Eid mubarak!

“Understanding Islam” is a very welcome new initiative from the Coexist Foundation.

So much discussion of religion is a mere battery of assertion, unhindered by any proper grounding in theology. This ignorance is typical not only of committed atheists, but of an enormous number of people of faith, too, whose practices and beliefs often owe more to habit than to their sacred texts or the dissertations of their scholars.

So, as Muslims prepare to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, I'm pleased to write about an initiative by the Coexist Foundation that may help to remedy this unfortunate situation, which is at least one of the causes for the dogmatism and hatred that flourish around matters of belief and unbelief.

The foundation, set up in 2006 and run by James Kidner, a former diplomat and deputy private secretary to Prince Charles, is in the process of building three interactive online courses to explain Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They should be a magnificent resource for anyone wishing to learn about these faiths but bewildered by where to start -- perhaps slightly daunted by the prospect of beginning by reading the whole of the Torah, Bible and Quran.

The first course, "Understanding Islam", is already up and running (and available, for a fee, at understandingfaiths.net). It is divided into 15 units, each of which concentrates on a particular area. So "A Long Line of Prophets", for instance, explains that the Quran lists 25, 21 of whom are also in the Bible, and that every people in the world was sent at least one (even if today we have no idea who they were or what their message was). Muhammad's was the final revelation, not the only one; but the one that perfects and corrects those given to Jesus (the "Injil") and to Moses and the Jews (the "Taurat").

Each unit is narrated by Chris Hewer, currently fellow in Christian-Muslim relations at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in the City of London, who wrote the course with four Muslim advisers from across the major traditions in Islam.

The units are subdivided into pages of roughly one or two minutes' length, during which the listener can pause to note the very useful Quranic references scrolling down the right-hand side of the screen or the information provided in the elegant, minimal graphics. From time to time, the narrative is broken up by a video commentary from one of the four Muslim scholars. At the end, or halfway through the longer units, the reader is invited to take a test to ensure it is all sinking in.

There is a wealth of fact and explanation here, from the history of and reasons for the split between Sunnis and Shias (how many western policymakers appreciated the significance to the latter of the Iraqi city of Karbala before the invasion, one wonders), to the origins of "Gibraltar" -- the name of that bastion of Blighty's being a corruption of "Jabal al-Tariq" ("the mountain of Tariq"), after the Muslim general who led the conquest of Spain in 711.

But it also manages to shed light on aspects of Islam that may seem matters of alien ritual to outsiders, such as the Hajj or the Sufi practices that aim for an altered state of consciousness. Much that strikes some as harsh and unyielding is presented in context and with justification, taking care to stress that sharia -- "the path laid out for all" -- is more about the rewards of a forgiving God and the benefits of developing taqwa ("God consciousness") than about the amputations to which Islam's enemies constantly reduce it.

It is true that this course does not answer some of the hard questions, and it paints a pretty conservative picture of the rules governing family life and dress codes. Are women really not supposed to go out alone with any man who is not a "mahram", a family member too closely related for marriage? Can men be expected to prize piety above all else when choosing a wife -- GSOP instead of GSOH, never mind (let's be realistic) physical attraction?

Unaddressed, too, is the thorny, but critical, question of how Islamic law can be accommodated with pluralism in states that are constitutionally defined as secular -- whether Muslims are a majority there or a minority.

But such a course (it lasts seven hours on a straight-through viewing, though the approach I would recommend, with note and test-taking, would require considerably more time) cannot deal with every query and criticism. Its aim is to promote understanding of Islam, not least by pointing out the connections between the Abrahamic faiths. The cousin of the Prophet's wife Khadija, for instance, was a Christian, as were those who came from Najran to pray at his mosque in Medina; and the constitution of that city, declared in 622, gave equal status to Muslims and Jews.

There will be those who criticise the course for its positive view of Islam, but it will be invaluable for police officers, doctors, teachers -- anyone working in the community, in fact -- as well as for those serious students of religion and international affairs who want a detailed and thought-provoking introduction to this faith tradition. Its range and detail are remarkable, as are its technical features and feel.

Given that the course may also be used by troops going into combat in the Middle East, I, for one, am very glad that it seeks to emphasise what we have in common rather than what divides us. That way, one is rather more likely to jaw-jaw than to war-war.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Labour is launching a stealthy Scottish comeback - thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and the Daily Mail

The Scottish Labour strategy is paying off - and hard evidence that it works may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017

When I suggested to a senior Scottish Labour figure earlier this year that the party was a car crash, he rejected my assertion.

“We’re past that,” he said gloomily. “Now we’re the burnt-out wreck in a field that no-one even notices anymore.”

And yet, just as the election campaign has seen Jeremy Corbyn transformed from an outdated jalopy into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang magically soaring in the polls, Scottish Labour is beginning to look roadworthy again.

And it’s all down to two apparently contradictory forces – Corbyn and The Daily Mail.

Kezia Dugdale’s decision to hire Alan Roden, then the Scottish Daily Mail’s political editor, as her spin doctor in chief last summer was said to have lost her some party members. It may win her some new members of parliament just nine months later.

Roden’s undoubted nose for a story and nous in driving the news agenda, learned in his years at the Mail, has seen Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly forced to defend her government record on health and education in recent weeks, even though her Holyrood administration is not up for election next month.

On ITV’s leaders debate she confessed that, despite 10 years in power, the Scottish education system is in need of some attention. And a few days later she was taken to task during a BBC debate involving the Scottish leaders by a nurse who told her she had to visit a food bank to get by. The subsequent SNP attempt to smear that nurse was a pathetic mis-step by the party that suggested their media operation had gone awry.

It’s not the Tories putting Sturgeon on the defence. They, like the SNP, are happy to contend the general election on constitutional issues in the hope of corralling the unionist vote or even just the votes of those that don’t yet want a second independence referendum. It is Labour who are spotting the opportunities and maximising them.

However, that would not be enough alone. For although folk like Dugdale as a person – as evidenced in Lord Ashcroft’s latest polling - she lacks the policy chops to build on that. Witness her dopey proposal ahead of the last Holyrood election to raise income tax.

Dugdale may be a self-confessed Blairite but what’s powering Scottish Labour just now is Jeremy Corbyn’s more left-wing policy platform.

For as Brexit has dropped down the agenda at this election, and bread and butter stuff like health and education has moved centre stage, Scots are seeing that for all the SNP’s left wing rhetoric, after 10 years in power in Holyrood, there’s not a lot of progressive policy to show for it.

Corbyn’s manifesto, even though huge chunks of it won’t apply in Scotland, is progressive. The evidence is anecdotal at the moment, but it seems some Scots voters find it more attractive than the timid managerialism of the SNP. This is particularly the case with another independence referendum looking very unlikely before the 2020s, on either the nationalists' or the Conservatives' timetable.

Evidence that the Scottish Labour strategy has worked may be more plentiful come 8 June 2017. The polls, albeit with small sample sizes so best approached with caution, have Ian Murray streets ahead in the battle to defend Edinburgh South. There’s a lot of optimism in East Lothian where Labour won the council earlier in May and MSP Iain Gray increased his majority at the Scottish election last year. Labour have chosen their local candidate well in local teacher Martin Whitfield, and if the unionist vote swings behind him he could overhaul sitting MP George Kerevan’s 7,000 majority. (As we learned in 2015, apparently safe majorities mean nothing in the face of larger electoral forces). In East Renfrewshire, Labour's Blair McDougall, the man who led Better Together in 2014, can out-unionist the Tory candidate.

But, while in April, it was suggested that these three seats would be the sole focus of the Scottish Labour campaign, that attitude has changed after the local elections. Labour lost Glasgow but did not implode. In chunks of their former west of Scotland heartlands there was signs of life.

Mhairi Black’s a media darling, but her reputation as a local MP rather than a local celebrity is not great. Labour would love to unseat her, in what would be a huge upset, or perhaps more realistically go after Gavin Newlands in the neighbouring Paisley seat.

They are also sniffing Glasgow East. With Natalie McGarry’s stint as MP ending in tears – a police investigation, voting in her wedding dress and fainting in the chamber sums up her two years in Westminster – Labour ought to be in with a chance in the deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s east end.

Labour in Scotland doesn’t feel like such a wreck anymore. Alan Roden’s Daily Mail-honed media nous has grabbed attention. Corbyn’s progressive policies have put fuel in the tank.

After polling day, the party will be able to fit all its Scottish MPs comfortably in a small hatchback, compared to the double decker bus necessary just a few years back.

But this general election could give the party the necessary shove to get on to the long road back.

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast. He is co-author of The Gender Agenda, which will be published July 21 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing.

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