The new fundamentalism

Anas Altikriti
July 2, 2007 6:30 PM

Reading Hassan Butt's piece in the Observer, "My plea to fellow Muslims: you must renounce terror", I couldn't help but think of how much his likes have to do with the dire security conditions we all face today. Despite his claim to have repented, I would ask to be forgiven for being less than sympathetic and congratulatory in my tone, as it was probably he and his comrades who stood outside mosques, community centres and lecture halls, heckling and, at times, physically attacking me and my colleagues for talking about the need for dialogue, for reaching out to all human beings and about promoting universal human rights that include all people, regardless of faith, race or colour.

One ugly incident in particular stands out in the memory, when, in Birmingham's Small Heath district on a cold night in 1998, I was jostled and then repeatedly punched by a group of extremists with the sort of affiliations Hassan Butt used to have. As they did so, they hurled abuse of a disgusting nature, accusing me of being an apostate, a "kafir-in-disguise", a sell-out and agent of the British government. Trying to look dignified, composed and happy coming back to my wife and new-born baby was among the hardest feats I had ever attempted in my life.

Now that he has changed sides, rather than see the error in the methodology and ideology to which he once subscribed and which he peddled for years, he has adopted the posture of extremist once again - and is hurling abuse once more, albeit from the opposite side.

Throughout my life, I have been part of a deeply religious family from which I learned to question, to analyse, to criticise and never to follow blindly. Throughout my life, and since the days when my father fled Iraq after being persecuted by the Ba'athist intelligence agencies in 1970, I have found that violence is the means of the weak, the coward and the one who has no intellectual resources with which to defend his or her argument. I was taught from a very early age, and then went on to teach myself, that Islam rejects violence unless in a clear and unquestionable case of self-defence. Otherwise, I read in the prophetic heritage (Hadith) that to be wrongfully killed is far better than to be a killer.

I learned also that the giver and the taker of life is God and God alone, and that those who kill freely assume a trait that belongs solely to God. I learned that there is no crime or sin greater than to take an innocent person's life, regardless of their faith or creed. I learned that God forgives all sins, apart from the sins of those who have indulged willingly in the shedding of others' blood. I learned, too, that the verses in the Holy Qur'an that gave permission to take the lives of others were either penal codes for those who themselves were convicted murderers, or were strictly contextual and addressed issues and events of the time when the respective verses were revealed. To use a verse that addressed the events of a battle or conflict that took place during the days of the Prophet Mohammed more that 1,400 years ago in order to create a pretext or a justification to kill people today is not only false; it is ludicrous, evil and Islamically incorrect.

How, then, could any sound-minded Muslim reconcile such an interpretation with another verse clearly and unambiguously stating that "There shall be no compulsion in religion" (Qur'an 2:256) or that the prophet was "sent not but as a mercy to all mankind" (Qur'an 21:107)? What mercy could there be in blowing up unsuspecting people as they go about their daily lives?

When preaching this, the likes of al-Muhajiroun, to which Butt belonged, would accuse me of cowardice, of being an illiterate in respect to Islamic sciences and knowledge and of being undoubtedly doomed for an eternity in hellfire. It was a struggle, but a struggle that we were definitely winning. Towards the late 1990s, and prior to the 9/11 attacks, the membership lists of such vile groups were shrinking and their recruitment drives were in a downward spiral.

Among the thousands of professional Muslim men and women today working in the City, with the media, creating solutions for Britain's social and economic problems, and running our schools, transport systems and hospitals, are those whom, at one stage, Butt and his former friends were targeting with their doctrine of hatred and evil, but whom I and my friends managed to win over so that they became citizens of high standing and valuable contributors to our society. Our message was simple, but effective: if you want to create change, you have to get involved. By all means express frustration, vent anger, stand in opposition and demand change, but only through full and positive engagement with the civil structures afforded by society. That is the way of Islam.

For Hassan Butt to now accuse this ideology of mine and of more than a billion Muslims around the world, or to lay the blame for the breakdown in security and social harmony with Islamic theology or the verses of the Qur'an, which he and his fellow extremists not only failed to read or properly interpret, but skewed for their own agendas, is false, misleading and dangerous.

However, our gains were compromised, and our success considerably undermined in the wake of 9/11 and the launch of the "war on terror". I know it because I continue to talk with youngsters who feel that they have no footing within the structure of society, and feel that they are misfits and aliens. It is not the Qur'an that tells them that the only way is to kill non-Muslims. Most of them hardly ever read the Qur'an or frequent mosques. It is the preachers of hate who show them images of slaughtered children in Palestine, raped women in Iraq, burnt-down homes in Afghanistan, and instruct them that it is their duty to avenge those victims by unleashing terror and destruction on the streets of London, Glasgow and Birmingham.

As the new buzzword of evil is now "Islamist", this Islamist asserts that while it would be too simplistic, and possibly even wrong, to lay the blame entirely on this country's foreign policy for the terror threat under which we all live, it is almost beyond question that the government's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its unethical policies in Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere, have contributed towards the significant resurgence that Hassan Butt's former peers now enjoy.

It also the government's failings in identifying the source of the problem and its launch of a vicious attack - with the unconditional support of large sectors of the media - against the very organisations, groups and individuals who have been heavily involved in combating the rise of extremism throughout Britain, and who had long suffered the verbal and physical brutality of Hassan Butt's former associates. So, to him and to all those who continue to peddle the same old mantra, we do disown and renounce violence, as Muslims and as human beings. We have done so all along and will continue to do so as a result of our religious and humanitarian obligations - and not because we've just realised the error of our ways as a result of your newly-discovered enlightened ideas.

The call to change the face of Islam, attacking Islamic doctrine through the copy-and-paste methodology that falsely makes the Qur'an seem like a book of evil, is unjust and disingenuous. Criticising organisations and individuals who have been fighting an internal war against extremism - while continually being stabbed in the back by misguided government policies and media prejudice - will not solve the problem. Not to recognise this is to put in jeopardy everyone's safety and security, and ultimately our society's aspirations for success and prosperity.


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