The pandemic will leave a poisonous legacy of division which events in Afghanistan will only deepen - Paigham Mustafa

In the UK, we shouldn’t be complacent. Covid-19 has sparked a deluge of online Islamophobia, racist memes and hate messages. I see them every day.

According to a recent report from Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, mental health is an important issue in relation to terrorism and violent extremism, and that Covid-19 will have been another stress factor for potentially vulnerable individuals.

Europol notes that, in 2020, there were 57 completed, failed and foiled terrorist attacks in the European Union. These were in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.Like it or not, lockdowns and isolation have impacted on mental health, and darker elements have taken advantage of this to recruit new members to their causes.

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The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will give this added impetus; a sense that violence does work, and that militant Islam is on the march. I also see that on social media every day.

Paigham Mustafa. Picture: Robert Kerr

During the lockdowns, the pickings have been easy for extremists from the left, the right and Islamist groups.

Isolated and feeling attacked from the far-right, the fragile minds of some young Muslims are being influenced into an ideology that is far removed from the principles of the Quran.

New theories are cropping up that portray Muslims as responsible for the spread of Covid-19. Others, that the police are giving favourable treatment to Muslims out of fear of Islamophobia.

But demonising a section of the community segregates it, at the very time that we need society to be moving together as a cohesive single group with aligned values.

The reality is that the pandemic will leave a poisonous legacy of division, which events in Afghanistan will only deepen. That legacy of mental ill health and radicalisation needs to be addressed head-on – and not only by health professionals, schools, churches, and mosques.

Other factors adding to our difficulty include the escalation of armed conflict in the Middle East. With the US military presence scaling down in places like Iraq, under-equipped local forces are being left to defend against determined terrorists in their area. Make no mistake, these groups are spreading, and they are actively propagating their ideology across Europe.

The unequal impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities has been documented in European countries, including Britain. The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the inequalities that help fuel tensions between Muslims, already isolated by their cultural differences, and their neighbours.

The far-right is taking full advantage of this and are active on issues of Islam and immigration. However, what Muslims generally experience is not Islamophobia but racism. This is partly self-inflicted because they believe that their faith decrees them to be different, in appearance and social etiquette. They make easy targets.

However, this is in sharp contrast to the Quran that says that the differences between us should be celebrated. It says that different cultures, languages and people complement and enrich each other, and that we should all live together in peace.

Now that the Taliban are back in power in Kabul we will soon see what their brand of Islam really looks like. Despite their assurances that women and ordinary people will not suffer, their spokesman said that ‘women can work and take part in education and government, as long as its within the sharia.’ This has chilling undertones for those who know what sharia really means.

Sharia law is based on the hadith, the supplementary doctrines written some 200 years after the Quran and derived from the supposed words and actions of Muhammad. These are in fact mostly concocted statements attributed to him and used for political or social control. But traditional Muslims accept these as authentic and important documents to define their faith – some, they believe, even supersede the Quran.

Unfortunately this is not a minority belief. Most Muslims believe in the hadith and support sharia laws based on them - even moderates who accept that some hadith are not reliable. This is in total conflict with the Quran, which should be the only source of Islamic truth.

However, the toxic theology of the Taliban, also pervades many mosques in the UK. Many imams want a return of sharia law and, even in Scotland, it is being practiced behind closed doors – usually to settle marital disputes, and usually to the detriment of the women concerned.

The relevance of the hadith, the basis of sharia law, needs to be dissected and not sugar-coated, because they conflict with the Quran’s values to create a peaceful society that is inclusive and promotes fairness and justice for all.

In contrast with the Quran, the hadith give free reign to kill apostates, women and infidels, and to suppress freedoms that we should see as our right. Sharia is utterly incompatible with a progressive and modern society.

Unfortunately, the stress of the pandemic and the promotion of extremist doctrines on social media - both exacerbated by events in Afghanistan – may make more people see the Taliban as the real face of Islam.

Non-Muslims will end up hating what they think is Islam, when it’s not. But some Muslims, in Scotland and the rest of Europe, will rejoice because they have been taught to think that it is.

Modern Islam must find a better way to define what is right and wrong, and define itself on the Quran which only promotes peace and harmony between people of different faiths and cultures.

The alternative will see further fractures in our society, more extremism, and more people being lost to pointless religious hatreds.

It’s a priority for all of us, of whatever faith or none, and it’s an urgent one.

Paigham Mustafa is an Islamic scholar, author and a director of the Oxford Institute for British Islam

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