Islam and pluralism

Intolerance has 'contaminated' both Islam and Christianity

It is often argued - by both Islamist fundamentalists and secularists - that Islam and democracy don’t mix. Yet pluralism - that underpins democracy - is a corner stone of Islam.

This commitment to pluralism can be gleaned from the Prophet’s conduct in Medina where he emerged as the city’s leader. Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims were protected (dhimmi) and allowed complete social and political participation in society and the ability to follow their own religious beliefs and customs.

The pains by which the Prophet went to highlight the common ground between Islam and the Abrahamic traditions has been lost by modern fundamentalists and orientalists. There is no divine book, other than the Qur’an, that places so much emphasis on respecting the views and beliefs of others.

"There can be no compulsion in religion" (2:256) declares the Qur’an highlighting the freedom of belief and conscience in Islam . "We believe in what has been revealed to us, just as we believe in what has been revealed to you [Jews and Christians]; our God and your God are the same, and it is to Him we submit" (29:46)

As the Muslim empires expanded after the death of the Prophet, far from forcing people to convert, Muslim scholars extended dhimmi (protected people) status to other non-Muslim religions, such as the Zoroastrians of Iran and Hindu sects of India as they fell within Muslim domains.

The presence of churches, synagogues, temples and idols across the Muslim-controlled world is a tribute to Islam’s respect for pluralism. It is worth noting that Muslim empires spread not because of the 'Islam and the sword' myth, but in the same way as any political empire does.

It is however also true that as Muslim empires became ever more powerful, interpretations of Islamic texts became increasingly arrogant: so instead of seeing the Qur’an as supplementing what had come before, it was presented as superseding previous books.

This was intended to differentiate Islam from previous religions and establish its own independence - similar to Christianity disassociating itself from Jewish practices to carve out is own identity, culminating in the Christian birth of anti-Semitism by demonising Jews as the killers of Jesus.

The impact of history on the interpretation of Islam is so often understated. Take for example the traditional ‘Islamic’ notion of the world being divided into two: land of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the land of disbelief (dar ul-kufr).

These notions are not rooted in the Qur’an but were latter day political interpretations developed during the time of the Crusades to rally Muslim support to eject the invaders. (The Christians meanwhile were busy demonising the Prophet and Islam to rally support on their side).

The fact that this binary view of the world is still held by Muslim fundamentalists shows how they struggle to shake off the narrative of history from the values of Islam. (The fact that some in the ‘Christian’ world still suffer from this myopia shows how the problem of intolerance has contaminated both traditions).

Islam has always been a religion of pluralism and diversity. Just because there is the One God, it does not follow that there is just one interpretation.

Asim Siddiqui is Chairman of the City Circle, which provides a place for British Muslim and non-Muslim communities to engage. More details can be found on www.thecitycircle.com. He works as a forensic accountant.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.