Monthly Archives: August 2007

Sufis and Salafis of the West: Discord and the Hope of Unity

Last week the question of Muslim unity came up, as it often does, on the English-medium Muslim blogosphere. One of the prominent young American scholars, Imam Suhaib Webb, who is currently studying at the al-Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most august centre of Islamic learning, commented that:

Over the last 15 yrs the West has become a waste land for the wars that have taken place between both [the Sufi and Salafi] schools. In their attempt to derive authenticity, each has staked a claim to traditionalism as defined by the parameters of their learning and understanding. The problem with both is that a monolith is eventually given birth to that allows each to, in the name of tradition and tolerance, destroy each other with words, pens and so forth. Initially, one must admit, that our salafi brethren were exceedingly rude and outrageous in their attacks upon the sufis and the asharis. Then, sometime in the late 90’s and definitely post 911 some of the Sufis were given a window of opportunity and, instead of seeking to mend fences with the (moderate) salafis they begin to launch attacks on them from every angle, questioning their ijazas, resorting to tabloid type journalism and excluding them from the discourse. There is a famous Usoli principle [in legal reasoning] that says, “An extreme will only give birth to its opposite.”

In an original posting (now deleted), Imam Suhaib declared that he had washed his hands of the traditionalist movement, provoked by a recent polemic from a Sufi scholar against Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi that Imam Suhaib thought overly judgemental and too personalised in tone. A few days later, Imam Suhaib posted a second blog saying that he would continue to work with both constructive Salafis and Sufis to further programmes of religious public education and other forms of community service. However he still wanted to distance himself from what he saw as excessive partisanship on both sides.

There has been much critical examination of Salafi partisanship by self-defined traditionalists in the West (and by reflective Salafis), which is unsurprising given the aggressive nature of the Salafi da`wa, particularly in the late eighties and early nineties. However, calling oneself to account (muhasaba) is supposed to be a Sufi trait. So perhaps Imam Suhaib’s concerns about excessive partisanship among some traditionalists in the West deserve serious consideration.

The phenomenon of rejoicing in groupthink, and claiming some automatic authenticity and superiority is common among camp-followers of any grouping and is hardly unique to traditionalists alone or even to Islam. The harm arises when this is systematically fostered by the leaders of such a movement. Yet the evidence for claiming that the leaders of traditionalism are guilty of this seems thin on the ground: in fact I’ve heard a number of them make explicit condemnations of cultishness or groupthink. How far that is taken on board is another matter of course.

There have been lapses into groupthink on traditionalist internet fora because some people are unable to handle the ikhtilaf of the ulema, and some want to defend their teachers to the hilt, taking it as a personal and not an academic dispute. Partisanship is common too because it so often derives from an excess of loyalty that is not tempered by other considerations. However learned internet sites like Sunnipath manifest loyalty to an interpretive tradition while embodying good manners and circumspection when speaking of others with whom one might have scholarly or even more serious differences in matters of religion.

Traditionalism: Definitions and Development in the West

The basic question — what is traditionalism truly? — is a perennial one. Traditionalism, used in its normative sense, refers to that approach which allows for the authentic perpetuation and embodiment of the Islamic tradition and that contains a collective system of ongoing self-correction and refinement. Historically, while traditionalism has been manifested by the recognised schools of law, theology and mysticism, it has always been clear that no one group of trained scholars among the ulema can claim to embody it absolutely without the correctives of other trained scholars should that prove necessary. Perhaps the tradition in this sense is larger even than the ulema themselves. The ulema are the inheritors of the prophets if they preserve and teach the knowledge of the prophets in each successive generation and attempt to apply the principles of that teaching when new circumstances arise that were unknown to previous generations. So in some sense, their immersion in the interpretive legacy disciplines the entire collectivity of the ulema too, as it provides the gold standard by which all scholarly interpretations are measured and checked by their learned peers and successors. In essence the mechanism of discipline is moral and intellectual peer review. It is no accident that there are similarities in the regulation of scholarly standards between the seminary (Islamic and later Christian) and the modern university, as the latter has its historical roots in the former as George Makdisi showed in The Rise of Colleges.

Some comparative religion might shed some further light on this formula of traditionalism somewhat. The concept of orthodox Judaism for instance only arose during the Jewish Enlightenment when reformers coined the term to describe the age-old Rabbinical tradition that later accepted the use of this terminology to describe itself. Its decentring caused it to be named in terms relative to other new tendencies, i.e. from Rabbinical Judaism to orthodox Judaism. Similarly the Muslim world has arguably been going through something like a Reformation since the eighteenth century (some historians argue that its genesis lies in the sixteenth century) and so traditional Islam was named when its centrality became contested. Today many now claim the right to interpret Islam besides the ulema.

Outside of its more general and normative sense, what is more often referred to in the West today as traditionalism is a particular and recent manifestation. Around the beginning of the nineties, a set of scholars in the West attempted to defend traditional Islam against the polemics of the political Islamic movements and the Salafis. For a young generation in Britain and North America, traditional Islam was in danger of losing serious ground. It was accused of being either backward, hidebound or even unorthodox and heretical. This group of scholars restored the conviction of many in this generation in the intellectual validity of traditional Islam and initiated them in the wellsprings of its scholastic and mystical traditions.

However the nineties are long gone, and the noughties have been a very different decade for the traditionalist movement in the West. There have, I believe, been two key factors here, and God knows best.

The first was 9/11. Since then, Salafism and political Islamic groups have been under continuous attack from Western politicians, commentators, academics and others for their linkages to terrorism and extremism. Leaving an assessment of this polemic aside for a moment, this critique had already been articulated in the nineties by many of the scholars serving the traditionalist movement, chiefly, as mentioned above, as a defence of their beleaguered position. There have been broadly three traditionalist responses to this changed political circumstance.

(1) Some emphasised unity in the face of the war on terror, modulating their public critique of these movements, and even moving towards some kind of public entente on occasion. They did not want to be complicit in compromising the fundamental civic and human rights of those Muslims who had been their erstwhile sectarian rivals in the nineties. However they did still largely insist on a misguided theological component to extremism while acknowledging the central role of the war on terror in exacerbating it after 9/11. The nub of their argument is that theological intolerance lends itself more readily to violence than does more tolerant theology, and for that reason alone the issue should be kept on the agenda for discussion whatever the political circumstances.

(2) Other traditionalists (not the majority I believe) saw political opportunity in aligning themselves with the war on terror and attacking Salafis and Islamists as their political star was falling. Their public rhetoric is quite similar to the more hawkish language of Western politicians after 9/11. Their schadenfreude was unsurprising (if inexcusable) given that Islamists and Salafis often used to denigrate traditionalists intellectually and presume to represent them in the name of “unity” while marginalising them politically.

(3) A significant number of traditionalists were keen to stay out of public engagement altogether for various reasons that are outlined below.

The upshot of 9/11 has been that latent political differences within the traditionalist movement have become more manifest. There are many reasons for these differences but the most important is that the traditionalist movement has made a virtue of avoiding centralised and formal mass organisation as it believes this to be spiritually deleterious. Thus, it embodies more an orientation in religious thinking that loosely links together various Sufi orders and scholarly networks through specific styles of religious education, spiritual guidance and collective devotion.

In practical terms how did these traditionalists manifest these internal tensions after 9/11? Many argued that traditionalists should stick to their core task of reviving traditional teachings in the West, a role that was defined in the nineties through deen-intensives, light-study courses, and sending Western Muslims to the great centres of the Muslim world to study and so on. Others saw an immediate need to spend time on public outreach, including interfaith, public speaking, media work, conferences, liaising and working with the authorities and so on. Many of the rank-and-file were uncomfortable with this shift and wanted to stick with what they knew, while others took it up as a necessary duty to preserve the public reputation of Muslim communities and to emphasize the need to make common cause against an extremism they saw as alien to Islam. Some of those who engaged have been politically opportunistic: after all, Islamist and Wahhabi bashing in public has become a viable career option, and not just for Muslims. This opportunism has partly been fed by a traditional deference towards political authority, which has always preferred symbolic political access and brokerage over more modern styles of democratic dissent.

The second reason why the traditionalist movement has changed in the noughties is that a large segment of young Muslims are looking for greater accommodation between their religious practice and liberal expectations within society at large. This is not merely a phenomenon to be found among traditionalists, rather such tensions can be found in nearly all, if not all, the groups and tendencies out there. But within the traditionalist movement a liberalising wing was and is manifested in three ways:

(1) Firstly the“liberal traditionalists” have put more emphasis upon the critique of political Islamic movements and Wahhabism than on adherence to the rigours of the Sharia in their personal lives. Among traditionalists, and indeed their scholars, there are significant differences over the validity of fiqh al-aqalliyat (a jurisprudence for Muslim minorities), the emphasis placed on the maqasid al-Sharia (the objectives of Islamic law), the desirability of adopting the madhhab al-taysir (the way of seeking ease in religion) and the emphasis made upon either the rukhsa (legal dispensation) or the azima (the strongest legal ruling on an issue within a legal school).

(2) Secondly many “liberal traditionalists” seek a personal ethics, a philosophy of Sufism, and have been uncomfortable with what they see as elements of cultishness in Sufi orders. It is a Sufism without spiritual guides (murshidin), spiritual initiation (bay`a) or the rigours of the mystical path (tazkiyat al-nafs). It is clear that a philosophy of Sufism may converge with individualised religion and a liberal sensibility, although this is not a given. In a different way, this philosophical Sufism shares some features in common with notions of tarbiya (moral rectification) found in Salafism and Islamism. It lacks the element of seeking to know the Divine (irfan) within tasawwuf. It is essentially the way of the jurists rather than that of the Sufis.

(3) Thirdly a critique of (Western) modernity, somewhat imbibed in intellectual quarters within the traditionalist movement and influenced either by perennialist, deconstructionist or conservative Christian analyses has often resolved itself into a personal philosophy. But it was held apart from the practical business of seeking to do well in the professions; in other words, this personal philosophy of anti-modernism did not harden into a practical form of isolationism. So for example, when the political crisis of 9/11 emerged, many traditionalists were aware that a concerted effort in public outreach to foster greater understanding was necessary. This outreach has involved taking up the liberal and secular language of the public sphere, in which the premises of the critique of Western modernity were, for all intents and purposes, largely submerged.

What binds traditionalism together today — with its liberalising or more conservative wings — is its commitment to the belief that the ulema retain a central role in interpreting religion authoritatively today. However, this commitment is now continually challenged by the tension between tradition and reason, empiricism and postmodernism in the West. Even our Abrahamic cousins, with longer experience, struggle with the dialectic that now faces Muslims of the West too.

Religious Authority in the Age of the Internet

The “competition for the mike”, as Sheikh Nuh Keller has pithily termed it, has been crucial in shaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema have cultivated constituencies of opinion through mass media, and thus the disagreements of the ulema have a large role in defining the disagreements of their media constituencies, although it should also be said that the Muslim masses do exert some influence of their own in terms of their looking for guidance for how to handle changed circumstances through their encountering new customs, thoughts and ideas. The ability to ask questions is the power to set the agenda, which is very often done through the mass media as well.

The tension arises because the ulema can reach a much larger number of people through the mass media rather than on an individual face-to-face basis, and they all see the benefits of doing that. The same is true for all the lay Islamic movements as well. What this means is that there is a religious public sphere out there in which scholarly (and indeed non-scholarly) disagreements now get projected. Where the internet replicates the book, e.g. through treatises, essays, legal rulings and so on, then that form of internet intervention is much more familiar to the Islamic scholarly tradition. But the point is that in the age of print there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to getting published, but now through digital printing and the internet anyone can publish on paper or electronically. Samizdat publishing has become the norm and not the exception. (In this I speak with the experience of a culprit.)

If all sorts of opinions are shaped and formed in the blogosphere for instance then how far should the ulema intervene to ask people to behave with decorum or even to arbitrate and get involved? As the ulema project their views on the internet in various ways, being a participant and a referee at the same time is a difficult dual role to play within the interactive part of the internet. Disputes take place all the time on the net between scholars, students of knowledge and those who follow scholarship and those who don’t. Disputation has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and requoting. Who would have thought that?

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), seen as one of the seers of the mass media, considered that “the medium is the massage” by which he meant that all technologies were extensions of human senses and capabilities. The nature of this extension had the ability to alter the way that human beings think and act. Yet he was not a determinist either for he argued that “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (The Medium is the Massage, New York, 1967, p. 25). Until recently the mass media was mostly linear and declarative, whereas arguably it is rapidly becoming individualised, interactive, demotic and non-linear. It engages all the senses and is working towards ever more complex simulacra of real life like Second Life. Science fiction writers, most famously William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984), have imagined the future rise of a seamless machine-human interface when our cortexes would be on-line. This implies that much future social interaction will be disembodied. We still don’t understand how this will change societies over the long term. This is still a new world to which both the ulema and the Muslim masses are adjusting and attempting to formulate an etiquette for. And once a tool is available, especially one of this revolutionary power and sheer utility, people will use it. Yet legal rulings apply to the use made of a tool and not to the tool itself. It is thus through McLuhan’s “contemplation” of the nature of the medium itself that we might stave off somewhat the “inevitability” that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the future in an alternate virtual reality universe that might well become our own.

Two Approaches to Unity

Leaving aside the nature of the internet, which may indeed be a major conduit through which to promote unity (as well as disunity), what kind of overall approach ought to inform intra-faith reconciliation? Here I am referring specifically to Sufis and Salafis, although the principles invoked would seem to have wider application. There seems to have been two approaches to fostering Islamic unity, one that is tried and tested and another that seems less likely to work. And God knows best.

The less effective way is to define primary and secondary issues in legal and credal issues from one approach as constituting the centre ground. The attempt to define this as being at the centre of our tradition only results in creating a new movement. Q-News once captured this well with the ironic headline: “Unite, but follow me”.

The more effective way is to stand firm on primary issues and to educate the masses in the matter of the etiquette of differing on secondary issues. Sheikh Ali Goma’a, the current Mufti of Egypt, said that there are approximately 1.25 million matters that have been the subject of legal rulings, and about 100 of these are agreed upon by all Muslims, being matters that are known by necessity to be part of religion. Any approach at reconciliation would do well to be informed by the approach outlined by Imam al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa, which, as people will know, is available in English translation. It reminds us that people will not cease to differ over rulings so long as they differ over the details of the principles of interpretation, particularly in the priority given to various hermeneutic methods. The literal sense has priority and other methods are applied if there is some evidential or logical reasons why the literal sense does not stand on its own.

The Amman Initiative, started in 2005, embodies this second approach and has the backing of a very wide spectrum of senior ulema across the world representing eight legal traditions.

There is a potential tension between affirming one’s own stance on secondary issues and indeed following an interpretative methodology in law or theology and working together for the common good with others. It is noticeable that avoiding differences can lead some to a sheer eclecticism in legal matters: this can confuse people, lending cultural credibility to a soft relativism, or the postmodern conviction that all differences are the same, i.e. they are all “just” differences. This focus leads to the avoidance of difference and controversy for its own sake and lends itself it to anti-intellectualism rather than to investigating matters whilst learning to handle a wider scope of difference.

In other words, in seeking a middle ground between Sufis and Salafis, points of agreement could be defined, but that minimum should not then define the scope of people’s commitments on secondary issues. Rather the scope for a wide variety of positions should remain. From a Sufi perspective, the fear is that if finding a common ground between Sufis and Salafis means dropping Ibn Arabi altogether then where would that leave one? Rather, Ibn Taymiyan and Akbarian approaches ought to remain fully represented and embodied and should seek to engage in a creative and genuine exchange in any process of reconciliation. They can part company civilly without necessarily agreeing but at least understanding the nature of their differences better at an usuli level. An historic example of this is the exchange between Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Ata’ullah al-Iskandari.

For the sake of unity is it right to drop practices or beliefs, which after all make up part of the spiritual methodology of Sufism, or to foster an understanding and an acceptance that others differ and not make that an issue? It can’t be that we drop positions because either ourselves or others are unable to apply the rules of ikhtilaf. Affirming one’s position doesn’t entail letting go of the possibility that one might be wrong and that the other might be right.

To put it another way. Sufis can’t be expected to endorse a position that would seek to make them agree that tasawwuf is an optional add-on, a bad innovation, or, worse, even a heresy. Rather Sufis would like anti-Sufis to accept that placing tasawwuf at the heart of our religion is a valid interpretive possibility even if they disagree with it. It can’t be ruled out of court as an interpretive possibility. Tasawwuf has enjoyed an august and widespread history of practice and support throughout the centuries of the umma’s spiritual legacy and remains a vibrant path for millions of Muslims today. In the final analysis, Muslims believe that God will inform us about our differing in the next life.

Three major issues in Sufi-Salafi reconciliation will be (i) the reclassification of some acts as fiqhi differences rather than as matters of basic aqida, (ii) the recognition that there are primary and secondary issues in credal and legal matters and (iii) that the semantic approach adopted by some scholars of the East provides a means to diffuse differences between Asharis, Maturidis and Atharis over the description of God’s transcendence and immanence.

At the very least for Sufis and Salafis of the West (and elsewhere), a moratorium on polemical exchange, particularly over the internet, should be called for, matched by a process to get religious scholars on both sides to met regularly along the lines of the Amman Initiative. A minimal goal would be to take the heat out of differing so that it becomes that beneficial form of differing that increases knowledge and does not create rancour, hatred and division. It might also open up a way to work together towards common interests and goals that are shared in common. There is increasing recognition that there are structural challenges facing Muslim communities that are best met together. At the very least forging unity involves the recognition that Sufi polemics against the Salafis have taken on very different implications after 9/11 that should now be taken into account.

These reflections are designed to provoke a debate. May God accept this essay as an act of love for traditionalism, and written in the hope that we may aspire towards a greater unity of purpose but not towards a greater conformity of viewpoints. And God knows best. To that end I would welcome any constructive comment, corrections and criticisms on this essay to be posted up here. Most of all we need to define positive ways to go forward.


Filed under Internet, Media, Religion, UK Muslim Politics, Umma, war-on-terror

Reporting "Extremism": Inaccuracy and Censorship

It’s a truism that how journalists report “extremism” is a central issue of the day. The controversies over two Dispatches programmes, one broadcast in January and other in August on the topic of British Muslim “extremism”, usefully highlight difficult issues around standards of accuracy in journalism and the forms of censorship that emerge from the political pressures around this issue. A lot of disentanglement needs to be done for the sake of preserving serious and accurate reporting that helps to inform public debate around what is one of, if not the, key policy issues of our times.

Issues of Inaccuracy: How far is the media getting the story right on “extremism”?

Firstly it’s important to address the accuracy of the journalism in these two programmes. The chief problem is one of description. Using terms like “extremist” often obscure rather than explain the phenomenon at hand. “Extremist” is used in a cultural sense to mean “non-liberal” and in a political sense to mean “violent” and the conflation of the two in journalese often has major implications for community relations. It is also a term that replicates sophisticated war-on-terror political rhetoric rather than queries some of its assumptions. However there is a more generic problem here: one of the public register of understanding and level of interest. In other words, there is only an interest in establishing the binary category: “extremist”/”moderate”, or analogues, “Islamist”/”non-Islamist”, “jihadist”/”non-jihadist” and so on, and not in the more complicated task of understanding various groups with their internal disputes, disputes with other groups, their distinct positions and so on, for fear of loosing the audience rather quickly. However I am still confident that a bit more framing of the material in these terms would have made a significant difference.

In January, Channel 4 aired the Dispatches programme, “Undercover Mosque“, an undercover investigative documentary about preachers at certain British mosques. The programme focused mainly on conservative Salafi mosques, a minority trend within British Islam, and, in particular, those Salafis who have opposed al-Qaeda and terrorist violence. (Whatever their political inclinations, all modern-day Salafis believe that Muslims must return to the authentic textual sources of the faith in order to renew it, by discarding about 1200 years of intellectual history and cultural manifestation, with a few notable exceptions. At the centre of Salafi criticism is that too many Muslims are no longer true monotheists and have taken up polytheistic practices and beliefs, which is the most serious charge that one Muslim can level at another.) Most Muslims, however, have found the da`wah (mission) of conservative non-violent Salafis to be highly critical and dismissive of non-Salafi Muslims and of non-Muslims. There has been introspection and rethinking since 9/11 in Salafi circles, which the programme did not acknowledge, yet at the same time I found the programme disheartening because it also showed a sometimes shrill, defensive and occasionally militant faction still carried some weight among British Salafis. I had thought that things had moved on a bit more; I have written about “Undercover Mosque” at greater length here.

The second Dispatches documentary broadcast in August, “Britain under Attack”, portrayed two strands of jihadi Salafism present in Britain, but didn’t distinguish between them sufficiently, which I shall attempt to do at some length here. (And it should be added that if “Britain under Attack” focused on jihadi Salafis, “Undercover Mosque” mostly looked at conservative non-jihadi Salafis.)

The first strand, which one might dub “the jihadist internationale” is concerned with the defence of Muslim lands (including Muslim minorities within state borders, e.g. the Chechens on the Trans-Caucasian borders of Russia) through a mobile and permanent jihadist international vanguard that was originally comprised of veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. Its chief theorist was Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989). He broke with traditional Islamic scholarship on jihad to the extent that he allowed jihad to be called by non-state actors, he characterised jihad as a standing, perpetual obligation (rather than as sporadic, i.e. as rationally conditioned by the failure of peaceful conflict resolution), and he overwhelmingly emphasized it as a compulsory individual obligation on Muslims everywhere. But in this case, as in most others, theory followed the political fact of the creation of an international jihadist vanguard in Afghanistan, supported by many Muslim states and by the Americans as part of a Cold War proxy conflict against communism. From the eighties onwards, some British Muslims were drawn to such theatres of conflict (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo) for any variety of reasons — for high jinks and adventure, out of romantic solidarity for the Muslim oppressed and so on. It is and was not altogether unlike the example of the British Left who went to fight Spanish fascism in the 1930s, whose locus classicus is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, if one considers it at the basic level of solidarity with a foreign oppressed group with whom one strongly identifies. Some of these romantic jihadists went to disburse charity, some to do some military training and some to fight with their Muslim brothers. What was not very clear to most until the late nineties was the extent to which this strand of romantic jihadism was defined by a hardline Salafi theology and how much it had come to be the target of recruitment by the second strand of jihadist Salafism led by al-Qaeda.

There are two important differences between “the jihadist internationale” and the al-Qaeda strands of jihadist Salafism. The “romantic jihadis” did not endorse the killing of civilians or “attacking the far enemy” i.e. those Western nations deemed generally hostile to Muslims, targeting them directly as well as their interests in the Muslim world, which was the tactical switch endorsed by the al-Qaeda leadership in the nineties. There is no evidence — and I have asked several knowledgeable people about this — that Azzam endorsed either suicide bombing or targeting civilians in general.

To give a practical illustration of this, Moazzam Begg, whilst in Guantánamo, recalls an argument between himself and a self-declared al-Qaeda member, Uthman al-Harbi, in which Begg argues clearly against the targeting of innocents (see Enemy Combatant, London, 2006, pp. 304-309). Begg sticks to a romantic notion of honourable jihadism in an era of total war and the post-9/11 US “doctrine of pre-emption” and “full spectrum dominance”. Al-Harbi replies that modern weaponry is indiscriminate, and that the wide collateral damage inflicted upon the Muslim world deserves a similar response. Thus it seems that in Islam, as with other religious traditions, traditional codes of ethical conduct in wartime are under immense pressure to accept the “realpolitik” of civilian casualties. Begg is viewed by his American captors as just another al-Qaeda member like Uthman, despite the crucial differences between them. The danger of escalation with such conflation is obvious: it merges causes of self-determination in the Muslim world with terrorist attacks upon civilians within the Muslim world and in the West.

The chief similarity between “the jihadist internationale” and al-Qaeda is that their political framework is anti-national and resolutely globalised, and tied to an imagined politics of the umma (Muslim supernation). This historically places both at odds with the majority of jihadi Salafis who are nationalists, as experts like Fawaz Gerges, who has interviewed hundreds of them, attests.

Since the late 1990s, the lines between the two globalist strands have become more blurred. Firstly al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups targeted people who went over to train or fight. Although more research is required to confirm it, it would seem that Dhiren Bharot (Abu Eesa al-Hindi) shifted from the “jihadist internationale” strand to al-Qaeda in late nineties. Secondly, the military invasion and occupation of Muslim countries by America and its allies also brings the two strands closer together. In the programme, both strands were clear in articulating the right to the self-defence of Muslim lands, a position that is more widely held among Muslims generally. This, in and of itself, is unsurprising as self-defence is an orthodox position in nearly every religious tradition as well as in secular international law. Al-Qaeda was able to turn itself into a formidable presence on the back of the invasion of Iraq on the basis of this argument. Later on al-Qaeda became split on the question of whether Shiites in Iraq should be systematically targeted, to foment Sunni discontent at the Shiite-majority government. On the face of it, Zarqawi’s view that the deliberate targeting of Shiites should continue, as opposed to Zawahiri’s view that it would corrode Muslim support for al-Qaeda, seems to have prevailed.

However, as far as the obligation on British Muslims is concerned, the difference between the two strands lies in their response to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s supporters and fellow travellers deem “the convenant of security” between Muslims and the British state to have been rendered null and void by the “war on terror” at home and abroad. This means that they work clandestinely and through deception to target Britain through terrorism, as argued by Abu Muhammad in the programme. Also featured were their apologists, among whom are Omar Bakri Mohammed and his followers, who refuse to distance themselves from al-Qaeda’s position, merely saying that they understand the response of the 7/7 cell and their likes to British foreign policy. This circumlocution is necessary in public statements given that they would otherwise face prosecution under the Terrorism Act 2006 for encouraging the “emulation of terrorism”.

The “jihadist internationale” strand endorsed the position that the legal contract between British Muslims and the state should be honoured, but there was less unanimity about the implications of that position. None supported attacks on Britain, but some appeared to endorse British Muslims joining the jihad against British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq so long as they publicly renounced their British citizenship before leaving the country. It should be noted that the government has placed a few British citizens under control orders for leaving to fight with Iraqi insurgents, from which a few have absconded. Others, like Moazzam Begg, while upholding the right to self-defence in principle, seemed to advise British Muslims to pursue a political path of protesting against the occupation of Iraq and providing emergency relief aid and the like to Iraqi civilians. Anti-extremist campaigners, like Imam Musa Admani, also upheld the right to self-defence while attacking “extremist ideologies”.

In short, while the presenter Phil Rees, of Dining with Terrorists fame, seems to have talked to the right people, more could have done more to frame the programme in terms of these “strands”. One complaint I would have is that while one might have some sympathy with the argument aired here by both Rees and his interviewees, that makes “foreign policy” the central driving causal factor, the framing of this issue by many of those interviewed here, which dictates the manner of their responses, should have been put any much more rigorous scrutiny. Finally by placing the intra-jihadist Salafi theological debate centre stage, Rees did not do enough to show that this is a minority trend within British Islam. How much are British Muslims truly self-defined by the traditional legal categories, formulated in age of the caliphate, of dar al-kufr, dar al-islam and dar al-aman that were discussed here?

Issues of Censorship in the Reporting of “Extremism”

Subsequent to the transmission of “Undercover Mosque”, the West Midlands police investigated the statements of three preachers featured in the programme to see if any criminal offence of inciting hatred had been committed. After reviewing 56 hours of tape, and referring the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service, it was found that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge anyone. In fact, the West Midlands police then went on to investigate if there were grounds for prosecuting Channel 4 under the Public Order Act 1986 for including material likely to stir up racial hatred. In her summary comments, CPS reviewing lawyer Bethan David said:

The splicing together of extracts from longer speeches appears to have completely distorted what the speakers were saying. The CPS has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to prosecute those responsible for criminal incitement. But in this case we have been dealing with a heavily edited television programme, apparently taking out of context aspects of speeches, which, in their totality, could never provide a realistic prospect of any convictions.

There is insufficient evidence to charge either the preachers or the programme makers, but in investigating both parties thoroughly the West Midlands police have sent a clear signal that it matters very much that we make ourselves responsible for what we say, being mindful of the context and representing other people’s positions without distortion. The West Midlands police have now referred the matter to Ofcom, the media regulator, although — strangely — none of the mosques featured in the programme appear have done so themselves.

Inayat Bunglawala, commenting recently on the CPS-West Midlands joint statement on the matter, said:

Hate speech must be combated. Documentary makers have an important responsibility, however, to do their research properly and carefully identify those who actually incite hatred. They must take great care to avoid unfairly stigmatising whole institutions and groups of people.

This is obviously true. But it doesn’t take us far enough as we have only established that there is insufficient evidence to bring charges, and that journalists should be responsible in how they report Muslim communities. That’s all well and good. As the deputy secretary-general of the MCB, Inayat Bunglawala would be expected to publicly defend the Council’s affiliates in cases of journalistic misrepresentation. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is the question of how “hate speech must be combated” by Muslim communities themselves, which requires a critical discussion about how some preachers play a divisive role. As I wrote in a previous blog on the programme:

We do need to think about the importance of what our imams and visiting preachers/lecturers say in our mosques…. Not because of outward respectability or out of fear of monitoring but because of what is right and proper. How can we expect a balanced form of Islam to emerge from such a hate-filled discourse? That’s the main question.

Why should we put up with the peddling of false dreams of future domination and merely waiting to fight some grand global jihad later on (when the reality is that Muslim countries cannot even secure their own basic sovereignty), of the insecure proclamation of our inherent superiority (surely conditional on our actual conduct), the need to continually demean the ‘kuffar’ (as if to bolster one’s own precarious faith, for as the saying goes: ‘hate’ is the opposite not of ‘love’ but of ‘indifference’; in other words, obsessive hatred reveals something of a fixation akin to attraction), the nasty denigration of women and speaking as if they were in a position to enforce, with relish, the fixed penalties (hudud) of Islamic sacred law (rather than as being, as in fact their congregation is, subject to English common law).

We British Muslims should take careful note of the fact that the West Midlands police acknowledged “the concerns that some parts of the programme may have been considered offensive”, despite the journalistic distortions. A point of disagreement remains as to what level of distortion we are talking about here. Many of the quotes featured in the programme were either lengthy or unambiguous in their content, so — even if there may have been a lack of contextualisation here — it did not amount to the outright falsification of the positions aired by some preachers. As for the context, the key question here is whether their “bark” was worse than their “bite”: many religious conservatives (not just in Islam) hold misogynist or homophobic positions, but how far do they recognise that this rhetoric is decisively framed by their legal and social context in terms of practical implications, and remind their mosque congregants of that context? By and large, in legal terms, the state aims not to censor non-liberal views but to foster an atmosphere in which the media and public opinion seeks to censure them away and set out a human rights framework based on the principles of reciprocal non-discrimination between all disadvantaged groups and the promotion of equality. Having said that, I believe British Muslims should argue for a “responsibility for rhetoric” given the multifaith, multicultural society that we are a part of, even if, at the same time, most would contest legal restrictions on free speech and many would also feel uncomfortable with intrusive “liberal moral policing”.

Therefore, the lesson is not only that there is lacklustre, sometimes malacious, journalism that should be challenged but also that we British Muslims have to do more to take on the intolerant, sometimes hateful, views that some preachers peddle. They need to reconsider their attitudes to other Muslims and the rest of society, as do the mosque committees that employ them. It would have been opportune for Inayat Bunglawala to have said more about the positive work the soon-to-be launched Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which includes the MCB, is doing around raising service standards in mosques and setting more stringent job descriptions for imams, which will include a requirement to work pro-actively on inter-community relations and interfaith.

It has also emerged that the Metropolitan Police have now also asked Channel 4 for all evidence and footage collected in relation to “Britain under Attack”. Rees has already been criticised for giving airtime to an al-Qaeda supporter, Abu Muhammad, now exiled in the Middle East and debarred from entering Britain. Rees has defended interviewing Abu Muhammad on the basis that journalists have to reflect all sides of the argument, even the most radicalised and extreme voices. I would tend to agree with him while saying that the propositions upon which they base their argument should have been subjected to more scrutiny.

I would also like to support an argument, bound to be unpopular with many British Muslims, namely that we should be alive to an additional danger here, of allowing over-zealous prosecution, which, even if it fails legally, sends out a tacit signal to curtail proper investigative journalism around this crucial issue out of fear of legal reprisals. Many would like an easy life and have no investigative journalism at all; equally, some journalists would likewise invoke “free speech” rights without considering more measured criticisms of their efforts. After all, there is a middle ground here: the recognition that careful investigative journalism, duly sensitive to context, that tries to get to bottom of these complex issues, is desperately needed. This is a difficult enough thing to get right.

One has to wonder of course if the Crown Prosecution Service and the police by wading in here, presumably on behalf of beleaguered British Muslims, are taking unspoken signals from government on this. It is better to muzzle the media sufficiently so that “political handling” of the Muslim community is left to government and is not derailed by sensationalist reporting. As this case shows, broadcast media is the obvious target here as it is much more heavily regulated than is the press to provide editorial balance in news and current affairs. But isn’t this the same profession that also puts the government on the spot too, which, has also, at times, become very politically contested, as was the case with the BBC and the Hutton Inquiry. Shouldn’t the CPS and police prosecutions not be read within this context too?

So while one might argue for better reporting of “extremism”, surely improving it is a matter of open debate and of producing better alternatives than is the threat of legal prosecution which will leave all of us none the wiser and very much in the dark.


Filed under Ghuluw, Media, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics, war-on-terror

The Problem with "Stop and Search"

Stop and SearchAfter the foiled attacks in London and Glasgow, stops and searches under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 have increased in London to five times the monthly average of 2,114 to 10, 948 last month (July 2007). Twenty four per cent were Asian, 14% were black and 54% were white. Under the Act, people can be searched for “articles connected with terrorism” without “reasonable grounds” for suspicion (although the need for “reasonable grounds” applies in the case of search powers with respect to drugs, weapons and stolen goods). In February, the Association of Chief Police Officers had promised to review stop and search policy. Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman of the Metropolitan Police, a senior counter-terrorism officer, remarked at the time that stop and search damaged community relations and resulted in few arrests. The review, published in May, found that, although the power should be retained, the public needed regular and accurate updates on its use and that police officers should get further training. However, after the attacks, senior officers within the Met advised that stop and search should be used more frequently. According to Commander Rod Jarman of the Met, stop and search is a visible form of deterrence for would-be terrorists. [1] As much as anything else, it looks like the traditional show of will, determination and force on the part of the police in the wake of what could have been deadly attacks. However it is not determination that is at question here, but effectiveness.

Some questions immediately spring to mind. If searches are a blunt tool and lead to very few arrests, as the Met has admitted in the past, then is a vague rationale of “visible deterrence” adequate, given the impact on community relations? Is it really possible to know, or indeed to measure, whether “visible deterrence” actually works? I would guess not. Isn’t there a more important long term goal of building a trust-based relationship with Muslim communities, with the intelligence dividends that would accrue, rather than persisting with blunt tools like stop and search, which, when widely and indiscriminately used, damage the long term aim of policing with the full consent of Muslim communities? Unlike “visible deterrence”, the poisoning of community-police relations through stop and search has much more historical evidence to back it. As Lester Holloway, news editor of the Voice, reflected back in 2002 in relation to the Afro-Caribbean community, “Undoubtedly, stop and search has been an enormous problem that has caused decades of strife between the black community and the police.” [2] History seems to be repeating itself.

As the police now argue, profiling seems increasingly pointless. Each cell brought to trial adds to the growing evidence that, while those convicted share an extremist (mis-)interpretation of Islam, there are wide class, ethnic, residential and national differences amongst those caught. Drawing up a typical profile seems more and more difficult. Rod Jarman confirms this when he says:

Terrorists live, work and blend into our communities. They need information; accommodation, transport, communications, material and storage. Terrorists can come from any background and live anywhere. They are as likely to be seen in quiet suburban roads as they are in inner city areas. [3]

So is the answer then to merely widen the net: to apply stop and search in Croydon as much as in Tower Hamlets?

There has also been an internal police debate, and indeed one within Muslim communities too, about how stop and search should be recorded. At the moment, figures are collected on the basis of ethnicity. My understanding is that there is also an Arab category alongside “white”, “black” and “Asian”. But I’ve yet to come across publicly-released figures on the numbers of Arabs being stopped and searched in London. The large figure of 54% for “white” might be explained by the propensity of some Muslim ethnic or national groups (Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Bosnians etc) to prefer categorising themselves as “white”, as opposed to “black” or “Asian”. Anecdotally, Arab friends say that certain communities, like London’s Moroccans, feel that merely walking down the street in some parts of London is an invitation to be stopped and that they have been stopped many times. Additionally there is the question of whether religious affiliation should be monitored as well. Advocates say that it would allow unwarranted and disproportionate stops and searches on the basis of religious affiliation to be monitored and therefore contested where necessary. Opponents say that the very fact of asking what someone’s religion is, is going to alienate Muslims further, who will feel that they are being monitored by the state.

The main reason for resentment at stop and search under s.44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 seems obvious: that someone is suspected of involvement in terrorism on the basis of belonging to the same faith community, and that this suspicion need not be based on evidence. Stop and search therefore has an inherently speculative element to it. This speculative suspicion is based on what inevitably must be a stereotyping surmise linking faith identity with violent extremism. On this basis, there is bound to be some skepticism as to whether monitoring on the basis of faith identity is worthwhile in the first place. Rather, given that stop and search is a blunt and speculative form of policing, as currently framed under s.44, then the powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 ought to be curtailed to include the requirement of “reasonable grounds”. If used wisely and proportionately, on the basis of evidence, then there are grounds for cautious hope that stop and search would be less likely to alienate the very communities that the police would hope to win over, and might prove to be more effective.


[1] Sandra Laville, “More face stop and search to deter terrorists, say police”, Guardian, 7 August 2007.
[2] Anushka Asthana, “A way to curb stop and search”, New Statesman, 5 August 2002.
[3] Sandra Laville, ibid.

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Filed under Civil liberties, Racism and Islamophobia, Terrorism, UK Politics