Friday, 26 May 2017

Looking towards a Positive Islamic Future

Paul Nuttall, leader of UKIP, in a return to the General Election, says that he's not afraid to blame radical Islam as a cancer to be rooted out.

What is radical Islam? Radical Islam might just be Islam. It is like referring to 'fundamentalist Muslims'. When the claim is that the Qur'an was recited directly from an angel of God, then all Muslims are fundamentalist.

It's about terrorism? The IRA did terrorism. It drew from Catholics, it had Catholic clergy who ought to have known better, but there was also the legal seal of the confessional. But then the difference between IRA terrorism and Islamic State (ISIS) terrorism is that the IRA never did its terrorism in the name of Roman Catholicism or the Pope.

However, it is quite possible to have a violent Christian terrorism in an unknown future, say one that wants to bring about the last days perhaps on the basis that secular society 'oppresses' them. Anabaptists were deemed to be violent and as terrorists, and the response of the authorities in Munster was harsh. Times moved on.

Some say that extreme terrorists, like the one who struck in Manchester on 22nd May 2017, and killed children at a pop concert, are mentally ill. This includes being psychopathic. They are not of a community who would retain empathy.

I don't buy it for a minute. I have met Christian fundamentalists (I do try to avoid them) but even less than fundamentalists seem to trigger a switch that goes from ordinary discourse to some sort of internal logic contradictory to ordinary narratives: 'from the perspective of faith' it is called, and it is quite normal. It does not take much for people inside cults and sects, in tight-knit groups, to take this kind of thinking to a detached level and start losing an empathetic perspective.

Let's face it, if you join the military you are trained to kill. Many who retain and regain empathy after military service then become traumatised. Even having to think for themselves in arranging life outside the military can send some on to the streets. So the right immediate community can send people with extreme religious ideology into killers.

People do leave sects and cults and return to more connected (or less disconnected) thought. This is not mental illness towards recovery; it is forms of extreme rationality that return to the muddle and ambiguities of the everyday. The Nazis were a warning in history because people could and did operate the gas chambers, and yet somehow gained moderated empathy after the War. Nazism was a culture of cruelty, and people found themselves in a supporting environment being viciously cruel, all in the name of order and even national culture.

I have never believed that Islam is problem free (or any religion for that matter: even Buddhists can be tribal and engage in civil war). Islam is about the tribe; the tribe might be intended for all humanity, but then all humanity would be Islamic. Islam promotes itself as the one, final, original, true, unadulterated religion. Its first prophet, it says, is Adam. His message was corrupted, as was Abraham's, Moses', Jesus' - until Muhammad recited the Qur'an and preserved it because it was given in the divine language of Arabic.

It isn't pure, and that's where the first clash comes. Jesus simply never wrote a Qur'an to start with, or any other record; nor is the Islamic view of his crucifixion the most likely historical. The Qur'an completely misunderstands Christianity and the Trinity doctrine because it relied on information from a non-mainline group that itself didn't understand the doctrine. Far from being divinely recited, it shows cultural setting in time and place.

But of course it does not follow that Islam necessarily encourages violence. After all, Islam tolerated when some other religions did not. But it was toleration from a position of superiority, and a limited toleration. What it does is assists States demanding uniformity, and serves that uniformity as the one superior, original and final unadulterated religion, and what it often gets in modern times is a pluralistic setting that allows it to grow or shrink, and this it appreciates (because it thinks it will succeed).

On the other hand, look at Christian writings and actions about the one and only Incarnation of God. And - my speciality - look at Unitarian writings in the nineteenth century. This was the evolved, superior, rationalistic, approach to religion, Christianity made even better. Darwin and religion added together to produce the highest form: liberal Protestantism. It's all about: "I'm better than you."

But there is a complicated history of religions and violence. Think of the Crusades and the Popes who blessed the warriors.

In modern times, questions have been asked of the Muslim communities (plural because there are different strands).

First question must be, why did it take so long for Muslims in general to condemn the violence and threats at the time of the Satanic Verses controversy, when Shia Iran condemned literature? Why was nothing done to see the corrosive effects, the price tag, on Wahabi Islam exported to so many Western mosques by Saudi funding? Why has Islam and its clerical cliques been so suspicious of Western Islamic scholarship about origins and how the faith developed?

What is wrong with the kind of scholarship that Christianity has handled for some three hundred years? The answer may be because it threatens to undermine the supposed directness of the recite command, the apparent perfection of the Qur'anic Book.

The other problem is the relationship between expansion and violence: that either Islam spread initially as a kind of Holy War with territorial expansion, or (due to no archaeological evidence for its Arabian origins) it had its beginnings in the Near East after violent Arabian expansion.

Using the stories of origins in Arabia, the early Islamic community fought the declared 'disloyal' opposition of Jews in Madina. It also continued to raid camel trains across the desert. However, contemporary anti-Jewish Islamic sentiment has followed the rise and actions of Israel, and when it appears it (like others) fails to make the distinction between the Israeli State and the ethnic Jew.

As for development, if the Qur'an is rearranged into time order, it starts with general visions and develops into communal rules. (That gives the book and its visions credibility.) But it isn't arranged in time order, but in chapter (Sura) size order. Children who learn to recite it by memory often do not know what it is about, even though they can recite as it was apparently first recited. Does this matter? I think it does, because of the Christian child and teenager who, on reading the Bible for themselves, and not having it constantly interpreted for them by some approved person, can start to say, 'What does this actually  mean?' or, 'Hang on, this bit isn't quite like they say it is!'

At one time there were about six Qur'ans in the early Islamic empire until the one version was arranged by insisting on the one language, by having it once in its peculiar order of size of Suras.

Of course there is resistance to such a critical, liberal view of the material. For example, in Christianity many a believer will say that the Christian nativity is myth and unhistorical. I would argue that the same can be said of Abraham setting up the Ka'ba that was apparently later lost to Paganism - with a water miracle too; the same can be said of the Night Journey.

I'm not a Muslim and will state these things. Can a Muslim say them? No, but this is what a pluralistic world means: where people can make these arguments and be able to do so freely. In turn, Islam has every right to establish itself, expand, recruit (and lose) people and flourish. This is the deal.

Let's give Islam its due. Islam preserved and developed Greek and Hindu knowledge. From Hinduism and through Islam came a number system that worked and has lasted into the computer age of binary and hexadecimal. From the Greeks came a naturalistic philosophy that Islam learnt about and put in its libraries for only later incorporation into Christianity. Thomas Aquinas depended on Islam's work. Islam developed science.

A significant additional reason why Eastern Europe was able to pluralise early in the 1500s and early 1600s, and show a vision of later Western society, was because of the influence and impact of Islam at its south-eastern borders. When tolerance receded it was because Catholic Christian intolerance was restored. Unitarianism in Hungary was crushed; Socinians had to get out of Poland (in 1660).

Yet, as the West would come to a Renaisance, the Islamic ulama clericalised even further. And the religion that was supposed to be superior among its neighbours found itself at second fiddle. Thus a chip started to appear on the Islamic shoulder.

That chip on the shoulder has been intensified by Western intellectual development from the Renaissance and Enlightenment (almost like superior revelation), by Western power and imperialism, by the Islamic States backing the wrong side during the First World War and the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, by imperialists drawing up silly boundary lines cutting across tribal areas (notably Saudi Arabia and Iraq), by nationalist and nationalist-socialist leaders and monarchs turning into oppressors, and a failure of democracy (most notably in the recent short-lived Arab Spring). The 2003 intervenion in Iraq was an act of partial Western stupidity at at time when intervention in Afghanistan could be justified and did have support within.

But at the same time Islam has always contained a tendency to violence. It did at the divide between Sunni and Shia at the time of the third Caliph. 1844 is a good example, with the killings in Karbala and later on over the expected coming of the Hidden Twelfth Imam. I have some knowledge of this in the context of the  Babi expression of that and Baha'i Faith born in the faction fighting of the two groups exiled to Palestine and Cyprus in order to keep the peace. Once again claims to final and perfect written revelations have a part to play, this time in the context of emerging into the West in the nineteenth century. The Baha'i Faith later did spiritualise and Westernise and even bureaucratise.

So if you are colonised, pick the losers in international conflicts, have insensitive borders created for you, and end up with a succession of secular, corrupt and violent tinpot dictators, it's no wonder that violence can emerge, but that violence has an internal dynamic.

This superiority has become a death-cult ideology among a few, younger hotheads influenced by radical preachers wanting to force a Caliphate upon others. People become killers of the outsiders: those who like dance, music and show a bit of flesh.

And in Indonesia comes the shocking public caning of people doing no more than being as they are: gay and loving.

It is up to Muslims to rescue the failing reputation of their religion. Something has however begun in the UK with open days and public explanations. People will respond. Faith communities must break their own boundaries and include others: a multi-two-way process. We start in a better place than on the European continent.

But Islam also needs reformation: a self-critical reformation (using itijad), beginning from the Western university.

This is not about Muslims saying sorry. No one is asking Muslims to take responsibility for these wayward killers. However, when the radicalisation takes place in Western mosques, then explanation is needed.

In the end, terrorism is always political. It arises because of politics, even going back hundreds of years, and although it needs opposing and reducing, it dies off with politics. Put the lid on it, yes, but reduce the fire under the pot. There is no Bader Meinhoff terrorism, for example, now, but at one time they were a group attacking the basis of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Profiles matter. The Manchester terrorist was radicalised partly with his father fighting in Libya and going to Syria. He grew the distinctive large beard, stopped his smoking, read the Qur'an assiduously, and absorbed extremist islamicist propaganda. He clashed with his moderate mosque in Didsbury especially when an Imam there criticised happenings in London. People noticed him but nothing happened; he was known to the authorities but not rated.

So he was an educated young male of a home-grown partly secularised base, but of immigrant parents, and he changed rapidly after international experience and identifying with violent Islamic material.

So, although it is international, Islam has to ground its worshippers in their home culture and communities. It has to watch its youth because of these international events.

At the same time, other communities have to cut the racism, and tackle the isolationism (the multi-culturalism that leaves people knowing their own and not the other). The government has to think further and longer before it jumps into foreign aggression. However, none of the UK Muslims are oppressed and are much freer than, say, Christian counterparts in many a Muslim State.

In the end, though, this is about 'society in a person' (that kind of mentality): the immediate society, the ideology, and the way individuals in their chosen collective can lose all sense of balance.

The future will be better when Islam undergoes a Reformation; meanwhile, the task of Islam and the mosque on the ground via its worship and social work is to keep their people connected beyond the tribe and develop their sense of broadest communal empathy. For example, be like the Sikhs: which is to nurture a spirit of welcome, practical service and openness from one group to others. It is quite practical.

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