Christina Patterson: Moderate Islam must find its voice

Religion is here to stay. Dawkins can rant till the sacred cows come home, but people have always yearned for the transcendent, and always will

Share
Related Topics

"If I have to die," says the man with lots of eyeliner, "let it be on the way to Mecca." The man is Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century Moroccan who in 1325 set out on a journey three times as long as Marco Polo's. Battling with thirst, deserts where every oasis proves a mirage, bandits who rob him but later repent, and a vast array of swarthy men with a distracting range of accents, he struggles on until he reaches Mecca. Battuta's journey covers 75,000 miles and takes a year and a half. For the audience, it takes 45 minutes. Which is, alas, too long.

Co-funded by the Saudi King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, and endorsed by the Dalai Lama and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Journey to Mecca is, according to its producers, an attempt "to promote a better understanding of Islam in the West". The scenery, on the 20m high IMAX screen, is spectacular. The plot is minimal. The acting is embarrassing. But if the sight of millions milling like ants around the cube-shaped Ka'bah (the 14th-century re-enactment is interspersed with real footage of the Hajj today) tends to inspire feelings of faint repulsion in the Western breast, one can certainly admire the challenge. "It is almost impossible" said one of its producers, Dominic Cunningham-Reid, "to communicate how hard it is to get something like this done in Saudi Arabia, because you have to remember we're trying to make a film in the land that has no movie theatres and no art galleries". No art, in other words. Just art as propaganda.

It was a lot easier for the Exploring Islam Foundation. All they had to do "to promote a better understanding of Islam in the West" was whack some posters on buses and tubes. You can see them all round London now.

"I believe in women's rights," says a woman in a white headscarf, "So did Muhammad." "I believe in social justice," says a man with a goatie, "So did Muhammad". "I believe in protecting the environment," says a woman in an orange tunic. I think you can guess the punchline.

The Science Museum, in association with a charity called the Jameel Foundation, is currently hosting an exhibition on "the Muslim Heritage in Our World". The aim of the exhibition is "to trace the forgotten story of 1,000 years of science from the Muslim world". The aim of the foundation is to "improve mainstream understanding of the Muslim contribution to arts and science". And on Sunday a "historic" conference took place in Bradford. More than 700 "youth" sat like lambs, apparently, as the concept of jihad was "clarified". A Mr Hassan Mohi-ud-Din Qadri explained that 31 verses of the Koran referred to jihad in "non-violent forms". Let's not dwell on the four which didn't.

Muslims really couldn't be trying harder to present their religion in a positive light. The trouble is, it isn't working. According to a recent YouGov poll, 58 per cent of people associate Islam with extremism. Fifty per cent of people associate Islam with terrorism. Nearly 70 per cent believe that Islam encourages the repression of women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, and now darling of the West (and of one of its major right-wing historians) appears to speak for many when she says in her new book, Nomad, that, "Islam is not just a belief, it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence."

Her views are echoed by Ed Husain in his book, The Islamist, but with one important difference. In his account of his five-year involvement with extremist groups like Hizb ut- Tahrir, Husain builds a chilling picture of an entire subsection of British society – not poverty-stricken, not uneducated, and not stupid – hellbent on the death and destruction of the non-Muslim "infidel". Husain now helps to run a think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation, which aims to "challenge extremism", "promote pluralism" and "inspire change". Unlike Hirsi, he is still a devout Muslim. He remains convinced, however, that "an austere form of Islam (Wahhabism) married to a politicized Islam (Islamism) is wreaking havoc in the world", and that its underlying principles are "scriptural rigidity, bigotry, intolerance and violence". Never mind the battle between the Muslim and the infidel. The real battle, he implies, is between the Muslim moderates and the nutters.

This battle is taking place on our doorsteps. It's certainly taking place on mine. Most days, I get a bus past Finsbury Park Mosque, the mosque for ever associated with Abu Hamza, the one-eyed, hook-handed charmer currently serving seven years in Belmarsh for spreading the view that knocking off your neighbour is an excellent passport to paradise. On Sunday, they had an open day. I decided to pop along.

The room, I have to say, was pretty empty. Ranged round it were display boards (again) on "famous Muslim scientists" and tables with leaflets about crime prevention, a Muslim charity, and Islam. These, replacing the ones that caused such trouble in the past, had titles like "Muhammad: a role model for a new Millennium", "Women in Islam: Beyond Stereotypes", and "Islam is Pure: Natural and Environmentally Friendly". The people were certainly friendly: warm, welcoming and polite. The imam, a smiley young Egyptian, was articulate and bright. The women, all in long dresses or coats and tight head-scarves, were delightful.

We talked about Islam. We talked about oppression. We talked about hijab. The women all insisted that wearing hijab was their choice, and that they did it because it made them feel comfortable. "Why do people have such a problem with this?" asked an older Egyptian woman, with an edge of real distress. "What do you think?" said a young teaching assistant. "What do you think of us?"

What do I think of you? Gosh, where do I start? I think, I told them, that what's taking place in the mosque now is clearly very much better than what was taking place before. That it seemed to be a happy, supportive, friendly community. That I'd liked the people I'd met, and appreciated their openness. That I found the adoption of the hijab, 30-odd years after the major battles of feminism, profoundly depressing, and also the declaration, by women in their twenties, that they would trust their parents to choose their husband. That I couldn't respect their beliefs. How can you respect beliefs you think are nonsense? But that I respected their right to express and hold them. You can't, I told them, respect beliefs you don't share. You can only respect people.

What I didn't say is that religion is here to stay and we can like it or lump it. Richard Dawkins can rant till the sacred cows come home, but people have always yearned for the transcendent, always constructed myths and rituals surrounding those myths, and they always will. A state can't, and shouldn't, crush religious belief. What it can do is ensure that people's religious practice doesn't clash with the law, provide a secular education of a high standard for all, conduct foreign policies that don't fuel the fantasies of angry young men looking for a cause, and generally do everything within its power to foster the view that religion is about prayer, not politics.

And Muslims? What can they do? What can they do to make future YouGov surveys better? Well, they can do the posters, and the open days, and the leaflets, if they want to. They could also find some new scientists, artists and thinkers to boast about, ideally not ones from the Middle Ages. But here's something simple to start with. Forget about Journey to Mecca and offer screenings in mosques of Four Lions. Chris Morris's funny and poignant portrayal of not-quite-failed jihad in Bradford and London would, I'm sure, do more to wreck the violent fantasies of impressionable wannabe jihadists than any number of lectures by Mr Hassan Mohi-ud-Din Qadri. It would also show the world that Islam has a jewel beyond compare, one that has hitherto been largely hidden. It's called, of course, a sense of humour.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

Year 5/6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Permanent Year 6 TeacherThe job:This...

KS1 & KS2 Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: KS1+KS2 Teachers required ASAP for l...

Year 2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 2 Teacher The position is to wo...

Day In a Page

 

In Sickness and in Health: Waking up to my 4am witching hour of worry

Rebecca Armstrong
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past