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Looking For a Few Good Muslims

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University and the author of God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis. Check out his past posts on this blog by clicking here. In the post below Jenkins reflects on the Lancaster House conference on “Islam and Muslims in the World Today.”

The angelic-faced cleric looked bemused as the police guard insisted that he could not be admitted to 10 Downing Street without photo identification. “But I am a mufti!” he said, puzzled. “We do not carry identification. In Bosnia, everyone knows we are muftis”. Eventually, though, he did produce a passport that allowed him into his arranged breakfast meeting with Tony Blair, and later to participation in last month’s Lancaster House conference on “Islam and Muslims in the World Today”. He would be a key player in an event billed as a platform for the authentic voices of a faith often hijacked by extremists, and it went far to meeting its goal. It certainly produced some startling declarations for anyone used to hearing the familiar ravings from the jihadist imams, in Londonistan and elsewhere. And the meeting might represent a plausible new strategy for European governments trying to accommodate a Muslim minority now making up four or five percent of their populations, and growing.

The Lancaster House setting itself suggests the high profile nature of the gathering. This is where successive jenkins121903.jpgBritish governments have held their blue riband conferences through the years, where for instance they negotiated the independence of Nigeria and Zimbabwe (alright, that last is not a hopeful precedent). Besides Tony Blair, Gordon Brown was present as heir-apparent to Downing Street, as was Conservative leader David Cameron, while the Prince of Wales gave a pre-recorded welcome that went well beyond diplomatic niceties. So personally interested is the Prince in Islam as to give rise to semi-serious mutterings over the years that he was considering conversion, though the Crown seems safely in Christian hands for the foreseeable future.

Blair likewise, only a few weeks from standing down as Prime Minister, showed real personal interest in the event that will be one of his last achievements in office. He devoted significant time to meeting participants and to delivering a lengthy speech, in which he showed a concern with Islamic matters that impressed many Muslim participants. Obviously, he wants to prevent any recurrence of the kind of terrorism that erupted on July 7, 2005, and has come close to repetition on several subsequent occasions. As he looks back on his term in office, he may well regard the Islamist upsurge as the gravest single feature of his time in office, a blemish on his record even more conspicuous than the Iraq war.

More to the point, Blair cares personally about religious matters in general. He thinks a great deal about issues of faith, and we have known for years that he will officially come out of the gods-continent.jpgcloset as a Roman Catholic very shortly after leaving Number Ten. Interestingly, the other Cabinet minister present at his side was Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but also a prominent lay Catholic, and a member of Opus Dei. This religious context is not just a piece of biographical trivia, but rather suggests the underlying strategy shaping the event. Instead of the conventional politically-based distinction between moderates and extremists, Blair and his academic advisers are seeking to identify authentically religious and even mystical strands of Islam that have been overwhelmed by the Islamist expansion over the past four decades, and to develop them as alternative voices, as promising partners for negotiation and cooperation. Instead of secular governments speaking to clerical leaders, religion will speak peace to religion, faith to faith – or such is the hope.
Accordingly, the speakers and participants were chosen to emphasize those regions of the Islamic world where Islamist or Wahhabi ideas were traditionally weak, which have their strong local traditions. Hence the presence of the Bosnian Grand Mufti, Mustafa Ceric, or Yenny Zannuba Wahid, daughter of the former Indonesian President, or of Emine Bozkurt, a feminist Dutch MEP of Turkish origins. The stress on the diversity of Islam also helps explain the attendance by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shaykh Ali Gomaa, who represents one of the most ancient and distinguished spiritual traditions of Islam, and who has no time for upstart fanatics like the Wahhabis and their Pakistani counterparts. His speech was uncompromising. He condemned “blatant acts of aggressions” like the 7/7 attacks, and condemned the idea that any unqualified idiot could issue fatwas justifying violence. He spurned the view that Islam prescribed any particular form of government, especially the Caliphate, which was a device that worked well in a particular time and place. Liberal democracy, in fact, did an excellent job of asserting Islamic values, and in creating a faith that is “authentic, contemporary, moderate and tolerant.” And while this might be the sort of tailored message that a London audience would want to hear, this is a man who has also in Egypt publicly declared the legitimacy of electing a woman president, and has tried to prevent the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Yet this liberal emphasis did not exclude all theological hardliners. One Indian Muslim proudly told me that he was from Deoband, home of the very influential Islamic fundamentalist movement, and in case I was ignorant, he added, “You know, we made the Taliban!” (They did too). Orthodox voices were also much in evidence at lunch meetings, though the British activists I met combined devotion to traditional Islam with gratitude that Britain and other European countries allowed total religious liberty, far beyond anything that might be expected in an Islamic country. In return, they happily echoed Shaykh Ali Gomaa’s condemnations of terrorism as a criminal act masquerading in religious guise.

The “alternative voices” approach also accounts for the heavy representation of Sufi leaders and movements, an approach that looks all the more sensible when we think of the geographical roots of the vast majority of European Muslims today. Historically, Islam originated in the Middle East, in Arabic- and Persian-speaking cultures, and Muslim regimes initially made little progress in converting large sections of their populations, who remained true to older faiths. Matters changed with the organization of the Sufi brotherhoods, who won the hearts of the ordinary people, and who also spread Islam into whole new parts of the world. Sufi forms of Islam came to dominate in the Balkans, but also in much of North and West Africa, in South and South-East Asia, exactly the areas from which twentieth century European nations would draw immigrants. Now, Sufi forms of Islam are not uniformly “moderate” in any contemporary sense of being pacifist or tolerant: Sufi adepts were warrior-knights as well as mystics, and they led the military expansion of Islam. Yet their religious practices make them deeply suspect in the eyes of modern-day Islamists, who loathe their veneration of local sheikhs and saints, their pilgrimages to shrines and other than Mecca, and their cultivation of ritual music and dancing. (For a very close analogy, just think how a hard-shell Protestant fundamentalist might contemplate Latino Catholicism). Saudi Arabia has long prohibited the operation of the Sufi orders.

Logically, then, we might expect immigrant communities of Moroccan or Pakistani origin to be highly resistant to modern-day Islamism, and of course, we would be disappointed. The great tragedy of contemporary European Islam is the fading or discrediting of these diverse traditions, and the rise instead of a pseudo-ancient global pan-Islamism, which appeals above all to teenagers and young adults. Conversely, the best means of reversing this trend could well be the revival of diversity, in a religion that historically has had manifestations quite as polyphonic and varied as has Christianity itself. It remains to be seen how much government can contribute to the process.

The Blairite religious agenda made for some striking tensions among the participants. Many speakers belonged to Europe’s familiar interfaith mafia, who itinerate between well-funded international conferences. These largely have a secular bent, seeing Islam evolve in the same sort of liberal relativist directions as mainstream Christianity has on the continent. Mona Siddiqui of Glasgow University came close to preaching a secular fundamentalism based on a particular scripture, when she suggested that the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights should in all cases trump the ethical pronouncements of any and all religions. But alongside the secularists were some remarkably highly placed religious leaders, who combined their denunciations of violent extremism with religious and moral conservatism. The Egyptian Grand Mufti was scornful of attempts to proclaim contemporary Western values as universal human rights, and specifically mentioned the issue of homosexuality: just when, he asked, did that acquire the status of fundamental right? As recently as 1948, the authors of the UN Declaration certainly did not consider sexual orientation any kind of fundamental right. In the language used for the shady businesses in old episodes of Monty Python, it is fully established since recently.

Observing the interactions between the speakers, it was curious to see the immense cultural divisions between different shades of “moderate” Muslims, divisions that in some ways, oddly, bode well for Europe’s future. Though Ali Gobaa was too gentlemanly to show resentment personally, many of those present (including my Christian self) cringed at the lack of deference shown to him by some Euro-Muslim speakers and chairs, who addressed him chattily (“So, Shaykh…”), and who clearly had no sense of the importance of his position or his statements. This problem reached an absurd level when he discussed stunning pronouncement about permitting women to serve as Islamic judges. A prominent Manchester Muslim responded in bored tones that he could see nothing terribly exciting about such a move, which of course was quite epochal in the Egyptian context. However Muslim they think themselves, these Brits and others have adopted a wholly European disregard for the sacred and its earthly representatives. Would Christians have treated a Pope or Cardinal in such cavalier terms? Actually, of course they would.

The Lancaster House event naturally had its critics. Some prominent British Muslim leaders denounced the conference as a cherry-picked assembly of tame Muslims and other experts carefully selected not to oppose Blair policy on Iraq or the War on Terror. Muslim peer Lord Ahmed warned that “It’s a colonial style of conference, where the government has tried to divide the Muslim leadership and create a new one … They’ve included people who don’t have an opinion or who have remained silent.” Just before setting out, I and other speakers received a sobering email from the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the “Liberation Party”, which, while not a violent group itself, has produced some scary spin-offs. The Hizb warned that any solutions to the problems of the Muslim world must come from Islam itself, and not from a gathering sponsored by Western states and their puppets: “It cannot be expected that the proxy of a neo-Kemalist or the instigators or supporters of the global war on terror will represent these [ideas]. Sadly, it is unlikely that they will be expressed by those who have to return to face regimes who have brutally crushed any expression of these Islamic political ideas over many decades – for example in Egypt.”

Some of these objections were fair enough. The conference organizers had done their share of cherry-picking, carefully sailing around the Arabian peninsular for most of their choices, and avoiding most of the Saudi or Muslim Brotherhood types who are normally so badly over-represented as spokesmen (rarely spokeswomen) for Islam. Now, we can exaggerate the degree of exclusion – I think of my friend from Deoband – but the point has some substance. To some extent, the organizers were compensating for past errors in selection, though they had gone a little too far. Looking around the audience, it was striking to see so many women, mainly wearing hijabs, but precisely none of whom wore the niqab, the full-face veil. Given the major trend towards full-face concealment among European Muslims over the past decade, that does suggest real problems of representativeness. And the debates at the conference were noticeably discreet on touchy matters that were on everyone’s mind. Very few people uttered the I-word, Iraq, leaving Blair to assert those aspects of his foreign policy record in which her had conspicuously defended Muslim interests, in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

But any errors in bringing this gathering together have to be set aside the policies of the recent past, which have to be regarded as a serious failure. The problem is simple enough. Governments want to identify groups or agencies that can be portrayed as legitimate representatives of the Muslim community, and that can speak with a voice that will reach the disaffected nineteen year old being seduced by radical Islamist propaganda. But just who do they talk to? It might be pleasant negotiating with well-intentioned liberal secularists who agree with everything you say, but their pronouncements will carry no weight on that portion of the “Muslim Street” that is now to be found in East London or Dewsbury. Alternatively, you can find people whose words will echo on the street, but the fact of talking to such leaders gives them a dangerous degree of credibility. The dilemma might be insoluble.

Until very recently, European governments have taken the second course, working with national federations and umbrella groups that themselves speak for hard line Islam, which accept many of the goals of the extremists, while disavowing their methods. The British long tried to negotiate through the Muslim Council of Britain, the MCB, which included among its affiliate organizations groups tied to the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Pakistani Jamaat-i-Islami. That decision meant seeing all Muslims, however liberal or secular, through an Islamist lens, which tended to transform all minority grievances into religious issues, to be resolved through appropriate clerical intervention. And moreover, it allowed Islam to be defined and interpreted only through the narrowest interpretation: could the Muslim Brotherhood itself have planned things more to its taste? For an analogy, imagine that a hundred years ago, the US government had decided that it would use only the Roman Catholic hierarchy as its sole vehicle for negotiating with the wave of Christian immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, so that ordinary Catholics need never bother their heads with secular political parties.

Only after 7/7 did the British government acknowledge its error. Despairing of the MCB as its primary Muslim partner, it moved to working with other more liberal domestic groups like the British Muslim Forum (BMF) and the Sufi Muslim Council, and other bodies prominently represented at Lancaster House. It would not be too cynical to see the shrieks of outrage by the politicized Muslim establishment as arising from (justified) fears that they are being outflanked in the struggle for influence and patronage.

Blair’s new policy may or may not work, and groups like the BMF might have no more success in preventing the drift to radicalism than did the Muslim old guard. But at the least, it reverses the worrying tendency to clericalize minority issues, and to define Islam according to one strict recipe. European governments have long acknowledged that the problem of Islamist extremism must be dealt with from within that religion itself, but the Lancaster House conference suggests further that the solutions must be religious in their own right, rather than merely encouraging secularism, liberalism or “moderation”. Islam is not and never has been the problem in modern Europe, it is rather the bigoted forms of Islam that despise much of Muslim history, culture and spirituality as heartily as they loathe Christians and Jews. The attempt to build up these alternate forms of Islam, which historically represented the mainstream of the faith, suggests a new degree of awareness and sophistication about the relationship of faith and politics. This recognition might come to be seen as one of Tony Blair’s greatest contributions.

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