Is Islam compatible with the ‘West’?

I started writing this in the wake of the Manchester bomb attack but keep stopping short. I started again after the Borough Market attack, and have once again had cause to re-visit it following the attack in Finsbury Park. I’ve resolved to finish it and hit the publish button this morning because I think it’s really relevant issue to talk about, but not because there is really a sense in which the answer is ‘no’. The answer is obviously yes, but there are some caveats which relate to culture; the works of man rather than God that is.

Most folks don’t really know much about their cultural neighbours and as a Christian myself I see it as my duty to ‘love’ them by seeking to explain and — to an extent — reassure people. I ought to say now that this is not an article about Counter Terrorism or how to spot a terrorist. It is more focussed on exploring the generalised feeling of dislocation and fear directed at Muslim communities because of jihadist violence (aka terrorism).

I think it is first important to define the terms of the question and understand what is in its’ heart; most people when they make these enquiries normally retreat to entrenched positions without engaging with any facts.

On the ‘right’ are those who see Islam as a threat. They see it as against ‘our’ values and they conflate terrorism, honour based violence (HBV), female genital mutilation (FGM) and latterly child sexual exploitation (CSE) along with immigration fraud. It is obvious to them that the thread which runs through all of these important issues is Islam. They are really asking ‘to what extent can we trust our Muslim neighbours?’.

On the ‘left’ of the argument sit those to whom religion is no part whatsoever. They relate failings in education, foreign policy, deprivation and gender relations exclusively and accept no role for religion, because to them the idea that one should believe and behave in whatever way one wants is sacrosanct. Google ‘Jeremy Corbyn on HAMAS and Hezbollah’, and then google HAMAS and Hezbollah’s policy on gay marriage and you’ll understand what I mean.

Have a look at this and you’ll understand more about why this debate is important at the moment:

What most people do not understand is that there is no such thing as the ‘Muslim Community’, but rather ‘Communities of Muslims’. Characterising them as ‘Radical’ and ‘Moderate’ is not a useful way of understanding ‘their’ internal belief system. In doing so we take the implicit idea of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and we attribute a notional sliding scale of madness to a whole swathe of society. Muslim communities are very diverse. They generally don’t worship in the same places and practices that might be particular to one group in one town are not replicated in a different group in the same town. If you want to understand the difference go to a Mosque (you’ll be made very welcome) populated by Pakistani Sunnis, and then go a Mosque populated by Pakistani Ahmaddiyah Muslims. Watford is a good place to start for this, as is Stevenage. One group wouldn’t even call the other Muslim and hate crimes between them would probably have been reported at some point in the past. Therefore to understand ‘compatibility’ one has to understand two basic elements of Islam in the UK:

  1. Jurisprudence
  2. The social dynamics of the group or groups of Muslims in question

I’m going to talk a bit about ‘jurisprudence’ (how one applies the law) to start with. Jurisprudence is generally what determines what a ‘radical’ or a ‘moderate’ Muslim is (at least in the public perception) and it is inextricably tied to nationality and culture.

Within Sunni Islam (I’m excluding Sufism and Shi’ism) there are effectively 4 ‘schools’ of Islamic jurisprudence. These schools are:

1) Hanafi


3) Sha’fi

4) Maliki

To make laws and guidelines for society these schools or methods go to a number of different sources in different ways to solve the same life problems, these are:

  1. The Qu’ran — the ultimate authority. The literal word of God according to Muslims.
  2. The Hadith — this is the book which talks about what the Prophet Mohammed said and did and offers an insight into how life was back in the 6th century. (The Bible is sort of like the Hadith because Christ didn’t write any of it — it’s his life story as seen by observers and written after the fact by his followers).
  3. Ijma — collective reasoning between a cohort of thinkers/jurists from a particular era.
  4. Qiyas — analogy

You know when you hear someone saying ‘But the Qur’an says this’ and someone else says ‘But that’s not what we believe’? — That’s an argument about jurisprudence. Lots of people with agendas will find a part of the Qur’an with which they want to take issue or prove a point with and they will find a verse as support. This goes for Jihadists as well as racists; each can find something they can jab a finger at to prove a point. However it is far far more complex than that.

In the UK most Muslims emerge from the Hanafi tradition. The dominant groups of Muslim immigrants have historically come from the Indian subcontinent where the Hanafi tradition is prevalent. Hanafi Muslims use all 4 of the above sources in that order to derive religious opinions ( a ‘fatwa’ — which is not a death warrant by the way!). They are the archetypal ‘moderates’. I don’t want to generalise too much, but your average Hanafi is pretty much what most people regard as a ‘moderate’.

There are also significant numbers of Hanbalis present in the UK and it is within this tradition that we see ‘Wahabism’ emerging. Wahabi’s don’t call themselves Wahabi’s because they see themselves simply as Muslims who follow the Qur’an. Wahabism emerged in Saudi Arabia, and is the dominant underpinning ‘style’ of Hanbali Islam in the Gulf region.

This is melting your head by now, so here is my own ‘Qiya’ or analogy —

When I used to train Police officers about ‘radicalism’ I used to use a tool I called the refrigerator test. I am going to apply it — crudely — here; Imagine living in the desert in summer and you are a Muslim; you are asked to come up with a religious opinion on the refrigeration of water, how do you compose a ‘fatwa’?:

  1. A Hanafi will look at the Qur’an, and see that it (the literal word of God literally transcribed by Mohammed) did not mention refrigeration. They will then move on to look at the Hadith and see what the prophet did in his life, or what he said. He won’t find any mention of refrigeration, but he will find the Prophet talking about living comfortably and prospering and using technology. They will then move on and look at what groups of scholars have said over time about adopting technology; when he finds that these scholars died before refrigeration was invented, he’ll then move on and seek an analogy. He’ll find that its OK to use the technology because in general it is within the spirit of Islam to live comfortably and prosper for various reasons.
  2. A Hanbali will look at the Qur’an, and look at the Hadith and find no mention of refrigeration anywhere. It will therefore be banned. Those who use refrigeration may then face sanction under the law.

NB — Of course nobody has really banned refrigeration, I use it as crude way of breaking down a method of jurisprudence. Imagine trying to apply these methods to contemporary ‘problems’ like gender equality, gay rights, the internet, banking regulation etc…that’s where it gets complicated.

How does this relate to our culture?

At times like these people look around them and they see groups of Muslims and they wonder to what extent ‘radicalism’ affects every member of that community. They find examples of Muslims who seem to say things which might lead them on a path towards extremism; such things as ‘decadence’ and ‘immorality’ often surface as criticisms of Western culture even in more ‘moderate’ groups of Muslims. To be honest I feel the same way about immorality every time I see a Niki Minaj video, so I don’t think these are particularly unfair opinions. However I get the point; we in the West sort of tut and moan about how things have got worse over time but we don’t see them as an extension of a religious malaise caused by a population absenting themselves from God.

However there is a big difference in perspective. In our society there has been a separation between the power of the Church and that of Parliament. What is private is private. Public morals are scarcely considered the realm of government except where that harm translates into physical risk. If you are a legal geek, have a look at R vs Brown and others and you’l have a bit of insight. It was not always so; Canon Law, which was dictated by the Vatican, used to be as powerful as the law laid down in the English parliament until the time of Henry VIII. In Muslim majority countries the waters are not as clear. Morality and religion are a much more dominant feature of public life. This is one reason why it is not useful to talk about ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals’ because a person can be a ‘moderate’ but still hold opinions for which they see Islam as the answer and therefore seem like a ‘radical’. Therefore along with issues concerning jurisprudence and the application of religious thought, comes a political culture which does not recognise a space for private or personal separation of public morals and personal morals.

People often talk of Saudi (often found within the Hanbali tradition discussed above) sponsored versions of Islamic jurisprudence gaining a strong foothold in many places globally, including within the UK denoting them as the ultimate propagators of ‘radical’ Islam. To be frank that is probably right, although other Gulf states such as Qatar are also responsible. The Arab Gulf states are seen as paradigms of Islamic behaviour because of their associations with the most holy sites in Islam. Yet within them we also see exceptionally repressive social and legal structures which mix public and personal moral responsibilities and punish transgressors with exceptional violence.

Public Policy and the Perception of Compatibility.

Nowhere is conflict between ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ culture more evident than with issues such as HBV, CSE and FGM and of course terrorism. These are all problems peculiarly associated with various communities of Muslim men around the UK. I need to be really clear about this though — nowhere in Islam is HBV, FGM CSE or any form of suicide terrorism sanctioned or encouraged. The opposite is true. However it is plain that some cultural and sub cultural beliefs related to chastity and rooted in patriarchal social norms play a particular role in the commission of these offences.

But the law in the UK is already very clear however around the rights of those individuals who might otherwise find themselves repressed. The law is also very clear around HBV, FGM and CSE.

The problem is less about the compatibility of Muslims in society than it is about the integration of the various communities and the cultures from which they emerge into British life. Multiculturalism has for a long time being considered synonymous with religious freedom, but this is wrong. Permitting a febrile, patriarchal culture to emerge as a function of religious freedom is not right.

So what should policy makers do?

  1. It’s not really controversial that the war in Iraq in 2003 heightened and intensified tensions. It should not have happened. Our current involvements in the Middle East may be stoking some tensions, but on the whole they are necessary to defeat the military forces of daesh (I will not call them Islamic State) and so it’s got to continue.
  2. In my view, all Muslim marriages should be recognised by English law (they currently aren’t necessarily). Any women wanting to divorce her husband should be given free legal support to do so, protection if needed and an entitlement to the same things that the rest of us are. This would significantly swing the balance of power back towards women, and I see this as a really important factor in stripping patriarchal power in the long term.
  3. Education — Segregation along religious lines, implicit or explicit should be banned. Integration cannot happen if groups segregate themselves in education. I’m talking about faith schools. I’ve seen first hand the effect this can have on communities, and I have seen (and I won’t say how) how seductive ‘minority’ schools are to liberal politicians. I don’t count just Muslim schools in this by the way. Religious education needs to be revamped.
  4. Immigration policy needs to be stronger. We need to be clear about our identity and those who are not part of that need to be removed. I don’t just mean Muslims. Anyone who comes to this country and commits a crime (an actual crime, not a thought crime) must be sufficiently worried as to look over their shoulder and be think about when they would be removed.
  5. People should be compelled to vote, or attend a voting station at times of national election.
  6. I shan’t give Mr Corbyn too much of a hard time here, but he really has got to start thinking about the impact his views have on disempowered white voters. Most people don’t know that Hezbollah are a Shi’ite terror group born of specific social conditions in Lebanon. Going on marches with them normalises the view that Muslims are on a ‘sliding scale’ of ‘mad or not mad’.

So in asking the question ‘Is Islam compatible with the West’ we are missing a trick. Islam is entirely compatible with our way of life, not just because it is generally tolerant and generally peaceful, but because where its’ practices conflict with our beliefs we have sufficient freedom to tolerate it. Identifying Muslims as simply ‘radical’ or ‘moderate’ is the wrong paradigm, because with it we simply ask ‘how mad are you?’ or imply ‘are you more or less of a Muslim’. It is a bit insulting really.

But with all of that said, jihadist violence and jihadist beliefs are a serious social problem. We have not, over the years, done enough to challenge them and the public, in my opinion, are sick of it. What we should ask is; ‘Is Multiculturalism compatible with social cohesion’. The answer is probably no. We need to understand and be brave enough to challenge those elements of other cultures which do not work and put in place the structures we need to to create that cohesion.

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