Author Archives: Mr Moo

How not to deal with al-Muhajiroun

Muslim communities around the country have shunned al-Muhajiroun and its various entities for years and refused to give them a platform. Instead, they have to work through front organisations, hire private halls, set up high-street stalls or leaflet people with their poisonous little tracts. They are utterly marginal but are still able to generate huge coverage through provocation. Their recent barracking of British troops returning from Iraq and a counter mini-riot in Luton has poisoned relations in the town. The Muslim community of Luton, which had already chased them out of the mosques, has taken to chasing them off the streets too in a desperate bid to signal their utter disgust and consternation.

Anjem Choudary’s latest wheeze to incite the ire of the national press and to irritate the hell out of Britain’s Muslims as well as everyone else is to use a legal loophole to relaunch al-Muhajiroun this week, which had been disbanded in 2004. Only its successor groups, al-Ghurabaa and the Saviour Sect, were banned in 2006 under terrorism legislation. It seems fairly clear that Choudary expects, and indeed makes the calculation, that the reformed al-Muhajiroun will be banned pretty quickly to generate the notoriety and street-cred that he wants to sustain. As they play a propagandistic role, they will continue to find ways to dodge past legal restrictions by using coded language or forming new entities. The law is obviously a blunt and ineffectual tool.

Well Choudary got his headlines yet again last night when a debate with Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) on sharia law verses UK law never got started, ending in acrimony and thuggish behaviour after about half-an-hour. Al-Muhajiroun used their own goons to enforce strict gender segregation at the event, and roughed up at least one person who objected, and so the event was abandoned and the police were called in.

I called the CSC earlier this week as I had concerns that they were just being used to promote Choudary’s latest wheeze and that I had my suspicions that the so-called neutral event organiser, the mysterious Global Issues Society (GIS), was just another al-Muhajiroun front organisation, a suspicion that was proved spectacularly correct last night. The Centre had its concerns too but wanted definitive proof that GIS was a front if it was to pull out at such a late stage.

Prior to last night’s debate it was clear that GIS had:

1. Booked Conway Hall as a student society at Queen Mary’s under false pretences. No-one from the local student Islamic society had heard of them and the college authorities had no record of any student group registered under that name.

2. Had only organised a handful of “debates”, all of them involving al-Muhajiroun representatives.

3. The event was heavily promoted by al-Muhajiroun itself through its own website, and they provided a lurid poster and their own contact number for the event.

4. No-one knowledgeable about the Muslim activist scene in London had heard of them.

At the event itself:

5. The security “hired” by GIS turned out to be just more associates of al-Muhajiroun who enforced their gender segregation code.

6. The so-called neutral chair appeared to be associated with al-Muhajiroun.

Now the CSC says it acted in “good faith” in accepting this invitation, an assertion that can’t be left unchallenged. At the very least, CSC showed questionable judgement in giving the GIS the benefit of the doubt when there were so many legitimate suspicions about them. It seems probable that the CSC was more focused on highlighting their own campaign for a quick ban and burnishing their reputation as a scourge of radical Islam by playing up to al-Muhajiroun’s all-too-familiar tactics.

If instead we want to use debate to expose and de-legitimize al-Muhajiroun further, the only way to do it would be to organise a neutral platform with a proper invite list. Most importantly, a debating opponent is needed who could take on Choudary and win among the disaffected and radicalised segment of young Muslims that al-Muhajiroun hopes to recruit from. Douglas Murray better fits the role of an anti-Islam bogeyman, who memorably described Islam as “an opportunistic infection” at a memorial conference for Pim Fortuyn in February 2006, a statement he is yet to resile from. Murray’s mere presence was no doubt designed by Choudary to buttress further the siege mentality of anti-West radicalism and self-righteous victimhood that al-Muhajiroun promotes.

The lesson of this little fiasco is that the stoking of an Islam-West controversy has become predictable, exploitable and even somewhat of an industry. The question is: how to break the cycle and construct better alternatives? Frustration, despair and even ennui at the current standoff is just a cop-out and we need to do better: so, over to you, any suggestions?

This has been cross-posted from City Circle Blogs.
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Global Britons, Muslim Futures

It is now a commonplace to observe that “Britishness” and “Muslimness” have become polarised: by seeking definitions against “the Muslim threat”, “true” Britishness, it is felt, can be retrieved.

Yet the evidence shows the opposite: most of Britain’s ethnic groups emphasize both religious and national identities together, a trend most noticeable among Muslim Britons. Polling usually confirms that Muslims are comfortable in being Muslim and British, antagonism only arising when slanted questioning asks respondents to choose one over the other.

What is remarkable about the strength of religious-national identities among Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus and Afro-Caribbean Christians is that it comes at a moment when formal Christian allegiance is in decline, i.e., believing in God without belonging to a Church, alongside a receding sense of Britishness. Church attendances are in decline, and alternatives for the major rites of passage at birth, marriage and death can be found outside the Church. Likewise the National Centre for Social Research showed that only 44 per cent of all Britons described themselves as “British” in in 2007 compared with 52 per cent in 1997. [1] Compare that with post-9/11 polling of British Muslims and the figures range between 75 and 85 per cent. [2] So the question arises: why is patriotism in general in such decline?

A bit of history might give us more purchase on an answer. Britishness was always a political, civic identity that contrasted with one’s ethnic or cultural background, and it was a marriage of four nations – Welsh, Scots, English and Irish – that came into its own from the early eighteenth century. It was Protestantism, the Industrial Revolution and the building of the British Empire that forged the modern British nation, tied together by a titanic struggle with Napoleonic France and later on by two world wars against Germany in the last century. [3] But today, formal Christianity is in decline, we work in a post-industrial information economy, formal decolonisation is over and the French and Germans are Britain’s partners in the EU, a tightening confederation of formerly warring nation-states.

So in the age of globalisation – one of mass communication, travel, migration and trade – sharp identification with the nation-state is less meaningful than before, even if it would be premature to speak of its demise. Global elites now champion open borders, are less interested in nationalism, and argue for new sorts of regional and global reordering. The expansion of the EU alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales is rewriting our unwritten constitution. More important perhaps is the fact that popular culture now owes more to the market than to the state: so how much more significant are identities of consumption, for instance, than civic or nationalist ones? Even if ideas, trade and money flow more freely, we find that elsewhere, burgeoning security controls, the poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the whole immigration and integration debate betray strong anxieties about porous cultural boundaries.

In the late nineties, a “Cool Britannia” that embraced multiculturalism, creativity, openness and globalisation was advocated. But after 9/11, multiculturalism (if not neoliberalism) came under attack along with a public debate on Britishness. Some point to shared institutions like the NHS and the BBC as repositories of British values and culture, but are institutions alone really enough to hang a national identity upon? And to list certain democratic values that could just as easily be Japanese or Canadian, like the rule of law, or freedom of speech, seems inadequate too, as these relate to the formal rights of citizenship, but not to a sense of duty, or emotional attachment, to fellow citizens.

A better approach, perhaps, is to commit to an open-ended conversation about how to define what we Britons have in common, as well as seeing in cultural diversity a source of wisdom, and an opportunity to expand the wellsprings of our collective imaginations. The distinctive contribution of Muslims to national self-understanding will be but one strand among many. With all the suspicion levelled at Muslims today, it takes intellectual and moral courage to remain creative and self-aware enough to ponder our shared future while retaining a sense of faithful integrity.

Yet, in our interconnected world, this will not merely be a parochial endeavour, but will be intimately concerned with making sense of our public identities on a fragile, wired-up planet. To be cosmopolitan is to name our current challenge, to recognise that while we might aspire to universal values, they are variously negotiated across real and legitimate cultural diversity. [4] A new Britishness in our global age would therefore arise, and be informed by “rooted cosmopolitanism”, a principled looking out at the challenges and opportunities of the world from our home, while never losing a sense of who or where we are.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com. This, the last of twelve comment pieces for Emel Magazine, will appear in Issue 48, September 2008.

Notes

[1] Chris Rojek, Brit-Myth: Who do the British think they are? (London: Reaktion, 2007).

[2] Ian Bradley, Believing in Britain: the spiritual identity of Britishness (London: Monarch, 2008).

[3] Linda Coley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).

[4] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).

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Just how big a threat is "Islamic" terrorism?

How big a threat is “Islamic” terrorism (note the scare quotes) to Europe? It’s a valid question, and not one that we should assume we already know the answer to.

Since 9/11, politicians have had a ready answer and portray terrorism as the primary, existential threat, even in an age of global warming. For Tony Blair it was “the greatest twenty-first century threat”, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “the greatest threat facing democracies”, for George W. Bush, “the greatest threat this world faces”, for the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, “no challenge is greater”, and for Vladimir Putin, the former Russian President, “the greatest threat to world peace”. [1]

From 7/7 until May 2007, there have been around 25 statements on UK threat levels from MI5, “Whitehall sources”, the police and politicians to the national and foreign press. Al-Qaeda “supporters” ranged in number from 200 to 120,000 based on unscientific polling; Al-Qaeda “terrorists” from 200 to 4000; and numbers of plots, networks and those who trained in camps were variable. In May 2007, Lord Stevens gave two contradictory figures of 2000 and 4000 UK terrorists. [2] Even if Gordon Brown now determines that such announcements should be formally made to Parliament, it may be some time before politicians will be judged to have handed these announcements responsibly.

Facts and statistics have a way of undermining such rhetoric that, some have argued, is more designed to promote a politics of fear and a “war on terror” in which securing peace and stability for some is underwritten by ongoing military intervention and the planetary curtailment of fundamental freedoms for others. Certainly the two Interpol reports assessing the terrorist threat across Europe makes for sobering reading in this regard. In 2006, one out of 498 terrorist attacks were “Islamist”; in 2007, four out of 583: that’s rather less than one per cent of the total. [3] By contrast, nationalist separatism is statistically a much more pressing terrorist problem in Europe.

The rejoinders might be that these isolated attacks aim at mass civilian casualties, there is no gentleman’s agreement of pre-warning that did exist, albeit imperfectly, in Northern Ireland and that no political endgame exists if terrorism is still understood as the outcome of local grievances, anti-imperialist insurgencies and frustrated causes of nationalist self-determination. The global franchise of al-Qaeda, while it feeds on these, is the child of the Internet, globalisation and the devolution of the state monopoly on the use of large-scale violence in the name of a deterritorialised ummah. We therefore face a failure of the political imagination to think through what a better endgame might be when the dominant metaphor is that of an endless struggle against an abstract noun, “terrorism”, that allows the rulebook on conflict resolution to gather dust on the shelf.

But is al-Qaeda an existential, first-order threat? For a generation that lived through the Cold War that seems overblown. The Interpol figures allow us to make an assumption and to ask a question. The assumption is that intelligence penetration into frankly amateurish terrorist cells is better than we are often led to believe and that prevention is working rather effectively. On the radio programme Desert Island Discs in 2007, Dame Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, the former Director-General of MI5, said that, even if patchy and incomplete, intelligence was being garnered.

This assumption then leads the argument for prevention in two possible directions: firstly to say, as governments do, that such initiatives are measured and equitable or secondly to question whether preventative measures are fair and proportionate even if they are always necessary. Again the Interpol figures show that the impact of anti-terrorist measures outstrips the actual threat level. For instance, in 2006, a third of all terrorist arrests involved “Islamists”; in 2007, a fifth did. In 2007, 44 per cent of terrorist convictions featured “Islamists”, mostly for membership of proscribed groups, financing, recruitment and propaganda. Only a fifth of these related to preparatory acts of terrorism.

Let’s add on top of that the observations that too much media coverage links Muslims to terrorism and cultural backwardness (as the recent survey by the Cardiff School of Journalism on the British press between 2000-08 showed) [4] and the rightward shift in European politics stokes and reflects anti-Muslim sentiment, then we can hardly operate in a political context amenable to question if preventative, legal and policing measures have been proportionate or fair. Indeed, for a European Muslim to pose such a question is to risk being branded as an apologist, but – believe it or not – there can be other motivations at play like the desire to protect fundamental liberties and the concern that discriminatory treatment feeds the sort of alienation terrorist recruiters like to exploit.

To get it right, the question – how big is the terrorist threat? – should always be asked.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

A version of this article was first published by Emel Magazine, Issue 47, August 2008.

Notes

[1] C. Abbot, P. Rogers and J. Sloboda, Beyond Terror: The Truth about Real Threats to Our World (London: Rider, 2007), 5. The authors (part of the Oxford Study Group) view climate change, competition over scarce resources, the marginalisation of the majority world and global militarisation as more pressing security threats.

[2] Steve Hewitt, The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism on the Home Front since 9/11 (London: Continuum, 2008), 81.

[3] The EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Reports (TESAT) 2007 and 2008 are both available online.

[4] The Cardiff School of Journalism’s report is available here: http://www.channel4.com/news/media/pdfs/Cardiff%20Final%20Report.pdf

Update (10th Aug 2008)

S. Lodhi kindly pointed out an inaccurately reported figure from the 2007 Interpol report. It should have been one “Islamist” attack out of 498 (not 424), TESAT 2007, p. 13, Table One. Thanks, Yahya

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The next ten years: an open letter to the MCB

As the Muslim Council of Britain marks its first decade, it seems an appropriate moment for reflection. As the largest Muslim umbrella body, it still remains primus inter pares among an increasingly large alphabet soup of representative bodies. The British Muslim Forum, the Sufi Council of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy have all emerged in the last three years since 7/7, as well as a plethora of Muslim commentators and other bodies that seek to reflect the government’s “rebalancing” in 2006 of its relationship with Muslim communities to emphasise counter-terrorist imperatives.

Most of these new actors endorse either an implicit or explicit critique of the MCB and its style of community activism, and have positioned themselves more assertively on the contested issue about what to do about “extremism”. In the moral panic over “Islamism”, the MCB has too often fallen into the trap of refuting the aspersion of guilt by (ideological) association with violent extremism rather than framing its own proactive narrative on terrorism, and so other Muslim actors have stepped into this vacuum. Yet there will no returning to politics as usual by going around the problem of terrorism (nor, indeed, the war on terror). Even on the bread-and-butter issues, too little has been done about the shocking deprivation found in the last national census – figures that the MCB helped us to obtain but did not campaign hard enough to get changed.

Once the darling of the political establishment, the MCB has become just another voice at the table. The government has appointed a plethora of internal and external Muslim advisors, has rapidly developed its own national network of local contacts, particularly with respect to preventing violent extremism (PVE) funding, and set up its own panels to deal with imams and mosques, women and young people. Rightly or wrongly, the PVE rationale now drives or influences all aspects of government policy on Muslim communities across no less than eight departments, including the Department for International Development! And the major mosque-associations – including the MCB – seem poised to be effectively pushed back into civil society to manage imam training and run mosques through the mechanism of MINAB.

Organisationally the MCB appears ill-equipped to handle such momentous challenges in terms of its grassroots networking, institutional weakness and democratic health. After thirteen years, if one includes its pre-launch consultation phase in the 1990s, its strategic decision to rely on its affiliates has meant that it has done less grassroots networking than Respect did in a mere three. Even if it ups the ante in this regard, hundreds of Muslim organisations now seek representation elsewhere and, as such, developing effective partnerships is probably now more salient.

The MCB’s chief posts are still all voluntary and unpaid. Many of the MCB’s affiliates are much better staffed and resourced than the body that seeks to represent them. There is a backroom administrative function but no high-profile Chief Executive, Head of Policy Research, Chief Press Officer or any other of the personnel one would expect in such an institution. A greater push on core private funding is needed here.

Finally, the MCB is now reconsidering its overly-complicated election process that somewhat disadvantaged larger regional mosque associations in favour of some smaller national groups. A simpler one affiliate-one vote system of direct election of the executive positions and, importantly, of the Secretary-General is needed. With a direct mandate for a full-time paid position, any affiliate member should be able to put someone forward for the top post with nominations and be able to campaign openly for three months on a manifesto. Elections are supposed to be unpredictable affairs, but not so with the MCB, which has just re-elected both Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari and Dr Daud Abdullah as his Deputy for a second term. Where is the urgency to connect with that half of Britain’s Muslims under the age of twenty-five with more fresh faces in executive roles?

The next few years will be critical to the MCB’s long-term health as a relevant and dynamic organisation. In recent times, some of its prominent affiliates have looked far too close to active party political campaigning for comfort, particularly with Respect and Muslims4Ken, a strategy that was avoided by the Council in the 1990s, although mere party membership has been better handled. This association with the old left is hardly the best positioning for a non-party political institution preparing to deal with any incoming government that may very well be Conservative.

With all these challenges ahead, the biggest one may well be that of internal expectation from a young community that is looking for relevant and substantial leadership (beyond the usual pieties of “Muslim unity” and “Muslim interests”) and is alive to all the other opportunities for engagement that are now open to it.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article originally appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 46, July 2008.

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The Long March of the Conservatives

For the first time since 1997, the Conservatives suddenly look to be on the electoral march. A resounding victory in the local elections condemned Labour to third place and its lowest share of the vote since 1918: the Conservatives gained ground in Labour heartlands in Wales and the North, capped by Boris Johnson’s win as Mayor of London over Ken Livingstone.

Of course the Conservatives still have an electoral mountain to climb, a swing of 6.5% nationally to gain an overall majority in Parliament. Yet the momentum is with David Cameron, while Labour seems to be suffering the usual malaise of third term governments, being perceived as tired, out of touch and out of ideas. The proposal to get rid of the 10% tax band, rising fuel and food prices, falling house prices, the collapse of Northern Rock and the global credit crunch have all dented Labour’s strong record. Suddenly, after a decade-long boom, people feel insecure and have made their feelings clear at the ballot box. What we don’t know yet is whether the next general election for Gordon Brown will be a rerun of 1992 or 1997: will he be able to rally Labour support to keep a reduced majority, or go down to a Conservative landslide?

Just as New Labour sought in its first term to reassure voters as to its fiscal prudence by tying its spending to the Conservative’s budgetary plans, Cameron has similarly tied himself to some of Labour’s spending plans. As Labour became trusted with neoliberal economics, the modern Conservative party seeks to emulate the Clintonesque-Blairite third way, weaving neoliberalism with welfarism. It seeks to be trusted not to dismantle the welfare state, to be convincingly post-Thatcherite. There is, David Cameron has said recently, such a thing as society.

Of course Muslims might wonder how the question of Islam in the post-9/11 world would be treated under a Conservative government, say from May 2009. The evidence thus far is that the party is thinking out aloud in various directions. Cameron himself spent a week with a Muslim family and had positive things to say about his experience (although he was unsurprisingly alarmed by the conspiracy-itis he encountered at a mosque he visited). Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, has argued at length about the deleterious effect anti-terrorism legislation has had on Britain’s proud tradition of fundamental civil liberties, on the proposed ID cards or on the extension to detention without charge or trial. And Iain Duncan Smith has done genuinely creative and thoughtful work on social exclusion, an issue that ought to exercise Muslims thoroughly given that our average unemployment rate is more than three times the national average.

There are also a variety of strategies proposed for dealing with “extremism”. Analogies are commonly drawn with the Cold War. Michael Gove, the author of Celsius 7/7 and the Shadow Minister for Housing, analyses Islamism within the framework of twentieth century totalitarianism, and argues strongly for confrontational ideological warfare against Islamism itself, and not just al-Qaeda, which is regarded in this analysis as its violent anarchist fringe. Charles Moore also recently argued that the Conservative party has sufficient distance from Muslim communities to lead this charge against British Islamism, as it is not entangled like New Labour in Muslim identity politics. Just as in the 1980s with trade unionism, the Conservatives now seek to take on the “Scargills of Islam“.

It has to be said that this is a rather worrying trend, not because Muslim political activism that galvanises a faith-based identity politics is somehow wholly beyond criticism, either internally or externally. It is not — for as it claims to represent Muslim interests, it should be held to account for the validity of those claims. Rather, the point is that when it comes to dealing with violent extremism, targetting Muslim political activism in Britain will have no perceptible impact on the “men of violence”. Muslim activists are really policy strawmen, being easy targets to knock down while the real action lies elsewhere.

The other issue lies with the rancorous debate around Muslim integration. This has been held hostage to fears of terrorism and (admittedly) a dislike of small-“c” conservative Muslim values. What is needed here most of all is a division between security and integration policy imperatives, and a realisation that as Britain will remain very diverse, multiculturalism needs to be reinvigorated with a greater emphasis on responsibilities, participatory citizenship and an inclusive nationalism.

Recent conservative thinking has so far been wide-ranging but is not yet fully-formed on British Muslims. In any future scenario, no true political virtue can be made out of an acknowledged distance from Britain’s Muslim communities.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Books and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 45, June 2008.

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Conversion and Betrayal

Today we live in an age when the boundary between two allegedly monolithic entities, “Islam” and the “West” appears to be rigid, politicized, ring-fenced. So the question arises as to the motives of converts to Islam. Are they converting to faith or to an anti-West political cause? Such questions get asked after terrorist incident involving converts like Richard Reid, Don Stewart-Whyte, and Germaine Lindsay.

Such examples reinforce the view that conversion to Islam is an act of joining an anti-West political cause rather than one of the world’s great religions. If conversion to Islam was dubbed “turning Turk” to the Elizabethans and the Stuarts confronting Ottoman naval power; “turning Terrorist” is its twenty-first century variant.

It can be observed that cultural boundaries between these two so-called worlds can, with time and circumstances, grow more or less rigid, or conversely become more or less permeable, with conversion seen as less threatening, as less remarkable. John Walker Lindh, dubbed “the American Taliban”, provides an iconic illustration of the tensions around conversion today.

Lindh converts to Islam in 1997, and sets out for the next few years to master Arabic and to memorise the Qur’an, in trips to the Yemen and secondly in Pakistan, to a simple madrasa in the NWFP. Exposed to the idea of global jihad, he signs up with Harakat al-Mujahidin for basic training in May 2001 and is then sent to Afghanistan in  to fight jihad there. In June 2001, Lindh, now fluent in Arabic, is sent to one of the Arab traning camps, al-Farooq, run by Bin Laden. Fighting for the Taliban he idealised against the Northern Alliance, Lindh never fires his gun once. He is shortly captured and incarcerated at a basement in the Qala-i Jangi near Mazar-i-Sharif. Of 330 men, only 85 come out alive, Lindh included. Lindh comes to global attention in a CNN interview just after he is captured but not yet in full American custody, as “the American Taliban”.

At the end of his trial, all charges relating to terrorism were dropped and Lindh was charged with carrying a rifle and grenades for the Taliban, for which he was sentenced to 20 years, and forbidden by a court ruling to speak Arabic in prison. In his final court statement Lindh repudiated terrorism, and al-Qaeda’s ideology and approach.

Lindh was the first prisoner to be “Abu-Ghraibed”, to be photographed naked and bound, blindfolded with the word “sh*thead” written across it, to be denied access to the Red Cross or to a lawyer. His was the first test case for the Bush adminstration’s creation of a legal state of exception by which international and constitutional rights were suspeneded.

Frank Lindh, John’s father, says that his son was born Muslim, always focused and disciplined from a young age. Throughout his journey to and through Islam, Lindh comes across as driven, but also as passive, as innocent to the complexities of the wider world around him. Lindh comes across as a majdhub, drawn to faith, to good practice, almost as if by a bestowal of Divine grace. He has an idealism, a divine foolishness, a fatal incuriosity for the practicalities of the world and the messy realities of politics. Tom Junod’s remarkable prison portrait leaves the unmistakable impression of itmi’nan, of Lindh being at peace with himself, in serenity at his lot in prison, reliant upon his Creator and constantly prayful. He is never known to miss the fajr prayer or to fail to offer his tahajjud devotions in the night. As the prison librarian he devotes himself to ancient Arabic texts. As a constant target for violence and abuse, Lindh cannot afford to leave himself in unsupervised parts of the prison. As Junood, puts it, despite being described as a global villian, as a modern-day “renegade”, “in response to what America has done to him” Lindh “has become more Islamic — more himself, and a better Muslim.”

Lindh is portrayed as an insider, the innocent American abroad, naive to political realities, touched by a simple profound faith of the heart, that divorces his intentions from his acts. But Lindh is also an outsider, one who has took up a task and a choice that few converts have: the cause of jihad on behalf of the Taliban. He is the terrorist, one for whom the basic dignities  and human rights afforded a prisoner of war and a citizen were suspended.

Lindh’s story indicates that choices away from liberal self-enlightenment can only be seen as acts of betrayal. But betrayal of what? Of enlightened morality and sound reasoning, as conversion enacts a reversal of the process of reformation and enlightenment. Such a choice might have been seen, in kinder times, as naive or eccentric, but today are seen as subversive, defiant, traitorous. Converts to Islam must be deconstructed as moral persons to make safe the boundary around liberalism (and indeed Islam), marked by words of rejection and acts of violence, such is the dangerous ambiguity of free choice, of acceptance and betrayal, that the convert represents.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 44, May 2008.

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Sheikh Google vs Wiki Islam

The digital age is crucial to reshaping 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, and the reformers who now contest their authority, have cultivated constituencies of opinion through the mass media.

Yet while the disagreements of opinion formers help define the scope of public debate, Muslim publics exert considerable influence too. By asking questions they have the power to set the agenda, while, in preferring one religious authority over another, they naturally reflect the existence of a competitive market for religious ideas. Religious debate is now primarily conducted through the mass media as everyone understands its power to reach millions rather than through the more traditional face-to-face method. This drive for mass access has created a global religious public sphere into which all scholarly and non-scholarly disagreements get projected.

The nature of the mass media has changed for good. Whereas it used to be hierarchical, elitist, linear and declarative, it is becoming individualised, demotic, non-linear, and interactive. In the age of print, television and to a lesser extent radio, there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to media exposure, but, in the digital age, samizdat multimedia has become the norm and not the exception. Anyone can now publish and project their views globally. They can claim to speak for Islam, issue a “fatwa”, proffer advice, and provide counselling or spiritual guidance. Religious leaders struggle too to project any measure of decorum or scholarly expertise in religious debate in the new media, for it is difficult to be both player and referee in the same game.

Rancorous dispute 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 redeployment. Electronic fatwas and sermons struggle to define a precise audience; they must ignore any original context of time and place to speak for “Islam” globally, for Muslims everywhere, in soundbite format. This loss of context, allied, to bricoloage culture, is injurious to intellectual expertise, proper deliberation and intra-religious pluralism.

The nightmare scenario is that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the virtual umma in which a billion-plus, atomized Muslims project their subjective musings, screaming inanities into the ether in a dialogue of the deaf. Sheikh Google’s umma would be protean, individualised, samizdat, postmodern, unregulated and without any agreed standards in interpretive technique. All differences would become mere subjectivity, reducing everything to the will for recognition manifested as the narcissism of small differences.

Yet is this not a rather dismal prognosis, the bias of the conservative to the peril rather than the promise of the new digital age, predicting chaotic mediocrity rather than creative renewal? Charles Leadbeater in his new book We-Think argues that the better future of the internet lies with its emerging ability to harness mass creativity and innovation if it can garner responsible self-governance.

One success story Leadbeater cites is Wikipedia, a prime example of open-source creative collaboration. In 2007, Wikipedia had six million articles in hundreds of languages; its total cost was 1.5 million and it only had five paid employees. It has a small committed core of volunteers alongside hundreds and thousands of other members of the public. In March 2007, Wikipedia was the eleventh most popular website, the Encyclopedia Britannica, 4,449th. Wikipedia has 250 million words, Britannica, 44 million.

But what of accuracy? Is not Wikipedia the repository of conspiracy theorists, gossips and amateurs as well as experts? A study by Nature magazine surveyed forty two corresponding articles in both and found 162 factual errors in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica, so the difference is less than we might think. Yet Wikipedia, with greater resources of peer review, has been shown to correct itself more quickly. And it is – unlike Britannica – making the inheritance of human learning available to the world for free.

So rather than Sheikh Google, Wiki-Islam provides a better possible future for Islam online, amenable to its unchurched nature. Creative collaboration between scholars, experts, intellectuals and Muslim publics would allow for the social and intellectual process of ijma and ijtihad to become dynamic, relevant and infinitely refinable. The internet is no panacea: real-world conditions of authoritarianism in the Muslim world, the war on terror and intellectual conservatism may stymie unlocking the true potential of Wiki-Islam. But a crucial first step nonetheless to unlocking that potential is to recognize the collaborative creativity the digital age offers to the Muslim.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 43, April 2008.

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