Category Archives: Media

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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Filed under Blog, Civil liberties, Islamism, Media, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

£100 for an anti-immigrant scare story!

Diana Appleyard, a features writer at the Daily Mail, sent out the following appeal on 16th February (HT: BBRC, Recess Monkey, CiF):

—–Original Message—–
From: rsreply@—–.com [mailto:rsreply@—-.com]
Sent: 13 February 2008 15:57
To:xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: Response Source – Diana Appleyard , Daily Mail (Request for personal case study)

PUBLICATION: Daily Mail (Request for personal case study)
JOURNALIST: Diana Appleyard (staff)
DEADLINE: 14-February-2008 16:00
QUERY: I am urgently looking for anonymous horror stories of people who have employed Eastern European staff, only for them to steal from them, disappear, or have lied about their resident status. We can pay you £100 for taking part, and I promise it will be anonymous, just a quick phone call. Could you email me asap? Many thanks, Diana

HOW TO REPLY:
Email: mailto:dianaappleyard@—.com
Phone: not provided for use
Fax: 01296 —– (preferred)

What an absolute disgrace! What a shameless display of xenophobia and cynical abuse of press power! If the Press Complaints Commission doesn’t do anything about this, it will confirm its status as an ineffectual internal watchdog.

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The Beeb, the Archbishop and the Media Feeding Frenzy

Wardman Wire has done a forensic job in pointing out that the BBC, both online and in news headlines, trailed the interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury on the World at One in sensationalist and misleading terms, i.e. his giving assent to the view that accepting the rule of Shariah law in some parts of Britain was “inevitable”. This was a complete distortion of what the ABC actually said on Thursday, 7th February, either in his interview or his speech later on that evening. There is good evidence that the BBC therefore set the tone for the tabs, the Sundays and the broadsheets. (Of which more, hopefully, later.) It also tells us something about the need for responsible reporting in the light of the 17,000 complaints the Beeb received in the subsequent twenty-four hours that were hostile to its original misrepresentation.

Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics has rightly written to the Corporation to complain. Perhaps we ought to write too.

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Forged Receipts and Muslim Researchers

The October report, “The Hijacking of British Islam“, of Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank, alleged that a survey of one hundred mosques found that a quarter of them possessed or sold extremist literature on their premises. It was deftly timed to coincide with the state visit of King Abdullah to Britain so that David Cameron could ask some awkward questions about Salafi literature published from Saudi Arabia. On 12th December, Newsnight broadcast a revealing report about the research behind what was hailed at the time as a “landmark” publication. It found, with the help of a forensic examiner, Kate Barr, that a number of the receipts used to tie mosques together with certain books were forged by a Muslim research team employed by Policy Exchange during its year-long study. Some fake receipts had been printed out on ink-jet printers, the addresses or names of mosques were erroneous or signed by individuals unknown to the mosque management or dated on days when no bookstalls were allowed to put books up for sale on mosque premises. On top of that it was also found that in all likelihood one of the researchers had handwritten two of the receipts on top of each other — for two mosques, one in High Wycombe and the other in Parson’s Green, west London, forty miles apart from each other.

While a number of mosques look set to take Policy Exchange to court for defamation, Policy Exchange, at least initially, was considering legal action against Newsnight. Given that Dean Godson, the head of research at Policy Exchange, was prepared to back the findings of the report and the research team 100% on Newsnight, a hint of a climbdown is noticeable in the Chairman of Policy Exchange Charles Moore’s press statement on 15th December saying that:

Although Newsnight’s portentousness was unjustified, the allegations did look serious. It should be said at once that they need proper investigation.

It should also be borne in mind what was said by two prominent community members in the Newsnight report who both refute the charges made against their institutions:

[There is] [n]o problem with the thesis of the report that books promoting or undermining community cohesion should be abhorred, but to go from that to implicate community centres who are trying to promote community cohesion…is very demoralising. Dr Abdulkarim Khalil, Director, Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre

We have never promoted these books at all. If you come to our circles or hear our sermons we are very much involved in precisely interpreting the Quran and understanding it in a modern British context. Dr Usama Hasan of Masjid al-Tawhid in Leytonstone

There is no doubt some obnoxious material in some of the books that were mentioned, and hardly the sort of thing one is going to recommend to one’s child. As Soumaya Gannouchi notes:

Some of the books on sale on djinns, angels, dreams, signs of the day of judgement, and hellfire often make me laugh/ cringe/ both. […] Just like other religions, Islam boasts a vastly diverse library, covering myriad tendencies, areas, and subjects at all levels of culture high and low. Each has its audience. I may be repelled by some of the volumes on the shelves…

So we can hear prominent Muslim figures saying that there is a problem with some of this literature, but none of them is going to support the creation a new “dodgy dossier” to besmirch community centres and mosques, least of all recommend some kind of draconian policy response or Muslim community witch-hunting. A larger point is the fallacy the report operates under, namely that Muslims are robots: once you find the instruction manual, you can figure out how they think, how they will behave and how they will react. This fallacy of textual determinism is hardly confined to Muslims, but at the same time would such sloppy thinking be so liberally applied to anyone else?

The focus now falls on the Muslim researchers whose identities Policy Exchange say they must protect for fear of reprisal. Of course no one should take the law into their own hands, but there is a very serious question of public accountability here. In an interview with Riz Khan of al-Jazeera English, Dean Godson said (at 12.30) that “”we were approached by several groups of Muslims who expressed concern about what was appearing….”. So firstly, some Muslim groups selected the think-tank, and so did these “groups” play a role in selecting the members of the research team, rather than the “think-tank”select some neutral, professional and objective researchers? Was this approach a first contact or did it come within the context of a pre-existing relationship? Secondly how are we supposed to trust the rest of the report? One must now assume that the “researchers”, eight in total in two-person teams, had a preconceived bias that they set out to confirm and were prepared, in some cases, to forge documentary evidence for. So how was the report framed and constructed, and what definitions applied? How were the mosques and the books selected? Thirdly, the biggest fear is that this bias is sectarian in nature. All the theological tendencies named as “extremist” in the report have a history of anti-Sufi polemic to varying degrees (or of certain forms of Sufism), and, in a strange but revealing aside, Dean Godson said, under cross-examination from Jeremy Paxman, that the eight researchers were unavailable as they were currently “on a spiritual retreat in Mauritania”. The most fearful outcome is that the Muslim research team with be found to have a clear sectarian bias, if not institutional affiliation, that, once uncovered, will do much to harden the fallout from the recent political manipulation of Muslim sectarianism in Britain. If this turns out to be the case, no true Sufi worth the honour of that name would have anything to do with forgery, falsification or the vilification of Muslim institutions, no matter what sectarian disagreements there have been in the past.

Please take note of the comments policy here. All posters should give their full name, a verifiable email address, their hometown and/or their institutional/organisational affiliation at the bottom of the post and abide by all the other rules otherwise their post will not be put up.

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Filed under Ghuluw, Media, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

Wahhabi Wrangles

Paul Vallely, one of the more thoughtful commentators on British Muslim life, has written a background piece called “Wahhabism: A deadly scripture” in response to all the botheration over King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s recent state visit to Britain and the release of a recent report on hate literature found in mosques (which I haven’t yet read), probably timed to coincide with his visit, which lays a large part of the blame for this literature on the influence of Wahhabism in the UK. However I would like to clarify a few matters in Vallely’s piece that don’t exactly reflect my current view. This is a matter of interpretation and inference rather than willful misquoting or anything pernicious like that (as Vallely is one of the straight journalists.) Vallely is quoting from an old piece I referred him to, the heart of which was written straight after 9/11, although it was only published four years later. Such is the pace of academic publishing. So for the record:

1. A lot of Saudi funding was pretty benign: it went into infrastructural projects. They rarely looked to control mosques they funded or part-funded. They funded the mosques of preferred sectarian allies. They also funded the mosques of sectarian rivals too, including Sufi mosques in the UK. After 9/11 a lot of this funding has dried up due to internal and external political pressures.

2. More pertinent in my view at the time was, and still is, the impact in the UK of Salafi preachers trained in Saudi Arabia and their mass investment in the dissemination of Salafi teaching through publishing and the internet. This had a negative impact at the time because of the promotion of religious exclusivism and intolerance.

3. Yet British Salafis were among the first to combat the takfiri jihadis and, as I’ve written before, that needs to be recognised.

4. It might be inferred from one quote from me that I think textual literalism opens up the possibility of terrorism. I don’t believe that. But theological intolerance is another matter.

5. As Vallely’s piece rightly argues, mixing up conservative law-abiding Muslims with the few genuinely violent extremists is a big mistake that many are prone to. Of course some ultra-conservative values have implications for cultural integration, but this is an issue that needs to be calmly considered. Preaching hatred and intolerance is no small matter, but neither is the wish of some to forcibly assimilate religious conservatives to secular progressive values. Finding the right balance between preserving diversity and promoting tolerance and solidarity firstly in law and secondly in public culture is essential.

6. As I’ve written before, Wahhabi and Islamist bashing has become a viable career option, and blanket stereotypes can have serious consequences for these people’s basic rights. We need to reach out and work with British Salafis, one reason why I supported the recent Sunni unity pledge. It’s awful to see this kind of material reposted on a website of the execrable BNP for their own pernicious reasons.

7. I used to be comfortable with the use of the term “Wahhabism” but have subsequently changed my mind. There is the self-designation as “Salafi”, but various strands need to be distinguished. Of course that self-designation is contested: most Muslims see the Salaf as comprising the first three generations of the Muhammadan umma, those who come after are the khalaf. But, more in the sociological sense, the term “Salafi” can be used. But there are caveats. The nineteenth century liberal reformers like Afghani and Abduh saw themselves as Salafis. They influenced the Islamist movements. From the sixties onwards this current has merged with “Wahhabism” properly speaking that originated with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This merged form was politicised and puritan and was spread globally with the windfall of oil revenues. There have been political differences since the 1990s after the First Gulf War, and global Salafism/Wahhabism has become very divided on political issues since then. Vallely’s article reflects these subtleties.

8. In Britain since 9/11, some Salafis have sought to move towards Hanbalism, explored the spiritual dimension of the faith, the resources for national belonging and identity and a recognition of our pluralist society and democratic context. Others are doing very serious work on civil liberties. All this should be recognised too.

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Roll up, roll up! Vote for the best of the British Muslim blogosphere

It’s that time of year again. The fourth annual Brass Crescent Awards, sponsored by City of Brass and alt.muslim, are seeking nominations for the best of the Muslim blogosphere up until Friday, 9th November. Voting, in ten categories, runs for two weeks from Friday, 15th November.

So let me do a bit of shameless plugging for British Muslim blogs.

British blogs have done well in the past. Thabet (Muslims under Progress), now reincarnated as pixelisation, got an honourable mention for “Best Writing” in 2004, won “Best Group Blog” in 2004, was a runner-up as “Best Thinker” in 2005. Islamophobia Watch got an honourable mention as “Best Non-Muslim Blog” in 2005. The indefatigable Indigo Jo was a runner-up in “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 2005. In 2006, for “Best Post or Series”, Thabet got shortlisted for “Policy, Profiling, Poverty” and Bradford Muslim for his insightful “The Muslim Condition” (in six parts). Again Thabet got more nominations in “Best Ijtihad” in 2006 for “British Muslims Must Fight Extremism” and “Prattle from the Party” and an honourable mention for “Best Thinker”. Dal Nun Strong’s well-informed A Muslim Think Tank got a nomination for “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 2006.

British-focused collective Muslim blogs are beginning to emerge like the MIAH Project, Umma Pulse, Muslimstan and City Circle’s new blog (yes, that’s two shameless plugs). Many of our bloggers are London-based but there is more regional blogging out there: Rolled-Up Trousers, Noman Tahir and Islam, Muslims and an Anthropologist in Scotland, the eponymous Bradford Muslim, Walls Come Tumbling Down, the hilarious The Islamicist and Muslim Minorities in Birmingham, Alternative Entertainment in Manchester, The Cutting Edge in Brighton, Masudblog in Aylesbury and Abdur Rahman’s Corner in Wales. In London, one should make mention of Cricklewood Blogger, iMuslim, Islam’s Green, Muslims and Musings, Radical Muslim, Spirit21, Suspect Paki and The Thing About This Is… alongside the above-mentioned Indigo Jo Blogs and A Muslim Think Tank. Pixelisation is now out in Dubai but hopefully that’s only a temporary relocation and he’ll be back on home territory soon.

Many of our top activists and commentators have been sucked into the omnivorous Comment is Free website that features Ajmal Masroor, Anas al-Takriti, Asim Siddiqui, Ed Husain, Fareena Alam, Inayat Bungalawala, Salma Yaqoob, Soumaya Ghannoushi and Zia Haider Rahman to name but few, as well as American imports like Ali Eteraz. With the current focus on “the Muslim problem”, if you’re a halfway-decent writer, are a “youngish” British Muslim and know a thing or two about British Islam (and have a penchant for “liberal discipline”), then it is not that difficult to get into mainstream publications and their online platforms. It would be interesting to know whether these are eligible for the Brass Crescent Awards or not.

But for the most perennially underrated British Muslim blog, for its sheer honesty and gutsy writing, its mix of the personal and the political, the academic and activist, the surreal and the real, the political and the spiritual, check out Muslim Recovery. It hits you in your comfort zone as you are meant to be hit. Of those not nominated in previous years, I would also have to single out Rolled-Up Trousers, as one of our most important political blogs, which has gotten wider recognition as well (named as the top Scottish political blog and it came in at no. 92 in a recent top 500 list of the UK’s political blogs, which says more about metropolitan bias than anything else).

I have links to nearly all these blogs (and more) here. I’m sure that there are many great British Muslim blogs out there that I’m totally unaware of, so do contact me here to tell me what I’ve been missing. And don’t forget to nominate a few British Muslim blogs for the Brass Crescent awards too.

Update: Aziz (City of Brass) and Shahed (alt.muslim) think it’s fine to nominate individual bloggers on Comment is Free. Just in case you want to nominate someone. And Muslim Recovery usefully provides the necessary corrective, noting the groupie-ness of bloglists and the vanity of wanting to get that virtual bloggery award but not wanting to be seen to be doing so. The kind of fake nonchalance that some of us are so very skilled at! But notwithstanding all that, the Awards do encourage and highlight the talent that is out there, so get nominating away.

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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.

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