An entire faith misunderstood: The West must not despise Islam simply because of the actions of extremists, argues Keith Ward

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The Independent Online
A DISTURBING feature of some recent social commentary in Britain is the way Islam is beginning to replace Soviet Communism as the enemy of Western culture. Now that the 'Red menace' seems to have disappeared, we are in danger of inventing a new demon, the demon of Islam. Islam is seen as a religion committed to despising infidels, espousing terrorism, undermining all Western governments and supporting the Islamic Liberation Party. Embarked on a jihad, a holy war, against the West, it is seen as the enemy of the Enlightenment.

Before this stereotype gains currency, it needs to be clearly said that it is absolutely and unequivocally incorrect. The Islamic Liberation Party is banned in most, if not all, Muslim countries. To identify it with Islam is rather like saying that Militant Tendency (remember that?) is what 'proper Socialists' believe, and that it is to the Socialist Workers' Party that one must look for a correct statement of Labour Party policy.

Islam is submission to God, and acceptance that Mohamed was the final prophet of God. Since, according to Chapter I of the Koran, the God of Islam is a God 'most gracious, most merciful', the primary Divine attributes are pity, long-suffering, patience, forgiveness, not hatred and domination.

It is arguable that Islam, especially in its Sufi forms, has made experience of God, as the source of all being, wisdom and delight, available to millions who would otherwise not have known it. It was through medieval Arabic philosophers that the 12th- and 13th-century revival of Christian theology received its understanding of the Supreme Being.

Existing in hundreds of different forms, Islam seeks to stress above all submission of life to the one self-existent Reality on which all things depend. In the first 300 years of its history, no fewer than 100 systems of Muslim theology appeared. So it is far from being a monolithic entity, committed to world domination. There are as many different forms of political and religious relationships within the Muslim world as there are forms of Islam.

Unfortunately there are organisations in Britain, like the mis-named 'Muslim Parliament' and the Islamic Liberation Party, which match the demonic stereotype fairly closely. There are those who seek to undermine the sovereignty of English law and the traditions of tolerance which have been so hard won, and who are backed by governments hostile to Britain. But they are a tiny minority, and wholly unrepresentative of British Islam.

It would be absolutely wrong to imply that Muslims in Britain are, as such, a potential threat to democratic traditions. In many ways, Islam is a more democratic faith than Catholic Christianity, since it lacks a priestly hierarchy and a central teaching authority which is to be simply received by the faithful.

One of the ironies of the morally decadent fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie is that it was pronounced by the leader of one branch of the minority group of Shia Muslims. It has no authority for Sunni Muslims (the vast majority of Muslims in Britain), and is held by many Muslim legal experts to be inconsistent even with its own legal tradition.

The strength of the 'anti-Western' movements in Islam is partly due to feeling that the Western powers, who in recent history conquered virtually every Muslim country, denigrate and demonise Islam as a backward and reactionary faith, while continuing to profit from the material resources of Muslim states. If one analyses what is meant by 'anti-Western', it turns out that it is pornography, racism, the breakdown of the family and the pursuit of financial gain that are being attacked. These vices are seen as produced by the Enlightenment emphasis on personal autonomy and freedom.

Many Muslims in Britain are immigrants from small rural communities, without expert theological leadership and without the skills of debate in English that would make them feel comfortable in academic discussions. The danger is that they will feel alienated from a community that ignores them or distrusts them as anti-British or backward. They will see the Enlightenment as a destroyer of moral values, and as the mainstay of a society that holds them in contempt.

What they will then not see is the gains that Enlightenment brings. The Christian religion has been domesticated by the Enlightenment, its crudenesses smoothed over, its hatreds dampened, its horizons widened. In the process, it has discovered two things. One is that the Enlightenment is itself a product of religious thought, the thought that all humans are created free and equal, with dignity and moral responsibility. That is a thought to which Islam is committed. The other is that, unless it is constantly renewed by critical reflection, religion tends to become repressive and stifle creativity.

Enlightenment is not a danger to religion, but a painful means to its purification. Islam, entering fully into Western life, is only just entering into this debate. What it can contribute is a critique of the Enlightenment which will not simply oppose it, but may be able to direct it to positive moral ends and dissuade it from its more negative excesses.

What non-Muslims in Britain need is the ability to disentangle the faith in God, which has inspired the lives of millions, from the political violence which, while inexcusable, is explicable as a reaction of those who feel powerless against a society which, they think, despises and distrusts them.

Demons lurk in all religions, as in all ideologies of any sort (even Quaker demons must exist, though they are hard to find). One must not empower the demons by accepting their claim to manifest the true faith. On the contrary, it is only by understanding the true faith of Islam that the demons of hatred can be exposed as its betrayers. The Islamic Liberation Party meeting in London last weekend was sad for Islam in Britain, and my Muslim colleagues are as dismayed by it as my Christian colleagues would be by a meeting of Catholics in support of IRA terrorism.

Islam represents one of the highest expressions of human spirituality, though naturally it also reveals the complexity of human motivation and the bestiality which corrupts even the highest revelation when it gets into hands all too human. If a real dialogue can be established between Islam and other faiths and with the Enlightenment, it will have a future very different from the one the proponents of the demonic stereotype fear.

To fail to initiate such a dialogue of understanding, at every level, is to begin to create the very threat that one fears.

The author is Regius professor of Divinity at Oxford University.

(Photograph omitted)