Honest scholars wanted

It is misleading to say that "religion does not belong in the domain open to proof or disproof by scholarship or science" (Letters, 17-31 December). Sincere believers in religions that make factual claims, including Islam, must be affected by new knowledge, as countless people in Europe were by New Testament criticism and Darwinism. Criticism of the Koran, which the New Statesman should be congratulated for airing, makes it easier, at least, to offer new interpretations. Abd al-Raziq and many Islamic modernists attempted to do just this, although they were seldom listened to.

Antony Black
Emeritus professor in the history of political thought, Department of Politics
University of Dundee

So it has taken the current negative focus on Islam and Muslims to bring out the "brilliant" SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) historians and linguists of the Sixties and Seventies (Wansbrough, Crone, Cook, Hawting et al) from decades of well-deserved obscurity.

Martin Bright's report ("The great Koran con trick", 10 December) on their theories of the alleged fabrication of the Koran after the death of the Prophet Mohammad suggests that somehow Muslims emerged in the early seventh century, but then, about two centuries later, they "created" the Koran "as a coherent scriptural basis for Islam to suit the needs of a sophisticated empire". What is more perplexing is that from the start there were, according to Patricia Crone, alleged divine injunctions - of war against the infidels, conquest, rape and pillage - to propel the Arabs out of the peninsula and on to the world stage. Where, then, did these alleged divine commands come from, and to whom were they addressed?

Bright made no attempt to subject the fantastic theories of this SOAS set to any type of scrutiny. Similar theories on the fabrication and "back-projection" of Hadith promoted by the Jewish scholars Ignaz Goldziher and Joseph Schacht have been debunked by meticulous scholarship such as that of Mustafa al-Azami.

We don't think you need worry too much about Muslim sensibilities or get too excited about the prospect of these "revolutionary" academics getting their act together to present their fiction in "an accessible way". What we really need is honest, scrupulous scholarship and the freeing up of a lot of academia from barren pursuits and from various types of racist and other bigotry.

Yousuf Bhailok
Secretary general, Muslim Council of Britain
Wembley, Middlesex

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.