As an Egyptian fatwa hotline expands into Britain, there are concerns its scholars may not understand life as a Muslim in a vastly different world.
Need advice? Cairo has answers
LONDON // "My husband wastes all his time on the internet. Should I divorce him?"; "Is paying for something in instalments considered usury in Islam?" For British Muslims trying to live according to the tenets of Islam, the answers to such questions are now only a phone call away. Last week saw the launch of an Islamic hotline in the UK, the first in the English-speaking world. For 75p (Dh4.5) a minute, problems about drugs, cheating husbands, contrary wives, money, crime and punishment will be answered by scholars from the University of Al Azhar in Cairo, one of the oldest and most respected in the Sunni Muslim world.
"The idea to open the line in the UK was the brainchild of Cherif Abdel Meguid, an ex-foreign minister of Egypt and a former deputy general of the Arab League," said Abeer Almudaris, a spokeswoman for Al Hatef al Islami, the Cairo-based Islamic phone service behind the scheme, which has dealt with two million calls since its inception in Egypt nine years ago. "He thought that as we have call services for beauty and for various questions about life, why not have one about religion because most of the population are very ignorant about their faith. They get it mixed up with culture and politics and become susceptible to extremism and radical ideas.
"He wanted the information to come from credible people who have studied Islamic jurisprudence and comparative religions and not from some wacko that you find in a mosque preaching hate. With all the mumbo jumbo these people come up with it is no wonder the kids get confused and look for some kind of a cause boasting; 'yes, I am going to fight in the name of Islam.' What are they going on about?" The Muslim population in Britain has grown by more than 500,000 to 2.4 million in the years between 2004-2008 according to the Office for National Statistics. That is the fastest growth by any ethnic group, with the biggest increase in the under-16s.
"The implications are very substantial. Some of the Muslim population, by no means all of them, are the least socially and economically integrated of any in the United Kingdom ? and the one most associated with political dissatisfaction," said David Coleman, a professor of demography at Oxford University. Mrs Almudaris, who was raised in the UK and runs a medical supplies business in Cairo, said it was the younger generation of British Muslims who were confused about their identity and faith. "The people who got involved with the bombings in London in 2005 were young chaps who withered their lives away - but for what cause?
"We need to help these people, most of whom have identity crises and cultural baggage, not knowing whether they can be British or Muslims. We want to show them they can be both and that it is OK to live a simple life and be British and also look after their religion and have it blended into their life. We have to show them that Islam is not about radical politics but that it is just a way of life to be led normally with love and compassion. There is no such thing as 'we are Muslims and the rest of the world are infidels who we have to fight to the Day of Judgement'."
The hotline began taking calls this week, with promises of delivering a fatwa - or religious ruling - within 48 hours. Users can send in their questions by e-mail (69 pence) or to a voicemail. Muslim grassroots organisations, magazines and websites have been talking about the hotline, and it is largely young men and women who have been sending in their problems. Mrs Almudaris, who has seen some of the questions from the UK, admits that most of the problems are similar to the ones they have become used to from the Egyptian hotline.
"A lot of young people have issues, girlfriend issues, identity issues, drug issues," she said. "Most of the calls are made by women, many who are suffering from sexual abuse. The best thing is that all questions are anonymous. It gives so much freedom and confidence and spares the embarrassment of standing face to face with someone and asking questions about such intimate details." But already there are questions over what academics living in Egypt can know about UK culture, sexual mores and social idiosyncrasies.
"The person issuing the fatwa must know what the reality of living in Britain for Muslims is like so that the answer given strikes a chord with them and suits their surroundings," said Dr Nuh al Qadri of the Irish-based European Council for Fatwa and Research, which aims to bring together Islamic scholars in Europe to interpret Shariah law and to issue fatwas. Ajmal Mansoor, the director of Communities in Action, a mixed faith and ethnic group which aims to improve life in deprived communities, supports the project, but has some reservations: "I am concerned about the advice coming only from Egypt and the difference in the cultures and I have raised this issue. But this is just phase one. It is important to make a start but in time we will use scholars who live here."
Mrs Almudaris said most of the scholars have lived in Europe and so understood the cultural context. The answers are also all vetted by a panel so that if a scholar responds in a way that is not acceptable to Al Azhar, then he is not allowed to contribute any more answers. "We will incorporate UK Muslims eventually but there are so many that are too radical it is hard to choose," she said. The UK does already have a few of its own hotlines, but these tend to be more focused on helping Muslims integrate, rather than focusing on the Islamic aspect.
Milad Ahmed, 20, works for MuslimYouth.net, an organisation set up in 2001 to help young people. It also has a hotline. "I think the Egypt hotline is more faith-based and we are more case sensitive. Take a woman who wanted an abortion. They would be looking for what the Islamic teaching was on that subject but here we would look at what options are available and just keep talking through the options and the impact of the emotions the woman is suffering.
"I don't think I am struggling more because I am a Muslim. It was different for my parents when they came here from Bangladesh 30 years ago. There were quite a lot of race riots in Tower Hamlets and Brick Lane but the country has moved forward a lot since then. When my parents arrived they were seen as migrants who came here just to do their job and that was it but now I am seen as a British citizen; I live in this country, I work here, I pay my taxes."
Osman Farid, a consultant for Al Hatef based in the UK, is all too aware that the British public has a phobia about some Muslims since September 11 and the bomb attacks in London on July 7 2005. "We need dialogue and integration or we will be vulnerable to extremists," he said. "The hotline can certainly help young people understand the society they find themselves and to understand what the true rulings of Islam are and how they can be related to living in, say, the UK. But it must work on a global scale and there is a need for the Muslim world to be allowed to have greater involvement in the European Union and the United Nations; otherwise we will be seen only as a threat."
* The National