A FORMER extremist brings his message to Scotland after having a rethink on core classical texts, writes Bill Jamieson
Can the West defeat radical Islam? Is Islam at heart a religion of peace or a religion of violence? And if the latter, are we destined for an intensifying conflict that will define this century in blood?
Amid the continuing insurgency of IS in Syria and fears of further terrorist attacks across Europe, the visit to Scotland this week of Dr Tawfik Hamid, an Islamic thinker and reformer, is worthy of note.
Dr Hamid was a one-time Islamic extremist. He was a member of a radical Islamic organisation Jamaa Islameia with Dr Ayman Al-Zawaherri who later became the second in command of Al-Qaeda.
But he underwent a profound rethink of his understanding of Islam and came to focus on peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic core texts.
He has lectured at leading US universities and wrote an international best seller: Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam.
Now he brings his message to Scotland. In a series of events organised by the Asia Scotland Institute, he was the guest speaker at the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh last night and will be speaking at the Western Club, Glasgow this evening.
His message offers both an antidote to the militant interpretations of Islam and some answers on how radical Islam can be confronted and defeated. As such, it offers hope that the West may be able to avoid the prospect of relentless and intensifying conflict with Islam.
That, on any measure, is an uphill task. Across the Middle East, Europe and America, we are facing an unprecedented age of terror. Around 18,000 deadly terror attacks have been committed explicitly in the name of Islam in just the last ten years. In the past few months 159 people have been killed in Islamic attacks and 1,383 injured, across 24 countries.
Scotland might have considered itself out of the line of fire. But the murder earlier this year of Asad Shah, the popular 40-year-old shopkeeper in Glasgow, deeply shocked Muslims and non-Muslims alike. His “crime” was to be an Amaddiya, member of an Islamic sect regarded by some Muslims as heretical, and to wish his Christian friends and customers a happy Easter.
He was murdered, it seems, not only to silence him but also to intimidate others who might have followed him on the path to religious tolerance.
This, and other attacks and terror alerts, have intensified the debate about the nature of Muslim belief and the changing face of Britain. With more than 1,500 mosques, the UK is now home to an estimated three million Muslims, a figure that has doubled in just over a decade. In Scotland, the number of Muslims is much lower as a percentage of the population and the process of integration widely considered more successful. The Muslim population at around 77,000 accounts, on 2011 census figures, for just 1.4 per cent of Scotland’s population.
Nevertheless, apprehension about the nature and ideology of Islam persists, however much official Muslim bodies insist that Islam is not a religion of extremes. At the same time there has also been a backlash against what many Muslims see as Islamophobic stigmatisation, with some campaigning against the government’s ‘Prevent’ agenda which calls on communities to report suspected terrorist sympathisers.
Dr Hamid started to preach in mosques to promote his message and, as a result, became a target of Islamic militants who threatened his life. He moved to the West and has lectured widely against Islamic fundamentalism. He currently serves on the Advisory Council of The Intelligence Summit, an annual conference on security. He believes that the real message of Islam has been hijacked throughout history and portrayed incorrectly.
He quotes the Koran verse that it is God Himself who “made us into nations and tribes” and so it is the will of God to have human diversity: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other).”
He has argued that Islam should prove its peacefulness and called Islamic scholars and clerics “to produce a Shariah book that will be accepted in the Islamic world and that teaches that Jews are not pigs and monkeys, that declaring war to spread Islam is unacceptable, and that killing apostates is a crime”.
Muslim fundamentalists, he says, believe that Saudi Arabia’s petroleum-based wealth is a divine gift and that Saudi influence is sanctioned by Allah. Thus, the Salafist extreme brand of Sunni Islam that spread from the Saudi Arabia to the rest of the Islamic world is regarded not merely as one interpretation of the religion but as the only genuine interpretation. The expansion of violent and regressive Islam, he continues, began in the late 1970s and can be traced precisely to the growing financial clout of Saudi Arabia.
He talks of two forms of Islamicism – Type A Islam, “a barbaric belief system that promotes violence, rape, and wars” which has been largely unopposed by the leading, mainstream Islamic institutions and Muslim leaders; and Type B Islam. This focuses on the book’s peaceful verses while contextualising the violent ones. It does not promote killing apostates, stoning women, or killing gays. In fact, he argues, it prohibits these barbaric behaviours. Outside observers might reasonably conclude that Islam is peaceful.
But leading Islamic institutions believe in Type A Islam and regard those who believe in Type B Islam as apostates. Most terrorist attacks in the world today, and nearly all suicide bombings, are perpetrated by devout Muslims and by Islamic groups such as IS. Killing apostates, stoning women to death for adultery, and brutal killing of gays is practiced in all Islamic countries that apply Shariah.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslims demonstrated worldwide against banning the hijab in France and against the cartoon issue of prophet Muhammad; but there have been exactly zero mass international Muslim demonstrations against killing apostates, stoning women, killing gays, or against any of the IS atrocities.
“Until Type B Islam dominates Islamic theology and teaching”, he writes, “and until the Muslim world shows clear and unequivocal opposition to atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam, attempting to view the religion relativistically is dangerous and improper. In other words, no rational set of values can be ascribed until there is only one set of adherents, and those adherents understand the religion should not embrace brutality. Objective reality is the true measure, and only the Muslim world can change it.”
Meanwhile we have to deal with militant Islam as best we can: an intense and constant vigilance at borders, airports and city centres. And we are pulled by two opposing forces: pressure to deal militarily with the problem “at source” such as in Syria; and pressure to withdraw from overseas military commitments – isolationism. The hope in all this is that the “Type B” message of Dr Tawfik will come to prevail. But even if it does, it looks to be a very long haul.