One would never think that in the midst of the hustle and bustle of downtown London, there were passionate people debating the future of British Islam. Instead of going out socialising or heading straight home to put one’s feet up, these folks made the mini-pilgrimage to this little nook in Holborn to thrash out the best way forward for British Muslims. Earlier this week, I joined them at this quirky hideaway, The Red Lion Club just 10 minutes from Holborn station.
The title of the debate was ‘Muslims in the West: What is the Way Forward’. The organisers were Anti-Extremism Alliance - an organisation working against fundamentalism and hate. They are equally against the likes of Muslims Against Crusades (the latest incarnation of Al-Muhajiroun) as well as the ominous English Defence League.
We were first treated to brief statements by our keynote speakers, starting with Mr Mubin Sheikh, a Canadian national security consultant. Mubin offered a heartfelt account of how he came to arrive at his position. Like many of us, Mubin was an idealistic young Muslim whose drive for spirituality took him all the way to Pakistan with the Tablighi Jamaat. He felt the passion so fervently that he wanted Islam for all humankind. Then came 9/11 and Mubin was shaken by the thought that Muslims were capable of such a heinous acts. His faith undaunted, he pursued Islamic studies in Syria. It was while there that he realised to equate Islam with the actions of Muslims was a mistake: the corruption and injustice in Muslim countries are antithetical to Islam. This led Mubin to understand the human elements in Islam and change his attitude. He now works as a security consultant for the Canadian government. This is a job many of his fellow Muslims would consider almost a betrayal to the ‘ummah’ but Mubin considers this a service to the community. In his view he is helping weed out the insidious elements from the community.
Next came Tehmina Kazi, the director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD). ‘Secular’ is a word which is mud to most Muslims. Islamic Fundamentalists themselves use this term effectively to demonise their opponents so I salute the BMSD for proudly embracing the term. Tehmina was very positive about the future of British Muslims. She acknowledged the fact that much of the discourse about Islam post 9/11 was about how Western Muslims were alienated from British Society. While this isn’t particularly true about the first the generation of immigrants who were very keen to integrate with British society and make a better life for themselves, the second and third generation of British Muslims were more assertive of their separate identity. However, all was not lost. British Muslims have several avenues through the mechanism of democracy to contribute to society. This was one of the futures proposed for the British Muslims – that they become model citizens of this great nation. It is a future which is in line with the Qur’an itself.
Following Tehmina’s presentation was Abdullah Andalusi whom I must say, was very brave to take on the other three speakers who were clearly against his solution. Unlike them, he espoused a return to the caliphate and the establishment of Sharia laws. However, this was no rabid lunatic. Abdullah came with an arsenal of formidable critiques against western ideologies. He believed that liberalism was only liberal when its own existence was not threatened. He also believed that the outcomes of elections were immaterial as they were only between two teams who played the same game. Therefore it was useless for Muslims to participate in elections as it didn’t really help us much. He even produced a list of scholars who deemed it forbidden for Muslims to vote.
Abdullah believed that the only acceptable religiosity to the liberal West is a secularised Islam. Muslims who go along with this agenda are hypocrites to him as they have rejected the divinely sanctioned Sharia law. However, Muslims are not allowed to deviate from God’s law as the Qur’an clearly states that whoever doesn’t judge by what Allah has revealed are disbelievers. Not only that, there was a clear political model for Muslims to emulate and that is the model of the Prophet and his companions. He denounced his opponents who rejected this model as ‘modernists’ and ‘liberals’ and challenged them to open debates.
Lastly, we had Paul Salahuddin Armstrong whose distinct feature (at least for me) was his stetson hat. I remember thinking, ‘if I met this bloke on the tube, I’d think he was going to a Godfather convention rather than a debate about Islam!’. Paul was a convert to Islam for the last twelve years but rather an unusual sort of convert. He was the type who made himself at home with Islam. Instead of letting the Muslims tell him what Islam is, he figured it out for himself. He saw no problem at all with the reconciliation of Islam and British culture. What would be wrong in going to the pub, he asked, if one were to have a tuna sandwich and a non-alcoholic drink. Islam is multiplicitous, its principles can manifest in a variety of ways as long as it’s within the bounds of Sharia. Apart from the fact that Sharia itself is a mass of juristic interpretations and thus even orthodox Sharia can be questioned to a startlingly huge degree, I wholeheartedly agree. Paul also pointed out that many elements of British life were in fact derived from Islamic civilisations, not least our legal system, which could have been brought by the Normans from Islamic Sicily. Indeed there are many aspects of contemporary life which originated from, if not mediated by Islamic civilisations.
So there we have it, various opinions about British Islam and where it stands. As with most traditions, there is a significant measure of diversity within Islam. British Muslims are free to choose what sorts of thought processes they wish to embrace in order to take the way forward. The freedom to choose is a good thing and the future of British Islam is no exception.
Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.