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

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"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.

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