Last week, Maajid Nawaz, a United Kingdom Liberal Democratic Party parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, became the centre of an attack from the Islamic fundamentalist right wing because he stood up for free speech. This is not, in itself, unusual; fundamentalists of any religious persuasion detest free speech. Nor is the chorus of death threats raised against Nawaz in any way uncommon from Islamic fanatics. However this case is important because it illustrates a divide which we must not only recognise but decide on which side we stand.
Nawaz’ crime? After taking part in a BBC debate in which two students were seen wearing ‘Jesus and Mo’ tee-shirts, Nawaz tweeted the image, saying, “As a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that”.
For most people, that would not seem anything other than a reasonable point of view. After all, if faith is to have meaning at all, it must be strong enough to deal with criticism without resorting to violence. One would think. But, no: Nawaz’ action immediately provoked a venomous tide of hatred from all over the world, partially orchestrated by Mohammed Shafiq, himself a Liberal Democrat activist.
Shafiq continues to insist that Nawaz should be removed as a Liberal Democratic candidate, though this now seems less likely after the personal intervention of the party leader, Nick Clegg.
Now this might look like a nasty little spat between two minor politicians in an also-ran party that is likely to be consigned to the margins at the next UK General Election, but it is far more than that.
Nawaz is director of the Quilliam Foundation, which promotes a modern, open-minded, anti-extremist interpretation of Islam, and Shafiq is chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, which promotes a narrow, fundamentalist, extremist vision.
Thus these two men sum up a debate that is central to Islam and by implication, vastly important to everyone else; yet this is not being talked about. One wonders why not.
Any student of the history of Western religion and culture must be struck by certain parallels that exist between Christianity and Islam. For over a thousand years, Christianity in the West was synonymous with Catholicism. However, after the Renaissance and Gutenberg’s invention of modern letterpress printing, this hegemony was challenged. The Catholic church has never been a literalist faith. It always considered that the words of the Bible had to be interpreted, by a priestly hierarchy, and this interpretation is known as ‘dogma’.
The Protestant Reformation happened because bibles, thanks to Gutenberg, became widely available to read, for the first time. So-called ‘Protestants’ took a strictly literalist view: anything not written in the Bible was false, and everything that was written in it was true. For them, dogma was just the invention of men.
This led to the development of extremist, literalist forms of Christianity, led by preachers like Luther, Calvin, and his student, John Knox, who returned with it to Scotland; and from whence it was widely exported to the Anglophone world.
Knox’s vision of his faith was little different from that of modern fundamentalist Islam. It was literalist, extremist and deeply misogynistic. It was this vision that sparked the appalling witch-burnings that became such a blight on Scotland’s history in the 17th and 18th centuries. No colour, no images, no singing. All pleasure was sinful, women were demonised and men were in charge, absolutely.
This harsh and intolerant vision fell apart in the great schisms of the Scottish kirk in the 19th century, and was progressively replaced by gentler, more tolerant forms. Although the extremists still exist even now, moderation has become mainstream, even within Scottish Presbyterianism.
This dichotomy is exactly the same as the one we see in Islam today, between people like Maajid Nawaz, who promote a tolerant, inclusive, open version of faith, which, essentially, relies on interpretation and moderation, on the one hand, and Mohammed Shafiq, who stands for a literalist, fundamentalist, extremist version.
The history of the development of Western culture, however, tells us that these are not equal, and that liberalism and secularism are better, and more successful than, literalism and intolerance. The interpretative view is superior.
This is not academic. The Muslim population of many European countries is now approaching 10%. This is not enough for them to determine the future of Europe, but it is enough to provoke widespread unrest and, potentially, civil war. It has become the single greatest threat to peace in Europe that exists. It is therefore absolutely imperative that European Islam wholeheartedly adopt the European tradition, evolved since the Renaissance, of tolerance, secularism, and free speech. If this does not happen, then violence certainly will.
This is why men like Nawaz are so important, and why we should all not only support them, but show them that we support them. It is in everyone’s interest for Europe’s Muslims to integrate properly into our culture, something which is deliberately being prevented by the fundamentalists. There is no chance that Europe will deport its Muslims, many of whom were born here. The ranting of the xenophobic right is neither helpful nor does it have any hope of success, other than in polarising a debate that should not be.
However, the disgusting grovelling and Political Correctness that pretends that there are not problems with Islam or the integration of Muslims into European society is just as destructive. There is a difference between extremist, literalist Muslims and moderates, and we must identify that difference, expose it and give our support to the moderates, many of whom are terrorised by the fanatics. The threats to Nawaz, or the fatwa against Rushdie, are real. They are designed to bully moderate, but less prominent Muslims, into silence.
Nawaz, and people like him, give hope to young Muslims that they can step out of a straitjacket of Quranic introspection and integrate properly into a secular state, where everyone’s religion or lack of one is equally respected.
In other words, Maajid Nawaz is exactly the kind of free-thinking, mature, liberal Muslim whom we must support, because his very existence proves that not all Muslims are fanatical literalists; that there are Muslims with whom we can reason. The very last thing we should do is give any succour to the violent extremists and literalists that he is an alternative to.
We have a choice to make – do we want accommodation, tolerance and peace, or do we want increasing division, intolerance and violence? On one side stands Nawaz, and others like Salman Rushdie and Benazir Bhutto; on the other, all the banner-waving, screaming Islamic bigots and fundamentalists whose image we know all too well.
Islam is not homogeneous; there are deeply opposed strains within it. It is a function of a blinkered liberal Political Correctness to assume that all Muslims are the same. It is a reprehensible view which is offensive to all Muslims, just as much as saying that all Christians are the same; manifestly they are not.
In the same way as Christianity has American Southern Baptists, whose views are not acceptable in a modern democratic, secular society, there are intolerant strains in Islam which we should not accommodate. However, there are other strains which are tolerant, open and wise enough not only to integrate into the wider European culture, but to enrich it.
We have to choose which side in this debate to support, and we had better choose wisely. And quickly.