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Concerns of the ummah

Some faiths are global. Nation states must come to terms with this.

In the first part of Peter Taylor's fascinating new BBC 2 series, Generation Jihad, we heard, time and again, young British Muslims voicing their concern and outrage over attacks on Palestine and the military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I'm sure that at least some viewers were thinking: why should Britons, UK passport-holders, people born and brought up here, feel quite so strongly about what happens in countries thousands of miles away?

Why should they feel that the death and destruction visited upon Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis are also attacks on them? Shouldn't they be British, and espouse "British" values, first and foremost?

I can quite see why this is hard to understand for secularists, used to -- and insistent upon -- the church-state divide that characterises most European nations, and which continues in the supranational institution of the EU. I can also see why it is hard to understand for many Protestants, especially those belonging to churches that specifically describe themselves as being national sects -- the Church of England, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, etc.

What they fail to see, because it is not emphasised with the same force in their belief systems, whether religious or not, is the truly universal nature of other faiths, membership of which binds their adherents from different countries and continents together in a way that secular nationalism and Protestantism do not.

As the Islamic scholar and former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi put it in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in 2004:

What the west needs to learn about the Muslim world . . . is that Muslims see themselves as a collective ummah. Unlike [with] western individualism, Muslims have a strong sense of fraternity as a community of believers.

This means empathy. This is why Muslims who are not affected by poverty or who have nothing to do with Palestine feel so strongly about this issue. This is why without addressing and identifying the root causes of terrorism the war against terror will not succeed.

You can find the full text here (and I would advise anyone interested in learning about a less confrontational view of Islam to do so. Badawi was a weak and ineffectual PM, but very wise when it came to how religion and modernity can coexist).

It could also be added that awareness of the ummah has been enormously heightened in the past few decades, not least by the mass spread of all forms of communication.

This is why, for instance, as the US senator Christopher Bond points out in his new book, The Next Front: South-east Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam, Muslims in the southern Philippines can watch Israel's attacks on Gaza and Lebanon and feel affected, and angered, in a way they did not in the years before even the poorest households had access to a television set. And there, this knowledge of the suffering of fellow Muslims has had the unfortunate consequence of allowing some to turn a long and legitimate struggle for autonomy within, if not outright independence from, a Philippine nation, into part of a wider religious war.

It is no use railing against this sense of connectedness. It is simply there. For me, brought up in one of the other global faiths, Roman Catholicism, it is far from alien.

Even though I lapsed a long time ago, I still feel a connection with Catholics around the world, and have always known that I could walk into a Catholic cathedral in any country and feel at home. Culturally, it is part of my DNA. It is also why, when politicians such as Ruth Kelly are criticised essentially for being religious -- her links to Opus Dei were regarded as being particularly suspect -- I can't help feeling at least a twinge of sympathy.

For those who demand that UK-born Muslims, or Catholic ministers like Kelly, sign up to a secular interpretation of Britishness and consign their embarrassing beliefs to some hidden place where they need not intrude into the political sphere are asking the impossible.

Nearly everyone agrees that human rights are universal. Well, some faiths are truly global, too, and have existed and will continue to exist while nations and empires rise and fall. Denying this is useless. Understanding this, and allowing for this, would be better.

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