The West is blind to its own hypocrisy: Faith & Reason

For Muslims the festival of Eid should be a joyous celebration at the end of a month of fasting. But this year it is wrapped in a cloth of suffering
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The Independent Culture
FOR ME as a British Muslim this Ramadan has been one of the worst. It was preceded by the bombing of Iraq, a country already full of the dead and dying. Then, during the month of fasting, innocent Britons were kidnapped and murdered in the Yemen, a land the Romans called Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia). Five British Muslims are still being held there on charges of terrorism. There will be little to celebrate in the coming week on Eid-ul-Fitr, the festival which in Islam marks the end of a month of self-discipline and denial. America and Britain could well resume attacks on Iraq once the holy days are over. This Ramadan will be wrapped in the cloth of suffering.

Thirty days of the fast and one day for the feast: an apt ratio for a life where the days of sorrow and denial far outnumber those of reckless joy. Scientists, when asked about life on other planets, speak of the many factors that need to be delicately balanced in pre-requisite; but how much more delicate is the balance of the conditions that must obtain for the achievement of happiness in any individual life: good health, no deep personal tragedy, an aim in life, some love from someone, the will to continue despite daily disappointments, and a relatively just, politically stable and safe world.

Muslims, even in a land where doubt is virtually an orthodoxy, continue to see the hand of merciful providence sheltering them from calamity. In Britain, as in Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran and Arab nations, Ramadan is a time of intensified devotion and charity. The Koran is recited in ornate styles in holy precincts in Bradford as in Cairo, Mecca and Tehran. The British convert Marmaduke Pickthall described his holy book as "that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy" - an ecstasy in the original Greek sense of "standing outside" oneself with joy.

These are the manifestations of the ideal. In practice many Muslims fail to attain the purity of heart or sincerity of intention which the month of Ramadan requires. Throughout the long hours of the fast they merely hunger after food and drink, not for righteousness. But that is among the failings of our common humanity.

For Muslims observing the fast in Western lands there is a suffocating feeling of being surrounded by Westerners for whom religion is a branch of archaeology. Angry exchanges at the workplace with white colleagues centre chiefly around their dismissal of all religion with secular disdain. But many Westerners seem not to fear Muslim vices so much as Muslim virtues. Perhaps there is a sense of envious guilt in seeing so many people attain a hallowed level of abstinence even in unsympathetic environments. Understandably many Muslims become insulated in their own self-righteousness.

Western Muslims are a friendless and wounded community deserving condolences. Had the five British Muslims detained in the Yemen been white, would there have been the same apparent indifference to their plight? Formal citizenship does not guarantee economic, political or intellectual citizenship: having a passport is only the beginning of equality. The right to be different does not imply extra rights for a minority. It implies the same rights.

The media have generally tended to assume the guilt of the five Britons accused of sabotage and terrorism against Western targets. Robin Cook has asked the Yemenis to allow British consular staff to attend sessions in open court and due process of law has been promised. Mr Cook is, however, being urged by many MPs to allow Islamic law to take its course in the case of these men. But why should their innocence be doubted? Their families say they went to the Yemen to learn the purest dialect of Arabic. It is uncharitable to doubt this claim. Hate generalises; love specifies, and seeks to understand. Think of the sympathy shown to a white British au pair accused in America and the two nurses who were actually convicted of murder in Saudi Arabia.

With the collapse of Communism, Western intelligence services have little to do other than monitor the activities of animal rights and Muslim "fundamentalists". Muslims are seen, as Communists were before them, as poor people in search of social revenge. Even rhetorical violence, by justifiably angry Muslims, against all too real Western violence is seen as subversive. Unsurprisingly, we have a British Muslim community that increasingly sees self-segregation as the only way to maintain its dignity and identity. Soon we shall need trained intermediaries to negotiate between it and the state.

There will be little to celebrate on Eid, yet the Koran lays a firm veto on despair. Muslims suffer because they believe: they take Western rhetoric about universal human rights at face value and are subsequently disappointed to find that behind the idealistic language lurks the brute fact, which is sadly true in all civilisations, that Might is Right. Perhaps there is an implied flattery in the accusation that the West is, in practice, unconsciously hypocritical. Muslims believed that integrity prompted the high-principled statements of Western politicians. It is a shock when the realisation comes that they are too myopic to see into the heart of their own double standards.

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