Now that the immediate shock of the Manchester suicide bombing has subsided, people have begun to ask questions about how this could have happened. In a bid to be ‘tough on suicide bombing, tough on the causes of suicide bombing’, Jeremy Corbyn pointed out the link between UK foreign policy and the rise of such attacks. Theresa May immediately condemned the comments as ‘excusing’ the attack (which of course he wasn’t)—and it is hard to miss the links when the bomber came from Libya, a breeding ground of Islamist violence since what is universally regarded as the disastrous intervention by Western governments in toppling Gaddafi. From a very different part of the political spectrum, Melanie Phillips expressed disbelief as Western leaders incomprehension:
In the wake of the jihadi human bomb attack in Manchester, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May said: “We struggle to comprehend the warped and twisted mind that sees a room packed with young children not as a scene to cherish but an opportunity for carnage.” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “ It is unbelievable that somebody has used a joyful pop concert to kill or seriously injure so many people.” A headline in the Washington Post read: “In suburban Manchester, a search for what might have motivated the attacker”.
“Struggle to comprehend”? “Unbelievable”? “What might have motivated the attacker”? Really??
In 2006 I published my book Londonistan which analysed the supine response of the British political, legal and religious establishment to Islamic jihadi terrorism and the Islamisation of Britain. What follows below is the concluding chapter of that book. As the army patrols the streets of Britain to guard against further expected terrorist attacks, my warning about the deadly failure to face up to the true nature of the threat facing the west is surely even more urgent today.
I sense that church leaders (as well as politicians) have struggled to find a convincing as well as pastoral response to what as happened, and for two reasons. The first is the way the public discourse has been shaped, which has predominantly been in terms of ‘religious violence’ versus ‘secular solidarity’. When faced with such a choice, then clearly the ‘secular solidarity’ option is the only one to go for. But it leads to implausible statements, such as that by a Muslim leader in Manchester: ‘This violence has nothing to do with my religion—or with any religion’. The merest of glances at history will tell you that religious people have often been violent in the past, and that they have referred to their religion as the rationale for their violence.
But the second reason is that orthodox Christians actually find themselves in agreement with some Muslim criticisms of Western culture, even while they utterly reject anything close to violence responses to it. On Question Time last week, a member of the audience read from a leaflet distributed at Didsbury Mosque which criticised the immorality of Western culture. It was odd to hear denials that this was an authentic or authoritative expression of Muslim views, and at the same time find myself sympathetic to its perspective. Christian ambivalence about aspect of Western culture is why many of us are anxious about the requirement to sign up to ‘British values’ which are expressed in a way that is detached from the historic role Christian faith has played here. And many Christians will want to ask the question as to whether a concert where pop stars sing songs which sexualise their pre-teen female fans is really the best way to heal the wounds of Manchester.
Colin Chapman has written a very helpful exploration of how Christians might respond to Islamist violence and it is now available in full on the Fulcrum website. Chapman starts by urging us to understand the diversity of Islam, and in particular the difference between political Islam and popular Islam.
Political Islam is therefore different from what we might call ‘Traditionalist’ or ‘Orthodox Islam’ where Muslims want to conserve Islam as far as possible as it has been practised for centuries. They want to grant a minimum of concessions to modernity, and have little desire to change the political status quo in the countries where they are living.
Political Islam is different from the Folk Islam or Popular Islam which is practised all over the world. Paul Hiebert and Bill Musk have explained how Islam is often mixed up with primal religion which includes a great deal of magic and superstition. These Muslims are generally not so interested in politics, and their main concern is to find a source of power to deal with all the evil forces in spiritual world around us and with all the problems of daily life.
Political Islam also differs from Liberal or Modernist Islam. These Muslims believe that Islam can and must change as society changes. They want greater freedom in their interpretation of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition and greater flexibility in the way they interpret Islamic law in the modern world.
He goes on to undertake the kind of exploration of the contemporary political context which Jeremy Corbyn was pointing to as the essential context for understanding the influence of Islamist violence that we are facing.
In all these different expressions of political Islam there are two common factors: the desire to see the public sphere ordered by Islamic principles and the refusal to be ruled by foreigners. As we shall see shortly, context is all-important. In every case there has been something contextually specific—a perceived injustice—which has driven Muslim to take action and often to resort to violence.
So we could argue, for example, that if Israel in 1967 had complied with UN Security Resolution 242 and withdrawn from the territories it had occupied in the Six Day War, Hamas might never have come into existence. If Israel had not invaded Lebanon in 1982 and stayed on as an occupying power in the south for 28 years, there might have been no Hizbullah. And if the US and its allies had not invaded Iraq in 2003, there probably would be no ISIS.
He then tackles head-on the claim that ‘ISIS [and Islamist violence] has nothing to do with Islam’.
When the ideologues of ISIS spell out in great detail where in their scriptures, tradition and history they find the Islamic justification for what they are doing, it becomes untenable to assert that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. ISIS members believe their actions are closely related to Islam. It would be more accurate to say that ISIS has a lot to do with Islam, but is an extreme expression of one particular kind of Islamism. The rank and file of ISIS fighters from all over the world have joined the movement—and they have a variety of motives, related to idealism and the search for identity, meaning and adventure. It is also likely that many fighters have a minimal understanding of Islam. ISIS’ leadership, however, claims to be imitating some of the practices of the first generation of Muslims who fought alongside the Prophet and continued his struggle after his death. In interpreting the Qur’an, they use the principle of abrogation [which is a central principle in Quranic hermeneutics] which enables them to say that later verses calling Muslims to wage war on unbelievers abrogate, or cancel out, earlier verses which call for patient endurance of opposition…
At the other extreme there are many Christians—and especially evangelical Christians—who believe that ISIS is much nearer to the spirit and practice of early Islam than moderate Muslims of today. As evidence, they point to particular verses in the Qur’an (e.g. about beheading, crucifixion and slavery) and passages in Hadith literature, the biographies of Muhammad and legal texts to show the connections between the brutalities of ISIS and early Islamic texts.
I believe it is appropriate to draw attention to the precedents from the early years of Islam—especially since ISIS is using this precedent to justify their actions. However, there are two serious weaknesses in the approach which sees ISIS as faithful practitioners of early Islam. Firstly, they hardly engage with the arguments of mainstream Muslim scholars who believe they can demonstrate why ISIS is a clear departure from Islamic tradition. The main argument of scholars like Tim Winter, current dean of The Cambridge Muslim College, is that Islamist interpretations generally ignore the consensus in the Islamic legal tradition which developed over many centuries.
Chapman here is putting his finger on both the differences within Islam, and the differences between Christian and Islam attitudes to violence. Both religious traditions have violence within their authoritative texts; both have interpretive traditions which reject violence. But the key difference is that, whilst in Islam the traditions that reject violence stand outside their holy text and are found in later approaches to interpretation, for Christianity the rejection of violence is within their holy text. As Chapman points out earlier in the piece (and agreeing with the great Christian commentator on Islam from an earlier generation, Kenneth Cragg) the difference lies in the approach to power of Jesus and Mohammed.
We would have to begin by pointing out one major difference between the lives of Jesus and Muhammad: Jesus died on a cross, while Muhammad in the Hijra moved from being the persecuted prophet in Mecca to become (using the title of Montgomery-Watt’s classic) both ‘prophet and statesman’. When Muhammad received the invitation from the Muslim converts in Medina to become the leader of the whole city, he probably saw it as an opportunity to establish a truly Islamic community living under the law of God. This is why one Muslim scholar can write: ‘The basic emphasis of Islamic salvation lies … in … the establishment of the ideal religio-political order with a worldwide membership of all those who believe in God and His revelation through Muhammad …’.
By 732 AD, a hundred years after the death of the Prophet, a vast Islamic empire stretched from Morocco and Spain in the West to the borders of China and India in the East. Because of the example of the Prophet and centuries of Islamic history, and in spite of what has been said about the danger of generalisations, I believe Kenneth Cragg summed up a very fundamental conviction in the mind of most well-taught Muslims in this memorable sentence ‘Islam must rule’. A few thousand Muslim Arabs were ruling over a population which for about three centuries was largely Christian. The first 300 years of Islamic history stand in sharp contrast to the first 300 years of Christian history in which Christians were a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire.
Chapman concludes with some very clear and helpful suggestions of a way forward, both for the West in general:
- We need to have a better understanding of history and of recent international relations.
- We should not be surprised that Muslims are looking to their own Islamic roots to find new political solutions.
- We need to accept our share of responsibility for all that has happened.
- Muslim-majority countries need to accept their share of responsibility for all that has happened.
- We may need to be far more critical of the foreign policies of our governments.
and for Christians in particular:
- We ought to have some sympathy with what Islamists are trying to do.
- We need to recognise the weaknesses of some expressions of evangelical Christianity.
- We ought to be able to share with Muslims what we think we have learned from twenty centuries of Christian history.
- We need to engage with Muslims in personal testimony.
- Redouble our efforts in doing good.
- Demonstrate how Christians can contribute to nation-building and the creation of a just society.
- We need to be open to the new things that God is doing through the present turmoil.
It should be clear that the ideology and brutality of ISIS require condemnation in the strongest possible terms from people of all faiths and of none. I have argued that the creation of the so-called Islamic State needs to be understood in the wider context of the development of political Islam and what has happened in the Middle East in the last century. We should not be surprised when Islamists have political agendas of different kinds, and there are very understandable reasons why in recent decades – and recent centuries – Muslims have been politically engaged. History and politics are therefore just as important as Islamic scripture and dogma in understanding the motivation of Islamists. Moreover, there are many different kinds of Islamists, and while some resort to violence, others emphatically renounce violence.
As we watch events unfolding in the Middle East at the present time, therefore, Christians ought to be able to make a distinctive contribution to the public debates about how to respond to Islamism and violence in the name of Islam. I am well aware that in developing this kind of approach, I will be accused by some of ‘going soft on Islam.’ Even if readers disagree with my general approach, however, I hope I have at least asked some of the right questions.
You can read the full (10,000 word) article here.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?