Rejecting Islamic extremism

EgyptProtestsI have recently returned from visiting Egypt as the head of a delegation of academics, media personnel, politicians and senior ex-military officers from the USA. We met with the young people who initiated the two revolutions, the business community, the chairman of the constitutional committee, the religious communities and the Egyptian military, including the Defense Minister.

Egypt is in the throes of change. The 2011 Arab Spring ousted long-serving President Mubarak. Barely two years later another popular uprising, which saw an estimated 33 million people take to the streets, brought down his successor, President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, when the army intervened to stop a potential civil war and to ensure that the will of the people was followed.

Deposed Egyptian President Morsi

Deposed Egyptian President Morsi

Morsi had come to power through democratic elections a year earlier. It was no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate should win those elections, given that the Brotherhood had been preparing for decades for such an opportunity and were well organised across the country, with a reputation for providing for the needs of the poor. Christians, secularists and modernist Muslims joined with traditional Muslims in voting for a new governing body, different from Mubarak’s.

They trusted Morsi to do the right thing and to create a government that would embrace all political and religious opinions and that would give to the people freedom, dignity and full equality.

Instead, Morsi brought in sharia; he consolidated the power of the Muslim Brotherhood; he rejected all other Islamic opinions apart from his own strict interpretation of Islam; he rejected the secularists, the modernists, the traditional Muslims and the conservative Muslims. He rejected the Christians, the academics and those who had no faith. He sought to change the identity of the Egyptian people by cutting them adrift from over five millennia of history, from their cultural roots and from their traditions of tolerance.

Also he ruled not as an Egyptian but as a member of an international body, the Muslim Brotherhood. For him, the umma (global Muslim nation) took priority over his Egyptian identity, and so gradually the laws and the constitution began to change. Muslims who opposed him were regarded as infidels. Christians were to be subjugated. He reportedly  amassed arms, created a militia and used it to kill fellow Egyptians including members of the security forces. A rigid Islamist interpretation of the Quran, hadith and sharia was imposed.

EgyptProtests2So the people from all walks of life rose up. They said enough was enough. Having thrown off their old secular dictator, the Egyptian electorate were dismayed to find that they had voted in an Islamist dictator and before long moved to rid themselves of him too. In so doing they aroused the fury of Islamists in Egypt and further afield. Far away in Canada, one sheik raged, “Our Islamic nation has been defeated through treachery,” and he strongly criticized Egypt’s Christians for supporting the security services.

But if 90% of Egyptians are Muslim, why did they object to being ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization firmly focused on classical Islamic teaching?

The answer lies in varying interpretations of the original Islamic sources. The Muslim Brotherhood takes very seriously the early Islamic aim of trying to reproduce across the world Islamic rule modeled on that established by Muhammad himself in Medina. In Islamic terminology, this means creating an Islamic state ruled according to sharia.

Sharia is the all-encompassing set of regulations that govern everything from what a Muslim can eat or wear and how a Muslim should pray to social structures, economic practices and judicial punishments. It also covers how Muslims must relate to non-Muslims, both within and outside the Islamic state. Within the state, non-Muslims are not to be treated on a par with Muslim citizens, but must adhere to a set of demeaning and humiliating restrictions. Outside the state, non-Muslims are the enemy who must be subjugated and whose territory must be added to the Islamic state.

BarackObamaIslamNewYorkerThus the long-term aim of the Muslim Brotherhood is identical to that of violent Islamist organizations such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab. Whilst their methodology may vary, their objectives remain the same. The main difference is that the Brotherhood are willing to work patiently through peaceful and even democratic means to gain the power they want. It is therefore a dangerously flawed policy to seek to work with “gradual Islamists” on the assumption that they will counteract the “violent extremists”. When did the means ever justify the end, if I may coin a phrase? All Islamists have the same goal, and facilitating the non-violent Islamists will not change the direction in which they are heading.

In all our meetings in Egypt, we were asked to take a message back to the US and to the UK. The message was a simple one: The military did not engage in a coup; they responded to the will of the people. The military and the populace rejected an extremist interpretation of Islam. They were not at war with Islam and they were not infidels. More than that, they did not hate Islam. The Muslim groups that we met said that they were committed Muslims, committed to their faith and to their traditions, but they firmly believed that the Islamists, political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, did not represent the Islam of the Egyptian people and so had to be not only rejected but ejected from the country.

benghazi1They expressed great dismay at the US and UK governments’ support for the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, not only through their ambassadors but also through their political leaders. Although President Obama stepped back from this in his speech to the UN General Assembly, there was the strong view in Egypt that the Western media and the Western political establishment were on the side of the Islamists, that the non-Islamist Egyptians were being condemned.

On 27 September I was cited by Islamophobia Watch as a miscreant who is – in their terminology – guilty of Islamophobia. In response to my statement that Islamist groups such as al-Shabaab are “striving to observe and impose the teachings of the Quran and the hadith (the traditions about Muhammad) in their most absolute sense”, and that “to say that ‘they don’t represent Islam or Muslims in Britain or anywhere else in the world’ is flagrantly untrue,” they comment:

“This is the sort of rhetoric that you would associate with the English Defense League, the British National Party and other organizations on the Islamophobic far right.”

IslamDominateIt is not the first time I have featured in the rogues’ gallery of Islamophobia Watch, and many of my friends also appear there from time to time. Islamophobia Watch have long since lost any credibility they may have once had, by their ultra-intolerant stance. Any criticism of Muslim people or Islamic theology becomes “Islamophobia”, in their view, no matter how reasoned or nuanced the comments may be. Some of us therefore count it almost a badge of honor to be criticized by Islamophobia Watch!

Let me be clear that I detest far-right extremism and fascism of all kinds. In fact, I have even been beaten up by neo-Nazis because of my opposition to them. There is no place for these views in a democratic society; they breed hate and must be utterly rejected. But on this occasion, whose views are the more extreme: mine or those of Islamophobia Watch?

MuslimBrotherhood1My alleged fault was having said that British Prime Minister David Cameron should have recognized the importance of Islam in the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi on 21 September. Numerous media reports described the way in which the attackers sought to distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims, by checking their ID cards, or quizzing them on such matters as the name of Muhammad’s mother, or asking them to recite the Islamic creed. Those who appeared to be Muslims were allowed to live, and the rest were killed, often in hideously cruel ways. It beggars belief that anyone could reject this wealth of evidence and say that Islam was not a factor in the attack. I therefore assume that Mr Cameron, who is an intelligent man, did not actually believe his own words. Was he perhaps trying to avoid any accusation of Islamophobia?

If so, Islamophobia Watch have won a victory that should make us all quake in our shoes. This anonymous group – or single individual, for all I know – who seem positively neo-fascist in their determination to quash all criticism of Islam, have forced the political leader of a Western democracy to say that black is white and white is black. It is beyond Orwellian newspeak. It is the principle that if you tell a big enough lie and keep repeating it, people will believe it.

When two suicide bombers killed over 80 Christians leaving a church service in Pakistan on 22 September, Islamophobia Watch had no comment to make. When al-Shabaab killed around 70 non-Muslims at Nairobi’s Westgate mall in September, Islamophobia Watch had no comment to make.

EgyptCopticBurnsIslamophobia Watch was also silent when 100 churches and other Christian institutions were attacked in Egypt in the aftermath of Morsi’s ousting. Islamophobia Watch has not commented on the brutal killing of Shias by Sunnis in Syria. The killing of Christians, of infidels and of Shia Muslims all had religious motivations, yet Islamophobia Watch remains silent. Could it be that Islamophobia Watch shares the convictions of those who committed these crimes? Do they share the same worldview?

Besides, criticizing the ideological basis of Islamic extremism is not Islamophobic; it is endorsed by many Muslims. In Egypt, Muslims yearn for a society based on dignity and freedom and justice. They want an Islam freed from intolerance, fear and violence. They have rejected the Muslim Brotherhood, which has now set up in the UK.

The Muslim Brotherhood, with its inspirational leader, Al-Qaradawi, based in Qatar, and the Salafist-Wahhabi movement based in Saudi Arabia now control the global Islamist movements, the very movements that spawn Islamophobia Watch. It is time now for Islamophobia Watch to be exposed: either the “useful idiots” who are part of it and believe that they are protecting Islam, or the Islamists who shape the ideology behind it. The only fear or phobia that now exists is the fear that many good decent Muslims have of an Islam that does not share their fundamental values of freedom, of dignity, of life.

EgyptCopticIslamophobia Watch believes that they are defending Islam from those who hate it; in effect, they are defending their brand of Islam from those who rightly fear it. Thirty-three million Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians, took to the streets to remove a Muslim Brotherhood tyrant. They were the young people, the students, the business community, the religious leaders; they were united.

When the military intervened to bring stability and order, they were described as being infidels and anti-Islamic. Whoever now criticizes Islamic extremists is regarded as being anti-Islam. In this way the Islamic extremists, like totalitarian neo-fascists, have sought to capture the religion of Islam. The extremists now find themselves at war with the vast majority of decent Muslims around the world.

The Muslims of Egypt have risen up and have rejected this brand of extremism. Those in some other Muslim-majority countries are doing the same: after the Peshawar church blast, a Facebook campaign was launched to ask Muslims in Pakistan to visit their local mosques and request their imams to condemn the attack. One commentator said, “It is a tough fight but it is the good fight and it has to be fought the long and hard way.” It is time for tolerant people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, to rise up and reject ideological intolerance.

IslamBareAnd it is high time that Muslims in Britain and other Western countries, together with Western political leaders, said no to the Islamophobia Watch group. A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike of Islam. If this group now represents Islam, there is nothing irrational in fearing them; rather there is every reason to be alarmed and to expect that the violence that is now going on in Syria will look like chicken feed compared with what could soon be happening right across the Muslim world.

This article first appeared today on BarnabasAid.com and is published on TulsaToday.com with permission.