Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Moderates in the Extreme: The Islamist Spectrum and its Challenge for Liberal Democracy

(This article also appeared here in Areo Magazine)

One day in 2011 when I was living in Manchester, I encountered a Christian fundamentalist standing on Market Street wearing a sandwich board that expressed some of the fundamentals of his faith. His sign served as a warning to various groups of people to turn from their wicked ways or face eternal damnation in a fiery lake. Adulterers, fornicators, blasphemers, masturbators, pagans, atheists, sorcerers, witches, lesbians & gays all faced an eternity of being prodded in the nether regions with hot pokers by legions of demons, which ironically would turn out to be heaven for those sado masochists and bondage enthusiasts amongst the damned . Apparently, there's also a naughty step in hell for those who fall in to more than one category of sinner such as blasphemous masturbators and fornicators who shout "Oh God!" at the moment of climax.

It was clear from all the various groups on the sandwich board that hell was very big on celebrating diversity. Satan must have hired one of those Diversity Training Officers that inhabit large swathes of the British public sector. Anyway, what with Manchester being predominantly a socially liberal city the Christian man's sign was getting a lot of negative reaction from passers by. Some people even stopped to berate him and his followers that were distributing leaflets on how to avoid being prodded in the backside by a demon with a hot poker. As a former Evangelical Christian, but now committed secular atheist, I was interested in listening to the conversations between the Christians and the various people who stopped to talk to them. Things got particularly interesting when several Muslims debated the Christians on the appropriate punishment for homosexuality. One Muslim man, who was clearly an Islamist, informed the Christian that according to passages in both the Koran and Hadith gay people must be put to death. The Christian said he didn't agree with killing gay people and that he believed punishment was up to God in the afterlife as was made clear in the New Testament. I was standing by the edge of this bizarre conversation and next to me there was a young Muslim couple in their late twenties who were also listening attentively to the exchange between the two zealots.

The young couple were quite western in their appearance and apart from the woman's hijab there was nothing to indicate they could be Muslims. The man wore a Liverpool football jersey and was devoid of the long beard that makes it difficult to distinguish between who is a hipster and who is an Islamist these days. I was curious as to see if they agreed with the Islamist, that in an ideal Islamic state gay people would be executed so I started up a conversation.

"Excuse me, do you mind if I ask are you both Muslims?"

"Yes, we are," they replied in unison.

I detected the woman had an Irish accent. She was in fact from an affluent part of south Dublin and had a university education. I recall that her Father was from the Middle East and her mother from Ireland. Her husband had a thick scouse accent and his parents came from either the Middle East or North Africa from what I remember. I talked to them for well over an hour and I found them to be polite and civil individuals but whose views on a wide range of topics I found to be alarming, revealing and disturbing.

"Do you agree with what your fellow Muslim is saying to the Christian preacher?"

"Well, I could never kill any body myself, but at the same time it does say in the Koran and Hadith what the punishment for homosexuality should be," said the scouse Muslim.

"So, if you lived in a state where there were concentration camps for gay people where they were killed in the name of Islam would you or would you not have a problem with this?"

"Look, I wouldn't be able to work there myself and I wouldn't want to hear about it as I'd be uncomfortable with it, but at the same time I couldn't object to it either."

When I asked them for their views on suicide bombings, both against western civilians and within the never ending sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims they were unequivocal in their condemnation of such acts. They quoted passages from the Koran and Hadith that condemned the killing of civilians. When I put it to them that there are passages in the Koran and Hadith that justify religious violence against non-believers and that Jihadis read this literally they stated that the Koran has to be seen in the context of the times in which it was written when Islam was at war with Pagans and Christians and that those passages are not applicable to the modern world.

"These passages are being misinterpreted firstly by the terrorists and secondly by you people in the west to smear all Muslims as extremists," said the young woman.

However, it was clear they were being selective in their own literal reading of the Koran and Hadith. They were quite willing to comply, even if hesitantly, with those passages which call for the execution of gay people, whilst at the same time contextualising other passages in order to avoid the consequences of adhering to a literal reading of the texts that offended their morality. I found it quite dispiriting that a young Irish woman born and reared and educated in a western European liberal democracy and living in the United Kingdom would refer to her fellow Europeans as "you people in the west", as if she was from somewhere else. She used this expression continuously throughout our conversation. When they wouldn't concede an inch that Islamic terrorism has something to do with a version of Islam I moved on to the topic of the mistreatment of women within Islam.

"Again this is where you westerners misinterpret our faith. Islam empowers and gives women equal rights," the Dublin woman assured me.

"What about the various passages in the Koran and Hadith that justify wife beating and where women's evidence in court is deemed to be worth half that of a man's? I have read these passages with my own eyes  They are hardly an indicator of gender equality," I said.

"Well, there are many scholars who interpret those passages to mean only lightly beat with a hollow stick so that it leaves no marks," she said.

She admitted that Muslim women aren't allowed to hit their husbands lightly with the same hollow stick that supposedly leaves no marks. This should tell you all you need to know about the equal gender distribution of domestic violence within Islam. It would take some act of mental contorting to deny the link between passages in the Koran and Hadith that sanction beating your wife and  the widespread evidence that shows that domestic violence against women is a significant problem within majority Muslim countries.

When we had concluded our conversation I reached out my hand to shake the husband's hand and he shook it. I thanked them for their time. I extended my hand to his wife and she gestured that she would refrain from shaking my hand. Her husband informed me that in Islam women do not shake men's hands. Apart from many of of their views I found them to be nice people. They were both friendly and polite and were able to discuss their beliefs objectively and allow me to offer criticism without becoming personally enraged or threatened. I can't say the same for some of my fellow atheists on the social justice warrior spectrum or large swathes of the couple's coreligionists.

This young couple would probably be viewed by many non-Muslims as being moderate simply because they oppose Islamist terror attacks on civilians. However, I would expect most Muslims to oppose Jihadi violence as Muslims are the biggest victims of Islamist terror. In fact, Islamism itself, that is the belief that the far right illiberal Sharia legal system should be enshrined at both a state and global level is itself divided with regards to how to achieve this aim, through the political process or by use of terror. The once so- called  moderates in the Muslim Council of Britain, once courted by New Labour as the face of moderate Islam before later being dumped for supporting the Palestinian terror group Hamas were comprised of extremists with  bigoted views of non Muslims and who believe that there should be laws to prohibit criticism of Islam. Therefore, I do not concur with the many who believe that Muslim opposition to Islamist terrorism in the west on its own does a moderate make. For instance, this young couple's views on the treatment of homosexuals within their ideal society makes them supporters of Islamist violence. Their views on domestic violence are also indicative of their espousal of certain aspects of Islamism and an adherence to Sharia law that does not comply with laws of the United Kingdom or any western liberal democracy.

As I have said many times before I do not think all Muslims living in the west are extremists. I highly recommend former Jihadist Ed Husain's book 'the Islamist', where he details how his pious Muslim family were deeply opposed to Islamism and fell out with him because of his extremism. However, I think many more than is commonly acknowledged are on a spectrum of Islamist extremism with violent groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda at the most extreme end of that extremist spectrum and the less extreme end being comprised of people who whilst they would never involve themselves in acts of violence believe that an ideal society would kill gay people and persecute critics of Islam and allow you to knock your wife about as long as you did it lightly like a proper gentleman. The Islamist threat and extremist views on these islands is far from minimal as Trevor Phillips, the former head of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission reported in 2016. There's also the persecution of many former Muslims from some in their communities as well as the ongoing barbarity of forced marriages and so called honour violence in some sections of the Muslim community which all point to the prevalence of extremist and Islamist views. Here in Dublin, the Clonskeagh Mosque has links to the extremist Muslim Brotherhood and is the headquarters for the European Council for Fatwa and Research, which is chaired by the prominent radical cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, now banned from entering Ireland or the UK, who supports killing of gays and atheists and suicide bombings of civilians.

The fact that Islamist views are common within Muslim communities in the West raises an important ethical question that all liberal democracies have to ask themselves, which is, to what degree should a liberal democracy that values freedom of conscience and freedom of speech tolerate Islamist ideas, in that Islamism seeks to overthrow liberal democracy and establish an Islamic global caliphate in which freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and the rights of certain individuals would be highly restricted or abolished completely. At this point it is important to differentiate between what I call secular social conservatism and theocratic social conservatism. A religious yet secular social conservative may have views on homosexuality and the fate of apostates and blasphemers in an imagined afterlife that I do not share, but here is the salient point; he or she doesn't want to use the state to do harm to and/or deprive rights to gays, apostates and blasphemers. I fully defend the freedom of conscience of these religious people because they don't wish for the state to impose their views on those that are different to them. On the other hand, the theocratic social conservative wishes to use the state as a means by which to impose their religious views on others and persecute and deprive rights to certain groups and individuals. At the same time, we have to be careful in how we try to combat the Islamism that already exists within our societies without becoming overly authoritarian our selves and thus feeding the victim mentality that Islamists use to recruit new followers. However, what we can do is toughen up and highly regulate immigration from countries where we know Islamism is a dominant force and thus try to cut off the flow of Islamists in to our societies whilst still accepting Muslims who are content to abide by the laws of western democracies and whose ideal society does not involve Sharia law being the law of the land or for Sharia councils to be tolerated within western countries.

In Ireland, whilst we have moved swiftly along the path of secular liberal democracy we are still having some difficulty in removing the imprint of  Catholic theocratic social conservatism in the areas of health, religious oaths for certain state appointments and the almost complete prohibition on abortion. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan theocratic social conservatism is wedded to the state with all it's concomitant human rights abuses. According to those on the cognitively dissonant section of the left, it is worthy and progressive to oppose the theocratic social conservatism of the more fundamentalist Christians whilst it is racist, fascist and Islamophobic to oppose importing Islamist fascists with even more extreme theocratic social views in to the west.

 According to some on the left if you believe that an Islamist who is also an asylum seeker should be deprived the right to enter the west because of their Islamist views then you do not respect freedom of conscience at all despite the fact that Islamists only believe in freedom of conscience for themselves. This is like saying you defend every human being's right to three square meals a day including the man who not content with his own three meals a day also wants to steal your food and cut your head off whilst he's at it because you said something rude about his imaginary friend. It all comes down to reciprocity and equality. Why should I care about the rights of an Islamist to move to my country and exercise his freedom of conscience when in his ideal society he would deprive me of my freedom of conscience as well as my freedom of speech? It is suicidal, corrosive and destructive to liberal democracy to extend those rights to any group of people who will not reciprocate and who if they gained power would take measures to permanently eradicate those rights. As one of the fathers of liberal philosophy, John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty (1859) the 'harm principle' requires that the state can and should take action against those individuals who seek to do harm to others and surely there is no greater threat to individual autonomy than the illiberal agenda of the Islamists?

However, rather than admit the problem and deal with it accordingly, there are many people on the liberal left spectrum, which I inhabit to some degree, who would rather inaccurately shout 'racism' at you for opposing Islamist theocratic fascism. These are the kind of people that would lose their minds if  the bigoted sexist buffoon Donald Trump was to visit their city or country, who despite all that is extremely wrong and unsavoury about him has never called called for the killing of gay people or atheists. There are those who publicly congratulate themselves on their opposition to everything they disagree with as fascism but then turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the far right extremism that emanates from some Mosques in the west.

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