Reclaiming Islam in this Summer of Terror

“It’s good to be alive this morning,” my friend Firas wrote on MSN Messenger. It was the morning of July 23, 2005. The world had just woken up to news of the massive bombs in Sharm Al-Sheikh, a car bomb in the heart of the buzzing night life of Beirut, and various stories related to the hunt for the failed bombers in London. A month later, the news of death and destruction continue unabated, with the latest being a series of rocket attacks in Aqaba that killed a young Jordanian soldier, not to mention the sad monotony of the daily reports on the massacres in Iraq. The mad terrorists are on a roll this
summer, and they seem to be chasing every breath of life on planet earth.

These summer attacks, particularly those in London , have generated an unprecedented level of debate. If compared to 9/11, it is quite extraordinary how mature the reaction of the British Government and people has been. It is true that the scale of 9/11 cannot be compared to that of 7/7, but it is still amazing to consider the speed with which the majority of British journalists and commentators moved on to consider the underlying causes behind the carnage in London . Post 9/11, any attempt to review the causes was deemed almost sacrilegious. I still clearly remember the hysteria with which erstwhile considerate writers, such as Christopher Hitchens, attacked Noam Chomsky for daring to analyze what lay behind the crimes of Mohammad Atta and his band of mass murderers.

While I respect and salute the maturity of debate around these events, it is important not to overdo it. The simple truth that we must face is this: There can be no political rationale behind the insanity of the attacks of 7/7, Sharm El-Sheikh, Baghdad or anywhere else. These are not a reaction to the invasion of Iraq .

How can these attacks be linked in any way to Iraq when the so-called insurgency in the heart of that country is more focused on killing Iraqis than any other nationality? This is not a perfunctory point that we passively reflect on before moving on to consider the bigger picture. Let us just stop there. What kind of a ridiculous insurgency or revolution focuses on the killing of its own people? What kind of a movement is this that thinks it is worthwhile to kill scores of Iraqi children in order to kill one American soldier who was handing them sweets (as happened in Baghdad on July 13 th , 2005, when a suicide bomber intentionally rammed his vehicle into a large crowd of children, killing 27 people)? This is not a simple detail. Let us look at it again and again. This is the creed of Zarqawi, Bin Laden and others of their ilk. And don’t tell me that, for them, this is collateral damage! The suicide bomber headed straight into the children. These Arab and Muslim children were as much a target for Zarqawi as the US soldiers. All those who want to believe otherwise are deceiving themselves.

Similar obvious questions can be asked of the other acts of madness we have witnessed lately. One of the suicide bombers in Sharm Al-Sheikh intentionally and knowingly drove his car of death straight into a café serving hard working Egyptians, killing 17. That’s because of Iraq ? Or could it be Palestine ? What on earth could have driven the mad bomber to do this? Did he really think he would put pressure on Husni Mubarak by killing his fellow citizens?

The same applies to London . Londoners and other Britons staged the world’s greatest anti-war rally in the run-up to the Iraqi invasion. Anti-war opinion floods the daily newspapers and magazines. Why on earth, in such a country, did British suicide bombers decide to kill their fellow citizens on buses and trains? The naïve say that this is a strategy to influence the British people, so that they put pressure on their government to withdraw from Iraq . But let’s think about it. Imagine this British-born bomber on the tube, as he looks around and sees the fellow passengers he is about to kill or maim. Is he really thinking of justice for Iraqis at that particular moment? As he sees a mom or teenager going about her or his business, is he ecstatic with joy at the thought of bringing justice to Iraq by killing these commuters? Absolute nonsense.

Surely, if the bomber had one tiny brain cell, he would have realized that most of the people he was about to kill were vehemently opposed to the war on Iraq . If he had two brain cells, he would have asked the inevitable question: Who is actually dying in Iraq nowadays and why? Most of the civilian deaths caused in Iraq are the result of acts committed by the brothers in arms of the London bombers. Did these suicide bombers really think that such a bomb would change anything in Iraq ? If they were so passionate about stopping the war in Iraq , why didn’t they consider joining the Liberal Democrats? Did they not realize that there were also Muslims who would be killed? At which point did they lose their humanity?

Once again, let us pause there in order to understand. Before we get to the big picture, let us imagine these killers as they go about their grisly business. Let us analyze that moment to death. When we do pause and think, we realise that the big picture is actually as pathetic and outrageous as we all feared: It is beyond doubt that these killers were brainwashed by the Ben Ladens and Zarqawis of this world into believing a number of outright lies about Islam to be true. This ignominious list of Ladenesque lies that is sweeping the minds of non-thinking Muslims worldwide includes:

• Islam allows the killing of non-Muslims (if anyone disputes that this is what they are being told, please check one of the latest statements by Zarqawi in which he misquotes the Holy Koran and claims that non-Muslims should be killed wherever they can be found);

• The definition of non-Muslims includes the vast majority of Muslims who are not followers of the Zarqawi/Ben Laden brand of Islam. This explains why they don’t give a damn about killing Muslims. In fact, I am sure that for these bombers killing modern Muslims like myself and Shahara Islam (a victim of 7/7) is even more valuable than killing US or British soldiers;

• The Koran fully supports all these actions. One way or another, the brainwashers of the bombers must have constructed an interpretation of Islam that not only condones their actions, but absolutely supports them;
• The life of the Prophet Mohammed contains stories and incidents that support these types of actions. Al-Jazeera broadcast an interview a while back with one of the masterminds of 9/11, and he was saying that the Prophet had allowed the killing of civilians in a couple of incidents during his lifetime.

• The ultimate and greatest goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate. We don’t need to look far in history to understand what type of Islamic super state they are looking to build. They want a replica of the Taliban’s Afghanistan . That living hell is, apparently, their idea of heaven on earth.

Only this could explain how these young men and women are brainwashed into wasting their and others’ lives. It is a massive misconstruction exercise, centred on the definition of Islam.

The ensuing conclusion is obvious: We Muslims are facing a battle for the soul of Islam. And the choice that faces us all is this: either we give way to the Islamic definitions used by Ben Laden and co, and the undying culture of misinterpretation of Islam, or we fight back to reclaim Islam. There needs to be a revolution of thought that would bring back our religion to its beautiful core.

It is not enough to go around repeating parrot-like that Islam is a religion of peace and these acts have nothing to do with it. We, the modern and true Muslims (if we are going to win this existential battle, we have to start getting a bit more self-confident!), need to re-conquer our religion and clutch it out of the choking grip of backwardness which had befallen it over the last few centuries. It is not just the wild misinterpretations of the terrorist masterminds. Even the mainstream application and interpretation of Islam, in the mosques and schools of the Arab and Muslim world, has gone off-track in various ways over the last few centuries. I am amazed at the smallness and pettiness of several of the Friday prayer sermons that I attend. The Islamic religion has been turned by the average preachers into a religion of fear, petty rituals, self-glorification, and outright xenophobia at times. The clerics focus almost all of their fiery rhetoric on hair-raising depictions of hell for alcohol drinkers and adulterers, wild theories on how the Muslims are victims of conspiracies by almost everyone else on earth, belittlement of Christianity and Judaism (not to mention Buddhism), and much worse. Even in the arts, to which the Islamic civilization contributed so much, the fundamentalists want to put the icing on the cake by decreeing that Islam prohibits all beautiful and spiritual disciplines such as music, film, painting …. Etc.

I remember attending a Friday prayer a year ago, in which the preacher decided to devote his entire speech to the issue of whether or not Muslim men are allowed to have sexual relations with their wives during the month of Ramadan. Is this subject worthy of an entire Friday sermon?

On another occasion, I attended the funeral service of the mother of a friend in Amman . The mosque was filled with the dignified sadness and piety of the relatives and friends of the deceased woman. Some of her friends and relatives, including some hapless Muslims who thought they were exercising their right to freedom of worship, decided not to enter the mosque for the funeral prayer. Suddenly, the preacher bust into an impromptu tirade against the “so-called Muslims” who did not attend his service. He started cursing them and praying to God that they rot in hell! He mocked the non-attendees for standing outside with the non-believers, i.e. Christians! I presume the preacher failed to see the irony of the current misinterpretation of Islam, whereby these Christians could not enter the mosque even if they wanted to.

Is such vengefulness part of the Islam that spread from a small town in the desert of Arabia to the four corners of the world? Is this the Islam of the Prophet Mohammad and his “sahhabah” (companions)? Is this the Islam of Omar Bin Khattab, the second ruler of Muslims after the Prophet and a man who would qualify for the title of history’s fairest and most just ruler? Bin Khattab, a friend of the prophet’s from the outset of the revelations, had an almost superhuman obsession with Justice. Every decision, every action was considered, reconsidered over and over again in the interest of Justice. He would roam the streets at night incognito to see whether the people were well-fed. He would castigate his lieutenants and province governors for the slightest mis-treatment of the people. He treated people of other faiths with extreme respect, famously refusing to pray in the main Church of Jerusalem upon the peaceful conquest of the City; he was worried that, if he prayed in the Church, Muslims would afterwards use that gesture as an excuse to turn it into a mosque. He also signed a treaty in which he assured all the inhabitants of Jerusalem that none of their churches or any other places of worship would be touched under Muslim rule, and providing a written guarantee of freedom of worship to all inhabitants of the city.

This is Islam. This is the Islam that truly conquered the hearts and minds of the world. If there are shameful episodes in our history, and each civilisation has its share of shame, then it is the deeds of Muslims and not the teachings of Islam. If our religion was as static and unforgiving as the current interpreters would have us believe, how could it have reached the hearts of millions and so quickly. It was Islam’s obsession with justice, fairness and equal rights that endeared it to the world in the Seventh century. And it is those same principles that we must use to save Islam today.

Compare the life of Mohammad and his companions with the Taliban, with their despicable destruction of Buddhist temples (compare that with Bin Khattab’s treatment of Christian monuments in Jerusalem, or even the Pyramids in Cairo; why didn’t the early Muslims lay the Pyramids to waste?), not to mention their systematic demolition of all facets of dignified life for those who had to endure their rule in Afghanistan for a few abhorrent years; compare it with Zarqawi’s stream of bombings targeting Shia mosques and institutions.

The lists are endless on both sides. On the one hand, the stories of the life of Mohammad and his companions are flooded with compassion and the pursuit of justice and equality. On the other hand, the stories of the systematic and wilful misconstruction of Islam by today’s terrorists and certain so-called “ulama” are as numerous as they are shameful.

It is surely time for us to reclaim our religion. It is time to re-connect Islam with its history. It is time to read Islam in context. The context is the life of the Prophet and those who were there at the outset of the Islamic revelation. The context is their actions in the time in which they lived. Omar Bin Abdul Azeez, another Muslim Caliph in the golden age of Islam, strove for the greatest standards of justice and equality a thousand years before the European enlightenment. It is the fact that he strove for such excellence in such an unlikely time and improbable setting that should give us, as Muslims today, room for sober reflection. It is the fact that the Prophet gave absolute equality in opportunities and dignity of life to both men and women during his time that should shame current preachers who would confine women to their homes and a life of servitude. It is the fact that the Prophet gave women rights of inheritance one thousand years before many European countries that we must dwell upon. This is how advanced and avant-garde Islam was. If Islam made the Prophet and his contemporaries aim so high then, how can we allow it to go so low today.

It is not about confining the text to its most rigid and mindless interpretation. It is how those texts were applied, and the spirit of that application, by those who understood them best, i.e. the Prophet, his companions and the early bearers of the message.

It is our historic responsibility to save Islam. Never before has our religion been under such a concerted attack. And the attackers are neither Bush nor Blair. The real blasphemy is spreading insidiously from within. With the forces of misinterpretation as powerful as they are, it is no easy task to devise a specific plan to reclaim our religion. But surely the first step is to speak out without fear. And today I wanted to join the increasing ranks of Muslims who have chosen to raise their voice in defence of a religion that is longing to reclaim its place as a beacon for graceful spirituality, justice, tolerance and equality.

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