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Islam, reform and the battle of narratives

There is no religious, cultural or doctrinal reason why Jews should not be the allies of Muslims

31 December 2019

11:57 AM

31 December 2019

11:57 AM

Is a wind of change blowing in the Arab world and bringing Muslims and Jews closer together? Ed Husain made the case for this in an article in our Christmas special issue: a younger generation is tiring of the hardliners, he said, asking what all the angst has achieved and wondering if Israel might be a decent ally for the Arab world. His article explored what he described as new maps of the Muslim mind, with ‘old hatreds on the run’. It drew predictable criticism from some quarters: surely this is wishful thinking, and his narrative of reconciliation has no real support in the Middle East? But that critique was blown apart a few days ago when the article was tweeted by the Emirati foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, to his four million followers. His tweet was striking because it repeated the headline: ‘Islam’s reformation: an Arab-Israeli alliance is taking shape in the Middle East’.

Benjamin Netanyahu was delighted and not only tweeted it himself but also started his cabinet meeting the next day by referring to it (minutes here). It was big news over there: here was one of the most influential leaders in the Muslim world promoting an article about Muslim-Jewish relations improving. The yuletide outbreak of Muslim-Jewish peace and goodwill horrified Hamas, who denounced it as ‘treason’. Al-Jazeera debated Husain’s article on their shows. It made newspaper headlines in Israel.

These are historic times, but we risk missing the real story by becoming fixated on the idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ – which is exactly how the jihadis like to frame things. Their jihad is not just one of violence, but of narrative – and the narrative they preach is conflict. They present themselves as the voice of real Muslims, whose values they portray as being utterly inimical to those of the West. They are delighted when the Western press takes the bait by writing up their recently-invented lunacies as the face of traditional Islam. As the Syrian scholar Bassam Tibi has documented, political Islamism is a concoction springing from modern European fascism rather than anything found in Islamic history. For example, the idea of Muslims being at war with Jews isn’t ancient or fundamentally Islamic: it was ‘adopted more or less in its German form by secular Arab nationalists,’ Tibi writes. ‘Islam, as a faith, is free of such hatred. But antisemetism is a basic feature of contemporary [political] Islamism.’

So why don’t we hear more Muslims making this case – that there is no religious, cultural or doctrinal reasons why Jews should not be the allies of Muslims – as is now being advocated in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi? Let’s go back to Hamas and its accusation of ‘treachery’: it says people who contradict the hardliners are guilty of betrayal or blasphemy.


As Tibi explains, when a totalitarian political project is dressed up as faith, opponents can be condemned as blasphemers (in the Islamic world) or bigots (in the West). ‘The accusation of “Islamophobia” now serves as a weapon against all those who do not embrace Islamist propaganda’ Tibi writes, ‘including liberal Muslims’.

We can see this trend at work in Britain. One of our Muslim writers, Qanta Ahmed, has argued against moves to make ‘Islamophobia’ a criminal offence in the UK pointing out how this would hand a legal weapon to the wrong people. Earlier this year, she ended up named in a dossier of supposed Islamophobia drawn up by the Muslim Council of Britain. She wrote about the experience and said it helps explain why normal, integrated Muslims just steer clear of this madness, rather than enter the debate and end up in someone’s crosshairs.

Before becoming anti-extremism commissioner, Sara Khan wrote a book asking how groups who have very little support amongst ordinary British Muslims get away with claiming to speak for them. Her book, perhaps the best written on the subject, is called The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism. She asks ‘how Salafi-Islamism has become such a major influence within British Islam, crowding out voices that advocate a more reconciled British Muslim identity.’

Scrutinising jihadis and their apologists is a big part of this battle, and something we certainly do at The Spectator. But another part is giving space to the Muslim voices that others seek to drown out, voices of people who know they’ll be attacked by hardliners for challenging their narrative. We’ve been doing this for some time. Four years ago, we ran a cover story by Qanta Ahmed about saving Islam from the Islamists (she later wrote about the beauty of her faith).

Last year, Ed Husain wrote about the harmony of Islam’s place in British society. (‘The raison d’être of Islamic civilisations and the shariah for a thousand years was to provide five things: security, worship, preservation of the family, nourishment of the intellect and protection of property. Britain provides these in multitudes for every Muslim today.’)

This year we interviewed the Mufti of Rwanda, who has made the country an oasis of liberal Islam – and has used a fatwa to ban the niqab. ‘We saw that niqab abroad, but in Rwanda we have stopped it,’ he said – something to bear in mind for anyone who thinks those who have a problem with the niqab (as the Mufti of Rwanda does) have a problem with Muslims.

We’ll be doing plenty more of this in the new year – in part, to give our readers a fuller view of a hugely important story. But also because this could well be where the momentum is: focus on the jihadis too much, and you’ll miss it.

Britain is one of the least religious countries on Earth, with fewer than a quarter of us going so far as to say we believe in God. This can make it harder to understand developments in a world which, as Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait argued some time ago, is pretty religious and becoming more so. There is a rich variety of thought in the Muslim world, and huge changes afoot. In several places, hardliners have the power. But this could well be on the wane. The forces of moderation, fraternity and reform are a lot stronger than is commonly believed – and may well come to shape the next decade.


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