Immediately after the 7/7 bombings the then police-chief Brian Paddick told a press conference: ‘Islam and terrorism do not go together.’
Now, after Woolwich, the Prime Minister has said, ‘There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.’
Even after all these years our leaders continue to make this terrible mistake. Politicians or police chiefs must not make theological pronouncements. Though undoubtedly guided by good intentions, their line does not help but in fact exacerbates a problem – on all sides.
There is a civil war underway in Islam which has gone on in some fashion since the religion’s founding. That battle is – among many others – a battle between those who read their religion literally and those who read it metaphorically. The vast majority of Muslims in Britain read it in the latter way which is why – contrary to the opinions of Nick Griffin et al – most Muslims noticeably do not go around chopping peoples’ heads off. To argue as Griffin does is ludicrous – an insult to our collective intelligence as well as our decency. It remains a fact that cannot be said enough that most British Muslims will respond to events such as those in Woolwich yesterday with as much abhorrence as those of us who are not Muslim.
But politicians should be aware that to enter the theological debate on this is to enter a debate that they – and the reformers in Islam – may well lose. The Islamic faith is undoubtedly and visibly dogged today by a resurgent, violent, fundamentalist strain which cannot be ignored. It is in control of a number of Muslim-majority countries (including Saudi Arabia and Iran) and it has voluble front-groups, representatives and apologists in the UK.
And here is the problem. Islamic extremists like those who committed these horrific acts yesterday did not get where they did from nowhere. It is not just a serious misinterpretation but a mistake to think that what they did was – as so many commentators have said so hopefully – ‘delusional’ or ‘senseless’. This is to wholly misread the situation, replacing reality with hope.
The Islamist, extremist, interpretation of Islam might very well not be the correct interpretation of Islam. It is evidently not a good or nice interpretation of Islam. And it is obviously not the version of Islam which all of us who desire to live in a civilised world would want anyone to follow. But, to reiterate, we must realise that the extremists do not get where they have got from nowhere.
And here is the problem with politicians making any statement at all about this. Denying that there is anything ‘in Islam’ that might justify violent actions, although a nice idea, sacrifices truth for the sake of convenience. No good – in the long term – can come from this.
For the Prime Minister’s claim not only feeds the fundamentalists in Islam and a propensity for denial in other Islamic quarters – it also fuels those who will use times like this to blame all Muslims or indeed ‘all Islam’. Members of the EDL or any other organisation that wants to take to the streets or anyone who carries out bigoted acts of violence thrive exactly on such talk. They will think that they can see something nobody else can see – which everybody else is blind to and requires them to wake people up to. This is not a healthy attitude in an individual, and is a disastrous impulse in a street-movement.
Anybody can pick up a Quran and read a verse such as ‘the verse of the sword’ (‘slay the infidels wherever you find them’). Many members of the far-right as well as the terrorists have done a little or a lot of reading and noticed exactly such things. Both sides will read that Mohammed beheaded people himself and they will read that he fought in many bloody battles. They will also notice that he had some very unpleasant things to say about those who are ‘enemies’ of Islam. He did not, to draw one obvious comparison, always advocate turning the other cheek.
But anybody picking up a Quran or a life of Mohammed can also see another glaring fact – which is that although Islam certainly has many invocations to violence within its core texts and the life of its founder, it is also threaded through with calls for peace. It is a contradictory religion just as we are contradictory people. It is neither wholly one thing nor wholly the other. And it is the good fortune of mankind that most Muslims follow the peaceable side of their religion rather than the side of the sword.
Dealing with the underlying theological issues of Islam is going to take a long time. It will outlast most of us. But the work is underway. One of the greatest honours and pleasures of my life in recent years has been getting to know some of the exceptionally brave and principled individuals who are leading this vital fight within their faith.
But those who pretend that the problems are not there do not help these reformers. They hinder them. And along the way they enrage those who would lump even the greatest reformer in with the worst jihadist.
So what is a Prime Minister to do? It has long been my belief that politicians should not talk about this at all. They should not talk about theology. Instead of saying what the Quran is or isn’t, or what Islam is or isn’t, they should simply say what British citizens should and should not do, explain what rights we all share and punish our collective enemies. As I have said a thousand times for more than a decade – our societies cannot and must not get caught into the civil war within Islam. To make any theological pronouncement is to get caught in that war.
We must simply state and restate what our own principles are and what British people of all faiths can expect when they live here. And as for the Islamic reformers? We must not downplay the challenges they face. We must simply be good to them, be kind to them, and wish them well.
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