My, how the world changes. When, in late 1978, your humble correspondent presented the first translations into English of passages from Ayatollah Khomeini's book, Velayat-e Faqih ("Governance of the Jurist"), bought in Tehran in 1977, I knew the religious extremists would challenge the shah's rule, but I was certain they had no chance against his army, police, and security services.
I was wrong. In January 1979, the Islamic Revolution took place, and by April, Khomeini declared the foundation of an Islamic Republic headed by himself and, under him, a clerical regime.
In November of the same year, a young Muslim fundamentalist and his followers took control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, thereby sparking a siege that lasted 15 days and led to possibly 1,000 deaths; intervention by a French counter-terrorism force; a series of executions, and a number of surviving rebels who would years later join the terrorist organization al-Qa'ida.
In December, just a month later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This sortie started a nine-year war that caused around a million civilian deaths. The term Mujahidin (Jihad fighters), became famous in the West, along with the concept of jihad. After Russia's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the stage was set for the Taliban (students from religious seminaries), who took control of the country in 1996. The Afghan war against Russia also set the scene for Osama bin Laden's forming, in 1988, al-Qa'ida, which was responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and led to the US invasion of Afghanistan as well as a multinational war that continues.
As widely documented, since 2001, parts of Europe and the United States have suffered waves of Islam-inspired terrorism; an international radical movement known as Islamic State (ISIS) has ravaged Iraq, Syria, Libya and beyond; a host of Muslim terror outfits have wreaked havoc in North Africa; countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been destabilized, as well as parts of India and beyond; Hamas, Hizballah, and Islamic Jihad, have effectively destroyed all prospects of peace for Israel; waves of Muslim refugees have entered Europe, some of whom have made European cities more violent; Islamic anti-Semitism has forced thousands of Jews out of France; national governments have all but turned a blind eye to the ravages created by hard-line Muslims, often on one another, and so on.
Although of course most Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding, and most likely just hoping for better lives, it is hard not to see how the sheer quantity of this extraordinary wave of violence could spark apprehension about what to expect. After all, we have all gone from seeing people and property blown up, to shootings, stabbings, vehicular-rammings and, in parts of the West, increased sexual aggression. Many of these disruptions have unfortunately been coupled with the arrival in Europe and North America of millions of Muslims, many of whom, often after two or three generations, have not yet been comfortably assimilated in their host countries.
This apprehension has dark echoes down some 1,400 years in Europe, where, since the seventh century, wars have been fought against invading Islamic forces. Relatively recent jihads include the one launched against Britain, France and Russia by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, and against the Armenians and Greeks in Turkey.
After so many terror attacks in the name of Islam, a certain apprehension might not seem unreasonable
As noted previously, far too many people, including Muslims, have attacked even other Muslims, unfortunately tarring all members of the faith with the same brush. There have also been physical attacks by non-Muslims against Muslims and Muslim centres. Many of these have taken place in European countries such as Germany, Britain, Poland, France and the Netherlands. Several Muslims have also been murdered for their faith, as in 2013 in England, or again this year in London.
Thousands of people in Europe probably are genuine religious bigots, nationalists and white supremacists. They march and hold demonstrations in the streets; they daub graffiti on mosques and Muslim homes, and they have distorted the necessary debate in political circles about the best solution to the triple problems concerning Islam in the West: terror threats, failures to assimilate, and violence directed against innocent Christians, Muslims, Jews and others.
Genuine humanitarian concerns about injustice to Muslims, however, have been mingled with a political and religious attitude that condemns anyone who expresses even the mildest questioning of Islam -- so much so, in fact, that many well-intentioned Western politicians, human rights advocates, church leaders and journalists have turned Islam into the one and only ideology that must never be criticized, and have called anyone who so much as comments on some of the precepts of Islam as "racist." Individuals who ask questions are accused of distorting Islamic doctrine, law, and history. Many advocates for Islam often insist that Islam, a religion with a long history of violence towards unbelievers and dissidents, must always be termed "a religion of peace", something it has never been. This view, that Islam should not be questioned, seems to have led to a lack of reciprocity: radical Islamic individuals and bodies are often permitted to preach hatred for the West in mosques, centres, and university campuses, but non-Muslims commenting on genuine concerns are frequently the objects of public abuse and even criminal prosecution.
Considering the sheer quantity of jihadi incitement and violence, however, many citizens might well feel that their apprehensions are justifiable. Unfortunately, some extremists and political activists have stirred realistic concerns into a possibly unrealistic cauldron of hatred and suspicion.
Those who seek to defend Islam against its critics may often be heavily influenced by extreme Muslim organizations posing as moderates who advocate integration and liberal Islam, such as the UK's Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) organization. It has become politically correct to fend off any criticism of Islam, yet no one is prosecuted for speaking or writing comments critical of Christianity, Judaism, Communism, Socialism, Libertarianism, Fascism, the Catholic Church, Hinduism, Buddhism, or other ideologies.
The people who try so hard to protect Islam from criticism do so in most cases with the best intentions. They are probably anti-racists, moulded in part by the philosophies of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Others seem to be Christian leaders who prioritize interfaith relations as a solution to social divisions. Yet others appear principled advocates of an assimilationist approach to the rifts that appear in the British, French, American and other social fabrics.
Many good people who respond to Jewish voices when they speak of anti-Semitism also give an ear when Muslims say they have been offended. Regrettably, most of these good people appear ill-equipped to distinguish between balanced cries for help on the one side and extremist manipulation on the other. Many well-intentioned individuals seem genuinely to believe they are helping distressed Muslims and assisting them in finding a place in national society. Often enough, they are, and their support really does help. Yet, on a wider scale, they are actually harming Muslims, as in, for example, countenancing the suffering of beaten women or the extensive practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). According to the UN's World Health Organization, the practice of FGM has savagely mutilated more than 200 million girls just in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
So long as instances of FGM are disregarded within close-knit Muslim communities and ignored even by Western governments, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, many lives will be ruined or severely diminished.
No doubt those who ignore or cover up abuses such as beatings, female genital mutilation or general repression do so out of cultural sensitivity, deferring to traditionalist leaders and self-appointed representatives of various communities, including Muslim bodies. Their sensitivity, however, can end up gravely impairing the lives of literally hundreds of millions of Muslim women in allowing harmful practices to be perpetuated.
Those who condemn the practice of FGM may be, in turn, condemned by the do-gooders and self-appointed guardians of so-called "morality"; yet, as in ending the Indian custom of suttee, in which a widow is made to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, ironically those who do the greatest good for innocent Muslim girls are, it would seem, the critics.
The fact is that intelligent, solidly researched, critical comment on Islam may upset hide-bound Muslims and their many supporters in the West; yet is vital for the wellbeing of Muslims and former Muslims who are desperate to break free from the traditionalists and the violent application of shari'a law.
Muslim reformers are many, but they face an uphill struggle in their efforts to influence their religion -- as well as the prestigious and doubtless lucrative jobs that accompany the strict practice of it.
By contrast, we might be doing so many voiceless people an immense service by helping to bring their societies closer to the human rights and freedoms of the modern world. There seems no reluctance to use its technology; why not its treatment of others as well?
Lately, it seems, unwarranted criticism has been levelled at responsible organizations and websites which, in reality, tend to be exact parallels of the concerns expressed by reformist Muslims, such as Britain's Sara Khan, recently appointed by the government as the Head of the Commission for Countering Extremism.
Significantly -- in a revealing but unsurprising response -- a review of Kahn's book, The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, by "Scottish Desi" on Amazon UK, reads: "Sara Khan is an Islamophobe who has many Islamophobic friends to discredit Islam. Her book is just Islamophobic rant."
That comment alone sums up the problems that face Muslims who seek to bring Islam into the 21st century and in line with modern values, while remaining faithful to the spiritual and ethical dimensions of their faith.
Author Sam Westrop discussed the harm that is done by extreme bigotry against Muslims alongside the benefits of criticism to liberal Muslims:
The greatest threat to moderate Islam and its assimilation with democratic values are those people who, too fearful to make a stand against radical Islamists, ignore the pleas of pro-Western Muslims and instead choose to "engage" with the extremists. Real Islamophobes are those who abandon secular Muslims and turn a blind eye to the human rights violations committed against innocent Muslims by Islamist governments and terror groups.
A number of readers commented that this was not the sort of argument they expected from Gatestone Institute. One reader said that he would never read Gatestone again if it kept on putting up articles like this. All that readers such as these showed was that they had not understood what such organizations are about: even according to the European Court of Human Rights, shari'a law is incompatible with democracy:
"In Refah Partisi, it carried out a thorough examination of the relationship between the Convention, democracy, political parties and religion, an d found that a sharia-based regime was incompatible with the Convention, in particular, as regards the rules of criminal law and procedure, the place given to women in the legal order and its interference in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts." (page 6)
What is needed are more organizations that stand out as pro-Muslim in support of bettering the lives of Muslims who are often too fearful of retribution to speak out, and in opposition to anyone who would harm Muslims. Readers clearly fixated on silencing many criticisms of Islamic radicalism seem to be the people who do not actually care about Muslims or wish them well, or who prefer defending an ideology rather than the people who might possibly feel trapped in it. Many readers seem only to be able to tolerate commentary on Islam so long as it keeps its adherents under the subjugation of unforgiving tyrannies, as in Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria or Iran, to name just a few.
There are doubtless organizations, some with well-known websites, on which the vast majority of comments are viciously anti-Muslim, many calling for Muslims to be killed, or determined to expel all Muslims from Europe or the United States, and showing themselves to be incapable of understanding efforts to offer informed corrections to hard-line views.
What, in fact, would be helpful is to have even more organizations like the Quilliam Foundation, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), the Middle East Forum and Gatestone Institute, which combine questioning radical Islam, along with support for Muslims who have said they long for non-violence and the universal freedom to speak without fear of retaliation.
Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD), is an example of an American Muslim leader who is critical of radical Islam, speaks out for gender equality and freedom of speech, and supports Muslims who believe in religious tolerance. (Image source: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)
The many Muslim who write for these organizations seem to have no problem respecting the religion of others, and seeing what might be done to mitigate the harsher aspects of shari'a law.
Muslim think tanks such as Quilliam, left-of centre and staffed by a mixture of Muslims and non-Muslims, describes itself as "the world's first counter-extremism organisation", and states that it has operations worldwide. As an example of its broad approach to what it means to be a Muslim, in a recent analysis of a CNN production "25 Muslims changing America", it asked:
"... upon just a quick glance, many things were missing from this list. What happened to the Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Latina Muslims, Native American Muslims, Black Muslims, non-violent Salafi Muslims, Sufi Muslim, secular Muslims, cultural Muslims, LGBT Muslims, etc.?"
Ultimately, people who hate, hate. Denigrating Muslims, just as denigrating Jews or any other race or religion, unhelpfully restricts the public from seeing with clear eyes the many causes leading to jihadist terrorism. Think tanks and organizations such as those above are in the forefront of the battle to work alongside those Muslims who want to be part of the free and modern world while enjoying their right to worship in their own way. Rather than looking back 1,400 years, they join up with Muslims in looking towards a future that these Muslims say they desire -- to teach their children to live a peaceful life among their Muslim and non-Muslim friends and neighbours. They only wish to contribute to the societies in which they now live and enhance the prospects of their fellow believers in Muslim lands for reform, tolerance, and freedom of expression.
Dr. Denis MacEoin taught Arabic and Islamic Studies at a British University and is a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Gatestone Institute.
 See also her critical study of Islamic radicalism, The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, London, 2016