As far as bad PR goes for a religious faith, you couldn’t do much worse than last week’s news stories relating to Islam coming from Africa. Christians here in the UK have not had the best of times recently trying to deal with attitudes to homosexuality and the furore over women bishops, but that pales into insignificance compared to the media attention received by Boko Haram, al–Shabaab and the Sudanese government over the last few days.
Take your pick between bombings, mass kidnapping of Christian schoolgirls and a death sentence for a heavily pregnant woman who refuses to convert. We keep being told by moderate Muslims through the Western media that Islam is a religion of peace, but from an observer’s point of view, it is a challenge to match up with the news stories we regularly see.
Malala Yousafzai is a striking example embodied in an individual of how these two extremes collide. She was hunted down and shot in the head by the Islamist Taliban who seek to impose their harsh interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. All because she was promoting the education of girls. She too is a Muslim and writing in an article in TIME magazine entitled ‘Save My Nigerian Sisters’, she argues that Islam is a religion of peace where women are respected and education is highly valued.
Surely Islam cannot hold such polarised views? The easy answer is to label Islamist groups such as Boko Haram as extremist who have distorted the true meaning of Islam in order to justify their terrorism and political fundamentalism. Baroness Warsi, the Minister for Faith and Communities, who is herself a Muslim made this point last year in the House of Lords:
“Islam, like all world religions, neither supports, nor advocates, nor condones terrorism. I am saying that the values of al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorists are not only contrary to what we as a country stand for, they are a distortion of the Islamic tradition itself. Al-Qaeda’s ideology is fundamentally at odds with both classical and contemporary Islamic jurisprudence. That is why the majority of Muslims across the globe reject their ideology.”
Many Islamic scholars agree with her. Following the mass kidnapping of over 200 Christian schoolgirls in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, said that Boko Haram was “misguided” and should be “shown their wrong path and be made to reject it”:
‘These groups are not on the right path because Islam is against kidnapping, killing and aggression. Marrying kidnapped girls is not permitted.’
Al-Azhar, the prestigious seat of Sunni learning in Cairo, said that the kidnapping “has nothing to do with the tolerant and noble teachings of Islam”. And Islamic scholars from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 countries with large Muslim populations, denounced the act as a “gross misinterpretation of Islam”.
It is straightforward to condemn these extremists for their despicable actions and label them as terrorists, but what of the case of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim in Sudan waiting to die because although she has lived as a Christian her entire life, because her father was a Muslim she legally is one too? Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Qatar and other countries have a death penalty for those who renounce or criticize Islam (apostasy). Around 19 countries consider apostasy from Islam illegal and in others there is strong public support for the death penalty for apostates. Are these staunchly Islamic countries rogue states or are they simply following the commands of the prophet Mohammad found in the Hadith, which states that those who revert from Islam should be killed? Are all of these countries and the majority of their populations extremist too? Certainly it goes against Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief’, despite most of these countries having signed up to the Declaration.
Even in a more secular country such as the UK where Muslims tend to be more moderate in their beliefs, a poll in 2007 found that 31 per cent of 16-24 year olds believe if a Muslim converts to another religion they should be punished by death. To convert from Islam to another faith or none is still very difficult in our country. Those who leave it are likely to face rejection by families and communities, violence and potentially death threats too,
This treatment of Mrs Ibrahim and apostates in this country caused Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury to speak up in a Sunday Times interview this weekend:
“Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with Islam at its core that it cannot allow people to change their religion? Moderate Muslims … have to say enough is enough.
“It is accepted doctrine in Islam [that] you don’t convert and if you do the penalty may be death. When Muslims do convert they almost go underground and there are examples of this in Britain.”
“I want to hear Muslim leaders say ‘we allow Muslims to become Christians if they wish to’. It could be a ripe moment for us to do something together, not only in condemning such atrocities but to hear Muslim leaders say that we do believe the fundamental human right to change your religion.”
In this country the majority of us still have little understanding of Islam despite its rapid growth through immigration and birth rates. Muslims make up almost 5 per cent of the population and regular attenders at mosques are a roughly equivalent in number to those who attend Church of England services. By 2040 figures by Christian Research suggests that the number of Muslim worshippers could be double that of Christians. We are still only beginning to grasp the significant differences that an Islamic worldview has compared to the Christian cultural mindset that has developed in this country over the centuries. The tensions we currently see in the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in Birmingham schools, segregation issues in our schools and universities, building of mega-mosques, talk of Sharia law and that of Halal meat being sold in our supermarkets will only continue to increase as these worldviews overlap. As more Muslims are exposed to Christianity and secularism, we can expect the treatment of those who find a new faith or consciously leave to become a more prevalent issue. Islamaphobia could potentially rise if incidents like that of the death of Lee Rigby happen again.
The future looks very uncertain both here and abroad as we witness an increasing clash of cultures and faiths. That makes it all the more important that Government, local authorities and political parties address the religious illiteracy that has been identified as being prevalent among those who work for them. Secularists might be wanting to see a reduction in the relationships between faiths and the state, but this will only be counter-productive. Religious engagement and understanding will need to become more important, not less, if those who have different beliefs are expected to respect and live with each other. The Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, writing in the Telegraph on Tuesday tied this to education:
‘If Government is worried about extremism the answer isn’t to clamp down on religious freedom or to spread fear, but rather to give children the tools to make sense of the world (75 per cent of which takes faith very seriously) and to grow and develop holistically – spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally.
‘That’s the way to equip pupils to be resilient and to know how to respond appropriately to different voices in society and how to resist extremism.’
As our dominant religion, Christianity through the Churches has a role to play building channels of communication with other ‘people of faith’ who share a belief in a spiritual dimension to life. And we all have a part to play by not judging those around us with prejudice simply because they are different or because of the actions of a few extremists.
Whether we like it or not the demographics of our society are going to change considerably over the coming decades. But if we are to avoid becoming polarised and painfully fractured, then we need to find ways where those with different beliefs and values can live alongside each other peacefully. If those who want to see elements of Sharia law implemented or who wish to break down and replace the structures that our society has developed with a set of values that are alien to the majority, then we risk falling into battle for the heart and soul of this country.
There are elements of Islam that do not fit easily with the fundamental human rights many countries have worked hard to establish. These need to be addressed honestly rather than being glossed over or ignored and we need Muslim, Christian and political leaders who can be active in their engagement and open in their dialogue. Freedom of religion and belief works both ways. If we expect to have the freedom to practice our religion (which we should), then we should allow others to be able to do the same even if they have converted from our own in the process.