The UK has lacked an authoritative public voice on terrorism and Islamophobia, writes Peter Hellyer
Britain takes steps to tackle the scourge of extremism
Following last week’s horrific but predictable terror attacks in Europe, there is debate, once again, as to how a tiny minority of European Muslims are manipulated by the siren voices of the advocates of terror.
A variety of explanations have been put forward. Racism, economic disadvantages, alienation from society – all have been suggested. The fact remains, however, that the vast majority of Europe’s Muslim communities have fervently condemned each and every one of these gruesome attacks.
It is clear, nonetheless, that, for a variety of reasons, the rejection by Islam of extremism – and, by extension, terrorism – is neither understood nor accepted by those who perpetrate these acts. It is neither racist nor evidence of Islamophobia to suggest that, in the long term, a real solution to the problem must lie within the Muslim communities themselves.
Last week, an initiative was announced in Britain that suggests that leading British Muslims are coming together to tackle the problem.
A report in The Times noted that “Britain’s most senior Muslim clerics are planning to set up their first national council to issue religious rulings that promote a progressive interpretation of Islam.”
The council, the report says, would be the first central religious authority for British Muslims, “delivering edicts on Islamic doctrine and providing a national voice on social issues,” condemning what are described as "regressive cultural practices", such as forced marriages and "honour" killings.
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One of the figures behind the proposed council, Qari Azim, chief imam of the Makkah Mosque in Leeds, has noted: “There’s a lack of an authoritative public voice to speak out on issues such as terrorism and Islamophobia” and that the new body “must take a progressive stance that is in line with Islamic principles and embedded in a British context.”
In an editorial, The Times also noted that, in his recent book, Letters to a Young Muslim, the UAE Ambassador to Moscow, Omar Ghobash, had referred to "a crisis of authority" in Muslim communities, “in which moderates have a responsibility to make sure 'wholesome Islam' prevails over 'a theology of death, destruction and decay'”.
Both Mr Azim and Mr Ghobash, the paper said, “understand that it is only from within Islam that this decay can be reversed,” concluding that “the long war against Islamist extremism will ultimately be won by modern, moderate Muslims.”
Numerous studies have noted that many of Britain’s 1,200 mosques are led by people with a limited knowledge of British society and who, therefore, offer teachings greatly at variance with the ways of that society. It is not surprising that conflicts arise. It is, in part, upon those affected by such conflicts that the propagators of extremist views prey.
There are too – and it is naïve to overlook them – differences between the interpretations of how to practice Islam, these often arising out of cultural rather than religious practices. Some argue, for example, that it is mandatory, for religious reasons, for women to wear the hijab. Other, equally devout, Muslims disagree. Is it permissible for a Muslim to extend Christmas greetings to a Christian, or to accept Eid greetings in return? Is there or should there be a freedom to debate or hold alternative views? This and much else related, in general terms, to issues of Islamic jurisprudence, are among topics that the new council might seek to address.
It may take some time for this initiative to gain support, not least because the groups that control many of Britain’s mosques may be unwilling to cede any of the power that they currently enjoy to a broader national body. A root-and-branch reform of religious authority within Britain’s Muslim community will take longer still.
If, however, as the proverb goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” then the formation of this new council is certainly a single step worth taking, if the scourge of extremism is to be tackled and defeated.