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How did modern Islam become so intolerant?

Israel's occupation of Palestine, Islamophobia, and disastrous Western interventions all create grievance. But no injustice can excuse or explain the rise of brutal Islamicists

In Allah’s name, what is wrong with us Muslims? And why do we find it so hard to ask that question of ourselves? What will it take to break the heavily curtained window of denial?

The beardy jihadists convicted in Birmingham last week were incompetents; hard to distinguish, for many Britons, from the hilarious boneheaded fantasists in Chris Morris’s Four Lions.

I don’t find them funny and nor do most British Muslims. The ringleader, Irfan Khalid, and his henchmen Irfan Naseer and Ashik Ali meant to cause bloody mayhem, as did all those previous bombers from Glasgow to London, some of whom succeeded while others were discovered before they could bomb themselves off to hell. Sexual permissiveness disgusted them, as did most values of the country they were born in.


The gang frequented the Darul Ihsan gyms in Sparkhill, an inner city enclave in Birmingham. These “places of excellence” repudiated “inappropriate behaviour” and banned “non-Islamic” hairstyles and clothes. And it was in these enlightening joints that the thwarted three recruited others. Some went off to Pakistan and were made to come home by their families. There will be more and we can but hope they are stopped before they get the violent glory they crave. 

I have met smart Muslim undergraduates and post-graduates at some of our top universities who offer perfectly honed theses to justify the actions of men like the Birmingham three. In sum, they give three key reasons: Palestinian rights denied by Israel, Islamaphobia, and Western interference in Muslim countries. These exact points were raised by a Muslim letter-writer to The Independent last week.

I sympathise with this position and have written with deep conviction on all those thorny issues. I am just reading Shadow Lives by the veteran journalist Victoria Brittain, on the unseen and unheard victims of our state’s iniquitous war on terror – the wives and children of  men who have been incarcerated without charge for years.

I cry as I read – as many must when reminded of the chemical warfare used against Iraqis and the suffering of Palestinians.  In Burma, Muslims are subjected to terrible persecution and Aung San Suu Kyi, now part of the establishment, expresses only tepid concern. 

But no injustice can excuse or explain the rise of brutal Islamicists. Palestine is their cynical, moral pretence. Racism? Black Afro-Caribbean men who suffer the worst discrimination in this country don’t set up terrorist cells. Muslim foreign policy rage is questionable too. Over many decades, Western meddling in, say, Zimbabwe or Kenya has led to some of the intractable, current problems in those nations. Again, Kenyans and Zimbabwean migrants to the UK aren’t cooking carnage in pots in their kitchens.

Fig leaf

Religion is another fig leaf used by millions of Prophet Mohamed’s followers. Islam, they rightly contend, does not sanction the killing of civilians by hobbyists or leaders. However, by focusing on what the good texts say, Muslims avoid the reality of what Muslims do. I doubt even the most virtuous imam can point this out without being subjected to threats.

And while ever alert on Islamaphobia, organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain assiduously avoid looking at the willed ignorance and barbarism within Muslim communities around the world in states controlled by Muslims. 

Take this last week, when Bangladesh erupted with anger and competing protests led to five deaths. Secularists demand punishment for the Bangladeshi men who committed atrocities in the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. Some of the perpetrators were militant Muslim militia and are defended by an alliance of powerful Islamicist parties.

In Egypt, human rights groups claim children are being detained and tortured. The government has spent £1.7m on tear gas. In Tunisia, after the assassination of the popular secular leader Chokri Belaid, Ennahda, the hardline Islamic party, takes charge. Fifty-three more died in an explosion in Syria where over 70,000 have been killed in two years.

Islamic rebels in Mali, Nigeria and elsewhere carry on their nefarious, destabilising  activities. Eighty-nine Shias were killed in Pakistan, whose first leader, Muhammad Jinnah, was a Shia, as am I. They want to obliterate us there, in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bahrain, and Iraq too, where bombs go off routinely to kill these worshippers. Other minority Muslim groups are also targeted and often murdered.

Change you can believe in

Internal and external intolerance is now Islam’s brand. Those great past Muslim civilisations famous for diversity, humanity, science, extraordinary achievements have died. Education, the arts, photographs, television, sports, even work are denounced by crazed imams online and in mosques worldwide, including the UK. In Brittain’s book, some women took on these values, and in effect, imprisoned themselves.

Polymath Ziauddin Sardar has met “countless Muslim scholars, thinkers, writers and activists” who are impatient for change and reform. That can’t happen while there is an aversion to criticism and self-criticism.

Thoughtful and honest Muslims stay silent because they fear ostracisation or inciting more racism against Muslims – both real perils. But silence now is cowardly, and collusion with the corrupters of our faith. True believers have a duty to speak out against that corruption.