[ Charlie is an Anglican clergyman working in Britain. He has been deeply involved for many years in inter-faith discussion, particularly between Muslims and Christians. He addresses British Muslims but his questions are obviously relevant to Muslims everywhere. This letter appears here with permission. ]

An open letter to moderate British Muslims

Dear friends,

I am writing just a few hours after the announcement that the London bombers were British born ‘suicide commuters’ and were Muslims. It is clear that the government and police are desperately concerned to prevent a backlash against Muslim communities in the UK.

Let me say at the outset that I share this concern. I have Muslim friends. I know they are moderate, and that they deplore these attacks. I know from my discussions with them that they feel their religion has been hijacked by extremists (at least in the headlines). They genuinely believe that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’ and that there is no justification for suicide bombings, etc. The last thing that moderate UK Muslims need is to suffer religious hatred and physical attacks. Should that start to happen, I will personally be with them, standing by them and standing for their right to live their lives, and practise their religion, free from fear. We live in a secular democracy, and while I do not share their religious beliefs, I acknowledge their right to hold them.

Yet I also sense that now things have changed. Previously, it was relatively easy for the media to talk about ‘Islamic extremists’ as foreigners, from far-away lands, remote from our life and values. This time there is no such luxury. If the bombers were British born Muslims (and it has yet to be proved), the stakes have been raised immeasurably. The pressures will be great, and non-Muslims will be looking ever so carefully at the reaction from the Muslim community. This is obviously why Tony Blair called on moderate Muslim leaders to denounce this new wave of violence. The Muslim Council of Britain reacted quickly:

‘Sir Iqbal Sacranie, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said it had received news of the suspects with "anguish, shock and horror". He said: "It appears our youth have been involved in last week's horrific bombings against innocent people.

"While the police investigation continues we reiterate our absolute commitment and resolve to helping the police bring to justice all involved in this crime of mass murder. Nothing in Islam can ever justify the evil actions of the bombers." (BBC Web site 13th July 2005)

Fair enough? Well, no actually. If this is as far as it goes, if you just keep saying, "Islam is a religion of peace, it does not advocate violence", it could turn out to be a shot-in-the-foot for the Muslim community.

Why? Because many non-Muslim Brits don’t believe it, (or at least are not convinced by it), that’s why.

Non-Muslims watch the news, they hear what the terrorists say, they note the fact that Al-Qaeda quotes the Qur’an, and uses Islamic terms ("Jihad"), and say that they do what they do in the ‘name of God’. It is very hard for non-Muslims to believe that their deeds are un-Islamic because, unlike the IRA, or animal rights activists, these terrorists justify everything they do within a specifically Islamic framework.

Additionally, non-Muslims are increasingly reading the Qur’an, and the hadith (traditions about the life and thought of Mohammed which are highly revered by many Muslims). Here they find things which seem to advocate a vision of Islam that is far from the ‘religion of peace’ espoused by the likes of Sir Iqbal Sacranie.

It can easily seem to non-Muslims that Islam is like a pile of ‘lego bricks’ (children’s bricks which can be used to make lots of models). By re-arranging the bricks you can make a dove-of-peace.....or equally a fighter plane.

This inevitably raises the question, "If both can be justified from the Qur’an and hadith, who decides which model is ‘the real Islam’?"

For example, moderate Muslims will often quote from the Qur’an:

"There shall be no compulsion in religion." (2:256)

But others say that this verse has been superseded ("abrogated") by verses like these:

"Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and hypocrites and deal rigorously with them." (9:73)

"Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God’s religion shall reign supreme." (8:39)

"Fight against such of those ... who ... do not embrace the true Faith, until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued." (9:29)

Others say the latter verses have been abrogated by the first verse.... Either way, it is simply not true, as Sir Iqbal Sacranie wants to insist that, "Nothing in Islam can ever justify the evil actions of the bombers."

There is plenty of potential justification in the Qur’an....and the hadith.

I am not saying that the Qur’an justifies such violence against non-Muslims. I am not a Qur’anic scholar, I have great difficulty figuring out which bits, if any, are meant to replace other bits, etc. I am saying that until moderate Muslims deal honestly with these issues, many non-Muslims will not be convinced and will regard what you say as ‘papering up the cracks’.

I appreciate that your spokesmen have denounced such terrorist actions, but in the light of the London bombings, that does not even begin to go far enough. Non-Muslims want to hear you denounce Islamic states that allow the death penalty against those who leave Islam. They want to hear you tackle the Afghan mullahs who openly preach violence and abuse against women. They want to hear you speak out against ‘honour killings’ (whether in Britain or Pakistan). They want vocal condemnation of the human rights abuses in extreme shariah-states such as Saudi Arabia. They want to hear you state openly and unambiguously that Muslims are free to leave Islam without fear from the community. They want to hear you flesh out your vision of peaceful Islam, and fight for it against those who hold a different and more sinister vision.

For example, there are several Islamic countries that practise the most barbaric forms of capital and judicial punishment (Saudi Arabia, Iran etc). They don’t behead people, or amputate hands, or stone adulterers just for the fun of it. More often than not, the legislative process is controlled by Islamic clerics, supposed experts in "Shariah law", who study the Qur’an and other literature and define what is "Islamic punishment". These people are not idiots – they know more about Islamic traditions and sources than most rank-and-file Muslims. They have decided that it is "Islamic" to stone those caught in adultery, etc.

I am not saying that they are right – simply that their view of Islam has to be addressed....by you; because if you don’t tackle these issues publicly, non-Muslims will think you have something to hide.

Mark Steyn comments:

"Most of us instinctively understand that when a senior Metropolitan Police figure says bullishly that "Islam and terrorism don't go together", he's talking drivel.

Many of us excuse it on the grounds that, well, golly, it must be a bit embarrassing to be a Muslim on days like last Thursday and it doesn't do any harm to cheer 'em up a bit with some harmless feel-good blather. But is this so?

Why are we surprised that "Muslim moderates" rarely speak out against the evil committed by their co-religionists when the likes of Mr Paddick keep assuring us there's no problem? It requires great courage to be a dissenting Muslim in communities dominated by heavy-handed imams and lobby groups that function effectively as thought-police." (Daily Telegraph, 12th July 2005)

Let me give a personal example. I once talked with a delightful young man who is British, of Pakistani parents. He is undoubtedly moderate in all respects, yet also religious (he prays, fasts etc). Knowing something of the Islamic climate in Pakistan, I asked him about his view of the hadith (Islamic traditions about Mohammed). One of the more respected collection of traditions is that compiled by Bukhari – it contains thousands and thousands of traditions about Muhammed. Did my friend regard Bukhari as "sound"? (trustworthy and to be respected by Muslims) – "oh yes" came the reply. I then quoted this one:

"Some atheists were brought to Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn Abbas who said, "If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah's messenger forbade it, saying, "Do not punish anybody with Allah's punishment (fire)." I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah's Messenger, "Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him." (Bukhari, volume 9, #57)

I pointed out that this portrays Muhammed as sanctioning the death penalty for those who chose to leave Islam. If that is true, and if it is ‘inherently Islamic’, then can you truthfully call Islam a "religion of peace?"

My friend was genuinely unsettled, and promised to get back to me once he had talked to his local Imam. I am still waiting....

(If you are new to studying the hadith, I suggest you go to this web site.)

This is a relatively mild example - Bukhari contains countless examples that deal with a variety of topics from the sublime to the ridiculous. They cover every aspect of Muhammed’s life – how he cut his beard, what he wore, his sex life, etc. Using the hadith material, it has been easy for those who want to disparage Islam to paint a picture of Muhammed as a terrorist, or paedophile, or whatever.

The raw materials are there, like a pile of lego, just waiting to be assembled.

Many moderate, educated Muslims know that such traditions are an embarrassing legacy that should be dropped as soon as possible. But they would not dream of saying so publicly because to do so would be to stir up a hornets’ nest.

Well, I think the time has come to stir that nest – and Muslims are the people who will have to do it. Moderate Muslims (at least the ones I meet) sense that Islam is on the brink of a reformation, a time of redefinition. Yet they often face community and peer pressure that is hard for non-Muslims to appreciate. You have my sympathies – reformation is never easy. But if you do not grasp this nettle and fight for your vision of peaceful Islam, more of your young people will become radicalised and a watching world will increasingly feel that whatever the ‘true Islam’ is , it is not something entirely peaceful. I leave the final word to a British Muslim cleric:

"Shahid Malik, whose Dewsbury constituency was the scene of police raids in the bombing investigation, said the Muslim community faced a "massive wake-up call".

He told BBC News after his meeting with Mr Blair: "The challenge is straightforward - that those voices that we have we tolerated will no longer be tolerated, whether they be on the streets, in the schools, in the youth clubs, in a mosque, in a corner, in a house.

"We need to go beyond condemning - we need to confront." (Quoted on the BBC web site)


Email: Charlie@domini.org
(I will read your comments, but may not be able to reply to everyone personally.)

13th July 2005

Islam & Terrorism
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