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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Moral Maze: Islamic State Recruitment

BBC Radio 4 - Moral Maze, Islamic State Recruitment

Interview with Tom Holland, Author of In The Shadow of the Sword, "at least partly an account of the origins of Islam"

Michael Buerk: Your thesis as I understand it is that we are misunderstanding - almost wilfully misunderstanding the nature of Islam itself.

Tom Holland: Well, I think that there is a sort of comforting presumption on the part of the government that Islam is like any other religion. It's perfectly compatible with the fundamentals of a liberal, secular 21st century society.

This is the idea that underpins Thought for the Day. That essentially all religions are fine and all of them subscribe to the same liberal nostra.

And that those Muslims who behave so as to cast doubt on this proposition are then cast as extremists.

Now, of course there is a huge amount within British Islam that has added to the quality of this country. Muslims are the highest donators to charity, for instance, of any religious group. But I think that it is evident from what is, the number of people that are going to Syria or Iraq, for instance, that there are also aspects of Islam that are profoundly alien and indeed hostile to liberal democracy...

We need to recognise that essentially there are as many different forms of Islam as there are Muslims.

And we need to get away from the idea that there are right or wrong forms of Islam and we need government ministers to stop saying that extremists are not Muslims and that what the extremists are doing has nothing to do with Islam. Because I think that there is a debate to be had within Islam about the character of Islam that they want.

What can non-Muslims do?

Well, I think that we can apply the kind of skepticism, the kind of analysis, the recognition that Islam is a cultural phenomenon rather than existing as some kind of platonic abstract. Exactly the approach that people have always brought to Christianity, to Judaism and apply it to Islam as well. And at the moment I feel that here is an anxiety to do that. I think that there is a kind of internalised blasphemy taboo. Particularly around the figure of Mohammed...

I don't think it's a coincidence that the rise of what we call Jihadism, I suppose, what the government calls extremism has coincided with the rise of the Internet. I think that technology is having an impact on religious discourse, as with every other kind of discourse and that it's speeding it up.

We would like to think that modern technology would facilitate values and views that we would regard necessarily as modern. I don't think that's necessarily the case...

As I don't need to tell you [Giles Fraser] as a man of the cloth, there is fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam on notions of, say, the law.

One of the reasons why the Irish, even if they were Christian, were able to vote in favour of gay marriage is that the Pauline notion is that the law is written on the heart. And you look into your conscience and if that is what you feel is right then you do it.

In Islam, because nothing is really right or wrong unless God says that it is right or wrong. Everything is defined in terms of the book or the sayings of the Prophet.

Therefore if you have sayings that are canonically attributed to the Prophet in which it says apostates should be killed, or it is legi- the Prophet slept with a 9 year old, then it is incumbent obviously on Muslims to negotiate how they can square that with the standards of 21st century Britain. It's more problematic I think for Muslims than it is for Christians. And indeed, many Muslims would say that that is why Islam is superior to Christianity

Giles Fraser: They were the Ten Commandments not the Ten Suggestions. I mean, you say Christianity is not normative in that way and it's all about individual conscience. But there's a lot of people who wouldn't say that about the Bible at all.

Tom Holland: Well, yes, but I think that one of the ways in which Christianity has evolved actually is into Modern Liberal society. People talk about British values. I think that essentially British values as most people in this country would understand them would be secularised Christian values.

The very idea of a secular state, of dividing, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, rendering unto God's what is God's is a Christian one. It is more problematic for Muslims to deal with that. That's understandable. The process of negotiating that, though, is clearly going to be a long and complex and intellectually. And indeed it's a spiritually demanding one...

The Old Testament of course is succeeded by the New, and the New Testament tends to be more pacific than the Old. In the Old Testament you have people hammering tent pegs through heads, and in the New Testament you have Jesus telling Peter to put his sword up.

In the Koran you're quite right, there are pacific verses and there are bellicose verses. The problem is that Islam enshrines the notion of abrogation. That earlier verses as they are defined are superceded by later ones.

And the life of Mohammed as it has been constructed and put together serves to illustrate the order in which these verses appeared. And unfortunately the more tolerant pacific ones appear early. The more bellicose ones according to the canonical account of Mohammed's life appear later.

Which means the bellicose ones abrogate the more pacific ones.

So in a sense the order in the Bible is reversed in the Koran...

Melanie Phillips: The point about Ahmed Masroor - he is defeatist. Because he is cutting from under their knee, he's cutting the knees off from Muslim reformers, because if there is nothing wrong with Islam then what are all these Muslim reformers who are pious Muslims who want to reform their religion, what are they doing?
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