Joan Smith: Those who dismiss links to the Koran are in denial

The Religious Context

Sunday 17 July 2005 00:00 BST

I understand their motives. No decent person wishes to inflame feelings against law-abiding Muslims in this country, many of whom were born and grew up here. One of them, 20-year-old Shahara Islam from east London, died on the No 30 bus which is believed to have been blown up by Hasib Hussain from Leeds, who was two years her junior. Some commentators have seized on Ms Shahara's death as proof that her murderer could not be a Muslim, yet people who knew Hussain say he turned to Islam 18 months ago after a troubled adolescence. They also describe him as devout.

Hussain and his fellow-conspirators clearly favoured a more implacable interpretation of the Koran than some of their co-religionists, but anyone who tries to dismiss a link is in denial. The problem - and there is a problem, no matter what faith leaders claim - is that Islam is based on a text which is repetitive, contradictory and open to widely differing interpretations. This is true of all the religions of the book and it makes no more sense to attempt to detach the London bombers from Islam than it does to claim that evangelical Christians who bomb abortion clinics in the US have nothing to do with Christianity.

The conflict we are witnessing is not, as Samuel Huntington has claimed, between Muslims and Christians. It is, as I argued in this newspaper well before the 7 July attacks, between secular modern culture and particular interpretations of the monotheistic religions, whether Islamic or Judaeo-Christian. To some of its followers, Islam may be a religion of peace, but the tensions in the Bible - between the Old and New Testaments, between the vengeful God of the Israelites and the Christ of the Gospels - are replicated in the Koran.

If anything, the Koran is more equivocal about murder than the Bible. A prohibition that "you shall not kill any man whom God has forbidden you to kill, except for a just cause" (from the chapter entitled "The Night Journey") leaves quite a degree of latitude. If a Muslim kills another Muslim unintentionally, the penalty laid down in "Women" - he must free one Muslim slave and pay blood-money to the family - is not unduly onerous. And while a passage in "The Table" asserts that Jews and Christians "shall have nothing to fear or to regret", Muslims are warned in the same chapter not to mingle with people of other faiths: "Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends".

Another passage could easily be seen as a justification for attacking British and American troops in Iraq: "Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land."

It might be objected that I have quoted selectively from the Koran, and that I could have produced a similar list of passages from the Bible. But that is precisely my point, for I am suggesting that much as we may dislike the beliefs of evangelical Christians and extreme Muslims, we cannot dismiss them as "perversions". We can decide that we would like to encourage certain readings and discourage others, a project in which Muslim leaders who have condemned the London bombings, including Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, can play an important role.

I do not expect them to be convinced by my personal conviction that faith is inherently dangerous. But it seems undeniable that Islam, in many parts of the world, is in a militant phase that demands a different relationship between the individual, religion and the state from that of modern Western societies (with, perhaps, the growing exception of President Bush's America). What follows from that proposition is a question as to whether Islam is prepared to make a similar accommodation with secular culture in this country to that of the Anglican church, which recognises a separation between church and state in everything but name.

Many Christians disagree with aspects of secular culture - encompassing everything from the availability of abortion to the UK's foreign policy - without feeling totally alienated or justified in attacking people who think differently. The 7/7 bombings are an extreme example of a failure to make that separation on the part of a minority of young British Muslims, with terrifying consequences.

At a moment when mosques are being attacked in British cities, I can understand why some Muslim leaders would rather disown Hasib Hussain and his co-conspirators. It is also true that the wider culture, in the form of the government, can take steps to ameliorate the situation, such as dealing with the economic disadvantages that undeniably afflict young Muslim men. But I cannot see any long-term solution until Muslim leaders recognise that the problem comes from within their religion, not outside it, and set about combating the influence of anti-Western Islamist theologians on impressionable young men.

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