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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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