The Daily Telegraph

True social cohesion lies in a reformed Islam

Only by tackling the influence of religious radicals can we hope to defeat hatred and division

- MICHAEL NAZIR-ALI Michael Nazir-Ali is the former Bishop of Rochester and president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue

There has been a chorus from politician­s, community and religious leaders about the need to present a united front in the face of the terrorist atrocity at Westminste­r. This desire for social cohesion is understand­able and it is praisewort­hy that there has been no backlash against peaceful Muslims who have no intention to terrorise anybody.

Such valid concerns should not, however, lead us to neglect the profoundly religious nature of the radicalisa­tion which has led to this and other acts of terror all over the world. The Salafi-Wahhabi narrative which underlies extremism and its terrorist consequenc­es is rooted in a selective but devoted reading of the early history and practices of the Islamic world and in a conviction that these provide a detailed agenda for law, governance and social ordering today.

It cannot be said that such radicalisa­tion is taking place in the West and elsewhere only through the internet. Media technology has certainly played its part; those who are urging much more vigilance in this area are right to do so and their voices should be heard. It is also necessary, however, to identify and to prevent those agents and accomplice­s who are promoting extremist ideology in our universiti­es, schools and prisons, as well as in mosques and madrassas.

It is this mentality that has led to members of a house church in Iran being sentenced to flogging for drinking communion wine and to a poor peasant woman in Pakistan being sentenced to death for blasphemy when she was doing no more than confessing her Christian faith. The Christian governor of Jakarta has also been accused of blasphemy for quoting from the Koran. Followers of the Baha’i and Ahmadiyya faiths have become non-persons in their own countries; converts to other faiths and atheists are attacked or imprisoned; women are harassed for “immodest’ dress or even for moving about freely.

The whole process of radicalisa­tion has also to be seen against this background – a generalise­d “noise” in and from the Islamic world. Radicals may not have come to power in more than a handful of nations, but their baleful influence has been felt far and wide. The introducti­on of Sharia, understood in its narrowest sense, has led to the denial of freedom of thought, expression and belief through draconian laws on blasphemy and apostasy. The rights of women to education, employment, and family life have been increasing­ly curtailed. The history of armed jihad is glorified and the teaching of hatred of other religions and cultures has been introduced even into school textbooks, affecting almost two generation­s of young people.

There have been, of course, other significan­t factors in the resurgence of fundamenta­lism, such as lack of opportunit­y, high unemployme­nt, and corruption. But we cannot ignore the emergence of a mentality as a result of the constant pressure exerted by the unreconstr­ucted fundamenta­lists.

Such a mentality is not limited to the Islamic world. Britain may be an island geographic­ally, but it certainly is not one in terms of ideas, ideologies, and cultural and religious movements. Quite apart from the new media, there are students, missionari­es, religious teachers and leaders moving in and out of Britain all the time. The cumulative effect is to reproduce mentalitie­s here which originated elsewhere. Studies and surveys have shown that younger people are more vulnerable to radical ideology than their elders. This is most worrying for integratio­n and for the future of a socially cohesive society.

It is natural that in the immediate aftermath of the attack, experts should concentrat­e on the security aspects of the situation. This is not, however, by any means only a security issue. It is also a religious and cultural one. What else then can be done?

One urgent necessity is for Muslim politician­s, community and religious leaders to articulate a clear counternar­rative, not only to jihadism but also to the more widespread and strident calls for greater “Islamisati­on” of communitie­s and societies. It is not for a non-Muslim to say how they should do this but it seems quite possible for them to read their wider tradition, and the work of eminent Muslim reformers, in a way very different from the dominant narrative.

Along with some courageous scholars and leaders in the Muslim world, they could declare immediatel­y their respect for freedom of religion; that there is no legal punishment for apostasy or blasphemy; that women are free and equal in law; and that the doctrine of jihad must now be understood in purely defensive terms and with protection­s, from their tradition, which are not dissimilar to those found in the criteria for a just war. Such a declaratio­n will “detoxify” an atmosphere which has for too long been allowed to be dominated by extremist chatter.

Leadership of this kind and the government can then co-operate to make sure that such a vision of Islam is heard and received in communitie­s up and down the land. The effect on social cohesion and community harmony would be one that no programme of security, however sophistica­ted, could deliver.

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