Friday, 26 June 2015

David Cameron’s Theological Deficiency: There is a Muslim Response to Muslim Extremism

Prof Jon Yorke
Professor of Human Rights, BCU School of Law


In his speech at the Globsec conference in Bratislava,Slovakia (18 June 2015), David Cameron chose to address the issue of religious extremism and radicalization. He was guarded in his language in stating that there were “some” people holding “some” of the extremist views, but that they didn’t “go as far as advocating violence” but they did, “buy into some of these prejudices giving the extremist Islamist narrative weight,” which “turns simmering prejudice into murderous intent.” 

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the former Minister of State for Faith and Communities, deconstructed his speech in an article in The Guardian, “Remember, Prime Minister: British Muslims hate Isis too” (19 June 2015). Baroness Warsi gave credence to the Prime Minister’s overall point and stated:

“David Cameron is right. Isis poses a massive threat - one of the biggest we face today. He is right when he describes the poisonous narrative they preach and I welcome his comments that British Muslim communities have a powerful and important role to play in dealing with a situation that is becoming increasingly grave. As Prime Minister, he is right to bring the authority of his office to bear.”

She agreed that the Prime Minister had made the correct theological exegesis on the “poisonous narrative they preach,” that it was within the constitutional mandate of the “office” of the PM to make such observations. He was also right in articulating the classical religion/state divide, that this was something in which Muslim communities must bear a significant amount of responsibility.

However, whilst Baroness Warsi gave credence to David Cameron in noting that there were many reasons why young people become radicalised and then, “take the next step towards acting on those warped beliefs,” she prudently took a stand against his singling out for special mention in his speech of the “notion of Muslim community complicity.” 

The Prime Minister’s speech is consistent with the Conservative rhetoric of “big society.” It engenders a distinct move away from principles of human rights and gives a thumbs up for “security creep.”

Indeed, the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, Section 26, states that “special authorities” (which includes schools and universities) must have, “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” This legislative policy is reflective of the Prime Minister’s rhetoric creating a surveillance mechanism which brings schools and universities into juxtaposition with Muslim communities for weeding out extremists. 

Are we now to return to a kind of police state in which we will not just tolerate each other’s different beliefs, but engender a weariness and suspicion of those “different” to us? Will we return to a self-regulatory panopticism in a constant fear that someone is watching?

Such self-inquisition will very likely bread instability and result in lashings out against the “other.” Owen Jones’ observation of the “dangerous ‘other’” becomes apposite here, see The Guardian, “David Cameron, Inadvertent PR man for Islamic extremists,” (19 June 2015). History reminds us of the stark reality of what we can do to the “other” merely because we are insecure about their intentions. We can become clever at presenting an impenetrable narrative to legitimise acting pre-emptively.  

This is a very unhealthy social policy. At its pinnacle we can point to the proposed abolition of the current Human Rights Act and relinquishing of the regional human rights protection offered by the Council of Europe. Of equal encroachment upon human rights protection and in some ways more damningly, is the possibility of leaving the European Union. In such a quixotic event, we would be stepping outside of the protective mechanism of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the growing human rights jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the European Union. 

So we need to read between the lines of the Prime Minister’s carefully crafted speech and be weary of the dismantling of our human rights through his selective harangue. 

Baroness Warsi revels a significant lacuna in the Bratislava speech. She states that the PM did not point to the good work that is currently being done within Muslim communities to counter terrorism and she wishes that more politicians, “would meet the Imams leading the ideological fight against Isis.” If more politicians did, including David Cameron, they would learn about, “The fatwas, curriculums and conferences that unpick and reject the extremist ideology; the charitable giving which reaches across faith communities.” 

These recent concerns on extremism and radicalisation came just before the 23 June 2015 launch in the UK of the “Islamic Curriculum on Peace and Counter-Terrorism,” written by Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. The event took place in the grand setting of the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, just behind the Houses of Parliament. 

In 2010 Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri published a Fatwa entitled “Terrorism and Suicide bombings,” in which he denounced the violence caused by extremists as not reflective of a “true jihad.” He has now solidified his concerns within a theological curriculum on peace and counter-terrorism and he is touring many parts of the UK, and other countries around the world to promote this Islamic pedagogy which he hopes will be embraced by all Muslims.  

The curriculum includes detailed teaching and exegesis of the Qur’an and Hadith, including on the subjects of peace and love, sanctity of life, legal equality, freedom of expression and the right to education. The overall content of the course can be reflected through recourse to the Hadith, Al-Bukhari, s. 362, “Spread peace, you will be secure,” which is cited in the curriculum text, “Peace, Integration and Human Rights,” p. 10.   

There is disturbing irony here. In Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri spreading this curriculum his personal security may be threatened for promoting an ideology that would dismantle the aggressive platform that Isis currently deploys. In fact this was made clear by one of the participant’s questions in Central Hall during the launch, and Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s humble response was that he “trusted in God.” 

What this curriculum demonstrates is that the monopoly of interpretation of the religious texts of Islam does not reside with Isis. There are alternative interpretations which have as their foundation, peace, mercy and love. Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s teachings are currently the clearest discourse from a rich use of Quranic and Hadith texts of any Islamic scholar denouncing extremism and radicalisation, and the evil consequences of the process. 

It is an intellectual activity that has the formidable potential of saving many lives, and it is clear that Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s curriculum is a humane contribution to mankind.

He has the potential of being placed within the Islamic pantheon of great intellectuals. For example, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khomwarizimi (circa. 780-855 CE), who synthesized Greek and Hindu arithmetic and recognised the numerical importance of the use of “zero” (Al-Khomwarizimi termed the numeric zero as ‘sifr’ – from which derived the etymology of the English word ‘cipher’). Or the polymath Avicenna (Ib Sina) 980-1037 CE, in his metaphysical philosophy identified an Islamic “science of being,” and which many think influenced René Descartes,’ “Cogito, urge sum,” (“I think, therefore I am”) in “Discourse on the Method” (1637). Humans can thus cognitively and morally establish themselves apart from nature and possess inherent dignity.

Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s curriculum teaches on the inherent dignity and human rights concepts that scholars of the United Nations, the African Union, the Organisation of American States, the Council of Europe or the European Union, would be familiar with. It is clear from the launch of this course that the Organisation of Arab States would benefit from engaging with these teachings. 

In the curriculum text “Peace, Integration and Human Rights,” it states that the Prophet Mohammad’s Final Sermon, “was a universal message, whose teachings resonate in the corners of the earth, such that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on the same concepts,” p. 44, and in Topic 8 of the curriculum entitled, “Fundamental Human Rights,” a host of individual human rights are described. 

It may have been beneficial if Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri had cited the content of some of the key international human rights texts so that students on this course could have compared the wording of the law (thus engaging in both theological hermeneutics and a human rights critique) for themselves. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (1977) Article 18, on the freedom of thought conscience and religion, the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981), and the Arab Charter on Human Rights (2004), Article 3, which states, “Every State party to the present Charter undertakes to ensure to all individuals…religious belief, opinion, thought...”  

It is clear that there is still a long way to go for women's and children's rights to be recognised within many Islamic countries. The issue of the death penalty remains a most significant problem in Islamic jurisprudence and countries which retain the punishment are becoming more and more marginalised in the global human rights community.  

The inclusion of specific international human rights and the regional frameworks, within such a theological course is beneficial because of the burgeoning complex information of Islam and human rights within the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Each member state of the United Nations, including all states which adopt a form of Islamic law (Sharia Law) within their domestic law, must provide a report on state practice in conjunction with their human rights commitments under the UN international covenants. 

In the UPR there is also an opportunity for stakeholders (including NGOs within Islamic countries) to bring to the attention of the Human Rights Council the violations of human rights in their country. This UN reporting mechanism is becoming a significant resource for the study of freedom of religion and associated human rights within countries which adopt Islamic law. 

At the launch of the curriculum, Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s affirmation that “there is no compulsion in religion (Dīn),” (Al-Baqara, ayah 256) was well received. 

This is a significant affirmation which is reflective of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Heiner Belefeldt, who in the Report of the Special Rapporteur in 2011, articulated the importance of individual recognition and that human dignity can only be realised when individuals are able to choose which religion they wish to follow, have the freedom to change religion, and indeed, change denomination within the same religion, and also choose to not believe in a transcendent deity (be an atheist). 

The launch of Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s curriculum poses serious questions as to the effectiveness of Jewish and Christian teachings on the commitment to tolerance, recognition and peace. 

In Judaism, the recording of the first murder of Cain killing Abel in the Book of Genesis (Chapter 4), through to the current disproportionate responses in Gaza, demonstrate a need for such teaching on peace and counter-terrorism.

Christianity can trace its first instance of killing one of its own for heresy to the torture and execution of Bishop Priscillian of Avila 385 CE and the violence and damage caused by the crusades are well known alongside the Catholic verses Protestant bloody European wars of 1618-1648, to George Bush announcing that he was doing God's will in attacking Iraq. 

There are denominations within Judaism and Christianity that promote peace. Many are performing the task in a tireless, and noble, manner, and should be applauded. However, there needs to be a reassessment as to whether their versions of the peace studies curricula are being effective. If not, a strategic change is required.  

It is clear that all of the monotheistic faiths have a job to do to wash the blood from their hands. Teaching tolerance, recognition and peace is a good start. 

The views of the Prime Minister and Baroness Warsi’s retort reveals that in the United Kingdom we still have a way to go to counter extremism and radicalisation. The horrific experiences of the families which have had sons and daughters radicalised is a damning indictment of the disconnect between politicians and faith groups.

Baroness Warsi was right. Before the Prime Minister, and any politician, can engage in a finger-wagging exercise of blame and shame, we need more dialogue at the political-faith level and also at the multi-faith level. Let’s talk about peace.