Rethinking Islamism II

Misconceptions and fears about sharia.

One of the first, and foremost, fears about Islamism is that its aim is the imposition of sharia law. That in itself is open to question, and I will come to that in a later post. But the very concept of sharia has been so oversimplified by scaremongers that, in the popular imagination, it is inextricably linked with the punishments of beheading, flogging and amputation for crimes such as theft and adultery, and for which Saudi Arabia has long been notorious.

Regimes like that of the Taliban, who banned flared trousers and jailed beard-trimmers, reinforced this view, which is why when the Archbishop of Canterbury made a modest suggestion about whether aspects of sharia could or should be incorporated into British law he faced a hysterical reaction and calls to quit.

As is sadly so often the case, the nuances in the lecture Rowan Williams delivered at the Royal Courts of Justice in February 2008 failed to have any impact on those whose closed minds alit on the word "sharia" and decided he was talking nonsense yet again. In fact, Dr Williams addressed this point very early on when he quoted Tariq Ramadan's chapter on sharia in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.

"In the west," writes Ramadan, currently professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford, "the idea of sharia calls up all the darkest images of Islam . . . It has reached the extent that many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word."

The example of Saudi Arabia undoubtedly has much to do with this. Yet it is important to stress that to look at that country and then assume that its version of sharia is the only one, or the one to which Muslims all secretly aspire, would be akin to holding up a vision of Torquemada's Inquisition and concluding that this was what real Christianity was. It is unrepresentative and, many would argue, a perversion.

"Barbarism"

Equally important is that the punishments which cause the greatest outcry -- flogging, stoning, etc -- come under the hudud laws, which are implemented in Saudi Arabia and were introduced by General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan in 1979, but are the exception, not the rule, in most Muslim countries.

They are, in fact, an embarrassment to the many Muslims who consider them barbaric. So when Ramadan called for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty in the Islamic world in 2005, some non-Muslims criticised him for not going further. Why didn't he say the hudud laws should just be discarded or repealed?

He explained this by pointing out that most of the authorities "are of the opinion that these penalties are on the whole Islamic [because of textual references] but that the conditions under which they should be implemented are nearly impossible to re-establish. These penalties, therefore, are 'almost never applicable'." He later declared that "Islam is being used to degrade and subjugate women and men in certain Muslim-majority societies in the midst of collusive silence and chaotic judicial opinions on the ground". The present-day use of hudud, therefore, is clearly a misuse of sharia.

But Ramadan provides further explanation for why the simplistic view of sharia is wrong. He has written of "the fundamental distinction that should be established between timeless principles" -- "sharia as a way towards justice", as he puts it -- "and contingent models". In other words, to reduce the whole of sharia to a detailed and specific set of laws, none of which leaves room for interpretation or reform, is, in his opinion, to miss the point.

"The concern should not be to dress as the Prophet dressed," he writes, "but to dress according to the principles (of decency, cleanliness, simplicity, aesthetics, and modesty) that underlay his choice of clothes . . . It really is a way, a way toward the ideal."

Many-splendoured

Cast in this manner, it becomes easier to understand why sharia varies enormously in the countries where it enjoys official status. For a surprisingly favourable account of what it's actually like to experience a sharia court, by a Times reporter, click here.

In Malaysia, to take another example, sharia is co-equal with civil law but is applied only to Muslims, and then mostly in matters concerning family law, marriage, inheritance and so on. Chinese restaurants are free to serve pork, alcohol is widely available, and women are not required to cover up. The former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad insisted on this latter point when I interviewed him in Kuala Lumpur this year.

"My wife does not cover her head. She's accepted," he told me. "It does not determine whether you are Muslim or not."

This may not be the type of sharia that all Islamists would favour, but not only would it suit some, it actually operates in a way that goes beyond what other Islamists advocate (about which, more later). You don't have to go as far as the authors of this interesting article in last July's Foreign Policy magazine, "What Israel needs to know about sharia" -- they argue that understanding sharia is the key to a peaceful coexistence with Hamas -- to appreciate that Rowan Williams did not deserve the barrage of criticism to which he was subjected two years ago (the Sun even set up a "Bash the Bishop" game on its website). Dr Williams was merely indicating that he knew (as I'm sure Christopher Hitchens does, too) that sharia is a highly complex and varied concept.

There are plenty who will object to any legal system or way of life that has a religious basis, regardless of how it operates. But the one word that is, above all, associated with sharia, stressed by Ramadan in his writings, Mahathir in his interview with me, by Bernard Lewis in his latest book and by countless others, is "justice".

I think we can agree that it is not just Islamists who are in favour of that.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.