Last month, years of Taliban hostility finally ended when Pakistan’s government agreed to surrender control of the Swat district and allow Shari’ah law to operate there, less than 100 miles from Islamabad. To accomplish this, the Taliban bombed nearly two hundred schools (particularly girls’ schools – women’s education is now prohibited in Swat), set alight government buildings and carried out a string of assassinations, kidnappings and suicide bombings.
I consider this surrender by the Pakistani government to be a grave mistake that will not easily be undone. As an advocate of liberties for all people, I find myself at odds with the fundamental principles of Shari’ah law, especially the version as understood by the Taliban. Their version is strongly modelled on the hard-line Wahabbi Islam of Saudi Arabia, where women continue to be oppressed, thieves continue to be dismembered and apostates from Islam continue to be murdered.
Now, the author of the piece ‘Freedom to criticise, or racism?’ must surely think that my opposition to these horrors is racist, based on an imperialist mind-set. This is nonsense, and it pains me that I am forced to defend myself from accusations of racism, but let me be clear. Criticism of Islam is not and can not be racist. Neither can criticism of Catholicism, Hinduism, Scientology or any other system of belief. Racism is an ignorant and fearful perspective, and an accusation of harbouring opinions of that kind will always carry weight. I detest the accusation, just as I detest that which I am accused of being. Those with a racist agenda, who aim to demonise middle-eastern immigrants, should be rightly condemned. My discourse is with the politics of religion.
Islam appears to be faced with a conundrum. It claims to be the final and unalterable word of God, and yet there are aspects of the faith utterly incompatible with what we as a modern society cherish. Thus, the modern day Muslim in the west is faced with a dilemma: to choose between western democratic values, or the proclamations made by the creator of the universe. Because, whilst Islamic faith can come in various levels of intensity, all Muslims, from moderate to fundamentalist, must believe that Allah’s laws are superior to our man-made ones. That is, by definition, part of what it is to be a Muslim, just as all Christians must believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. This is a conundrum with no easy solution, but I will make an attempt.
‘Criticism of Islam is not and can not be racist. Neither can criticism of Catholicism, Hinduism, Scientology or any other system of belief’
First, however, I must acknowledge that I have been accused of Islamophobia, a charge I will not shy away from. I will not deny that there are forms of Islam I am resistant to, but I do not think it irrational (a necessary component of phobia), and would call it hostility rather than fear. I am hostile to wahabbi Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, where raped woman might not seek legal protection for fear of punishment by whippings or worse. I am hostile to Islam as practiced in Egypt, where over 95% of all women still suffer female genital mutilation. I am hostile to Islam as was practiced in Afghanistan under the Taliban, where men who believed they were following the advice of Allah beat women on the streets in broad daylight. I am hostile to the Islam that inspired 19 men to hijack planes and fly them into the New York skyline. This is not an exhaustive list.
This is not the Islam that my Muslim acquaintances believe in. It is not the Islam that gave us the great poet Omar Khayyam and his beautiful religious poetry. It is not the Islam that shaped and cultivated the cradle of civilization, laid the groundwork for scientific thinking and began work on what is now modern medicine. However, the fundamentalist forms of Islam do find themselves fully justified in the writings of the Qur’an, Hadith and Sunnah. I propose that it must be the task of modern Islamic scholars to bravely do what must be done and to disagree with or reinterpret the words of the Prophet Mohammed. Female genital mutilation, honour killings, dismemberment, enforced marriage, murder of homosexuals, murder of apostates, whippings, stonings – these things are revolting, and we must hear a unified Muslim voice raised in agreement. Moderate Muslims must distance themselves from the Islam that supports such acts. Islamic leaders, too, must publicly denounce violations of human rights and lead the way towards a compatible Islam that can exist in a democratic 21st century.
War between theocracy and democracy is inevitable, and America’s war on fundamentalist Islam is this idea actualised. But a war of bombs and bullets is not necessary if a war of ideas can be won first. If liberty can triumph over religious dogma then a single shot need never be fired.