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
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.