Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Don't tell me how I should worship

'We need to demolish the idea of a uniform 'ummah', the supposedly identical worldwide community of Muslims'
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The Independent Online

With the entire world whipped up, anxious and alert, questions are being asked by Muslims which would never have arisen before. Through internet networks they are feverishly discussing the war, why Muslims are so despised and the shame (deeply important word this for Muslims) that so much corruption, violation and authoritarianism is found in Muslim countries and communities across the globe.

This last issue, especially, has taken on an urgency and honesty I have not seen before. Perhaps it is because more of us realise that our lives depend on confronting these ugly realities. We Muslims can only survive onslaughts, both real and ideological, if we become more astute and less defensive.

A fortnight ago, on a special Jonathan Dimbleby programme about Islam, Dr Ghada Karmi, a respected Palestinian academic who describes herself as a "cultural Muslim", pointed out – with great bravery I thought – that Islam had never gone through a reformation, implying that this had to be the next step. I agree.

But first the many caveats. I don't mean we must jump on the liberal high horse that would have their own values as superior to anyone else's. As Richard Webster pointed out in his indispensable little book, A Brief History of Blasphemy: what the most extreme liberals are advocating, whether by intention or default, is the right to proclaim the superiority of their own revelation and to abuse the gods who are worshipped by other, supposedly inferior cultures. During the Rushdie crisis this army took up words (their arms) to reassert this message and worse. I look back at the hundreds of cuttings I collected then and even now feel shaken by the names, the tone and the content of what was hurled at us all, all Muslims.

Michael Foot proclaimed that Islam was "the great persisting threat to the world"; Roy Jenkins regretted that so many Muslims were allowed to settle in this country; Hugo Young ordered us to go back where we came from; Connor Cruise O'Brien declared Islam a "sick" religion. These were not right-wing ravings but the words of eminent people, habitual advocates of equality and justice. But then the founding fathers of liberalism believed utterly in the superiority of European societies.

J S Mill thought non-Europeans were "backward" and incapable of self-regeneration and self-analysis. Today, other such voices reveal their true distaste of Muslims (many are seen soulfully clutching abridged versions of the Koran as if a couple of days reading will get them up to speed and help fine tune their attacks) and this time they are louder and brasher because of the horror we have just witnessed.

Enlightened Muslims have an almost impossible role, but it is one which must be taken up. We must continue to rebut the foolish claims of fundamentalist liberals and remind them of the distressed, atomised and utterly lonely society which they have created through aggressive individualism, where the habits of obligation and duty have been obliterated. But whatever our feelings about this and the failures of the West in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, or colonialism and the unbearable US hypocrisy and hubris, we must act to stop the rot within.

I understand the pressures of this strange war but this is not the time to suspend such self-interrogation. There is an urgent need to start up a dialogue and momentum which will help reform Islamic societies to stop the descent into a new dark age.

This could be done in two ways. The first, perfectly respectable, has already been embarked upon by Muslim clerics and scholars. Dr Zaki Badawi of the Muslim College and Rana Kabbani and Sarah Sheriff, two writers, have gone back to source to painstakingly explain the meanings and metaphors in the Koran. This may, they hope, deter those easily led to wild and unholy acts by barbaric mullahs who want to take us all to hell. In her book, Women's Rights in Islam, Sheriff reminds Muslims that the Prophet said: "Whoever had a daughter and did not bury her alive, nor insult her nor favour his son over her, Allah will enter him to paradise". Muslim women were also given the right to sexual satisfaction and education. The reformation therefore could be to promote the "truth".

I prefer a second way or perhaps another parallel route to create a progressive force within Muslim communities. This would take a historical rather than theological approach. We need to demolish the idea of a uniform ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims supposedly identical and unchangeable. Yes, we have these threads which connect us and they are the five eternal and immutable principles, belief in Allah, prayers, fasting, zakat (charity) and pilgrimage to the holy cities. But beyond these there have always been differences, disagreements, various political and cultural alliances. In Pakistan, Sunnis, Shias and the different factions with are facing growing friction as the boulder of the Taliban's demanding, hard-line Islam begins to smash them.

Two Muslim sub-groups, the Ahmedis and Ismailis (my community, which has adherents in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and which has built hospitals, universities and schools across Pakistan), have already experienced these pressures. I find it ironic that Muslims who insist that western countries should respect diversity ignore the way hegemonic Islamicists are crushing all diversity within. I have never worn hejab; nor did my mother or grandmother. Our imam in the fifties told families to stop the practice and to educate their daughters. Now, Muslim men and women accost us in the streets and instruct us to submit to the hejab. I find this intrusive and contemptible. Who are they to tell me how to worship?

We should learn from the periods when Islam was quietly confident, open, culturally promiscuous and just. The city of Sarajevo, for 500 years, was among the best of what we were capable. So were Granada, Delhi and the Persian cities. A civilization cannot survive without diversification, evolution, change, cultural and technological trade and co-operation. Most British Muslims would not be able to live in Pakistan or Iran now because British values are too deeply inside them. There is no conflict between modernity and Islam and the many successful yet faithful Muslim intellectuals, professionals (Dr Magdi Yaqub for one) and techno-wizards will tell you so if you care to talk to them and not the maniacs who want to kill the West or the rambling Francis Fukuyama who believes in the clash of civilizations.

Our reformation must be built on human rights which are not "western" but universally agreed. Please explain to me how the five pillars disallow equality, rule of law, democracy, freedom to choose, and personal autonomy? We are doomed unless we begin this process. In 1970, the relatively unknown British poet Basil Bunting wrote: "Sooner or later we must absorb Islam if our own culture is not to die of anaemia". Now we have the same fears about Muslim cultures. We will haemorrhage, bleed, spill blood and surely die of that loss unless we now learn to absorb the best ideas in the world.