaust happened. 51% believe a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim. 62% of Muslims here do not support free speech. Only 7% of Muslims in the UK consider themselves as British first: with the passage of so many generations now, this is a disturbing indication of non-integration. 54% believe a Muslim man may marry up to four wives. 61% want homosexuality punished. According to Pew (2011) 21% of Muslim-Americans say there is a fair to great amount of support for Islamic extremism in their community. 43% of Muslim-Americans believe people of other faiths have no right to evangelize Muslims. That, of course, includes the Catholic Church. In 2013, 1 in 3 Muslims in Austria said it is not possible to be a European and a Muslim, and 22% oppose democracy.
I have, I fear, gone on too long citing statistics. But figures such these are indicative of a wider level of acceptance of extreme ideas than your comments and those of many politicians suggest. I do not envy you in your work to find reconciliation, and I do commend your efforts in seeking solutions to this problem, now a problem of overwhelming proportions across the world. Nothing here is remotely Islamophobic, insofar as it is based wholly on a direct reading of Islamic scripture and texts, of Islamic history, and of statistics for modern developments and attitudes. I do, therefore, ask you to take some measure of my comments simply on their own merits. My arguments are not subtle, and of course there are many other perspectives on all the matters covered here. As a professional, however, who has spent a lifetime studying many facets of Islam, perhaps my views deserve to be taken into account alongside the important work you do to secure closer relations with those sections of Britain's Muslim community, who show themselves willing and even eager to forge close ties with their fellow citizens, regardless of faith or its absence.
Apologies for subjecting you to such a lengthy exposition, but I simply hope that you will see that David Cameron did not speak out of turn when he expressed concern at Bratislava.
With best wishes,
Dr. Denis MacEoin
Denis MacEoin was born in Belfast, where he learned at first hand the dangers of religious strife